God, Kevin Kelly and the myth of choices

I suspect it’s accurate to say that Kevin Kelly’s deep Christian faith makes him something of an outlier among the Bay Area tech set. It also adds some interesting layers and twists to his often brilliant thinking about technology, requiring him to wrestle with ambiguities and tensions that most in his cohort are blind to. In a new interview with Christianity Today, Kelly explains the essence of what the magazine refers to as his “geek theology”:

We are here to surprise God. God could make everything, but instead he says, “I bestow upon you the gift of free will so that you can participate in making this world. I could make everything, but I am going to give you some spark of my genius. Surprise me with something truly good and beautiful.” So we invent things, and God says, “Oh my gosh, that was so cool! I could have thought of that, but they thought of that instead.”

I confess I have a little trouble imagining God saying something like “Oh my gosh, that was so cool!” It makes me think that Kelly’s God must look like Jeff Spicoli:

spicoli.jpg

But beyond the curious lingo, Kelly’s attempt to square Christianity with the materialist thrust of technological progress is compelling – and moving. If you’re going to have a geek theology, it seems wise to begin with a sense of the divinity of the act of making. In creating technology, then, we are elaborating, extending creation itself – carrying on God’s work, in Kelly’s view. Kelly goes on to offer what he terms “a technological metaphor for Jesus,” which stems from his experience watching computer game-makers create immersive virtual worlds and then enter the worlds they’ve created:

I had this vision of the unbounded God binding himself to his creation. When we make these virtual worlds in the future — worlds whose virtual beings will have autonomy to commit evil, murder, hurt, and destroy options — it’s not unthinkable that the game creator would go in to try to fix the world from the inside. That’s the story of Jesus’ redemption to me. We have an unbounded God who enters this world in the same way that you would go into virtual reality and bind yourself to a limited being and try to redeem the actions of the other beings since they are your creations … For some technological people, that makes [my] faith a little more understandable.

Kelly’s personal relationship to technology is complex. He may be a technophile in the abstract – a geek in the religious sense – but in his own life he takes a wary, skeptical view of new gadgets and other tools, resisting rather than giving in to their enchantments in order to protect his own integrity. Inspired by the example of the Amish, he is a technological minimalist: “I seek to find those technologies that assist me in my mission to express love and reflect God in the world, and then disregard the rest.” One senses here that Kelly is most interested in technological progress as a source of metaphor, a means of probing the mystery of existence. The interest is, oddly enough, a fundamentally literary one.

The danger with metaphor is that, like technology, it can be awfully seductive; it can skew one’s view of reality. In the interview, as in his recent, sweeping book, What Technology Wants, Kelly argues that technological progress is a force for good in the world, a force of “love,” because it serves to expand the choices available to human beings, to give people more “opportunities to express their unique set of God-given gifts.” Kelly therefore believes, despite his wariness about the effects of technology on his own life, that he has a moral duty to promote rapid technological innovation. If technology is love, then, by definition, the more of it, the better:

I want to increase all the things that help people discover and use their talents. Can you imagine a world where Mozart did not have access to a piano? I want to promote the invention of things that have not been invented yet, with a sense of urgency, because there are young people born today who are waiting upon us to invent their aids. There are Mozarts of this generation whose genius will be hidden until we invent their equivalent of a piano — maybe a holodeck or something. Just as you and I have benefited from the people who invented the alphabet, books, printing, and the Internet, we are obligated to materialize as many inventions as possible, to hurry, so that every person born and to-be-born will have a great chance of discovering and sharing their godly gifts.

There is a profound flaw in this view of progress. While I think that Kelly could make a strong case that technological progress increases the number of choices available to people in general, he goes beyond that to suggest that the process is continuously additive. Progress gives and never takes away. Each new technology means more choices for people. But that’s not true. When it comes to choices, technological progress both gives and takes away. It closes some possibilities even as it opens others. You can’t assume that, for any given child, technological advance will increase the likelihood that she will fulfill her natural potential – or, in Kelly’s words, discover and share her unique godly gifts. It may well reduce that likelihood.

The fallacy in Kelly’s thinking becomes quickly apparent if you look closely at his Mozart example (which he also uses in his book). The fact that Mozart was born after the invention of the piano and that the piano was essential to Mozart’s ability to fulfill his potential is evidence, according to Kelly’s logic, of the beneficence of progress. But while it’s true that if Mozart had been born 300 years earlier, the less advanced state of technological progress may have prevented him from fulfilling his potential, it’s equally true that if he had been born 300 years later, the more advanced state of technological progress would have equally prevented him from achieving his potential. It’s absurd to believe that if Mozart were living today, he would create the great works he created in the eighteenth century – the symphonies, the operas, the concertos. Technological progress has transformed the world, and turned it into a world that is less suited to an artist of Mozart’s talents.

