Kelly calls the multitude of technologies that surround us and interact with each other the “technium.” For Kelly, the technium has a life of its own. Because of the countless feedback loops and complex interactions that exist in and between various technologies today, the technium, he claims, has become a sentient, autonomous entity. It represents “the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.” More than a set of technologies, the technium has become “a self-reinforcing system of creation,” from which new perspectives,
relationships, and influences “emerge.”
What should we make of such large claims? To try to put this theory into perspective, I like to place it within the context of the work Joseph Campbell did with the history of world mythologies. He observed that myths are archetypal stories about the common experiences human beings share. As the stories accumulate, they become a symbolic system that expresses the human condition of a certain time. The images of any given system are drawn from the immediate environment. Thus when a people roam the land in a hunting culture, as the American Plains Indians did, they create myths and rituals concerning the animals. For the Indians, it centered around the buffalo. In an agrarian culture, the myths center on the earth, on seeds, on planting, growing, and harvesting as symbols of birth, life, death, and renewal. Kelly, finding our modern world permeated with machines and their technologies, focuses on the story of those technologies and our relationship to them.
Campbell observed that even in the 1980s machines were finding their way into our mythology. He pointed out that Star Wars explores the problem of whether the machine is going to dominate humanity or serve it. In fact Campbell praised Star Wars as a story of mythic proportion that said “technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough. We have to rely on our intuition, our true being.” This was the message Obe Wan Kenobi gives Luke when he tells him to turn off his computer and use the force he has within.
Campbell believed we needed new myths for modern times. And he thought it would have to be the poets and visionaries who would devise those new myths by listening to the song of the universe and creating new metaphors to express it. “Humanity,” as Campbell reminded his readers and students often, “comes not from the machine but from the heart.”
With his vision of the technium, Kevin Kelly offers a different interpretation of our current state of affairs. Through his own quest, he says, he has learned to listen to the machines of technology for enlightenment. “Seeing our world through technology’s eyes has, for me, illuminated its larger purpose.” Technology, he finds, is a much larger force than we had previously imagined. It is as large as nature itself and our response to it should be similar to how people have traditionally responded to nature. While in the past people have looked to nature for enlightenment, now they should look to the technium: “We can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog,” Kelly
What’s more, Kelly argues, humans have less and less influence over the collective force of technologies, whose power he traces back to the beginning of the universe: “It follows its own momentum begun at the big bang.” In positing the technium and describing what technology “wants,” Kelly is in effect forging a new myth for our age: Technology is a unifying, evolving entity ever increasing in its power and reach. “Technology is stitching together all the minds of the living, wrapping the planet in a vibrating cloak of electronic nerves, entire continents of machines conversing with one another, the whole aggregation watching itself through a million cameras posted daily. How can this not stir that organ in us that is sensitive to something larger than ourselves?”
Joseph Campbell observed that all living myths, myths, that is, that speak to the common human condition at a certain period of time, have one thing in common: They assume some kind of unity that transcends the reality of what we observe in our lives, a unity that connects all: In the transcendent reality, “everything links and accords with everything else.” Kelly’s quest and his illumination are yet another example of humanity’s quest to envision something larger than ourselves. Even if we actually don’t call it something sacred, the attitude of worship nonetheless remains. It certainly emerges very strongly in What Technology Wants.