(Viking, 406 pages, $28)
Technology has an “inspiring” new evangelist, said Stefan Beck in Salon.com. Kevin Kelly, a former editor at Wired, has carefully considered the possibility that our gadgets may be developing independently of human control, and he’s concluded that this is not just true, but all for the good. Kelly’s concept of technology is broad. He’s invented the word “technium” as a catchall meant to describe all the fruits of human creativity—“everything from UNIX code to Hamlet.” The technium, he says, evolves much the way biology evolves—with general indifference to human welfare but in ways that are largely predictable and beneficial. Show Kelly an iPad and he’ll tell you that because the right conditions existed for its invention, the invention itself was virtually inevitable. This is a “useful” idea, even if you’re not as “smitten” by technology as he is.
But Kelly’s theory is only so useful, said Jerry A. Coyne in The New York Times. While it’s true, for example, that “the light bulb was invented at least two dozen times” by different inventors, that doesn’t mean that every breakthrough is predestined by the innovations and other material conditions that preceded it. “The wheel is about as good as inventions get,” but it didn’t pop up in the New World or Australia until Europeans finally imported the idea. More intriguing is Kelly’s contention that what the technium “wants” is to propagate itself. The increasing complexity of our inventions and our growing dependence on them suggests he’s onto something.
His conclusions, unfortunately, are “surprisingly banal,” said Jeremy Philips in The Wall Street Journal. We’re asked to accept that the technium’s exponential growth is beneficial on the whole because it provides people with opportunities they didn’t previously have: No one could choose to be a violin player until there were violins. Where Kelly will lose a lot of people is when he starts talking about technology being “a reflection of God,” said Susan Jane Gilman in NPR.org. He’s created “a banquet of ideas,” but this “sort of creepy tech-evangelism” borders on “mad scientist” territory.