Just over a year ago, my church hosted Nigel Cameron at the evening service, to talk about faith and science, the fact that the church tends to obsess about science at birth and death (abortion and euthanasia) but not much else, and the fact that there are a lot of other issues where faith might have a voice worth hearing.
That lead to a talk, latter in the year, on the question of ‘Are We Spiritual Machines’ acted as a taster for some of these other questions, and now to the establishment of a small reading group. We’re meeting every couple of months to discuss something that we have read (and maybe later watched) – and our first choice was What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly.
We (numbered amongst the ‘we’ are an Anglican vicar, a neuroscientist, a geneticist, an RE teacher, a historian, a dentist, and a guy who used to work for google – all with other human characteristics and interests as well) have now set up a blog, to share our thoughts as we go along, and the first couple of responses are up. I’ve just posted mine – and this is the first part of it. You’ll have to go over to that blog to read the rest!
There’s a lot to like about this book, a lot I agreed with and found thought-provoking. I particularly engage with the idea that we’re already symbiotic with technology – while for Kelly *everything* is technology, pretty much – I am alwell aware that if the climactic or technological apocalypse comes, I am definitely doomed. I will not survive a life as a hunter-gatherer, or subsistence farmer (or fisherman, given the polar ice situation)
However, the fundamental thesis of the book seems to be that technology ‘wants’ (in a fuzzy, not-particuarly-intentional way) to be ‘good’ – by which Kelly means progress. And his definition of progress is more choice for more people, the ability to choose to live beyond our basic necessities, the “general enlargement of knowledge and comfort and choices – and the sense of well-being.”
I’m not entirely sure I buy his understanding of progress, but it’s also so general it’s quite hard to argue against. I think it is a kind of progress – but it’s also more of a progression, and not automatically towards a good end (what if the options we have to choose between are generally not great, for example?).
But anyway, it’s a different aspect of his understanding of progress that I want to quibble with here. Kelly goes on to write:
“The flowering of progressive growth seems to… need the growth of large human populations. Historian Niall Ferguson believes that on the global scale, the origins of progress lie only in expanding population. According to this theory, in order to elevate population beyond Malthusian limits you need science, yet it is the increase in the number of humans that ultimately drives science, and then prosperity. In this virtuous circle more human minds invent more things and in turn buy more inventions, including tools, techniques and methods that will support more humans. Therefore more human minds equal more progress… the economy works in a similar way… ”
In this formulation, more minds = more progress.*