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Kevin Kelly
What Technology Wants
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Viking Adult
USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-670-02215-1
Publication Date: 10-14-2010
416 pages, $27.95
Date Reviewed: 11-06-2010

Index:  Non-Fiction  Science Fiction

Kevin Kelly evades your expectations. The gleaming, shiny grid on the cover of 'What Technology Wants' suggests an infatuation with gadgets, an empty showroom waiting to be filled with innovation and invention. Instead, he opens with an account of his travels though those parts of the world where not even the twentieth century has arrived. This is a soul in search of the right question, not a soulless search engine overflowing with answers. Kevin Kelly is quite human.

'What Technology Wants' is bigger, smarter and broader than you expect. It is practically gadget-free. Kelly is unafraid of being wrong; in fact he sometimes seems to lean in the wrong direction deliberately, just to be sure he's keeping true to a larger perspective. 'What Technology Wants' does precisely what the title implies; it explores what technology "wants," that is, how our creations have become, to an increasing degree, our creators. It is no longer true that we are what we make; now, we are made by what we make.

Kelly's argument is surprisingly personal at all levels, even though he pulls back for a much larger vision of just what technology is than what is usually implied by the word. For Kelly, "technology" is indeed the gadgets, gizmos, gears and golly-look-at-thats. But those are symptoms, not the disease. Starting back with the Big Bang — Kelly is nothing if not ambitious — 'What Technology Wants' explores what Kelly quickly defines as the technium, which is the self-reinforcing system of creation that results in technology, and Kelly asserts, has its own form of evolution.

For a book that includes the word "technology" in the title, Kelly spends a lot of time talking about what most of us think of as pre-technological and even a-technological times. But Kelly is relentlessly pursuing his larger vision, not of evolving artificial intelligence, but instead, of the innate forces of change at work in the universe at large. He examines progress in all its forms. This is the ultimate work of progressive non-fiction, boiling the term down to its essence and then examining the force at work in all spheres, not just of life, but of existence.

For a book that obviously reaches far, Kelly makes a lot of risky choices. Most readers are going to disagree with one or more of the conclusions that Kelly comes to on his prose journey. But he is ever an agreeable and entertaining guide, and does indeed provide the "Gee-whiz!" moments you desire from his book. He even borders on the offensive, with chapters like "The Unabomber Was Right" and "Lessons of the Amish Hackers." He's not in bad taste, but he is willing to be wrong. He's never controversial for the sake of shock. But, like Wile E. Coyote with a jetpack strapped to his back, sometimes he careens off the edge of a cliff. He's having fun and so is the reader.

'What Technology Wants' ultimately does answer its own question. It's a satisfying answer, and even if you don't agree with the conclusions, it is a satisfying book to read. Kelly is adept at coming up with the sort of witty similes and metaphors that generally show up in the best science fiction. He puts them to work in nonfiction, and they prove to be up to the task of helping readers understand how our inventions are re-inventing us. Kelly starts the book out with a road trip through the wilderness, and that proves to be an apt metaphor for the book itself. 'What Technology Wants' is what readers want when they buy a book with this title; a smart, entertaining journey to the heart of change.

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