Written by Kevin Kelly, published in The Technium.
I claim that technology has its own agenda. What is the evidence that technology as a whole, or the technium as I call it, is autonomous? Because without autonomy, one could argue, how can something have its own agenda? I have three parts to my answer.
First, I believe that a system can have an agenda even when it depends upon another system to remain viable. Let’s take the human mind and human culture. Obviously humans are animals, and just another creature of evolution. As a mammal, we must obey the rules of biology. We are part of the trajectory of living tissue: our flesh must breathe, metabolize, mate, excrete, and eventually die. The agenda of our bodies is exactly the agenda of any other animal body.
But we also claim that we are different than animals, and our effect on the earth seems to be proof of this. We build very large structures (cities) unlike any other in scale. The skyscrapers of termites and the reefs of coral are dwarfed by the skyscrapers and concrete reefs of New York, even relative to their size. We have transformed the surface and eliminated other species at a scale way beyond other species. We mess with the climate on a scale few individual species can. And of course we have made many new objects and “organisms” – which no other creature has. It is clear that humans have their own agenda, which the rest of biology does not have.
Yet, human mind and human culture would die if all animal life (including human animals) would die. Human minds are dependent on the system of animal life. So by your logic, human minds could not have their own agenda. But we do. Why? Because the autonomy of human culture operates in a different sphere than animal life, even though it is “dependent” on it. In the same way, the autonomy of the technium operates in a different level than human animal life, even though it is dependent on human life.
Second, technology is still young. The concept of “technology” was not invented until 1829, and most of what we call technology just arrived on earth this century. We consider a two-year old baby to be alive and “autonomous” even though it is dependent on its parents to remain alive. We know that our children will eventually leave us and become autonomous parents of their own, but while they are our children they need us, even though they have their own agendas. Technology is our child. As humans, we are parents to all technologies, nurturing them, hopefully training them to be on their own.
Thirdly, eventually technology will far more autonomous than it is today. Right now not only are we the parents of the technium, we are also the sex organs of technology. From technology’s view, we are the mysterious walking-around glands that reproduce them. They may be able to operate on their own, but they need us to reproduce them. This is already changing. Most computer chips in the world today are designed in part by other computer chips. Most robotic devices are manufactured in part by other robotic devices. As we improve chips and robots, there is no reason to believe that at some point computers will wholly design some other computers, and some robotic systems wholly manufacture other robotic systems. The next step seems inevitable: technology will reproduce itself.
I have to agree that right this minute there is no autonomously reproducing technology, and there is no autonomously sustainable technology. Instead we have an infant technium, that like a baby, has its own demands. Even a small child will quickly train its parents to meet its wants as well as its needs. It uses its weak powers to gain resources (food, attention, permission) in order to grow. If we stand back far enough we can see that technology tends to create an environment that favors the growth of yet more technology. Technology rarely makes it harder to make more technology. The technium is geared to keep expanding the technium. Technology has trained us, its parents and its gonads. Technology makes humans wealthier, with more leisure to consume, which leads to more technology. The more technology we make, the more we need to make to keep it all going. This positive feedback loop is exactly the kind of self-preservation strategy a system with its own agenda would develop.
Technology cannot reproduce itself without our help at the moment, but it is expanding, growing more complex, and smarter. Most importantly, the technium is evolving faster every day. While it depends on us, we are increasingly dependent on it. Like any child, it has its demands. So far, humanity as a whole is in denial that it even has a child.
Read more at The Technium. See also Marshall McLuhan Playboy Interview.
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Christopher G: Some of the concepts you assume as given truths to make your argument are exactly what we are trying to investigate in these quarters. Could it be that abstracts concepts like 'agency' and 'need' are themselves emergent phenomena, which are not necessarily exclusive to organic-carbon-based beings? I sense some carbon-chauvinism in your argument, which you might want to reconsider. Curious what you think. Thanks!
Cute, but technology is an abstract concept, not capable of agency, which obviously resides in needful beings. Technology is an emergent effect of need.
So Kelly set out to prove technology's autonomy by arguing that it operates on a different level, followed by an analogy/ metaphor (baby/ child) and finishing with a narrative "from technology's view"? Yeah...I'm not convinced by his "arguments".
Oh, shoot. Now we need techno-philosophers to determine what the meaning of life is for machines.
This is a ridiculous idea. Replace the word "technology" with the word "books" or the word "carrots," change the dates so they're accurate, and this article makes just as much sense. The only reason technology is different from books or carrots (granted, books may be considered in the realm of technology) is that technology can simulate human life. However, technology cannot reason intuitively, question its own existence, or do any of a thousand other things that make humans who they are. Even if we could build a robot that could seem to do these things, it would still simply be a machine. This is sophistry of the highest level. To see its equivalent in ancient times, look up Gorgias' "Encomium of Helen."
I think this article speaks to everything that is wrong with the technical community today. Instead of viewing man as an active participant in the growth of himself, he is relegated to a passive position: the servant of his own tools. Keller carries this idea with great confidence, but as with the title, most of his ideas are debatable tropes and not empirical facts. I especially liked how in one of the latter paragraphs he is able to take on the perspective of technology itself. "From technology’s view, we are the mysterious walking-around glands that reproduce them." How is he so sure of this? Of course, this may be just a humorous anthropomorphism, but it is an anthropomorphism which should be accounted for. He is personifying technology and making human beings machines. I would assume that he shares a very technical view of what a human being is. In the case that he does (or those who agree with his ideas) view human beings as machines, I'd be amused. In such a case: human beings, being machines, are technology. That being said, for every machine we produce: technology is already reproducing and sustaining technology. For this article to be novel, we humans must be something novel—and in that case perhaps technology is not our child-master.
the great dictator
I am the replicator with my pocket calculator
Arnoud van den Heuvel
Good comment Namdnal Siroj! It perfectly fits on top of Kevin Kelly's story. I wonder who is the replicator here ;)
I think you might like Susan Blackmore's work. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/susan_blackmore_on_memes_and_temes.html
Arnoud van den Heuvel
Great, now I am pregnant. So what does my child want? It wants to be fed, ok but to what purpose? Reproduction? Blend with the breathing organisms? Spread its seed? Gardening the universe? This child's diaper smells a bit like scientology, don't you think?