What Tech Wants

Kevin Kelly’s new book What Technology Wants quotes the Unabomber at length:

I have read almost every book on the philosophy and theory of technology and interviewed many of the wisest people pondering the nature of this force. So I was utterly dismayed to discover that one of the most astute analyses of the technium was written by a mentally ill mass murderer and terrorist. What to do? A few friends and colleagues counseled me not to even mention the Unabomber in this book. Some are deeply upset that I have.

I quote at length from the Unabomber’s manifesto for three reasons. First, it succinctly states, often better than I can, the case for autonomy in the technium. Second, I have not found a better example of the view held by many skpetics of technology that the greatest problems in the world are due not to individual inventions but to the entire self-supporting system of technology itself. [p.199]

While Kelly agrees a lot with the Unabomber, he disagrees here:

The final problem with destroying civilization as we know it is that … the collapse of civilization would destroy billions [of lives]. … The paradise that Kaczynski is offering … is the tiny, smoky, dingy, smelly, wooden shack that aboslutely nobody else wants to dwell in. It is a “paradise” billions are fleeing from. …

The Unabomber is right that the selfish nature of this system causes specific harms. Certain aspects of the technium are detrimental to the human self, because they defuse our identity. The technium also contains power to harm itself; because it is no longer regulated by either nature of humans, it could accelerate so fast as to extinguish itself. Finally, the technium can harm nature if not redirected.

But despite the reality of technology’s faults, the Unabomber is wrong to want to exterminate it … [because] the machine of civilization offers use more actual freedoms than the alternative. A lot of people don’t believe this. … They point to the vices that I cannot deny. We seem to be less content, less wise, less happy the “more” we have. …

That leaves one remaining theory: We willingly choose technology with its great defects and obvious detriments, becasuse we unconsciously calculate its virtues. … After we’ve weighted downsides and upsides in the balance of our experience, we find that technology offers a greater benefit, but not by much. [pp.211-15]

I applaud Kelly’s honesty, but he fails to address two key objections. First, Kelly didn’t consider coordination failures, where actions we each take for personal benefit add up to a net harm. For example, if everyone in an auditorium stands up to better see the stage, they can all be worse off than if they all sat. Air pollution is an related example. But I expect Kelly knows about this and would just say that on the whole such harms have been overwhelmed by other gains. And I’d agree.

A second issue that I’m less confident Kelly understands is that the net benefits of tech he sees result mainly from rising per-person wealth, and only indirectly from improving tech. Better tech has only consistently caused more per-person wealth in the last few hundred years, when wealth has grown faster than population comfortably could. This a local, not a global, feature of tech.

For example, the new techs that enabled farming seem to have reduced per-person wealth and prosperity; farming populations easily grew fast enough to keep with with the thousand year time to double farming wealth. Starting within a million years in the future, and continuing on for trillions of years, it seems clear that economic growth rates must become far lower than feasible population growth rates. And with a century or so from today, a new tech enabling rapid population growth, whole brain emulations, may drastically reduce per-person wealth.

For me, our tech-induced future will be good not so much because individuals will be better off, but because it will support a vastly larger population, big enough to balance any plausible reduction in per person wealth or happiness. And honestly, even if we wanted to, we have very little chance anytime soon of derailing the great tech locomotive we ride, short of killing us all.

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  • I think your public espitemoloigical perfomances are starting to dovetail with mine (although I don’t have the comparative advantage of voicing them non-anonymously.

    It seems like the best estimate is that information theoretic death (the ultimate reduction in standard of living?) is inevitable for all of us. But what the heck, why not go for the long odds (even if they are most likely the long-odds-of-the-gaps).

  • Abelard Lindsey

    I’ve read the Unibomber’s manifesto. I think its complete gibberish. Technology is a tool, nothing less and nothing more. You use tools to make what you want and to become more. This is the purpose of tools and the purpose of any accomplishment.

    It is impossible for a luddite like the unibomber to have anything useful to say about anything. The reason is that luddites glorify some sort of stasis where it is impossible to make or become anything new or to improve your life. This kind of attitude is completely unacceptable to anyone who actually wants to go places in life. Such attitudes accomplish nothing and are, therefor, worthless.

    • The unabomber saw a lot – he was ahead of his time.

      • Abelard Lindsey

        The unibomber manifesto was the ranting and raving of a mentally sick and pathetic individual. He saw nothing of value whatsoever. Luddites are, by definition, pathetically sick and twisted individuals.

    • J Tracy

      Technology is much more than just some bag of tools at our disposal. It is self-propagating and often brings humans along with it. When a new technology is discovered, all other humans must adopt that technology, at the consequence of being dominated. A human does not necessarily chose to use the technology in the way a mechanic decides between a hammer and a mallet, but is coerced to use the new technology because of the social changes that come with it. In America today, manufacturers must rely on technology to increase production, or risk seeing business lost to foreign competitors. There simply is no option to ignore technological change.

