Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

The Role of Technology in Human Evolution

Posted 04 Nov 2010 / 0

Today’s version of The Takeaway featured an interesting interview with Kevin Kelly, author of a new book called What Technology Wants. You can listen to the segment here:

Although I have not read the book, I am familiar and interested in the subject matter that Kelly tackles: the role of technology in human evolution. There is a lot of confusion out there about the role of culture and technology, ranging between wrong extremes depicting technology as simply “tools writ large” and those who claim that we now exist as a purely cultural species. Kelly’s take seems more realistic to me, as he suggests that human evolution now rests on three legs: the new technologies that we create as novel forms of adaptation, the technological and cultural environment that we have collectively created, and our ever-evolving biology. In this view technology does not wholly enslave us, but we are also not its sole master. Much of what Kelly discusses relates to the value in generating new technologies which create options from which we can carefully select those technologies that best serve us. On the one hand we cannot always predict how a new technology will serve or harm us, so there is a cost associated with suppressing new technologies. On the other hand, some technologies are more valuable in the long run than others, so we need to select from the continually-generated technological variation so that we can retain truly useful technologies.

Although I would not expect a short radio interview to get this deep into the issue, what was missing from Kelly’s discussion was an explanation for what “valuable technologies” are. There is no way to get around the issue that different cultures will maintain different goals in relation to technology; Kelly uses the Amish as a study of this “different goals” concept. I guess what scares me is that we rarely hear much public dialogue about what we want out of technology. As the title of Kelly’s book suggests, we are more prone to follow what technology wants. From cars to television to Facebook and iPhones, we ride the waves of technology like wayward mariners, ever forgetful that we are also Poseidon.

Cultural Evolution, Ethics, Human Evolution

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