What Technology Wants
In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
(Simon & Schuster, 2011)
Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)
To understand the future of innovation and entrepreneurship, listen to the technology. Don’t talk. Listen. Carefully.
“Listen to the technology” is Carver Mead’s mantra. The eccentrically brilliant Caltech engineer is an apostle of and evangelist for Moore’s Law, which states that chip circuit density reliably doubles every one to two years. Mead thinks that Moore’s Law is more about belief systems than technology. “When people believe in something,” he observes, “they’ll put energy behind it to make it come to pass.”
Belief systems that inspire great faith and even greater investment are powerful. Technologies and technical challenges that evoke such passion and commitment deserve to have their stories told. This year’s best technology books are well-crafted tales of what happens when people really listen to technology and believe what they hear.
At their core, these books describe how people and technology successfully coevolve to compete. The heroes here aren’t technologies, technologists, or entrepreneurs; they’re the innovation ecosystems that create transformative value and growth.
That’s why Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, in which Mead is featured, reads like technology’s The Origin of Species. This sprawling compendium of argument and analysis asserts that technology is best understood not as materialized tools or actionable artifacts but as what he calls a technium — an ever-evolving system driven by the interaction of technology and people. By contrast, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives is Steven Levy’s superb, surprisingly comprehensive Baedeker of what makes Google Google. Levy captures the accelerating evolution of a global innovation juggernaut and quirky collective of entrepreneurial talent. And Stephen Baker’s Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything updates the behind-the-scenes sensibility of Tracy Kidder’s classic The Soul of a New Machine (Little, Brown, 1981) by observing how and why IBM committed itself to creating an artificial intelligence that could win on Jeopardy. The resulting computer, named Watson, dispassionately but definitively defeated humans and Ken Jennings, who had won US$2.52 million in 74 consecutive appearances on the show.
With eyes and ears wide open for detail, the authors of these three books are exceptional reporters. They artfully balance their insight into innovative people with their insight into innovative technologies. Their books position technology as pop culture and pop culture as technology.
Just as important, the books benefit from their living-in-the-moment narrative; they avoid the “Neugebauer dilemma” that plagues most high-tech histories. “The common belief that we gain ‘historical perspective’ with increasing distance seems to me to utterly misrepresent the actual situation,” observed the historian of mathematics and science Otto Neugebauer. “What we gain is merely confidence in generalization that we would never dare to make if we had access to the real wealth of contemporary evidence.”
These contemporaneous accounts of technical transformation possess that wealth. In these books, telling details don’t defer to facile “big think” generalizations. Executive readers desiring the big picture with meaningful technical detail will find these works useful.
For Kelly, What Technology Wants amplifies and expands upon Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization (Perseus, 1994), his exploration of emergent behavior and complex systems. A complexity junkie, Kelly is a cofounder and former executive editor of Wired magazine. He is always on the rhetorical prowl for underappreciated systems interrelationships. He listens diligently to people and technology alike.