Genius emerges at the intersection of unique individual human potential and unique temporal circumstances. As circumstances change, some people’s ability to fulfill their potential will increase, but other people’s will decrease. Progress does not simply expand options. It changes options, and along the way options are lost as well as gained. Homer lived in a world that we would call technologically primitive, yet he created immortal epic poems. If Homer were born today, he would not be able to compose those poems in his head. That possibility has been foreclosed by progress. For all we know, if Homer (or Mozart) were born today, he would end up being be an advertising copywriter, and perhaps not even a very good one.

Look at any baby born today, and try to say whether that child would have a greater possibility of fulfilling its human potential if during its lifetime (a) technological progress reversed, (b) technological progress stalled, (c) technological progress advanced slowly, or (d) technological progress accelerated quickly. You can’t. Because it’s unknowable.

The best you can argue, therefore, is that technological progress will, on balance, have a tendency to open more choices for more people. But that’s not a moral argument about the benefits of progress; it’s a practical argument, an argument based on calculations of utility. If, at the individual level, new technology may actual prevent people from discovering and sharing their “godly gifts,” then technology is not itself godly. Why would God thwart His own purposes? Technological progress is not a force of cosmic goodness, and it is surely not a force of cosmic love. It’s an entirely earthly force, as suspect as the flawed humans whose purposes it suits. Kelly’s belief that we are morally obligated “to materialize as many inventions as possible” and “to hurry” in doing so is not only based on a misperception; it’s foolhardy and dangerous.

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25 Responses to God, Kevin Kelly and the myth of choices

  1. This is a fine analysis. When I think of Kelly I think of Orwell’s critique of Waugh: “He is about as good a writer as one can be while holding untenable opinions.”

    Dr. Pangloss: “It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles.”

  2. I was travelling down this path of questioning myself a few years back. I managed to find something I had written in response to a Danah Boyd blog entry from summer 2007.

    I re-published it again here for your interest. All the best, BoH.

    http://designcomment.blogspot.com/2011/07/french-impressionism-mobility-and.html

  3. Nick,

    Another useful blog entry of mine here, in relation to your Kevin Kelly points above. In this blog entry I managed to tie together a lot of stuff. You can’t talk about Homer and Mozart, and technology with detour-ing into Isaiah Berlin, Crooked Timber sort of territory sooner or later.

    The other things I brought into the Isaiah Berlin blog entry linked below, is Mike Davis and his interview with Bill Moyers where he expressed strongly the need for the agreement between labour unions and capitalism in post depression America. So if you think about technological development and production, with the right amount of socialist agreement thrown in, to make it all work, it is another slant to consider.

    Compare the above, in the 20th century with the experience in Russia and technological progress. Big subject. I don’t have the brain to deal with that in its entirety.

    The other thing I managed to weave into this blog entry, as a sub note afterwards, was the writings by Christine Finn, an UK archaeologist who wrote a book based on her living experience in the valley area around the time of the dot com collapse. When sun spark servers ended up in discount bins, and time suddenly slowed back down to real time, as opposed to Silicon valley time. How tragic that must have been for all concerned.

    I think I was attempting to make some point about new green tech, and some of Paul Krugman’s writings/lectures. But on a very basic level, we aught to consider the prospect of electricity for the first time in parts of the world, as having the potential to change certain things in certain peoples’ lives. Is this the sort of thing Kelly had in mind?

    Or check out even Henrik Lund’s new book based on a plan for Denmark to move to 100% renewable energy – running the entire truck fleet for the country off of batteries etc, etc. Is this the sort of thing Kelly had in mind?

    The ‘community’ part of Homerenergy dot com, has a 7.0 MB user presentation webcast to download there, which I am sure you would enjoy. I particularly liked the part, where the entrepreneur in the Nevada desert pointed his solar panel farm towards west, where the sun set and the casinos in Las Vegas got busy – rather than pointing them due south, which is what any sane engineer would tell him to do – and maximise solar gain. Using Homer software, the due west thing, worked out that he could sell to the utility at higher rates!

    Is this the sort of thing Kelly had in mind?

    Regards, BoH.

    http://designcomment.blogspot.com/2010/04/large-scale-thinking.html

  4. As someone who shares Kevin Kelly’s faith, although perhaps not his particular way of articulating it or some the conclusions he draws, I appreciated your reflections in this post. Kelly may be an outlier in the Bay Area tech set, but he takes his place alongside of McLuhan, Ong, Ellul, and Illich to name some of the more prominent scholars whose reflections on technology have been informed by their faith. Interestingly, Kelly stands out from this subset by the measure of his optimism. It is refreshing and almost contagious, even if in the end my sensibilities align more closely with the others.

    I would agree with more your tempered assessment of the progress of technology and choice; Babel offers a less sanguine metaphor for technology. I do wonder, though, if, for arguments sake, Kelly might counter that while Mozart, were he alive today, may not have composed the same music that he did in his time, the object/technology with which he produced his masterpieces would still be available and his genius would yet find some expression today – a world less suited perhaps, but not one that renders the possibility nil. This point seems to be tied to Kelly’s insistence that no technology ever becomes extinct.

