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What Technology Wants

October 20, 2010

I’ve been reading my way through Kevin Kelly’s new book. I’m about halfway through. Kelly continues the trend started by Richard Dawkins by postulating desires for non-sentient entities. For Dawkins it was the selfish gene; for Kelly it’s something he calls “the technium,” a word he’s coined to describe the proliferating world of technology around us. That parallel is deliberate as the main contention of the book is that just as we see a drift towards rising complexity in biological systems, we can detect the same trend in technology. Perhaps they’re even directly related.

I suspect Kelly’s book might draw some criticisms from the likes of Dawkins, however, because he asserts evolution proceeds by non-random mutation in an (almost?) purposeful direction. What others have called intelligent design, Kelly calls “the exotropy of self-organization” or the upshot of “self-generated positive contraints” in complex adaptive systems.

All of this is well and good, and contrarian, but I’m concerned about Kelly’s optimistic fatalism. The word he invokes too frequently is “inevitable.” He’s a technological and biological determinist who writes as though innovation will proceed apace irrespective of deliberate human action or policy. Discussing Moore’s Law and the “inevitable” trends of progress, Kelly writes (p. 172):

More clever folk might reason that since the economic regime as a whole determines the doubling time of Moore’s Law, you could keep decreasing the quality of the economy until it stopped. Perhaps through armed revolution you could install an authorititive command-style policy (like an old state communism) whose lackadaisical economic growth would kill the infrastructure for exponential increases in computing power. I find that possibility intriguing, but I have my doubts. If in a counterfactual history, communism had won the cold war and microelectronics had been invented in a global Soviet-style society, my guess is that even that alternative policy apparatus could not stifle Moore’s Law. Progress might roll out slower at a lower slope, maybe with a doubling time of five years, but I don’t doubt that Stalinist scientists would tap into the law of the microcosm and soon marvel at the same technical wonder we do: chips improving exponentially as constant linear effort is applied.

Okay, this is just nuts. And much more alarmingly, it’s dangerous. With its history of the world and the rise of progress, the first third of the book reminds me of Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist and Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz’s From Poverty to Prosperity. Kelly would do well to pay attention to some of the lessons contained in those tomes, especially the Kling book, as it’s a good entry point into understanding the engines of progress. Economic growth is not inevitable, and contrary to Kelly, policy matters. I don’t care how many comrades worked on the Soviet duel core processor in 1982. It’s not gonna happen. In fact, I highly recommed The Innovation Decision in Soviet Industry by Joseph Berliner, which contains a fascinating analysis of the obstacles that thwarted innovation in the Soviet economy.

A final point–no where does Kelly discuss Cardwell’s Law, which holds that no country remains the leader in technological progress forever. David Hume, D.S.L. Cardwell, Joel Mokyr, and Paul Romer, among others, have all discussed this historical pattern. And all have suggested that the rate of innovation correlates with the number of countries in the world. The idea is that borders protect innovators from being thwarted by vested interests. If policy doesn’t matter, as Kelly claims, then why did China lose its technololgical edge in the 15th century? Or why did Britian’s dynamism flag late in the 19th? The extraordinary technological progress of the last 100 years has been a marvel, and there is a story to tell about what made it possible. But whatever that story is, it’s not one of fate and inevitablity. If only it were that easy.

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3 Comments
  1. kurt9 permalink
    October 20, 2010 4:55 pm

    Technological innovation occurs because people work to make it happen. Taking the progress of technology for granted and assuming that it is inevitable is a flawed attitude.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      October 20, 2010 5:37 pm

      And dangerous!

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