This is an interesting but strange book. It was first published in 2010, a time when the financial crisis was sweeping the goal. I read it in 2021. I do not think the gushing praises of technology have aged particularly well in the years since the publication.
Kelly is ambitious and for that he is to be lauded. Ambitious books are rare enough as it is so it is always enjoyable reading something original. With that being said. Kelly outlines what he calls ‘The Technium’ (his wording) which can be loosely defined as the sum of all human made technology and culture. The Technium is distinct from technology, technology is no longer sufficient to describe the changes in the world that Kelly is observing.
The books title is “What Technology Wants” which should be read as “What the Technium Wants”. It is an interesting phrase as what Kelly has done is assign desire to technology. No longer will it be treated as an outgrowth of human ingenuity, instead, technology has its own wants and desires that it is seeking to satisfy by using human actors to change itself. The Technium thus forms a higher kingdom of life.
The underlying thesis aside, which is interesting in some parts, Kelly exhibits a somewhat nauseating love for technology and the internet. Throughout the book all technology is seen as good as it increases the number of choices that are available to us. Conveniently, Kelly doesn’t seem to discuss the types of technology that increase the number of choices for it’s users while decreasing them for others. This falls particularly flat in some of the sections where Kelly discusses the masses of digitally connected cameras that span the globe. The fact that these cameras have been used to oppress segments of society, to racially profile them, to exclude. These bits aren’t important because technology increases choice!
The book was published in 2010. Pre pandemic. Pre Trump. Pre Fake News. Pre Crypto Ransom Gangs. Pre the publication of Shoshana Zuboff’s epic “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”. Pre data leak of personal data ruining lives. Pre Islamic State recruiting on social media and associated beheading videos. Pre people being cut off from the global financial system on a “system error”.
To publish an unfettered love of technology and its joys without recognising that technology has become a substantial source of destabilisation within our lives is troubling. To that end, I cannot accept Kelly’s thesis as argued. I’m not sure I’d want to live in a society where disciples of Kelly’s thought have power.
If anything, the main positives I took away from the book had more to do with conscious limited use of technology which is somewhat ironic. In particular, the section on “The Amish Hackers” was illustrative on a more structured approach to introduce technology into your life. This chapter was quoted favourably in a number of other works such as Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen which was my inspiration for picking the work up. The approach to adoption of a particular technology is outlined as following four steps which I’ll quote in entirety here:
- They are selective. They know how to say no and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ignore more thant they adopt.
- They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.
- They have criteria by which to make choices: Technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
- The choices are not individual but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.
Of these, points 2) and 3) were the most important. Don’t be afraid to try out new technology but do so by defining, in advance, what criteria you will use to accept/reject it. Do not introduce it blindly.
Ultimately, the book itself is an interesting read but I am not sure if it is a good one. I found the book itself quite hard to get through, there is a large degree of repetition throughout which made some sections relatively tedious. I also found Kelly’s conclusions to be troubling in that unfettered technology use implies unfettered externalities. I would give the book a 2/5 overall. There are some interesting sections throughout but they are an absolute slog to get through. I do not think some of the sections will age well outside of the zeitgeist of the 2010 era when social media was first bursting on to the scene and the world was infatuated with becoming more connected without realising the implications of this to our democratic institutions.