      • Abelard Lindsey

        I have always used technology the same way a mechanic uses his tools. I use technology to trade stocks and to run my business without having to work in some office somewhere. I use Skype to talk to Asian customers and suppliers without having to pay expensive phone bills. My laptop is my office. I can live and work anywhere. Of course technology is a tool. Do you think I could manage a portfolio from the beaches of South East Asia if the internet did not exist? Of course, I have to visit customers in my work, but this has always been the case.

        In the near future, I will use various biotechnologies to eliminate aging and to do various other things to my mind and body so as to live the life I want without the BS limitations I see in so many others. Once again, the technology is my tool that allows me to do the things I want to do and to live the life I enjoy living.

        Technology will always be a tool for me to use as I want.

  • brant

    I would like to hear Robin’s take on whether there is a meaningful distinction between technologically induced gains to physical, material wealth and tech induced gains that increase other forms of wealth.

    The former, such as agriculture or steam power, allow an increase in population that can cause population growth followed by an eventual reduction in per-capita wealth when population growth outstrips the growth in total wealth. The latter, such as the printing press (or Kindle, iPod?) may make people better off without causing an increase to population, and in the long run everyone may be better off. Both issues Robin identifies relate to the former, but neither seem to relate to the latter sort of tech (except to the extent that, eg, more people reading books increases the likelihood of an industrial revolution).

    Is this distinction a reason to not be distressed and depressed by this post?

    • michael vassar

      THANK YOU.
      I basically concluded a few years ago that econ has, at a first approximation, nothing more to teach me until it addresses this distinction.
      I’m glad to see someone else pointing that out.

    • > For example, the new techs that enabled farming seem to have reduced per-person wealth and prosperity; farming populations easily grew fast enough to keep with with the thousand year time to double farming wealth. Starting within a million years in the future, and continuing on for trillions of years, it seems clear that economic growth rates must become far lower than feasible population growth rates. And with a century or so from today, a new tech enabling rapid population growth, whole brain emulations, may drastically reduce per-person wealth.

      In the same vein as parent, couldn’t we say that the farming populations could have higher utility than the hunter-gatherers (even as wealth remains constant or declines) because they have more satisfying ways of spending it?

      That is, we could imagine hunter-gatherers having lots of wealth but only a few products like sex or bows & arrows to spend it on, and thus are less happy/have less utility than the poor farmer who can save up and eventually buy the product of the sophisticated (equally poor) craftsmen & artists.

      Perhaps the same food surplus but more effectively concentrated on specialists.

  • Allow me to link my own review of Kelly’s book (really, just the title).

    And point out that Luddites have a bad rap. Historically, Luddism was a movement of people whose interests were quite clearly being hurt by new technology and wanted to do something about it. Obviously, they were on the losing side of history but that doesn’t mean they were irrational in their actions. And anybody who thinks honestly about the risks of technology ought to not dismiss them.

  • Here’s Kevin on video, discussing his latest book.

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  • flimbob

    This is perhaps my greatest question about your ethical worldview. Why is it better to have more people, each less happy than we would be if we had fewer people? Why is maximizing net happiness so much more important than maximizing mean happiness? You’ve often discussed this, but each and every time you’ve basically said simply that the reasons for holding this point of view are so blindingly obvious that anybody who disagrees is not worthy of being a serious interlocutor.

    • arch1

      As I think Sam Harris points out in “The Moral Landscape,” it is tough to articulate a principle that aligns w/ all of our basic intuitions and is not vulnerable to counterexamples. E.g. ‘maximize mean happiness’ appears to imply:
      -that a universe containing one amazingly fulfilled person is better than a universe with a billion infinitesimally less fulfilled individuals
      -that a universe with a billion individuals living in perpetual agony is better than a universe with a single individual living in perpetual, slightly-worse agony
      -that the death of a mildly depressed hermit makes the world a better place

  • Rebecca Burlingame

    Technology would not be the problem for us that it is, if we could understand that our own capacity needs to be measured along a different economic continuum from that of technology enhanced production. As long as human capital is attached to production like a ball and chain, technology can only work against us instead of for us, and it will not be possible for people to truly be free. What technology provides and what people desire for their lives – given the chance, would follow different trajectories, if only people were confident enough to use technology for a tool, rather than as a crutch for isolated ends.

  • Dave

    The streets will run red with blood before the people will put their brains in a jar so as to make things fair for all concerned. So, apocalypse is inevitable. However you could put other peoples brains in jars,but I’m not going there.

    “And with a century or so from today, a new tech enabling rapid population growth, whole brain emulations, may drastically reduce per-person wealth”

  • Chris T

    I don’t really think it’s accurate to separate humans and technology. The capability to create tools and then create even better tools with those tools is what defines us as a species. In a sense we are our technology.

  • Doc Merlin

    Why couldn’t the brains being emulated in “whole brain emulation” be designed in such a way as to want to serve other brains. So long as quantity supplied of brain slaves is higher than that of free brains, we don’t get the future you envision.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    The Unabomber is just as sick and pathetic as Charles Manson. It is silly to waste time talking about him.

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