Thursday, March 13, 2014

Macro-Innov 7: Kevin Kelly's 'Technium'

The first dimension of my analysis of macro-innovation introduced the concept of the technosphere, in contrast to The Technium a concept introduced by Kelly, K. (2010) What technology Wants. Viking, New York

The Technium, the 7th Kingdom of life.

This book is for the popular market, it argues from basic analogies that technology has a number of characteristics that are similar to biological evolution and from there it takes this logic to its full ultimate conclusion - that technology is its own kingdom of life.

Although I agree with many of the facts presented in the book, the overall argument construction is unconvincing, but is yet still enough to light a candle of doubt.  Despite appropriately making mention of contingencies, cautions and limitations the book is definitely not an academic treatment of the concept.

One of my frustrations with the book is the use of digital technologies as the proxy for all technologies and the speed of technological change. But digital world is not a proxy for the rest of the 'technology kingdom'. For example, there is no supersonic passenger flight transporters at present. Even while Concorde flew, it was uneconomic. In the January 2013 issue of The Economist ran a lead article on how innovation is stalling across a number of non-digital domains. Moving physical stuff through space is hard - the physics of mechanical objects such planes, trains, autos or of energy creation and use move very slowly in comparison. More recognition of this would have been welcome.

Essentially the book makes a rather simple argument, that has a number of facets. Kelly summarises biological life in the following diagram.

He then argues that technological 'life'  has many similarities.

In the book What Technology Wants, Kelly in a number of places produces diagrams such as these.

The point of these is to impress upon the reader the speed of change and from that imply the evolutionary processes now at play in technology.

A recent interview

In a recent article on Kelly here at The Edge, the evolutionary argument is summarised clearly. The ideas discussed above were covered. One point of significance was this one.

There are two strands in technology: There's evolutionary change and there's developmental change, just like in our own bodies most of what we experience as individuals is developmental. So while we're growing up we start off as an egg and we become a blastocyst and then we become an embryo and then become a fetus and then newborn. That trajectory is very determined and developmental. And then there is also within us, these other forces of mutation in our genes, which are more evolutionary. A lot of what we see in technology is not evolutionary, it's developmental, meaning that if we were to look at a thousand or a million different planets with sentient life and civilizations, we would find that there's a general developmental course for the course of technology on a planet, in the sense that you would have a natural occurrence of pottery before you have electronics, whatever it is. There are certain precursors to certain technologies, and the same thing is happening right now on the growth of this connected world. There are certain developmental stages, and part of this is a cyclic thing where there's a period of openness, then a period of consolidation, and then the next rev of that is open while things kind of settle, and then that becomes consolidated and there are respiration cycles.

What is present in the interview and not the book is the sense of the linkages between technologies.

The ordinary pen you use every day seems very simple but it probably took 100 different technologies to make this pen technology, technologies of plastic, ink, ball bearing, metal, and each of those different technologies probably themselves required another 100 sub-technologies to support it and, of course, there's kind of a circular way in which pens might be necessary to make a ball bearing in the same way that electricity is necessary to make a generator, and a generator may be necessary to make the wires of an electrical system. A hammer requires a handle and a head, and the saw requires the hammer to make the saw that cuts the handle, so there is a sense in which all of this is very recursive and that there is a network of different supporting technologies, and that the whole web of all these things I call the technium. The technium is that largest network of all the technologies working together to support each other, and while this pen is definitely not alive, there is a sense in which the technium as a whole exhibits life-like behaviors in the same way that your neuron doesn't really think, but the network of neurons in your brain can make an idea. And so I look at the network of all the technology in the world, past and present, as forming a system that seems to have its own urges and tendencies.


The book What Technology Wants doesn't ignore some of the subtler points of the human use of technology although in the end it paints over these somewhat with the rather singular point it is hammering home. While Brian Arthur's 'The Nature of Technology' leave much understated or unsaid at all, by leaving open space the reader starts to work out the implications for themselves. In the way Arthur writes in an open sketchy style. Kelly on the other hand writes in rather slow moving style with the end always clearly insight.

This book is disturbing in one important respect. While anybody with a sense of history and being literate in the innovation studies of the last twenty years will fight with the book for most of the journey, it does nonetheless leave the reader with an uneasy feeling. That uneasy feeling is that despite all the problems with the technicalities of the argument, Kelly's bigger point is probably more accurate than inaccurate.

I don't naturally gravitate to evolutionary arguments because the focus tends to be on change and the mechanism (carriers like DNA) of those changes rather than the interdependencies that interlock with those changes. That is why I have started playing around with the 'technosphere' concepts.

But as an initial sketch and a call to take technology more seriously than we have been to this point, Kelly is worth paying serious attention to. Whether you call it the Technium, the Technosphere or something more intelligent it is time to work on technology as an integrated subject matter.

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