What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants

Kevin Kelly

Grandparents are the conduits of culture, and without them culture stagnates.

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When the numbers of warriors on both sides were about equal, primitive tribes usually beat the armies of civilization. The Celtic tribes defeated the Romans, the Tuareg smashed the French, the Zulus trumped the British, and it took the U.S. Army 50 years to defeat the Apache tribes. As Lawrence Keeley says in his survey of early warfare in War Before Civilization, “The facts recovered by ethnographers and archaeologists indicated unequivocally that primitive and prehistoric warfare was just as terrible and effective as the historic and civilized version. In fact, primitive warfare was much more deadly than that conducted between civilized states because of the greater frequency of combat and the more merciless way it was conducted. . . . It is civilized warfare that is stylized, ritualized, and relatively less dangerous.”

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Our teeth continue to shrink (because of cooking, our external stomach), our muscles thin out, our hair disappears. Technology has domesticated us. As fast as we remake our tools, we remake ourselves. We are coevolving with our technology, and so we have become deeply dependent on it. If all technology—every last knife and spear—were to be removed from this planet, our species would not last more than a few months. We are now symbiotic with technology.

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Marshall McLuhan, among others, noted that clothes are people’s extended skin, wheels extended feet, camera and telescopes extended eyes.

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service- and idea-based economy

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This is how all technology works. A gadget begins as a junky prototype and then progresses to something that barely works. The ad hoc shelters in slums are upgraded over time, infrastructure is extended, and eventually makeshift services become official. What was once the home of poor hustlers becomes, over the span of generations, the home of rich hustlers. Propagating slums is what cities do, and living in slums is how cities grow. The majority of neighborhoods in almost every modern city are merely successful former slums. The squatter cities of today will become the blue-blood neighborhoods of tomorrow. This is already happening in Rio and Mumbai today.

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Science is both the way we personally know things and the way we collectively know. The greater the pool of individuals in the culture, the smarter science gets.

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We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools but with the tools of tomorrow. This is what we call progress

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It is as if mammals are assigned 1.5 billion heartbeats and told to use them as they like. Tiny mice speed ahead in a fast-forward version of an elephant’s life

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many of the forms we see in evolution today are due to random contingencies in the past and don’t follow a progressive sequence. If we rewind the tape of life’s history and push start again, it will play out differently.

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The ever-thickening mix of existing technologies in a society creates a supersaturated matrix charged with restless potential. When the right idea is seeded within, the inevitable invention practically explodes into existence, like an ice crystal freezing out of water. Yet as science has shown, even though water is destined to become ice crystals when it is cold enough, no two snowflakes are the same. The path of freezing water is predetermined, but there is great leeway, freedom, and beauty in the individual expression of its predestined state.

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When we spy our technological fate in the distance, we should not reel back in horror of its inevitability; rather, we should lurch forward in preparation

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There’s an old story about the long reach of early choices that is basically true: Ordinary Roman carts were constructed to match the width of imperial Roman war chariots because it was easier to follow the ruts in the road left by the war chariots. The chariots were sized to accommodate the width of two large warhorses, which translates into our English measurement of 4’ 8.5”. Roads throughout the vast Roman Empire were built to this specification. When the legions of Rome marched into Britain, they constructed long-distance imperial roads 4’ 8.5” wide. When the English started building tramways, they used the same width so the same horse carriages could be used. And when they started building railways with horseless carriages, naturally the rails were 4’ 8.5” wide. Imported laborers from the British Isles built the first railways in the Americas using the same tools and jigs they were used to. Fast-forward to the U.S. space shuttle, which is built in parts around the country and assembled in Florida. Because the two large solid-fuel rocket engines on the side of the launch shuttle were sent by railroad from Utah, and that line traversed a tunnel not much wider than the standard track, the rockets themselves could not be much wider in diameter than 4’ 8.5”.

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“So, a major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of two horses’ arse.” More or less, this is how technology constrains itself over time.

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By following what technology wants, we can be more ready to capture its full gifts.

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Most of the new problems in the world are problems created by previous technology.

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because we cannot imagine it, it will never happen, because nothing has ever been created without being imagined first

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If you are a web designer today, it is only because many tens of thousands of other people around you and before you have been expanding the realm of possibilities. They have gone beyond farms and home shops to invent a complex ecology of electronic devices that require new expertise and new ways of thinking.

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Can the human mind master what the human mind has made?

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The guild of French scribes succeeded in delaying the introduction of printing into Paris, but only for 20 years.

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Thomas Edison believed his phonograph would be used primarily to record the last-minute bequests of the dying. The radio was funded by early backers who believed it would be the ideal device for delivering sermons to rural farmers. Viagra was clinically tested as a drug for heart disease. The internet was invented as a disaster-proof communications backup. Very few great ideas start out headed toward the greatness they eventually achieve. That means that projecting what harm may come from a technology before it “is” is almost impossible.

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an invention or idea is not really tremendous unless it can be tremendously abused. This should be the first law of technological expectation: The greater the promise of a new technology, the greater its potential for harm as well.

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We know technology will produce problems; we just don’t know which new problems.

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The threat of these nano-organisms breeding without limit until they cover everything is known as the “gray goo” scenario.

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human-piloted cars cause great harm, killing millions of people each year worldwide. If robot-controlled cars killed “only” half a million people per year, it would be an improvement

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The evolution of new technologies is inevitable; we can’t stop it. But the character of each technology is up to us.

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Civilization is a steady migration away from “no choice.”

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specialization follows the arc of complexity.

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