    Curiously I hear echoes in Kelly of the later Heidegger on technology as I have come to understand him through Hubert Dreyfus, for example: http://bit.ly/o3QEMV

  5. Mtraven

    Nice review. I think you are right to focus on his theology; it leads him to this totalizing view of technology which is very misleading. He views technology, biology, and god as all working together towards some kind of mystical telos which is far removed from the actual problematic effects of technical innovation. Here’s my own review, pretty much in line with your own.

  6. Mtraven

    PS:

    The best geek theology ever was in the dedication of Gerald Sussman’s PHD thesis (at the MIT AI Lab): “To Rabbi Low of Prague, who was the first to realize that ‘God created man in his own image’ is recursive”.

  7. Frailestthing,

    re: “Kelly might counter that while Mozart, were he alive today, may not have composed the same music that he did in his time, the object/technology with which he produced his masterpieces would still be available and his genius would yet find some expression today – a world less suited perhaps, but not one that renders the possibility nil.”

    The possibility is not nil (and, of course, we’ll never know), but it strikes me as ludicrous. And, if it were true, wouldn’t it be equally true that Mozart would have found a unique outlet for his genius had he been born earlier in history? Music existed before the piano. But, no, I don’t buy the argument at all. Surely, the interaction of genius and technology does not exist independently of history. The Homer example makes that particularly clear.

    Thanks for the link to the Dreyfus essay, which I look forward to reading.

    Nick

  8. Charles

    This sounds like the old cyberpunk mythos, the universe is a mechanism to excite itself.

    As a descendent of Amish, I wish people would stop using them as a technological model. Most people’s understanding is quite flawed, they think the Amish reject technology because it is superfluous. My understanding is that they reject technologies that require contracts and long term relationships outside the community. So for example, no gas engines because there are no gasoline sources within the Amish community. Using tractors would create a dependency on outside resources.

  9. Charles,

    re: “Most people’s understanding is quite flawed, they think the Amish reject technology because it is superfluous.”

    Kelly doesn’t make that mistake. He has a long chapter in his book that describes the complexity of the Amish’s relationship with technology. It’s very good.

    Nick

  10. Nick,

    After posting my comment I went on to write a post about the interview and devil’s advocacy did not last long. In the end, I wrote:

    This resonates, but then we might ask, what of all of those would be Mozarts that did in fact live, as surely they did. Is there happiness and fulfillment so tied to an as of yet future invention that their life is otherwise rendered unfulfilled? Would this not suggest that, in fact, the grass is always greener in the future perpetually and so happiness and fulfillment is never finally possible? Fulfillment would taunt us from just around the corner that is the future.

    This seems to overlap with your response. Would love to read a post with your thoughts on Dreyfus’ essay. After reading it sometime ago, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the conclusion, but haven’t gone back to think about it more deeply.

    Cheers,

    Mike

  11. Nick,

    This Dana Brandt Home Power magazine article I know you would enjoy. In fact it is probably my favourite HP article of all, because I love the imagine of the solar panels reflecting the mountains because it sort of Bulyansungwe, Uganda in the background.

    In a way, the article is of interest because it ties together a lot of reference points. The notion of technology availability for new born children who might otherwise not use it. A school or a home with some power supply. And it also ties in a reference to ‘Does IT Matter’, and the notion of the early period in the industrial revolution when power did not come over the grid, but had to be generated locally.

    The third reference point it ties in, is the fact that it is a good old fashioned piece of investigative reporting of the situation on the ground, in an area remote from where I am living today. I’ll leave you with a quote from Brandt’s article.

    “AC mini-grids can also be incorporated into a utility grid at any time simply by connecting directly to the utility lines.

    This can be an important advantage in many areas where rural utility grids are expanding rapidly.

    It’s important to note that mini-grids are not dependent on the interconnection, and can continue normal operation in the event of line failure.”

    http://homepower.com/article/?file=HP109_pg48_Brandt

  12. Nick,

    Thanks for the careful read and thoughtful response.

    Curious lingo??? I think there is no doubt that God speaks just like Kevin Kelly.

    But to the crux of our disagreement:

    You end with:

    “The best you can argue, therefore, is that technological progress will, on balance, have a tendency to open more choices for more people.”

    This is precisely my argument. I am not arguing that technology increases the options for everyone equally. Of course new technologies remove some options. Lots of excellent horse buggy and whip makers lost their opportunities. I talk about a very tiny net gain in options when you tally up all the options lost compared to the ones added. That very tiny micro net gain accumulated over time is progress.

    You say:

    “Look at any baby born today, and try to say whether that child would have a greater possibility of fulfilling its human potential if during its lifetime (a) technological progress reversed, (b) technological progress stalled, (c) technological progress advanced slowly, or (d) technological progress accelerated quickly. You can’t.”

    You can. If you take a random human on earth from 10,000 years ago, from 1,000 years ago, from 100 years ago and from 10 years ago, the chances are greater the nearer we pick the more that person will fulfill their potential. Or, second experiment, ask a random person today when they would prefer to live, and the more fulfilled they are, the more recent they want to live.

    You say:

    “It’s absurd to believe that if Mozart were living today, he would create the great works he created in the eighteenth century – the symphonies, the operas, the concertos.”

