Kevin Kelly’s technological determinism

Kevin Kelly is a smart and influential thinker who has good insight into the potential of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and data tracking.

He has written popular books on technology with titles such as Out of Control, What Technology Wants and his latest, The Inevitable.  I haven’t read them; they’re no doubt worth reading.  I quarrel with the assumptions reflected in the titles of the books.

His mistake, in my opinion, is in treating technology as an autonomous force to which human beings must adapt, whether they like it or not.

Technology is not out of control.  The fact that we the public don’t control it doesn’t mean that nobody does.   Technology didn’t develop itself.  It developed they way it did because it served the needs of corporations, governments and other institutions.

Technology doesn’t want anything because it isn’t sentient.    Only human beings want things.   Technology ought to exist to the wants and needs of people.   People do not exist in order to serve the requirements of technology

There is nothing inevitable about the path of technological change.   Which technologies are developed is a matter of choice—by somebody.   Devices such as the steam engine existed for centuries before they were put into us.

Ned Ludd would not have destroyed weaving machines if the weavers had owned the machines.  As a Marxist would say, it all depends on who owns the means of production.  Technology works to the benefit of those who own it.

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In the video, Kelly is shown talking about the potential benefits of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and data tracking.  The potential benefits certainly exist.  Potential pitfalls also exist.

From where I sit, I don’t see any signs of smart machines or expert systems liberating people from routine work and empowered to do higher level tasks.  Rather I see a de-skilling of the work force, and the monitoring technology used to speed up the pace of work.

I see many people for whom virtual reality is an appealing substitute for real reality, just as pornography can be an appealing substitute for real sex.  In virtual reality, you never risk any permanent consequences.  The problem is what happens to you when virtual reality is withdrawn.

Kelly did take note that there is a problem of powerful governmental and corporate institutions tracking data on individuals, while themselves hiding their activities from the public.  Today I saw the movie “Snowden“, which shows what that leads to.   In this case, knowledge is power, and it is the kind of power that corrupts.

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I first read Kelly’s writings 20-some years ago in Whole Earth Review before he went on to become an editor of Wired.  He was a beekeeper back then (maybe he still is) and he was fascinated by the hive mind.

No individual bee, not even the “queen” bee, is in charge of a beehive.  Each individual bee acts according to its own instincts, and yet the result is as if the hive were a super-intelligence, greater than any individual bee.

A networked human society will be like the beehive, Kelly thought.  Human beings, each pursuing our own goals with our own limited knowledge, are increasingly able to communicate through the Internet and other networked technology.   In his vision, hierarchical organizations will fade away.  All of us will be free to pursue our own goals and, at the same time, we’ll be part of a hive-like super-intelligence.

kevin-kelly-out-of-controlHuman society is not like a beehive.  Every individual bee serves the greater good of the hive.  Nobody is in charge of the hive, not even the so-called “queen” bee.   Within human society, decisions are made by individuals operating within specific institutions—Google, Facebook, Amazon, the National Security Agency—which often are not accountable to the public and which may or may not have the public good in mind.

Kelly sees the development of technologies such as the Internet as driven primarily by the unfolding of their inherent potentialities.   They are like forces of nature, to which human beings may be able to modify but cannot change.

The Internet is not like a force of nature.  It is a human creation and, like most human creations, can be used for good or bad.  The Internet can be a means of human liberation.   It also can be the most powerful tool yet created by Big Brother, and can be a means of the world’s most powerful means of inducing learned helplessness.

How technology develops depends on who owns or controls the technology.   Labor-saving machinery can be used to create leisure for all or profits for a few.  The Internet can empower the individual, and it can be the most powerful tool by Big Brother.

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It is a mistake to talk about “Technology” in the singular  (although I’m doing it in this post).  Technology is not all one thing.  It’s better to talk about particular technologies, and their good or bad impacts.

Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly

Nuclear power is a technology.  Once there was a consensus opinion that it was going to solve all our programs.   Now consensus opinion has switched to solar power.   Both developed the way they have because of political decisions and government subsidies.

The Internet is the way it is because of human institutions and human intentions.  It originally was created by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a means of securing communications during a nuclear attack or like emergency.  Legislation sponsored by then Senator Al Gore made it available to the general public.

World Wide Web links were invented by Tim Berners-Lee of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and made available to the public free.    The evolution of the Internet would have taken a different turn if he had followed the example of Ayn Rand’s fictional John Galt, and denied anyone permission to click on a hyperlink without paying him a fee.  None of these things was inevitable.

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The Internet is a great blessing to me.  I’m able to write and find a readership for what I write without having to go through an editor.  I’m able to do research on-line that previously would have required access to a university library.

At the same time, I know that all the benefits I get from access to the Internet can be taken away from me at any time by government agencies and corporations over which I have no control.  I also know that it is a means by which they can exercise surveillance and control over me.

The Internet is not a magical, mystical non-material force.   It depends on a physical infrastructure maintained by ongoing human intelligence and labor and the availability of electricity, rate metals and other limited resources—none of which can be taken for granted.

The future of the Internet depends on contending institutions and forces—Google, Facebook and Amazon, the National Security Agency, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and many others, just in the USA.   We the people also should be heard, and heard as citizens, not just consumers and focus group members.

My impression of Kevin Kelly is that he is a smart man with a good heart who is naive about some things.  His merit is his granular knowledge of particular technologies and their best possibilities.  My purpose in writing this post was not to attack his reputation, but to use his ideas as a hook for criticizing certain attitudes.

Technological determinism is as big an error as economic determinism.  Yes, there is such a thing as “path dependence.”  When you’re already going in one direction, that direction is the path of least resistance.  It takes effort and forethought to change direction.  But if you’re going in the wrong direction, the path of progress is sideways or even back.

LINKS

Kevin Kelly Home Page.

Out of Control: Chapter 2 – The Hive Mind by Kevin Kelly.

Kevin Kelly on the Next 30 Years in AI, VR & Data Tracking for Reinvent.

Kevin Kelly on Soft Singularity and Inevitable Technological Advances, an interview with G. Burningham of Newsweek.

The Internet Should Be a Public Good by Ben Tarnoff for Jacobin.

Will the Public Internet Survive? by Takendra Parmar for The Nation.

Playing Algorithm’n Blues by Pepe Escobar for Strategic Culture.  About Facebook algorithms and censorship.

Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet by Ben Schneier for Lawfare.

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Note: I made some alterations and additions an hour or so after I posted this.

 

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