The Technium

In his books What Technology Wants and Inevitable, Kevin Kelly explains his view of technology as a natural system, with biases that tilts in certain directions and not others. He calls the human-made system of all technologies working together the Technium.

In a recent intreview with Noah Smith, Kevin Kelly explains the technium1 again.

Technology is interdependent, it cannot stand alone. For example, software needs software to run. But hardware is designed using sofisticated software. Neither can exist without the other. This co-dependency of technology creates an ecosystem of highly interdependent technologies that support each other.

The higher the technology, the more intertwined, complex, and codependent it becomes. The technium conforms a complex system comprising all existing technology. But the technium is more than the sum of everything that is made.

“The one thing we know about all systems is that they have emergent properties and unexpected dynamics that are not present in their parts.” For example, a single ant is a limited organism with little ability to reason or accomplish complex tasks. However, when many ants work together, they can create sophisticated structures, communicate with each other and adapt to changing environments. This collective behavior of ants is an emergent property that arises from the interactions of individual ants2.

Complex systems cannot be explained by looking at the behavior of individual pats. For example, the patterns and movements of a flock of birds as a whole emerge from the interaction between the birds. Similarly, the behavior of the human brain cannot be explained only by examining individual neurons.

“(…) this system of technologies (the technium) has internal leanings, urges, behaviors, attractors that bend it in certain directions, in a way that a single screwdriver does not.”

An emergent property of the technium, explains Kelly, is that most inventions and innovations are co-invented multiple times, simultaneously, and independently. “More than a person will honestly invent the next new thing at about the same time.” Simultaneously independent invention is the norm, true for minor as well as for major technology leaps like calculus, steam engines, and the transistor.

Another property of the technium is that anything digital that can be copied, will be copied.

To perform any kind of communication, information will be replicated perfectly, again and again. To send a message from one part of the globe to another requires innumerable copies along the route to be made. When information is processed in a computer, it is being ceaselessly replicated and re-copied while it computes. Information wants to be copied. Therefore, when certain people get upset about the ubiquitous copying happening in the technium, their misguided impulse is to stop the copies. They want to stamp out rampant copying in the name of “copy protection,” whether it be music, science journals, or art for AI training. But the emergent behavior of the technium is to copy promiscuously.

To ban, outlaw, or impede the superconductivity of copies is to work against the grain of the system. It is a losing game. It’s like trying to work against the propensity of life to replicate. The “rule” then, is to flow with the copies. The prediction would be that innovations, agents, companies, and laws that embrace the easy flow of copies will prevail, while the innovations, agents, companies, and laws that try to thwart liberated ubiquitous copies will ultimately not prevail.

The technium can be seen as a useful lens to understand current and future trends. The whole interview is worth reading. (You can find it here.)

  1. Quoted text without source in this article is from that interview. ↩︎

  2. cfr What are emerging properties?↩︎

The Technium Kevin Kelly Futurism

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