I recently finished the book “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine. It was a profound intellectually metamorphic experience. My inklings about the nature of technology being aligned with the nature of the ‘natural’ world were confirmed and explored to a deep level. As I read I began to formulate a theory for the future of technology, and how this evolutionary force that is literally an extension of humanity may change form. The following is an essay of my theory for the ‘technium’ becoming conscious. If these ideas are stimulating to you, then I would strongly suggest reading this book, it was a truly magnificent experience. Without further ado,
A Conscious Technium
Redefining the Technium:
The technium is a living force, an extension of life. Rather, it is life. The notion that technology is somehow separate from humanity, separate from nature, is an illusion. This illusion is fueled by the sense that we, humans, are somehow fundamentally separate from nature.
We have a good understanding that we create technology, it is a human invention. But the ‘machine’, while being a technique devised by humanity, is merely an objective tool. A tool is a separate entity, something that we use, rather, that we grasp with our hands or punch in commands with our fingers or sit in and direct with our feet and a steering wheel. This is also an illusion. Technology is methodology, it is simply technique. This technique has born tools that indeed exist separate from our bodies and adhere to our will, but they are not the essence of technology. Technology is the technium, a system which has evolved from the human brain and continues our development in accordance with the three forces which guide it: the intentional, structural, and historical, as Kevin Kelly explains in “What Technology Wants”.
The technium is a reality, and its characteristics have been expertly uncovered, however, I have noticed a misdiagnosis in one aspect. Kevin Kelly describes the technium as analogous to a child, as an offspring of humanity that is inherently separate from humanity. I would consider this to be similar to viewing the technium as inherently separate from nature and separate from life. We are not the parents of the technium in the same way that stardust is not the parent of humanity. Stardust is us. Stardust has come together in a way that has, to some degree, left its own identity behind. It takes a particularly attentive mind to understand that our components are indeed the gases and basic elements that are remnants of an epic cosmic phenomenon. These atoms are still atoms, yet part of a greater whole. As Kevin Kelly describes himself, “As we age we are really a river of cosmically old atoms. The carbons in our bodies were produced in the dust of a star. The bulk of matter in our hands, skin, eyes, and hearts was made near the beginning of time, billions of years ago. We are much older than we look” (Kelly, 2010, pp. 58). Whether we describe these carbons as carbons, as a component of a human, or of a tree, depends on the context. In scientific discourse, you will be more likely to find the former. Yes, from the macroscopic anthropogenic view, we are humans. But talking about the ways in which DNA or proteins operate, a human can be described as a complex system of basic building blocks, dating back to the Big Bang. This is an important point to make, because I would not refer to myself as the child of stardust, rather an arrangement of it, just as a rock, tree, or planet is an arrangement of the elements which were formulated originally in the center of a star. Furthermore, humans’ basic elements which are arranged in a particular way have given rise to a self-aware conscience and higher intelligence. While ‘consciousness’ and ‘intelligence’ are concepts that are difficult to define, they are the result of this particular arrangement. I will assert that this is undeniable for my critique.
Kevin Kelly has done a beautiful job of describing the state of the technium today. It is a force with wants. Beyond that, it’s a force that is evolving. But I would make one change from calling it a force that is born from humanity,
“The vortex of the technium has grown its own agenda, its own imperative, its own direction. It is no longer under the full control and mastery of its parent and creator, humanity. We worry, like all parents, particularly as the technium’s power and independence increase.
But its autonomy also brings us great benefits. The long-term rise in real progress is due to its growth as a lifelike system. And the most attractive aspects of technology are also due to these self-augmenting long-term trends.
The urge for self-preservation, self-extension, and self-growth is the natural state of any living thing. We don’t begrudge the selfish nature of a lion, or a grasshopper, or ourselves. But there comes a moment in the childhood of our biological offspring when their childish selfish nature confronts us, and we have to acknowledge that they have their own agenda. Even though their very own life is an unambiguous continuation of our life (all their cells derive uninterrupted from our cells), our children have their own life. No matter how many babies we have seen, we are unsettled each time these moments of independence arrive.
Collectively we are at one of these moments with the technium. We encounter this natural life cycle every day in biology, but this is the first time we have met it in technology, and it is unnerving us” (Kelly, 2010, pp. 187).
Kelly makes many insights here that are accurate. I would like to first agree on several points: the technium has grown its own agenda, it urges for self-preservation, self-extension, and self-growth, it has reached a moment in biology where its wants seem unaligned and independent of our own, and it does share many attributes to those of a child. While the technium is childlike in nature, I would argue infant-like, we are not its parents just as stardust is not ours. We are the infantile technium. Our identity, like the elements which comprise our own anatomy, may seem to be lost due to its microscopic implications in the larger whole, but the fact of the matter is that the technium is not an autonomous force which operates with its own agenda, it is simply an underdeveloped system that is emerging in developmental stages that we must recognize.