    It is only absurd if the great works had already been created. That is if someone else had written Mozart like symphonies. But if no one had written symphonies like Mozart I don’t think it absurd that if Mozart was born now, he could write symphonies. Many are still writing classical symphonies. People are still writing operas and concertos. Artists are still painting still lifes and realistic portraits Writing novels. And making careers doing so. Why not Mozart? His music doesn’t have to sound EXACTLY the same. Symphonies that a 21 century Mozart would write today may be sound different, but could still be genius. Would you say that if Dickens was alive today he would not write great novels? Would you say that if Van Gogh was alive today it is absurd to think he would paint?

    I’ve been thinking hard about the source of our divergent views since we agree on a lot. And in part it may be due to this:

    I spent my formative years not in college, but in the middle ages. I mean I lived in medieval towns, and feudal villages and ancient camps. I have lived in the past, not just read about it. I spent a lot of time among illiterate people, simple people with very little technology. Years in places that for all practical purposes are a time before Mozart. I feel I have a visceral feeling for both the advantages and joys of that type of life, and of its disadvantages.

    I feel I have a good sense of how difficult it was for a Homer to appear. It’s hard to describe to someone outside how constrained life and roles are in pre-industrial, to say nothing of post-industrial, cultures. 99% of everyone born was a farmer or herder. Only 1% achieved anything different.

    My thoughts return again and again and again to the thousands of village boys and girls I met who spent their childhoods (and beyond) plowing behind an ox year after year, or mindlessly following sheep and goats for weeks on end away from home, wanting wanting wanting to leave — to do something greater.

    Homer was lucky, a one in a million. The other million Greeks, as well as you and I if we were born then, had no such luck. Their lives would only be improved in satisfaction and fulfillment if they moved to the future. I know this in my bones. In particular I remember a remote Greek island I stayed on where the women were still veiled, the folk spoke a dialect of classical Doric, and all they wanted was electricity. There were farmers and housewives but no Archimedes. I have not been back for 40 years, but I bet today there are many more occupations, far more diversity of achievements. I bet 50% or more of the population of that island are now doing something other than farming or herding.

    I can’t tell you how many hours/days/weeks I spent sitting around with people who had a lot of time to sit around. I would say they had a contentment, but I would never say they came close to fulfilling their potential. They generally agreed, because they encouraged their children to NOT follow their footsteps for this reason.

    This progressive view does not stem from my theology. In fact it is the reverse. My theology stems from this formative experience.

  13. Kevin Kelly writes,

    “This is precisely my argument. I am not arguing that technology increases the options for everyone equally. Of course new technologies remove some options. Lots of excellent horse buggy and whip makers lost their opportunities. I talk about a very tiny net gain in options when you tally up all the options lost compared to the ones added. That very tiny micro net gain accumulated over time is progress.”

    The best explanation of that I ever encountered was from a 50 something year old architect here in Dublin, Ireland. He made the transition from paper drawing to digital AutoCAD drawing in the later 1990s. In one of his more reflective moments, I remember him saying that when working on paper you are working on the actual medium that you are outputting the document on. That is, you are working at real scale on the drafting board, so you can instantly see whether the sheet composition works well or not. If you ever look at an ancient architectural book such as Bannister Fletcher or some others, you will see the sophistication with which they could fit things and arrange things on a sheet of paper.

    With the digital world, you are working on the ‘film negative’ as it were and blowing up to the full scale sheet afterwards. So that link between the end product, the drawing medium, and the tools by which to produce it are lost. Which results in a lot of people today, who never even look at the end result. It comes out of a bulk printer pre-folded and ready to go into an envelope. A huge industry has developed now in construction as a result, with angry consultants suing each other, and contractors taking cases, because no one even looks at the paper end product that is leaving the offices any longer.

    Similarly, it used to drive the architect nuts, when he would see younger architects receive a phone call from a building project, where a contractor had a paper version of the drawing on his end, and the young architect would proceed to open up a CAD version of the drawing on the screen. My older architect’s belief was that it led to even worse tangles, because what the contractor on site was looking at on site, was not the same medium as what was on the screen. As a result of this, we imposed a strict rule in the drawing office, that whenever you received a phonecall from a contractor – you weren’t allowed look at the drawing on the screen. You can to put down the phone and go to the drawing folder or drawing chest and find the exact replica paper document, that the contractor was using on site.

    Frank Gehry architects and all of the modern offices will tell you, you can do without paper completely today – and we should be doing our very best to get away from paper totally. My old architect friend, who was a quite thoughtful individual by any standard and open to a lot of new technological advantages, would disagree strenuously with Frank Gehry architects on this. Refer to the movie ‘Sketches’ with Frank Gehry and Sydney Pollack talking together, for more details than I can provide here. Regards, BoH.

  14. Thanks, Kevin. Because your argument that technological progress is a moral force, a force of “love,” as you put it, has practical implications for how we approach technology – as individuals and as a society – I think it’s essential that we question your argument, which is what I’m trying to do.

