What Technology Wants

The Techmium

  • Can technology want? We often think of desire as a unique trait of living things: your dog wants to be walked; worms want moisture; bacteria want food, and plants want sunlight.
  • Whatever it is, it is a force. You would feel it if you were to stand in its way.
  • While it is far-fetched to say that Technology is a life form, it does possess traits that describe autonomy: self-repair, self-defense, self-maintenance, self-control of goals and self-improvement.
  • Technology and life both share a fundamental essence, in that they exist in the invisible, intangible organisation of the energy and information instead of the visible, tangible material form.
    • Technology is based on immaterial flows of information. It is disguised as material, but it is primarily action. While it inhabited a material body, its heart was something softer.
  • And hence we need a new word to describe it: Techmium.

But first, some things about technology

  • Technology opens up new opportunities. Humans' ability to make warm clothing opened up possibilities that were closed to us before: the arctic regions.
  • Harsh weather and climates are barriers, but also stand guard to a whole world of possibilities and resources. And this is just the physical world we’re talking about.
  • Animals have technology as well, since they can make tools. Chimpanzee’s have termite-fishing spears; beavers build damns; warblers build baskets, and birds build nets. Their tools reflect their environment and physical attributes. Innovation takes place with its particular direction based on its environment and ecology.
  • People who live in the mountains would make different tools from those who live by the sea.

Symbiotic relationship

  • As much as we make tools and remake them; we also remake ourselves.
  • We are co-evolving with technology as we become incredibly dependent on it. We have become so intertwined with technology, that if today’s tools were suddenly removed from us, many of our modern lives would be severely disrupted.
  • The techmium gains its immense power not only from its scale, but from its self-amplifying nature. One breakthrough invention leads to another, just like how the steam engine did. Or electricity. Or paper.
  • “No empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries."—Francis Bacon, 1620
    • Printing press
    • Gunpowder
    • Magnetic compass
  • Organisms have learned to build structures, and those structures then continued to allow the creature to extend itself beyond its tissue. e.g. The hard, two-meter mound of a termite colony operates as if it were an external organ of the insects: The mound’s temeprature is regulated and it is repaired after injury.
  • What we think of as coral—stony, treelike structures—are the apartment buildings of nearly invisible coral animals. The coral structure and coral animals behave as one. It grows, and it breathes.
  • Therefore a nest or a hive can best be considered a body built rather than grown. A shelter is animal technology, the animal extended.

Creation of Technology

  • How is technology conceived? Can it be created simply by observing, or using?
  • If a creature selects a particular hole in the ground as its shelter, without doing anything to it, is it considered technology? It still is a shelter, and carefully selected for the creature’s specific needs. No other kind of hole would suffice.
  • And if it were to leave and find another, it would look for a similar kind.
  • To answer the first question, yes. Technology is being created all the time, especially when people use tools in ways not originally intended by their creators.
  • Double-entry bookkeeping, invented in 1494 by a Franciscan monk, enabled companies to monitor their cash flow and for the first time to steer complex business. Is it an idea, or a technology? Whether it’s pen and paper or a mobile app, what form it takes doesn’t matter.

Techmium is the extended Human…mind

  • Marshall McLuhan noted that clothes are humans' extended skin. Wheels are extended feet. Camera and telescopes are extended eyes. In this way, we can think of technology as our extended body.
  • During the industrial age, it was easy to see the world this way. Steam-powered shovels, locomotives, television, and the levers and gears of engineers were a fabulous exoskeleton that turned man into superman.
  • But here’s the kicker: this analogy is flawed.
  • The extended costume of the animal is the result of the genetic makeup. What technology they create is attributed to their physical needs, as if they have a blueprint.
  • Humans on the other hand, don’t. If anything, our blueprints spring from our minds.
  • If technology is an extension of humans, it is not an extension of our physical body, but of the mind. Technology is therefore the extended body for ideas.


  • Invention is inevitable. The number of duplicated innovations has been increasing with time, and simultaneous discovery is happening more often. This is the idea of synchronocity.
  • Scientists at AT&T Bell Labs won a Nobel Prize for inventing the transistor in 1948, but two German physicists independently invented a transistor two months later in Paris.
  • Popular accounts credit John von Neumann with the invention of a programmable binary computer during the last years of World War II. But the idea and a working punched-tape prototype were developed quite separately in Germany a few years earlier in 1941, by Konrad Zuse.
  • Food for thought: are our ideas, and inventions, truly unique?
  • By far the strongest evidence for ubiquitous simultaneity of invention are scientists' own impressions. In one study, almost half of 1,718 US academic research scientists believe that their work had been anticipated “once or twice”.


  • There is an air of inevitability about these simultaneous discoveries. When the necessary web of supporting technology is established, then the next adjacent technological step seems to emerge as if on cue.
  • If inventor X does not produce it, inventor Y will. But the step will come in proper sequence.
  • A light based on a coil of tungsten strung within an oval vacuum bulb is not inevitable, but the electric incandescent lightbulb is.
  • Three independently invented electric lightbulbs: Edison's, Swan's, and Maxim's

    Varieties of the Lightbulb

  • Simultaneous invention is the rule, not the exception, any invention that can be invented will be invented more than once. But few will be widely adopted.
  • Or more commonly they will work but be unwanted. So in this trivial sense, all technology is inevitable. If we could go back in time and start all over, the technology we have today will still be invented, all over again.

Technology’s Imperative

  • Technology’s Imperative can be seen in the rigid acceleration of progress in DNA sequencing, magnetic storage, semiconductors, bandwidth, and pixel density.
  • One way to perceive technological advancement or the techmium is its law. Law of acceleration or growth, like Moore’s law, regarding how performance doubles roughly every 18 months. 8-30 months for other technologies.
  • “Moore’s Law is really about economics”—Moore
  • Carver Mead made it clearer yet: Moore’s Law, he says, “is really about people’s belief system, it’s not a law of physics, it’s about human belief, and when people believe in something, they’ll put energy behind it to make it come to pass.”
  • Moore agreed in a 1996 article: “More than anything, once something like this gets established, it becomes more or less a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Semiconductor Industry Association puts out a technology road map, which continues this [generational improvement] every three years. Everyone in the industry recognises that if you don’t stay on essentially that curve they will fall behind. So it sort of drives itself.”
  • The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, alludes to this by saying that it is impossible to escape the ratcheting cluthes of industrial technology for several reasons:
    • If you use any part of the techmium, the system demands servitude
    • Technology does not “reverse” itself, never releasing what is in its hold;
    • We don’t have a choice of what technology to use in the long run

Frankenstein Syndrom

  • Often we will invent a machine for a particular and limited purpose, and then, in what Neil Postman calls the Frankenstein syndrome, the invention’s own agenda blossoms.
  • “Once the machine is built,” Postman writes, “we discover, always to our surprise—that it has ideas of its own; that it is quite capable not only of changing our habits but… of changing our habits of mind.”

Addiction to Technology

  • As society and the problems it faces becomes more complex, and machines become more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better result than man-made ones.
  • Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At this point, the machines will be in effective control.
  • People won’t be able to turn the machines off. They can’t. They will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide…
  • One definition of addiction is “needing more to be satisfied less”.
  • Another common misconception. We are not compulsively obssessed with a particular technology, like television, instagram or texting. We are obsessed with the techmium as a whole.

My favorite line in the book

“Can the human mind master what the human mind has made?"—French poet and philosopher, Paul Valery