For a few years now, I’ve used summertime laziness as an excuse to recycle some of this blog’s old posts. The following post was originally published, under the ponderous headline “God, Kevin Kelly and the Myth of Choices,” in July of 2011. The influence of tools on human possibility is a central theme of The Glass Cage, so it was interesting for me to reread this post in the wake of writing the book. If I were to rewrite the post now, I would shift the focus away from technological progress as a force in itself and place a much greater emphasis on how the design of particular tools determines whether they open or foreclose opportunities and choices for their users.
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:
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, 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, among other forces, 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 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.
Image: Still from the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”