    You seem to swing between two explanations for how technological progress expands choices. One is based on a statistical analysis of utility: do new technologies (in general) have the effect of opening more choices for more people? I have no beef with you here. Human beings are toolmakers, and the main reason they make tools is because tools are useful. They extend human power and hence options. So it’s not a surprise that, on balance, technology would leave us generally with more options. This explanation does not require us to believe there is any moral force, any force of love, influencing the course of technology.

    The second explanation you give is not about cold calculations of utility. It is about technological progress being a moral force that allows individuals, as individuals, to fulfill their “godly gifts.” As you say in the interview: “we are obligated to materialize as many inventions as possible, to hurry, so that every person born and to-be-born will have a great chance of discovering and sharing their godly gifts.” Please note that here you are not talking about statistics; you are talking about individuals: every person born and to-be-born.

    I think it’s revealing that when I challenge your second explanation (which is the basis for your argument that technology is a force of goodness, of godly love), you quickly (in your comment above) take refuge in your first explanation. You revert to statistics, pointing to “a very tiny net gain in options when you tally up all the options lost compared to the ones added.” That is not the same as expanding the potential of “every person born and to-be-born” to fulfill their “godly gifts.”

    I ask a question about a particular baby – a real child – and suddenly you want to talk about a statistically random child, a theoretical child. Does your God think about children in statistical terms, or does He think about them as individuals?

    To put it another way: If there’s a God behind your first explanation, it’s a capricious god, who doesn’t seem particularly interested in the fate of his creations as individuals. He’s God as Statistician, concerned with “very tiny net gains.” The God you explicitly identify behind your second explanation is a god of love, a god who is interested in expanding the options for every one of his creations, each of whom is blessed with unique “godly gifts.”

    Which God is it?

    I truly believe your argument about Mozart (or Dickens, or anyone from the past) is specious. Just because the piano persists does not mean that Mozart would still be Mozart if he were born today. The world of human beings – the technium, as you describe it – has changed dramatically, opening some new opportunities and closing others, and it’s impossible to know how that complexity of changes would affect the fate of any given individual. And, as I said above in my reply to Mike, if Mozart’s gifts would survive history moving forward, why would they not survive historical change moving backward? Music existed before the piano. No, I don’t think that it’s absurd to think that Van Gogh would paint if he were born today (though it’s by no means assured); I think it’s equally plausible that he would paint if he had been born 500 years earlier than he had.

    On the one hand, you want to tie individual genius to the particular technologies of the day. On the other hand, you seem to say that individual genius is not constrained by the technologies of the day. Which is it?

    Let me make a final point, not for rhetorical reasons but because it’s one I struggle with in thinking about the effects of technological progress. You like to take a statistical view of technology’s effects, which leads you to speak of percentages of the population. For instance: a greater percentage of people live in material comfort today than did a few millennia ago. That’s a valid way of measuring things. But there’s an equally valid way of measuring things that looks at raw numbers rather than statistical norms. The view is very different depending on which way you measure things. For instance: you could argue that technology has improved life on earth because a lower percentage of people exist in a state of physical suffering today than used to. But one of the most important effects of technology has been to allow for an enormous increase in human population. And if you look at raw numbers, you might well find that more individuals exist in a state of physical suffering than did before. The statistical analysis obscures the individual sufferer. So is technology good because it has reduced the percentage of people who suffer, or is technology bad because it has increased the number of people who suffer?

    Nick

  15. Designcomment.blogspot.com

    Paul Romer and Russell Roberts podcast at Econtalk, Romer on Growth.

    I would recommend to both Nick and Kevin. Someone in Himalayas who spends a whole lifetime perfecting the skills to remain self sufficient earning less in monetary wealth than a suburban inhabitant with virtually no skills at all. B

  16. Good questions, Nick.

    I think you throw out three main challenges, which I short hand here:

    1) Which God is it? Individual or statistical?

    2) Does time and technology constrain genius?

    3) Does God care about a percentage or a quantity?

    My quick reply.

    1) You ask “Does your God think about children in statistical terms, or does He think about them as individuals?”

    The first answer — which is not very satisfying — is that as a omniscient God he thinks both. But I don’t think it takes a God to hold both views in your head. I think that you can increase options for individuals by increasing the average option or increasing the options for the average individual. I argue that increasing technology gives a “greater chance” for an individual to become fulfilled. I do not argue that a technology A, or even set of technologies A-Z, will automatically optimize the potential of person N. I argue that it will increase the potential for potential.

    Perhaps you object to the idea that a moral force could be statistical? Or that love might somehow be an impersonal force? That love is something that only occurs between two humans and is not found elsewhere in the universe?

    To answer your first question directly, I think “a god who is interested in expanding the options for every one of his creations, each of whom is blessed with unique “godly gifts,” ” does this very thing by expanding the options for all. This steady expansion (known as progress) may not touch each individual (our and their loss) but because it can liberate gifts an average, like most freedoms, it is a moral force.

