Book Notes: What Technology Wants

Here are some notes from What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly:

On inter-dependancies:

Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels.

On evolution of the scientific method:

The classic double-blind experiment, for instance, in which neither the subject nor the tester is aware of what treatment is being given, was not invented until the 1950s. The placebo was not used in practice until the 1930s. It is hard to imagine science today without these methods.

On games:

The cybernetician Heinz von Foerster called this approach the Ethical Imperative, and he put it this way: “Always act to increase the number of choices.” The way we can use technologies to increase choices for others is by encouraging science, innovation, education, literacies, and pluralism. In my own experience this principle has never failed: In any game, increase your options.

On sacrifices as a form of  investment:

As Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City (about Mumbai), says, “Why would anyone leave a brick house in the village with its two mango trees and its view of small hills in the East to come here?” Then he answers: “So that someday the eldest son can buy two rooms in Mira Road, at the northern edges of the city. And the younger one can move beyond that, to New Jersey. Discomfort is an investment.

On using older technology as a statement:

Who would have guessed anyone would burn candles when lightbulbs are so cheap? But burning candles is now a mark of luxuriant uselessness. Some of our hardest-working technology today will achieve beautiful uselessness in the future. Perhaps a hundred years from now people will carry around “phones” simply because they like to carry things, even though they may be connected to the net by something they wear.

On technology shaping the human evolution:

Our genes have coevolved with our inventions. In the past 10,000 years alone, in fact, our genes have evolved 100 times faster than the average rate for the previous 6 million years. This should not be a surprise. As we domesticated the dog (in all its breeds) from wolves and bred cows and corn and more from their unrecognizable ancestors, we, too, have been domesticated. We have domesticated ourselves. 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.

Kelly’s interpretation of why money leads, on average, to more happiness is very similar to mine – it does so by increasing freedom:

worldwide, affluence brings increased satisfaction. Higher income earners are happier. Citizens in higher-earning countries tend to be more satisfied on average. My interpretation of this newest research—which also matches our intuitive impressions—is that what money brings is increased choices, rather than merely increased stuff (although more stuff comes with the territory). We don’t find happiness in more gadgets and experiences. We do find happiness in having some control of our time and work, a chance for real leisure, in the escape from the uncertainties of war, poverty, and corruption, and in a chance to pursue individual freedoms—all of which come with increased affluence.

On the importance of ubiquity:

One thousand automobiles open up mobility, create privacy, supply adventure. One billion automobiles create suburbia, eliminate adventure, erase parochial minds, trigger parking problems, birth traffic jams, and remove the human scale of architecture. One thousand live, always-on cameras make downtowns safe from pickpockets, nab stoplight runners, and record police misbehavior. One billion live, always-on cameras serve as a community monitor and memory, they give the job of eyewitness to amateurs, they restructure the notion of the self, and they reduce the authority of authorities. One thousand teleportation stations rejuvenate vacation travel. One billion teleportation stations overturn commutes, reimagine globalism, introduce tele-lag sickness, reintroduce the grand spectacle, kill the nation-state, and end privacy. One thousand human genetic sequences jump-start personalized medicine. One billion genetic sequences every hour enable real-time genetic damage monitoring, upend the chemical industry, redefine illness, make genealogies hip, and launch “ultraclean” lifestyles that make organic look filthy.

On being slow to imagine new possibilities and non-obvious implications:

We make prediction more difficult because our immediate tendency is to imagine the new thing doing an old job better. That’s why the first cars were called “horseless carriages.” The first movies were simply straightforward documentary films of theatrical plays. It took a while to realize the full dimensions of cinema photography as its own new medium that could achieve new things, reveal new perspectives, do new jobs. We are stuck in the same blindness. We imagine e-books today as being regular books that appear on electronic paper instead of as radically powerful threads of text woven into the one shared universal library. We think genetic testing is like blood testing, something you do once in your life to get an unchanging score, when sequencing our genes may instead become something we do hourly as our genes mutate, shift, and interact with our environment.

Advertisements at the beginning of the last century tried to sell hesitant consumers the newfangled telephone by stressing ways it could send messages, such as invitations, store orders, or confirmation of their safe arrival. The advertisers pitched the telephone as if it were a more convenient telegraph. None of them suggested having a conversation.

Science-fiction guru Isaac Asimov made the astute observation that in the age of horses many ordinary people eagerly and easily imagined a horseless carriage. The automobile was an obvious anticipation since it was an extension of the first-order dynamics of a cart—a vehicle that goes forward by itself. An automobile would do everything a horse-pulled carriage did but without the horse. But Asimov went on to remark how difficult it was to imagine the second-order consequences of a horseless carriage, such as drive-in movie theaters, paralyzing traffic jams, and road rage.

Second-order effects often require a certain density, a semi-ubiquity, to reveal themselves. The main safety concern with the first automobiles centered on the safety of their occupants—the worry that the gas engines would blow up or that the brakes would fail. But the real challenge of autos emerged only in aggregate, when there were hundreds of thousands of cars—the accumulated exposure to their minute pollutants and their ability to kill others outside the car at high speeds, not to mention the disruptions of suburbs and long commutes—all second-order effects.

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