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Most of these mutations of information are attributable to causes such as hacking and machine error, but a few per cent are not — these changes originate not from humans, but from vagaries in the system itself. The flow of bits through the telephone network has, in the past decade, become statistically similar to the fractal pattern found in self-organized systems. This suggests that it is developing behaviour of its own. Although the technium has neither an idea of self nor conscious desires, it develops mechanical tendencies, or 'wants', through its complex behaviour.


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Its millions of amplifying relationships and circuits of influence push the technium in certain directions. For example, some personal robots can navigate obstacles to seek out power outlets and plug themselves in to be recharged. For Kelly, these robots are like bacteria drifting towards nutrients with no conscious awareness of that goal. As frontier technologies increase in sophistication, these 'wants' gain in both complexity and force. Moreover, the tendencies become increasingly independent of human designers and users.

As Kelly points out, technophobes and technophiles alike agree that the technium is spinning beyond human control. They disagree only on what should be done about it: whether the technium should be stopped, modified or embraced. Kelly respects all sides in the polarized debates about technology. He accepts the unease that the technium can unleash, devoting chapters to the anti-technology manifesto of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and the selective uptake of innovations by Amish people.

What Technology Wants

He recognizes those who have positions in between, including the proponents of indigenous knowledge and inventors themselves. Apprehension about the technium assuming a life of its own continues to grow with the rise of genomics, robotics, informatics and nanotechnology. Cautious states and publics often turn to the precautionary principle, which holds that any technology must be shown to do no harm before it can be embraced.

Kelly argues that this approach is impractical, unfeasible and unattainable.

Every technology produces degrees of good, harm and risk, and the evolution of each is uncertain — none can ever be said to be decisively safe. As an alternative, Kelly draws on philosopher Max More's 'proactionary principle', which states that the only way to evaluate new technologies is to try them out as prototypes and then refine them. To evaluate risk we must continually assess new technologies in the context of use. Kelly pares More's principle down to five elements: anticipation; continual assessment; prioritization of risks; rapid correction of harm; and redirection.

Owing to the autonomy of the technium, Kelly contends, it is pointless to ban risky technologies. Attempts to put a moratorium on them will only ensure that the emergent ones will be even more impervious to human control — exhibiting a form of natural selection. Instead, we should strive to produce technology that is 'more convivial' — that is, more compatible with life. Kelly believes that every technology can be channelled towards uses that promote greater transparency and more collaboration, flexibility and openness across society.

He also extensively used the phrase 'socio-technical system' rather than 'social system' to capture the seamless amalgamation of humans and technology. But Kelly's concept of the technium and his description of how it attains autonomy are original and timely. Reprints and Permissions. Nature By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines.

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Skip to main content. Subjects Philosophy Society Technology. Technologies such as this drone are becoming increasingly independent of humans. Add to Wishlist. USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly. About the Author Kevin Kelly is the cofounder of Wired magazine and was its executive editor for its first seven years.

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