The Technium, and how Kevin Kelly Changed His Mind





Thirteen years ago, Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, wrote a book called What Technology Wants. What Kelly wants is a way to combine technology and wisdom, cold machines and a warm Earth. Luckily, he has a genius for the big picture, the sweeping statement, the aphorism. Pushed too far, his musings hollow out, but as jolts to the world view, they help me see things whole.

The technium, for example. That is his word for all of our inventions, all our artifice. “This whole grand contraption of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a single system,” he argues. A global network that is—Kelly’s biggest leap—organic. Self-reinforcing. Driven by its own agenda, not ours.

He goes so far as to call the technium the seventh kingdom of nature. Glaring at my recalcitrant laptop, I wonder what he sees of nature in all these bits and bytes. But “large systems of technology of technology often behave like a very primitive organism,” he points out. The way our emails take multiple routes, their path emerging from the system based on its calculation of network traffic, strikes him as “marvelously organic—very much like the way messages in an anthill are sent.” Computer programs can replicate themselves, robots can self-assemble, electrical grids can repair themselves. On the flip side, biological systems can be co-opted by our tech, so that DNA computes math problems for us and viruses carry our messages through the body.

“Technology and life must share some fundamental essence,” Kelly decides, and then he thinks a little longer and answers himself: that essence is information. “However you define life, its essence does not reside in material forms like DNA, tissue, or flesh, but in the intangible organization of the energy and information contained in those material forms…. Both life and technology seem to be based on the immaterial flows of information.”

It certainly structures the various life forms. But Kelly is not reducing biological life to tech—quite the contrary. “Because the technium is an outgrowth of the human mind, it is also an outgrowth of life,” he writes, “and by extension it is also an outgrowth of the physical and chemical self-organization that first led to life.”

I have always drawn heavy lines between cells and bytes, blood and electricity. Technology extends (or replaces) our powers, but it feels “other” to me, inhuman and sometimes even hostile to emotion and embodiment (reducing us to “meat”). In Kelly’s view, all of our technology works together as a natural system: “It is inherently derived from evolution and thus inherently capable of being compatible with nature.”

Some of it, potentially, under some circumstances, maybe. I cannot see tech as sweepingly as he does, as a single global network with knowable desires. Nor can I be as sanguine about the future. He sees the technium as “evolution, accelerated.” But acceleration is what worries me: the speed of technological innovation outstrips our biology. Humans may move faster than tectonic plates, but we are nowhere near as fast as an old mainframe, let alone AI. We cannot calmly absorb and integrate each new leap into our values and ways of being. Instead, new tech knocks us off course, sends us into loops and spirals, makes us forget our manners, distracts us from what should matter most.

Meanwhile, tech is developing a mind of its own.

“At some point in its evolution, our system of tools and machines and ideas became so dense in feedback loops and complex interactions that it spawned a bit of independence,” Kelly writes. “It began to exercise some autonomy.”

This is why “culture” did not suffice, and he had to reluctantly invent a new word. The technium is “a persistent system with agency. Like all systems, the technium has biases and tendencies toward action…internal leanings, urges, behaviors, attractors that bend it in certain directions.” Independent of our wishes.

“The technium also wants what every living system wants,” Kelly continues: “to perpetuate itself, to keep itself going. And as it grows, those inherent wants are gaining in complexity and force.”

I always blamed us—our greed, our hubris—for the technological imperative. Are we being goaded on by what we have made? Kelly tries to reassure, insisting that tech “is not a tyrant ordering our lives in lockstep. Its inevitabilities are not scheduled prophesies. They are more like water behind a well, an incredibly strong urge pent up and waiting to be released.”

Thirteen years ago, Kelly outlined three near-future scenarios for tech’s complexity. At the time, he was betting on the first: “The bulk of technology remains simple, basic, and primeval because it works.” In the second scenario, complexity would plateau and some other quality (“perhaps quantum entanglement”) would take its place. Also possible, if less so, he thought. In the third, remotely possible scenario, “the most complex things we use in a day will be beyond any single person’s comprehension.”

I cannot resist emailing him: “You were betting on no. 1 at the time. Are you still?”

A single line flashes back: “These days I think we are moving towards #3.”

In which case, we had best learn what technology wants.

It wants to copy, Kelly begins. Just as life copies itself to grow and evolve, the technium copies information again and again in order to send it or compute. “The emergent behavior of the technium is to copy promiscuously.” Bad news for intellectual property, this. “Innovations, agents, companies, and laws that embrace the easy flow of copies will prevail.”

The technium also wants to specialize, he says. It wants mutualism, interdependence. It wants beauty (his argument here seems the weakest.) It wants to increase diversity. And freedom, and the ability to choose, although it immediately complicates that free choice, because it also wants to increase complexity. Also to be ubiquitous (doing well on that one). It wants sentience. (“The smallest bolt or plastic knob will contain as many decision-making circuits as a worm, elevating it from the inert to the animate.”) And it wants to evolve.

I once spent some time reading about process theology, because it made sense to me that God was evolving along with us, and creation was a work in progress. Now the technium is our co-creator.

I miss God.

Not that the ravages, wars, and cruelties of the past deserve gold stars. But the idea of God was such a comfort. God could be projected to be anything we could imagine as supremely good, loving, and wonderful. Tech…cannot. At best, the odds are fifty-fifty as to whether any innovation will improve or destroy or, as is usually the case, do both at once, in ways impossible to predict or sift apart.

And where does it end? One of Kelly’s cheerful, poster-quote lines stops me cold:


“Our job is to surprise God.”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.