    2) You ask, “On the one hand, you want to tie individual genius to the particular technologies of the day. On the other hand, you seem to say that individual genius is not constrained by the technologies of the day. Which is it?”

    I say the presence of technology enables individual genius and the lack of technology constrains individual genius. The particular technologies available greatly influence what can be produced. If time were symmetrical, running backwards with no effect, you would be right. (” if Mozart’s gifts would survive history moving forward, why would they not survive historical change moving backward?”) But time and progress is asymmetrical. That is the whole point. So while some options diminish, most accumulate, and none completely disappear, although they may obsolesce. We have more choices. As the book Shock of the Old establishes, more of the old technologies are still very much with us. In Mozart’s case all his technologies — and options — are still here. All of Dickens’ tools are still here. That’s why, while Mozart’s gifts can go both ways, his tools only go one way.

    3) Your last point is very interesting. What kind of moral progress is there if it only entails the expansion of percentages and not absolute numbers? I would say it is not a very robust progress then. But I take a very long view of progress (my books starts pre-history), and in this view the rapid expansion of population during the industrial age is still progress in absolute numbers because all those people living in rural areas were still better off than the hunter/gatherers of yore. And while we tend to ignore it, I believe there was very slow mild progress (increase in options) even in remote agricultural areas over the millennia. The peasants in China in 1776 were better off — on average — than the peasants of 1776 BC, or even 776. And as I maintain the poverty of urban slums is much preferable to the poverty of the countryside, so the mass migration into cities in absolute numbers is a sign of progress.

    To sum, I think you bring up two main questions:

    Is progress real? I believe the evidence is clear it is.

    Is progress a moral force? I think it is, but this may be a matter of definitions.

  17. Thanks, Kevin. I think we’ve both had our say, so I’m inclined to leave it there. But I can’t resist making two quick points. You say, “the presence of technology enables individual genius and the lack of technology constrains individual genius.” That’s not always so, as the Homer example shows. Technological change can disable individual genius as well as enable it. There may be many people on earth today who would have been better able to fulfill their genius, or in general their potential, had they lived in an earlier, less technologically advanced time. We’ll never know. You also say, “all those people living in rural areas were still better off than the hunter/gatherers of yore.” How do you know that? There’s a strain of recent research which suggests that many hunter/gatherers led pretty good lives – idyllic, in some ways. The number of available “options” is not the only measure of the richness of a life.

  18. Kevin Kelly writes,

    “As the book Shock of the Old establishes, more of the old technologies are still very much with us.”

    In my mind reading the above discussion, I find myself looking at two extreme counterpoints. On the one hand, I recall in reading The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, by by Vanity Fair magazine writer Alan Deutschman – that Jobs in his earliest days as a tech entrepreneur would purposefully associate with as many people with an artistic as possible.

    Lets remember, that someone like Jobs started working in Atari I think, and Woz was around at that time too. Woz was the ‘artist’, or the brilliant problem solver and it was Jobs would did the ‘sponge-boarding’ of Woz’s technological ideas. It is also interesting to note, that Woz commented lately, that computing technology had moved off in a direction now where his unique set of skills in producing those beautiful circuit board designs and logic functions which Jobs needed in the early Apple days – does not really fit into the modern computer era.

    So that in a sense, it was a short window in history in which Woz’s unique talents were so valuable as they were. I recall from reading Deutschman’s book, which is a great read, that Jobs may have been a little bit self-conscious about not knowing what a great piece of architecture, or a great painting was. Somehow, Jobs coming from an engineering background knew he wanted a great piece of architecture, painting, poetry or design. He just needed a lot of mentors to help him to understand what it might be.

    It’s like that expression, I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.

    The other counterpoint I have in my brain, is watching a DVD set of Ray Mears, the outdoor survival expert who is probably on the other end of the spectrum to Steve Jobs. Mears is a man who in one documentary episode he made for the BBC (available at his website), he constructs a birkbark canoe with a member of a native tribe somewhere in Canada. But always in Mears’s documentary making, you find these references to looking at a piece of forest, seeing all of the species and reading it like a book.

    In a way, I think that both Steve Jobs and Ray Mears spent their lives learning how to read the forest. One man dealing with technology that is only being invented as we speak. The other, using technology that echoes back across the mellenia. BoH.

  19. Yes, I think we’ve had our say so we’ll leave it there, but I’ll just add to your final points;

    You mention:

    “There may be many people on earth today who would have been better able to fulfill their genius, or in general their potential, had they lived in an earlier, less technologically advanced time.”

    Yes, there may be, but I find it hard to imagine who they are.

    You also say, “all those people living in rural areas were still better off than the hunter/gatherers of yore.” How do you know that?

    Having visited some tribes, and watching the record of others, and reading the literature by the impartial. Simply put, very few people continue that way if they have a choice.

    “There’s a strain of recent research which suggests that many hunter/gatherers led pretty good lives – idyllic, in some ways.”

    I’ve read that research very carefully, and you might call their lifestyle many things, but no one, especially the researchers would use any word like idyllic or anything close to it. Like the Amish it has many attractive qualities, but the closer you get, the less attractive it becomes for yourself. I know. I considered it and looked very closely.

