Kevin Kelly’s Mind, and . . . Matter

I vaguely remember sometime in high school discovering the idea that “technology is neither good or bad in itself, but one can use technology for good or bad ends.” As a young American teen whose greatest life-changing event might have been the switch from cassettes (the sound muddied and faded so quickly!) to CD’s, that idea served as an important corrective.

But years later I distinctly remember coming across Lewis Mumford, who made the striking point that the design and use of the technology shapes us as much as we shape it. We may create a tool, but then immediately afterwards, the relationship turns symbiotic. Using a shovel all day will shape certain muscles more than others. A civilization, for example, that comes to rely on computers will inevitably prioritize certain skills and values over others.

The developed world’s response to COVID made me wonder whether or not Mumford could have gone even further. As many have noted (Paul Kingsnorth, Mary Harrington, etc.), the existence of the internet and other digital technology seemed to drive our policy, i.e., “We can work online and have food delivered, so we should do so.” The tail wagged the dog.

Some intellectual spaces, such as perhaps The World Economic Forum, believe that technology will fix all of our GDP’s everywhere, have yet to learn what I learned at 16. I have few worries about such people, because they seem fundamentally naive and out of touch. Much more interesting, and so potentially much more impactful for good or ill, is the work of someone like Kevin Kelly, as demonstrated by his two books, What Technology Wants, and The Inevitable. Kelly helped cofound Wired magazine and has a wealth of practical experience with technology and the tech world. He spent much of his youth trekking around the world technology free. He has worked extensively with conservation efforts. Kelly has his foot in many worlds, and possesses much more experience and intellect than most anyone who talks about technology. As his recent Wikipedia page picture indicates, this man has the look of a true believer–a prophet or a madman, but certainly no fool.

At the core of Kelly’s thoughts lay a few key principals:

  • Certain technological advances and changes are ‘inevitable’ precisely because we do not choose them. Rather, technology, which he names in corporately personal terms, “The Technetium,” functions as a living part of our environment.*
  • Just as we have the task of cooperating with our natural environment, so too we have the task of cooperating with the “technical” environment. But because both Nature and the Technium are alive in like ways, the process of adaptation to technology is not artificial, or anti-human, but natural and organic to human existence over time.

As he writes,

Our concern should not be about whether to embrace [the Technium]. We are beyond embrace; we are already symbiotic with it. At a macro-scale, the technium follows an inevitable progression. Yet at the microscope, volition rules. Our choice is to align ourselves with this direction, to expand choice and possibilities for everyone and everything.

Technology, he argues, wants what all life wants, which means increasing flexibility, opportunity, emergence, complexity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, beauty, diversity, and yes, sentience. He writes elsewhere that,

Living organisms and ecosystems are characterized by a high degree of indirect collaboration, transparency of function, decentralization, flexibility, redundancy of roles, and natural efficiency; these are all traits that make biology useful to us and reasons why life can sustain its own evolution indefinitely. So the more lifelike we train our technology to be, the more convivial it becomes for us . . .

The fact that the pace of societal adaptation of new technology has dramatically increased over the last century shows us that this process of conviviality and symbiosis has also increased. Kelly want us to know that life works this way, and always has. We can try and invent better technologies as opposed to worse ones. But we cannot avoid a partnership with technology, just as we cannot avoid a partnership with Nature.

Kelly has a variety of observations to demonstrate that the development of new ideas and technology acts independently from material linear causation. Something operates outside of purely singular human volition. Among other things, he notes that successful authors/screenwriters get sued all the time for supposedly stealing ideas from other authors. Investigation then shows that such authors never came across the work of those that sue them.** We see the simultaneous development of blowgun techniques from tribes in the Amazon and in Borneo with no contact whatsoever. We see Luther and Zwingli coming up with very similar theology at the same time without ever interacting with each other. We see similar technological progression across cultures that have no contact. Some of the processes have an explanation in material causation, but others not, such as why rock art precedes sewing development almost uniformly.

Such propositions get at something transcendent, and Kelly quotes Carver Mead on this, who writes,

Moore’s Law is really about belief systems, it’s not a law of physics. After long enough, people talk about it in retrospect, and in retrospect it looks like a curve, a physical law, and people talk about it that way. But if you actually live it, as I am now, then it doesn’t feel like a physical law. It’s really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe.

Kelly obviously recognizes variability. Not everything, or even most developments, end up fully entering the Technium. The question revolves more around the “wanting” of technology. He writes, “The poppy seed wants to become a plant, even though a fair amount of them end up on bagels.”

Kelly writes persuasively and uses a variety of examples and techniques to drive his points home. He avoids claiming that every technology has value. He spent a lot of time among the Amish, and praises them for how they interact with technology. Contrary to typical belief, the Amish have nothing against technology per se. But they put a tremendous amount of energy into monitoring how technology impacts their community. They make distinctions, but they base these distinctions (such as riding in cars, but not owning cars) on careful observation over long periods of time. They are not arbitrary, nor hypocritical. The point he wishes to make I think is–even with the Amish, human interaction with technology will happen, as it has always happened. Let’s work together, like the Amish, to maximize our understanding of technology and how it shapes us, while understanding that it will certainly shape us.

All of this sounds reasonable. I remember railing against email in the late 90’s, but I use it all the time now. I resisted getting a smart phone for many years, but now have one. Kelly would tell me, “There, there, it’s ok. You’re not a bad person, you haven’t betrayed any crucial moral principle. You simply are doing what humanity has always done.”

But I can’t quite accept this. Perhaps email and smart phones have a reasonable place in the world. In the end, however, the totality of Kelly’s book left me cold, though I could not put my finger on why for a few weeks . . . until I read portions of a book on medieval views of memory.

Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture is alas, not one that I could read cover-to-cover. Long stretches of the work delve into very technical matters that I lack the patience or interest to digest. But she makes some of her more general points with great clarity, and charitably illumines a world with different values than our own. In her introduction she cites the reflections of the contemporaries of two acknowledged great geniuses–first Einstein from our time, and then, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The greatness of Einstein lies in his tremendous imagination, in the unbelievable obstinacy with which he pursues problems.  Originality is the most important factor in any scientific work.  Intuition leads to unexplored regions of thought, though intuition is difficult to explain rationally.

No great scientific achievement happens without wandering in the darkness of error.  The more imagination is restricted, the more work moves only along a definite track, which limits new ideas. The ground is safer here, and that means fewer mistakes.  No great man is always correct.  Einstein’s recent paper might be wrong, and Einstein would still be the greatest of scientists today.

The most amazing aspect of Einstein is that he directs his whole vital force to one object–original thinking.  Slowly I came to realize that here his greatness lies.  Nothing has the importance of physics.  No personal life can match the comprehension of how God created the world.  One feels that behind his external calm his brain works without interruption–nothing can stop it.  

The clue to Einstein’s role in science lies in his loneliness and aloofness.  In this respect he differs from other scientists.  He never studied at a famous university–he worked at a patent office.  The isolation served as a blessing, since it prevented his thought from wandering into already established channels.  This ‘loneliness,’ this refusal to march with the crowds but looking instead to his own path, is the most essential feature of his creations.

Reflections of Leopold Infeld, who worked with Einstein at Princeton

And now, St. Thomas:

Of the brilliance of his intellect and his soundness of judgment, sufficient proof lies in his vast literary output.  His memory was extremely rich and retentive: whatever he once read and grasped he never forgot; it was as if knowledge were added to his soul as one might add pages to a book.  

Consider, for example, that admirable compilation of patristic commentaries on the four gospels he made for Pope Urban, and for the most part, he dictated from texts that he already had read and committed to memory while staying in various monasteries.  Still stronger is the testimony of Reginald [his secretary] and of others who took dictation for him.  All declare that he used to dictate to three separate secretaries at once, and occasionally four, on different subjects at the same time, completely from memory.  No one could do such a thing without a special grace.  Nor did he seem to search for things yet unknown to him.  Rather, he simply let his memory pour out its treasures.

He never set himself to study or argue a point, without first having recourse to prayer mingled with tears.  When perplexed, he would pause and pray at length, and when returning, he found his thought so clear that it seemed to show him, as in a book, the pages that he needed.

Reflections of Thomas of Celano, friend of Reginald, one of St. Thomas’ principal secretaries

On can glean a great deal from these short few paragraphs. We can start by noticing that the modern world view of genius means breaking from the past, and the older view meant connecting more firmly with it. Moreover, we see that the development of a strong memory for the medievals involved something akin to moral virtue, a “special grace.”

Memory involved reading, among other things. Carruthers shows that for the medievals, reading and memory were not for their own sakes. Rather, like the bee (the medievals viewed bees very highly for a number of reasons), they were to take the raw material of the text and turn into something “sweet,” like honey. This sounds unremarkable, but the medievals put a particularly earthy twist on how they discussed the process of reading. She writes,

The writer [of the Regula Monachorum] speaks of various stomach rumblings, belchings, and fartings that accompany the nightly gathering of monks.  But, he continues, as a famous pastor has said, just as smoke drives out bees, so belching caused by indigestion drives away the Holy Spirit [i.e., improper eating, or the taking of things into the body, caused improper means of expelling things from the body].”  

But this does not mean that all belches and farts were viewed negatively, per se, as it would be possible to have proper bodily “ex-takes” as you would proper bodily intake.  The Regula Monachorum declares,

Wherefore, as the belch bursts forth from the stomach according to the quality of food, and the index of a fart is according to the sweetness and stench of its odor, so the cogitations of the inner man brings forth words, and “from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).  The just man, eating, fills his soul.  And when he is replete with sacred doctrine, from the good treasury of his memory he brings forth those things which are good.

Carruthers comments,

The notion of Spirit as breath or wind is biblical; modern scholars, accustomed to thinking of this trope as a mere figure of speech, would never make the connection with a belch or fart that the medieval writer did.  Modern scholars who think they have observed class rivalries, or a “medieval unconscious” at odds with its piety in the texts that deal with memory work, would do well to consider the pervasive image of monks at prayer as spiritual flatulence.  This trope was often intended to provoke laughter and humility, and we should not assume it to be impious.

Just as we might say that our Constitution, for example, functions as a kind of decision-making technology, so also medieval memory techniques functioned as a technology. But what differentiates Kelly from the older understanding is this mixing of the heavenly and the earthly, talked of so starkly by the medievals. Kelly only seems to care for what comes next, and concerns himself more or less only with how we will adapt to the Technium. As to why the medievals thought of memory as a moral quality, I assume that one must gather the past to live rightly in the present. As for the future, well, it has no reality because it has no existence. But the past, while not equal in “reality” to the present, functions differently for us. We can, and must, have a connection to it.

Kelly sees a continuing “loss of body” as humanity’s only possible future. It is “inevitable” that we fly upwards and join with all of the etherealizing tendencies of modern digital technology. Thankfully such a vision can certainly never completely come to pass. Those that want the Metaverse will still need workers to lay cable. The heavens, after all, cannot exist without Atlas holding them up.


*This post is not the place to discuss the reality of corporate identities and personalities. But John Vervake and Jonathan Pageau do a good job of trying to explain the idea here and here.

**Some of the examples he cites are weird and uncanny, like JK Rowling getting sued for stealing the idea of an author who developed a story about a wizard school, whose hero is named Larry Potter, who has a scar, etc.