The “Technium”

Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of ‘WIRED‘ magazine spoke last night here in Portland, Oregon at the Bagdad Theatre for the ‘Science Pub’, an event co-sponsered by Powell’s Books and OMSI [Oregon Museum of Science and Industry]…His new book?  “What Technology Wants”.   While it has a certain panache, to hear a great thinker talk about technology in the company of 300 beer drinking engineers, scientists, and wanna-be wonks like me,… he really got me thinking. Which is good, right?  Here are some concepts Kevin presented last night interspersed with my thoughts too.

Time to really look at the big picture of technology now. Kevin starts with a quote ‘ Technology is anything invented after your were born’… well, not really, so it seems though.  But we tend to forget how technology has shaped the past (gun powder, printing press, magnets, clocks),  shaped the way we think by reading (linear coding of alphabets), shaped our brain pathways…and will shape our future.

Just like plants like light, and tend to lean towards it….Does Technogy lean???  That’s really the issue here.

Biology, like technology, has tendencies. Complexity, increased diversity, specialization, mutual-ism, ubiquity and sentience just to start naming a few.  Turns out even computer code evolves. Microsoft Office, ubiquitous as it is, evolved code within itself. Codes created other codes with tendencies to write other codes… Tendency is probably not the right word, but ‘who knew?’.

If you can map families and classifications of biological systems (note that word), you can map systems of evolving technologies.  Kevin used the hammer to show how–from simple rocks bound to sticks, hammers evolved to ever increasing specialization all the way to that expensive space shuttle hammer-thingie. [my word].

Helmets? Yes, they can be said to evolve based on materials, region, economics, utility and utmost: safety for the noggin inside.

Technology, an extension of human evolution, can really be called the 7th Kingdom of life. THATS’ pretty bodacious, Kevin.  But it IS easy to make the point that one of our technologies, say the computer mouse, relies on hundreds of other technologies, which in turn rely on hundreds of technologies…ever try to make one?

Energy density: a new concept for me…like the sunflower which uses solar energy to grow and develop, technology uses energy. You knew that.  But did you know that technology uses 3/4 of the energy on our planet? Think of a car, all that technology and the energy used to move just one little person around.  The most energy dense creation, natural or invented, is a computer chip.  So much energy runs through it proportionately, that chip designers have to manage it to avoid explosions!  Didn’t know that.

You can leave the post now…I know some of your eyes are waxing over.  But I am going to continue now—you are excused.

Have to mention More’s Law now…you know, that chip capacity and technology will advance proportionatly along a straight line.  No matter how many people put their ‘all’ into a new one, no matter what economics or advantages one may apply, this More’s Law still governs.  What’s with that??? [me asking.]  Something pretty powerful in that law operating not just through past observations (before “they” even knew about the law but also off into the far future too.)

Just as there are recursive loops in genetics, or software… Translation? More than one set of flapping wings evolved in different species as a solution to flight (bats, birds, bugs). Technology evolves in the same way at different places and conditions…about the same time period.  The light bulb was patented by more than just Edison, there was more than one solution to the atomic bomb problem, there are more ways to skin a cat….(not that we do that).  I wonder, Kevin must know the 100th monkey story.  I am going to assume you do.  You don’t???

Well, on an island there are monkeys.  One day, a particularly smart monkey goes down to the water’s edge to wash his mango.  Soon other monkeys see that and copy it.  As soon as the 100th monkey adapts to this ‘new technology’ call it “clean”,… on another island, shabaamo, instantaneously all the monkeys start washing their mangoes.

I like to think of it, as ‘it’s time had come’…like with any good idea, it is a product of a time line. [my point.]  The principles of flight are eternal and have always existed, right?  But the right combination of desire, need, materials, adventure add up to winged machines. [my point again.] Kevin, I think you should explore this idea.  Maybe you do in your book, which I look forward to reading.

Ok, you can leave now…. if you really need to.

Technology also doesn’t really go away. Turns out all that old-timey technology of the Montgomery Ward Catelogue is still available, IF you have an intern to hunt them down like Kevin does.

The web was inevitable (although a singular system and I do worry about it going away, especially Facebook). The autodriven auto is also inevitable.  One million automobile accidental deaths a year until we turn the driving over to the machine completely.  We are technology, and ‘technology is us’…we are the first domesticated animals…(that’s Kevin).  Once we harnessed fire, our ovens became extended stomachs making it easier to process foods before indigestible. Our minds, the way we think, even our bodies are changing as we sit in front of screens for 8-10 hours a day.  I, myself, already resemble a tellitubby.  Warning, if you click on this video you WILL want to turn down the volume.  Although these tubbies have some pretty bright ‘technology for babies’ depicted. Programming future engineers to think in really, really bright color.

Now, there is somewhat of a moral issue here….Is it good?  Is it bad? Or is it simply inevitable?  I think Kevin would say it is inevitable.  Adding that some societies control technology for reasons of their own.  The high Amish for example may use high tech but in a way that enhances their close familial relationships. China may edit Facebook and the internet for political control.  But somehow, technology is a wave that comes onto shore eventually. (me).

And, that’s where Kevin Kelly wraps up his discussion. Technology as a cosmic force, a thread of increasing order.  Similiar to those star systems that are self sustaining for eons.  There’s some measure of confidence in his postulates that we will be self sustaining as well.  I sure hope so!

Kevin’s email is:  He is an organization.  Seems fitting.

Kevin, in case you are curious, I am the one who asked about the latent* potentialities of the human brain, and the value of thinking in terms of the year 3010 in order to reverse engineer ourselves.  Have you thought much about life one thousand years from now?  Beyond science fiction really, imagination is pulling us forward into new technologies…try it sometime.  A good way to spend a rainy Portland evening no doubt!

Kevin, Mr. Kelly, about that little startup publication: Wired.  It’s been a huge influence on me.  Thank you!  Your TED interview is here.

*Latent: present and capable of becoming though not now visible, obvious, active or symptomatic.

Published by Alexis Wittman

Artist, Designer, Writer, Facilitator living in Northern Michigan Architectural Engineer/Designer owner of Architectural Research + Design.

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