    Nick, as I said earlier, I think this difference is really what we differ on.

  20. Designcomment.blogspot.com

    We are much to wedded in western culture anyhow to the notion that an artist must be an individual.

    Reference, Code conference organized by John Howkins a few years ago. A lady called Martha Woodmansee spoke on collective authorship.

    Also, Leslie Berlin’s bio novel on Bob Noyce. Shockley never felt like shared credit for transistor, with Bell labs colleagues.

    The guys in early days at Apple individually may have been good. But together . .

    Alan Kay says exact same thing when he was together with Thacker, Lampson and company. BoH

  21. Apologises all for the multiple responses. I could not retire for the night, without leaving you with this 1759 Edward Young quotation from ‘Conjectures on Original Composition’.

    Of genius the only proof is, the act of doing well what is worthy to be done, and what was never done before: Of genius in the fine arts, the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility, for the delight, honor, and benefit of human nature. Genius is the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe: or, if that be not allowed, it is the application of powers to objects on which they had not before been exercised, or the employment of them in such a manner as to produce effects hitherto unknown.

    Which Woodmansee argues here,

    http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/IPCoop/92wood.html

    respresented the coming of the professional author and the romantic notions about individuals. The one which we are now saddled with, and blinkers a lot of debate about what is art.

    To cap this off I wish to leave you all with a thought about ‘Identity and Violence’, in the sense of Marshall McLuhan, and to say this. It was the destruction of much of our identity in terms of medieval architecture during the wars in Europe that led to the very first Venice charter in 1964 to assist in protecting our heritage in some way. It was followed in later years by the Washington, Burra and Nara documents all of which expanded the original notion of building heritage and identity to encapsulate, what I believe is an increased awareness of the collective that exists around all great works of heritage, art and buildings. The example being the mud huts, or timber buildings of the orient, which require the actual community around them, in order to refresh and renew multiple times over the ages. Without that outer layer of the collective, the community, the mud hut or the timber shrine collapses. Brief blog entry of mine on the charters available here. BoH.

    http://designcomment.blogspot.com/2009/06/architectural-heritage.html

  22. This is as good as any conversation can be. Electric!

    Thank you Nick and thank you Mr. Kelly. Sitting here in India, I wonder if it were an age earlier, would your conversational genius flower like this or spread its fragrance like this?

    This conversation unties me from a few nagging questions/internal discussions which almost seem to make me immobile every time I am on the cusp of attempting something ‘monumental’ in my life.

  23. Nick, it seems your view of technological progress expressed here is in line with your research that lead to the shallows. The problem with this type of thinking, in my opinion is that it paints too broad of a stroke. While it may be true that today’s media culture and access to information is creating a commonality of broad and shallow thinking, they key word here is commonality. The average citizen in an industrialized nation may be more distracted, but how does the practical application of commonality of deep thought in pre-industrialized societies compare with the practical application of commonly shallow thinking in the information era? There is no utilitarian value of a society full of deep thinkers who do not have any opportunities. Not to mention that their deep thinking capabilities were largely wasted do to the inefficiency of the inability to share and build upon thought, information and innovation. When I look at history, I see a world where the common man had essentially no choices, life was dictated to them. I also reject the idea that there are less deep thinkers in the information era. Look to the competitive industry around Music and Art, with millions upon millions sacrificing their individual liberties to have a maniacal focus on their art form. What about the millions of research scientist that devote their entire lives to a relatively tiny scope in a particular subject … there is a much greater number of people in these types of roles today than there have been in the history of the world. So while the common man may be more distracted, they do so at their own choosing, and the common man today has more choices, more freedom, more knowledge and the ability to have more impact on society than they ever had in the past. And I reject the notion that Mozart or any great artist or thinker of the past is in any way greater than the artists and thinkers of today. While most of the musical compositions of today may be less appreciated by our culture than Mozart, they are no less technically complex, nor are they less creative. Broad popularity does not equal superiority. Some argue that the deeper thought capabilities of past generations may translate into greater creativity, but I disagree with this idea. One trait that I believe is common to humanity is Maslow’s hierarchy and the need for individuals to find safety and security. I was watching Joe Rogan perform stand-up the other day, and he commented on the increase of creativity and artistic expression he has found as a result of the freedom he has found from his financial success, which removed the need for him to conform to societal and employer pressures.