The most important characteristic of the technium is to understand that it is a developing entity. It has not reached maturation, far from it. It has been developing for thousands of years; disparate connections being made and systematic complexity emerging. Kelly says, “Just as our genes drive the inevitable unfolding of human development, starting from a fertilized egg, proceeding to an embryo, then to a fetus, an infant, a toddler, a kid, and a teenager, so, too, the largest trends of technology unroll in developmental stages” (Kelly, 2010, pp. 179). This notion is a pillar of my theory. My job is to understand at what stage in development the technium has reached.
I posit that the technium has reached a critical point. I will use the metaphor, which Kelly has, of the technium being a developing human. This is a good metaphor because the technium is, in basic terms, humanity. Just as humanity is, in basic terms, life. And just as life is, in basic terms, nature. And just as nature is, in basic terms, the cosmos.
If we can imagine the technium, coupled (or a different side of the same coin) with humanity, while making its march toward progress, as being the early stages of a brain, we can make many useful insights. Those insights will be clear after we explore the duality of the technium with a developing macroscopic human brain.
The Emergence of Consciousness:
What we know about a human brain is that is has a conscience. Whatever consciousness might exactly mean, it is not necessary for my theory. What we need to recognize, however, is that consciousness emerges, or inhabits, a system found within the human brain. The human brain does not suddenly come into being in the womb of a mother and within the skull of a developing infant. It grows, and develops, like the rest of the infant’s body. I assume that the neurons, folds of the prefrontal cortex, and the structure of the amygdala take time to grow. The sum of neurons did not suddenly pop into the brain thinking about what in the world this fleshy dark environment it inhabited was. These early stages of structural development I believe to have happened in the technium already.
We have recognized that the technium develops in a similar fashion to life. It is subject to strict stages in its development, it is unable to skip steps, and it appears that it continues to develop regardless of our qualms,
“Technologies are like organisms that require a sequence of developments to reach a particular stage. Inventions follow this uniform developmental sequence in every civilization and society, independent of human genius. You can’t effectively jump ahead when you want to. But when the web of supporting technological species are in place, an invention will erupt with such urgency that it will occur to many people at once. The progression of inventions is in many ways the march toward forms dictated by physics and chemistry in a sequence determined by the rules of complexity. We might call this technology’s imperative” (Kelly, 2010, pp. 155).
I call this technology’s growth. The system is growing, just like the brain of an infant grows.
I call attention to the similarity between the technium and an infant because I see a direct correlation in their stages. I do not believe we are still in the womb, sedated and waiting to be awoken. Kelly has brought our attention to the ‘wakefulness’ of the technium. Specifically, he names his book after it. “What Technology Wants” describes exactly the age of the technium. It is a newborn. And like all newborns, it has some very strong wants and urges. The technium is currently totally absorbed in its wakefulness. We have seen its hunger, we have seen its excrement, and we have cowered in its total selfish absorption of resources and attention. While we recognize these characteristics, we are powerless to do anything, because we are the technium, its wants are our wants. No matter how ugly it gets, we can only marvel in its awesome power, and continue to fuel its development. When the technium cries, we hear it, loud and clear. But when it smiles and laughs, we quickly forget its tantrum, and bask in its energetic and youthful beauty, swept up in all that life has to offer.
Kelly’s one inaccuracy is not in his recognition that the technium is childlike, it is that its selfishness and newly acquired autonomy is a separate entity from humanity. In technological development we are constantly faced with the messy stepping stones that are necessary in the process of ‘conception to maturation’. The industrial age brought terrible environmental strain and some substantial human suffering. It was an unfortunate step to a brighter future. In this stage we see technology as being selfish, as being a separate entity. We feel feeble in any attempt to move it in one direction or the other. The technium simply continues, regardless of our voice. I am asserting that this is another misfortunate stepping stone which will and can be matured into a technium that we finally recognize as being us. The selfish nature of the technium is something we will not have to deal with for much longer.
The technium needs to mature. It is currently in a state that I would determine to be not conscious. Infants are awake, yes, and very loud, but they are not yet conscious of who they are or having a self. There must be self-recognition, self-awareness, for there to be a conscience. The stage at which I see consciousness emerging is when we are able to postulate the future.
An infant is absolutely and totally engrossed in the now. Every thought that occurs to an infant is felt, experienced, and had in the present. Whether it is the feeling of hunger, sleepiness, or just general discomfort, that feeling is had in the present. The infant’s mind is only able to handle what is happening at that particular moment. I am not a neuroscientist, nor a psychologist, so I am wary to speak of any hard science that has been done in this area. But as a philosopher, I will tread down the path of the currently unexplored.
