The Sacredness of iPods and Guns

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Orion Magazine, one of my favorites, has a long interview with Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine. I subscribed to Wired from the start, but dropped it after about a year. Not because of the content. I found the format so off-putting that I had trouble reading it. My friends assured me that disorder was the wave of the future. Reading Kelly’s comments in the interview, I probably would have dropped it at some time because of its contents as well as format. Even granting that Kelly likes to shock people, I found his beliefs about technology not only outsized, but also outrageous. His first sentence in the piece is, “My larger agenda is to bridge the technological and the holy.” This would clearly take much doing, if possible, but I wonder why anyone would want to go there.

Max Weber famously observed that technological cast of our modern world did precisely the opposite, writing, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” Martin Heidegger would agree with Kelly that technology has come to dominate the way human being exist, but would completely disagree with the consequences. In a posthumously published interview, Heidegger said that he feared that, “Only a God can save us.” Both were deeply concerned about what the nature of human existence had become.

I watched a three-part series on our PBS channel this week on the subject of Our Emotional Life. Advertised as a story about happiness, it was mostly about the opposite, but whenever happiness appeared on screen, the connection to human relationships was very clear. The finale showed the narrator, Dan Gilbert, claiming that the number one factor in happiness was the quality of our relationships with other human beings. The failure of things, including money, to produce positive judgments about what it is to be human was evident throughout, with one exception. Money is an essential factor for producing happiness for the poor, but perhaps only at the first few levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Getting back to Kelly, I interpret his comments as saying the opposite. What really matters is, that is, if anything matters to us, the technology that permeates life.

When asked about the use of technology to ensure the sex of a child, something available now in India, Kelly would not prohibit the technology, but rather educate those making the choice. He ignore the failures of education to deal with addiction to drugs, which fit neatly into his idea of technology. Having more choice is his [sole] criterion of the acceptability of technology. If there moral issues should be involved, keep going while seeking a new idea that would obviate the bad outcomes. He claims that, without exception, prohibiting technology is immoral. In his zeal, he mistakes current risk doctrine. Claiming that we fail to proceed to employ new technology until we know it is safe, and that this policy doesn’t work, he overlooks the fact that almost all new technology is put into use without testing its effects of safety and environment. Only in matters involving human health and some narrow areas of the environment, do we act under the precautionary principal—withholding use until we are confident it is not harmful.

Later in the interviews, he waffles a bit allowing that he would prohibit technology that kills people, citing biological warfare agents, but exempting nuclear weapons. They are OK, but shouldn’t be used. Guns are OK too, I suppose as technology, but not as weapons. The gun lobby insists that it’s not guns that kill people; people kill people. I do not see how Kelly is able to draw the line at what is OK and what is not. This is exactly the concern that Heidegger expressed. We have come to view the world purely in technological terms. Everything is nothing but standing reserve to be used for something. Anything special about human existence eventually evaporates. Kelly does not think that this is so bad. Just the opposite. When asked about his answer to Wendell Berry who argues that technology doesn’t change the essential nature of humanity, Kelly said

“I disagree with Wendell. We have created our humanity. And I think our humanity has been created by technology. Our humanity is defined by things we have invented. Like the alphabet. Our culture is one thing we’ve created. But I also think there has been an evolution of morality. Culture and cultural inventions are part of the Technium [the technological universe]—they are technologies.

I think he confuses human existence with culture. Our species has maintained a basic set of concerns through a myriad of cultural progressions. Technology is a powerful force, perhaps now the most powerful force in shaping cultures. Yes, it affects who we think we are, but hopefully in my way of thinking, only conceals our humanness and leaves it there to come forth some day. That’s why sustainability remains a possibility.

I’ll stop here although the theological parts of the interview are worth talking about. Without his ever using the term, I would say the Kelly believes in intelligent design.

KELLY: But I don’t think the Technium is only about humans. It’s a type of learning. It’s a type of expression. It’s a type of possibility. The Technium works as an ecology. Just as evolution has a longterm direction as we look 4 billion years into the past, so technology increases complexity and diversity, with increasing power.

LAWLER: So technology is part of evolution or God—that which drives the universe?

KELLY: Exactly. Some people call this the Great Story. Roving preacher Michael Dowd talks at churches about this alternative creation story. It is about evolution through God, that which started from nothing, grew into particles that gained mass and complexity, and then clumped into molecules and then became dust and planets and so forth. And technology is the latest variety.

LAWLER: So the Technium is one of the ways in which the universe is getting to know itself? And by increasing complexity, the universe becomes more self-aware?

KELLY: Exactly. I think of God as the intelligence of mind that is increasing the complexity of the universe.

I believe Kelly is confused again in mistaking the natural evolutionary progression of the universe with the roles of human intelligence and creativity in the ever larger array of technological devices and systems that control our lives. Perhaps control is too strong, but surely we live in a constant, increasingly relentless tug of war with technology. If Kelly is correct that technology is literally everything in the universe, we are just as surely going to be pulled far beyond the center line.

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2 Comments

Peter Loring Borst said:

1 Peter Loring Borst on Jan 05, 2010

> Our current default is to not proceed to the next step until you can prove no harm. That doesn’t work. You have to use inventions to evaluate them, to see them in action.

This is oversimplifying. For example there are strict regulations of genetic modification of organisms, because an accidental release could be catastrophic. Catastrophes have already occurred as a result of ordinary breeding and introductions of non-native species, like the African bee scenario. Precaution is essential with new technology, as the impact can be rapid and vast.

Nowhere in this discussion did I hear about the impact what we are doing is having on the rest of creation: the other species of plants and animals that are going extinct in the path of our technological swath.

I don’t separate the natural from the artificial, all is natural at a basic sense, so I can see technology as sacred. But not “more sacred” than the earth that gave birth to us and a billion other creatures, who seem to have been forgotten by the majority of the world’s people.

Do we want a virtual world with no wild animals, plants? All zoos and gardens, and factories and vast factory farms? Who in the plugged in world will even care -- if they can go to the movies and see gorgeous worlds in 3D?

plb

Chris Davis said:

>Without his ever using the term, I would say the Kelly believes in intelligent design.

While it is documented that Kelly is a Christian, he does view the world from an evolutionary viewpoint, which you can find in his book Out of Control. I would by no means say that he believes in intelligent design, especially given the dominant anti-evolutionary perspective of that group.

I think people may get lost with Kelly since in one sense he's exploring a metaphor to help defamiliarize and see things from a different perspective. This is similar to how Richard Dawkins talked about the selfish gene, as if genes were just using us to reproduce themselves. In his blog, The Technium, he explores technology as if it is another kingdom in biology. In a sense, this does seem over the top, but as you read through successive posts, it becomes clear that biology and technology do have a lot in common, and how they develop does seem to be similar. He argues that if we want to understand how technology evolves, we need to understand first how biology has done it, via processes of evolution, ecology, and self-organization.

>What really matters is, that is, if anything matters to us, the technology that permeates life.
>If Kelly is correct that technology is literally everything in the universe...

What I think may also be confusing, is that Kelly uses the word "technology" in a much broader sense that most people are used to. I believe this is due to looking at things through the lens of Complex Systems Theory. When you study how evolution and self-organization works in different systems, some of the differences between technology, biology, and sociology start to blur as you find similar mechanisms at play.

In brief (finally) I wouldn't necessarily dismiss him, but I would encourage you to browse through his blog further. He's not exactly a James Kay, but I would suggest for students to read these two together, since they both point in interesting directions on how insights from complexity can give us a perspective on what humans are doing.