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 / Winter 2011 / Issue 65(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2011: Technology

What Technology Wants, this year’s best technology book, fully commits to Kelly’s conceit that humans and their technologies coevolve. One is practically meaningless — or inert — without the other. Like the bacterial flora and fauna digesting food in our gut, he says, technology is a life force. The book is studded with biological metaphors and analogies. The suspension of disbelief that Kelly asks of his readership is the willingness to see technologies as living things.

With no apologies to Darwin, Kelly’s take on technology is more rooted in ecology than biology. Darwin’s great epiphany was that the Galapagos Islands mattered as much as the finch’s beak. Similarly, Kelly says that it’s intellectually and economically misleading to appreciate a technology outside its (un)natural habitat.

Trying to grasp technology by studying its underlying physics, chemistry, and engineering design is too reductionist, Kelly argues. Real understanding demands insight into the web of user beliefs — tacit and explicit — around the fitness and perceived evolvability of tools and processes. In other words, what can the technology become? What does it want?

Kelly’s imperative goes beyond evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s vivid metaphor of the “selfish gene” to his lesser-known but comparably influential notion of the extended phenotype. Dawkins’s crucial insight is that successful birds are successful technologists. Nests, like the eggs they shelter, are essential to how birds perpetuate themselves. Poorly placed or shoddily constructed nests reduce the chances for reproductive success. Conversely, well-built nests dramatically improve the evolutionary odds. “Nest tech” — the twigs, leaves, hair strands, and so on — inarguably shapes both individual and species fitness. Divorcing bird biology from nest technology (and vice versa) fundamentally misrepresents bird reality. Technology is an extended phenotype, something external and transcendent that transforms the bio- and ecosystems of living things.

No species on earth better extends its phenotype than human beings. Human habitats and personal relationships are mediated and managed by all manner of evolving technologies. This has been true for millennia. In What Technology Wants, Kelly maintains that it’s becoming ever more crucial.

We are, he insists, committed to coevolve with the living artifacts of our creation: “Technology is simply the further evolution of evolution. The technium is a continuation of a four-billion-year-old force that pursues more ability to evolve. The technium has discovered entirely new forms in the universe, such as ball bearings, radios, and lasers that organic evolution could never invent. Likewise, the technium has discovered entirely new ways to evolve, methods that were unreachable by biology. And just as evolution did with life, technological evolution uses its fecundity to evolve more widely and faster. The ‘selfish’ technium generates millions of species of gadgets, techniques, products, and contraptions in order to give it sufficient material and room to keep evolving its power to evolve.”

That relentless and remorseless coevolution spawns a theme and thesis inhabiting the entire book: “the evolvability of evolvability.” In other words, how does evolution itself evolve?

“As evolution rises, ‘choicefulness’ increases,” Kelly writes. “A mind, of course, is a choice factory....”Different technologies appeal to different minds. Choices change as technologies evolve. Technologies evolve — and mutate — as those choices shift. But human minds won’t be the only “choice factories” in this emerging ecosystem.

Kelly’s technology wants choicefulness. Technologies are becoming smarter; they’re evolving with silicon and software-enabled situational awareness. They’ll be inventing, and evolving, new ways to choose, not just in cooperation with people, but also in competition with them. Does anyone doubt that tomorrow’s smartphone will recommend what pictures to take or phone calls to make? Whose choicefulness will exert greater influence over a typical day: the growing menagerie of your evolving devices or your mind, which (supposedly) tells them what to do?

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