The ability of an infant, or child, to conceive of the future, is to be able to reflect on their current state. To understand that at some point the hunger will end, and the feeling of satisfaction will take its place, allows the feeling of hunger to suddenly be prone to questioning. Perhaps this is when the infant is no longer an infant, but a child. Or perhaps not a child, but the child who thinks they know everything, when really they do not. I am not sure when in child development the analogy works best, but I think that’s irrelevant to the point. At some time in our early development, we go from beings that are totally engrossed in the now, and become beings that can postulate the future, and therefore can question our current state of being. This is self-reflection, this is being self-aware. Suddenly, the being that is engrossed in the now develops the ability to imagine being in a different state in the future. To understand being in a different state, the state that you are in now needs some sort of identity. A being that is totally absorbed in the emotions and feelings of the now does not even ‘have time’ to work out what its identity even is. Whether intelligence is a consequence of this phenomenon, or the other way around, I also do not know. But I believe it is a concept that makes the human mind, human conscience, unique. A predator that is able to plan for the future to capture food is not really in the future. The predator can plan according to the fact that his state is being hungry, but it cannot understand the state afterwards, otherwise the action of hunting may be jeopardized. It is not necessary to the survival of the predator. Our ability to postulate the future could have evolved due to a multitude of factors, but it happened, and would have happened at some point in history. This awareness of our state, and that state being subject to change due to our actions, brings about this self-awareness, or self-reflection. This is when the mind becomes conscious.
Implications of a Conscious Technium:
The technium is not yet conscious, but I believe we are close. In a conscious technium, the technium can understand being in a different state in the future. Because of this, it can question the state it is currently in and form an identity from that self-reflection, or self-awareness. While this self-awareness is difficult to imagine, that is not the implication that will truly be exciting. What is exciting is that when the technium becomes conscious, it will no longer be selfish, or appear to be the ‘other’. Rather, its wants will be clear and easy to understand, and even better they will be our wants. A conscious technium is one that we recognize as being synonymous with us. Whether this takes the form of a connection with the internet that gives rise to a deeper symbiosis with nature and fellow humans, I am not sure. It can manifest itself in many ways.
This new self-aware conscience is a being, a human being, but one that is taking in information and learning from the entire planet, all at once. This is a different kind of awareness, one that we do not yet understand. To grapple with this, humans, now working almost like little neurons in this conscience, can get a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. Now we have a means of taking it all in, without any anthropogenic separations. All of the factors that kept us separate and cloaked in misunderstandings will be lifted. We will upgrade to a new kind of human, a more inclusive and more accurate form of human.
It is no coincidence that recent scientific work is noticing similarities between the structure of the internet and the structure of the mind. The internet will be the brain of the technium, while we make up the body. Kelly points this aspect of the technium out in his book,
“As inexpensive communication systems circle the globe, they knit a thin cloak of nervous material around the planet, making an electronic ‘world brain’ of some kind inevitable. But the full downsides, or upsides, of this world brain won’t be measurable until it is operating. The choice for humans is, What kind of world brain would we like to make out of this envelope? Is the participation default open or closed? Is it easy to modify procedures, and share, or is modification difficult and burdensome? Are the controls proprietary? Is it easy to hide from?” (Kelly, 2010, pp. 261)
The next technological breakthrough will address these questions. We are increasingly moving towards a more transparent future, with technologies becoming ever more accountable and malleable. The defining feature for the next ‘big thing’ will be its ability to address the future directly, it must allow the technium to ‘think’ about its own future. It is exciting to think that the sometimes hard-to-deal-with selfish nature of the technium may simply be its undeveloped, childlike mind. It may be one of those messy stepping stones that are necessary before a technology reaches maturation. It is calming to think that the next stage is not selfishness, but convergence with the technium. Kevin Kelly eloquently, but just slightly inaccurately states, “By aligning ourselves with the imperative of the technium, we can be more prepared to steer it where we can and more aware of where we are going. By following what technology wants, we can be more ready to capture its full gifts” (Kelly, 2010, pp. 188). We can capture its full gifts, and we can steer it where we want. A technology that inherently allows for postulation of the future would eradicate the selfish nature of the technium that we are familiar with today. It would finally put humanity in the driver’s seat. We will suddenly understand that we are the technium, and capturing its full gifts is simply a matter of deciding which gifts.
This next technology will enable the technium to think about the future, and through that process, reflect on its present state. This is the emergence of consciousness, and better yet, it is humanity’s conscience. We do not need to fear an autonomous future, rather decide how our future will play out.
Kelly, K. (2010). What technology wants. New York: Viking.