    While I am not religious per se, I share Kelly’s optimistic view and desire to drive progress and advancement. Of course many out there are happy and reject others imposing the effects of technological and societal advancement upon them, Mm basis for this viewpoint is based on what I consider to be the greatest good for the most people. There are a lot of people on this planet and limited economic and natural resources, so we must drive efficiency to create the capability to provide resources and individual liberties to the masses. And technological advancement creates this efficiency. George Kozmetsky argued that technological advancement was the only way to create net new wealth as increases in efficiency yield more output per unit of input. There is nothing stopping the affluent from living a more solitary life, free from the distractions of pop-media, and millions of us still choose to live in this manner. But the crux here is individual liberty and freedom of choice, which technological advancement helps to create. The slight difference between my optimistic view of progress and Kelly’s is that I do not believe positive progress is ultimately destined for us. I believe that progress is neither inherently positive or negative, but rather it is upon us to create a greater good for all of humanity. But I also agree with Kelly and understand that while he sees the hand of god in much of his thinking, I do not think it is inconsistent for him to say his views did not arise merely as a result of his faith. I think there is much of this that transcends religion, as I agree as much with Kelly as with Madalyn Murray Ohair’s famous statement (As I think Kelly would in terms of practical application) … though I tweeked her statement slightly.

    I believe that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on earth for all men together to enjoy. I believe that I cannot get help solely through prayer but that I must find in myself the inner conviction, and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it and enjoy it. I believe that only in a knowledge of myself and a knowledge of my fellow man can I find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment. I seek to know myself and my fellow man rather than to know a god. I believe that a hospital should be built instead of a church. I believe that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. I strive for involvement in life and not escape into death. I want disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. I want man to understand and love man. I want an ethical way of life. I believe that I cannot rely on a god or channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of troubles in a hereafter. I believe that we are our brother’s keepers; and are keepers of our own lives; that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now.”

  24. Matthew

    Nick, I don’t know your religious views, but maybe it helps to understand the kind of God that I imagine sits behind Kevin Kelly’s geek theology. The ideas that humans are co-creators with God has a long history in Christianity (and Isalm and Judaism), so there’s nothing novel about Kelly’s view in that regard.

    It’s not so orthodox to represent God as being “surprised” but the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 6 shows that God’s first reaction to what humanity constructed was at least to be impressed. God exclaims “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” — which is not far removed from Kelly’s “Oh my gosh, that was so cool! I could have thought of that, but they thought of that instead.”

    Another aspect of the Christian God’s interaction with humanity is a constant encouragement, even an imposed requirement, for us to make choices. We make choices in the way we create technology as well as in the way we use technology, and both types of choices reflect the nature of God.

    The place where I think Kelly comes up short theologically, at least in that Christianity Today article, is his apparent assumption that simply increasing options is a holy act. He does not seems to appreciate that the form of those options, and which options are chosen, are significant, both sociologically and theologically.

    I’d also say that the claim “progress is a reflection of the divine” over-simplifies the nature of progress. Technological advancement need not constitute progress. New technology may not provide any insight into the human condition, may not lead to economic growth, may not be sustainable in the long term, and may not lead any improvement in our quality of life. I take it that those types of consideration are important constituants of “progress”. So even if seeking progress is a godly goal, it still matters *what* technology is developed, not just that *any* technology is developed.

    Although God was impressed with humanity’s achievement in the Tower of Babel, God ultimately judged it to be arrogant and in effect punished us for it. Part of the lesson there is that technology can be used for “ungodly” just as easily as for “godly” purposes. The choices about *how* our God-given creative abilities are applied are theologically important.

    –Matt.

  25. A debate going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, ‘Museums are bad at telling us why art matters’.

    “Against the backdrop of this old fashioned debate, it was only Ben Lewis who took an angle which seemed right up to date, observing that museums gave up the will to decide their own fate, and their own voice a long time ago, assuming instead a role which is acutely tied up with the art market – keeping quiet, avoiding judgements, not offending lenders, upholding the artist’s star system, acting as “PR agencies for art”.”

    http://www.wolffolinsblog.com/post/7012734209/museums-are-bad-at-telling-us-why-art-matters

    One very good point someone made in the podcast available of the ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate, was that maybe a museum aught to try and communicate to the visitor a sense of the struggle an artist endured in order to realize their art work. Whether through fighting against technological limits, society prejudice, intellectual conundrums or a variety of all three. Certainly, the notion that artists merely choose to do what they do, out of a lifestyle choice, is an idea I do find repulsive. Someone mentioned that a good art gallery experience, should grab you by the throat, I’d almost go along with. But that is only my point of view. There is also a view, that people use an art gallery in the 21st century, rather like they would use a supermarket. Someone said, I don’t want Botticelli to grab me by the throat.

    On a separate note, something that struck me in reading Stewart Brand’s piece about the Long Now Foundation lecture by Clay Shirky from Nov 2005. Brand wrote:

    ““We don’t know yet how bad the problem is,” he said. He pointed out that there are an alarming number of levels between preserving bits (which is easy) and preserving essence (which is at best expensive and at worst impossible). To make the Bits express the Essence over time, you have to preserve (or accurately translate forward) the Medium; and the Format; and the Interpreter; and various Dependencies; and the Operating System; and the Architecture; and the Power system (is 110 A.C. power forever?) Any of that missing or corrupted or misblended, and all is lost.”

    http://longnow.org/seminars/02005/nov/14/making-digital-durable-what-time-does-to-categories/

    I think that Clay Shirky is trying to work along exactly the same lines as I described in the architectural heritage series of international charters I referred to above, and linked to in my blog entry. All the best, BoH.