What Technology Wants

I am taking another look at Kevin Kelly’s execrable book, What Technology Wants (2010), for reasons I don’t quite understand.  But I’ll come back to that later.

The title I thought was quite brilliant. It alone caught my eye from all those other sad books gathering dust on the marked down table in the wonderful bookshop, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, on Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis.

Kevin Kelly is a renowned futurist, which is almost right, but not [really] right (at all). Which brings me to the subject of this post.

What Technology Wants main premise is finally articulated at the end of chapter 4 where the author writes, “Technology’s dominance ultimately stems not from its birth in human minds but from its origin in the same self-organization that brought galaxies, planets, life and minds into existence.”

Did you read that correctly? If not I’ll paraphrase, ‘Technology is not really the product of human invention after all but instead is from some mysterious origin: a natural, universal principal of self-organization.’


The author opens chapter 4 – The Rise of Exotropy – by speaking to the lonesome hydrogen atoms that ‘were born at the beginning of time’ before they finally drift together aeons later in mild attraction with an oxygen atom.

Midway into the chapter he makes a rational statement of true science where he says ‘energy is simply the potential – the difference needed – to cool.’ He then proceeds on into a fairly coherent description of entropy; a subject which ironically most people (science people included) don’t get right.

Part of that problem is chaos somehow gets linked into the definition. Even this author gets it wrong when he says, ‘Because of entropy, fast-moving things slow down, order fizzles into chaos and it costs something for any type of difference or individuality to remain unique.’

That’s not just a huh (?) but a double huh (??). First, ‘fast-moving things slowing down’, has nothing to do with creating chaos; for every possible single analogy (or scenario) it fails. In the case of gas particles slowing down – all the way to equilibrium – the slowdown (no movement) in fact creates vast amounts of perfect order.  Second, the statement ‘fizzles into chaos and it costs something for any type of difference or individuality to remain unique’ – no matter how I look at that statement – doesn’t make one damn bit of sense. (Didn’t this guy have a science editor?)

I am going to use my own understanding of entropy (rather than copy his) to briefly explain entropy, which classically speaking is: that ‘heat’ part of a [thermodynamic] system which is unavailable to do work. That is the classic definition in a nutshell.

Now, entropy is better generally understood as to explain the time progression of all systems (including the universe) as they trend towards equilibrium. Meaning no distribution of temperatures (as every temperature in the system, in equilibrium is exactly the same). And no temperature delta (aka no difference) equals no work. Wherefore maximum entropy is a complete uniformity of temperature which equals the complete absence of [the ability to do] work which equals death; as even the universe will ultimately at some point slowdown, cool down and die.

That’s all anyone really needs to know about entropy: maximum entropy = particle (temperature) equilibrium = death.

With all that preamble stuff aside, I want to jump into the serious bit of my condemnation of this overhyped, bargain bin book look into the story’s original ‘self-organization’ premise, implying the self-created nature of technology.

For that we move into the remainder of Chapter 4 with the introduction of extropy. The author begins his definition of extropy as the ‘inversion’ of entropy. Huh? I actually took Thermodynamics at university while getting my degree in electrical engineering and I am pretty damn certain the term, extropy, was neither in the text or syllabus.

The author goes on to state, ‘Exotropy is neither wave nor particle, nor pure energy, nor supernatural miracle.’ Huh? If exotropy is in fact like he introduced earlier as the inversion of entropy then of course it wouldn’t be a wave, a particle, or pure energy (or even more stupidly a ‘supernatural miracle’) as entropy itself isn’t [related to] any of those things. Entropy is an observation about the state of a system.

Entropy is not a thing.

[I wouldn’t go so far as to even call entropy a measurement of the state of a thing (the system) as entropy is more about the relativistic state and not the absolute state as to be measurable.]

So we learn from this same page that exotropy is another word for the technical term negentropy, or negative entropy. Exotropy (according to this author) was coined by a philosopher named, Max More (who? a philosopher, and not a scientist?) while negentropy, according to Wikipedia, The concept and phrase “negative entropy” was introduced by Erwin Schrödinger in his 1944 popular-science book What is Life?

Just so you know – just so you can fully follow the extreme license this bastard, Kevin Kelly takes with bending definitions, distorting once clear subjects of physics and engineering (to advance his very crippled hypothesis) – know that the very origins of thermodynamics began with the steam age and it was a physicist/engineer by the name of Carnot who, over 100 years earlier than Schrödinger postulated and correlated: heat, available energy, and work.

And then Schrödinger came along and added a new concept called negative entropy to the classical entropy discussion – why? – to take the discussion into an entirely different (and unrelated) direction.

Then along came Mr. Max More, a philosopher, who then saw fit to borrow from Schrödinger in order to create a metaphor of his new principle of negative entropy which he then called ‘exotropy’.

So if the general science public wasn’t confused enough with only the subject of entropy – add negative entropy, negentropy, and now exotropy to the melange.

Which is where the author and grand futurist, Kevin Kelly comes in who deviously appropriates this same ‘metaphor’ and in the doing magically knits those accorded philosophic properties of exotropy into hard science.

Ironically this book was presented as science; endorsed by such great men as Nicolas Negroponte who said (on the jacket), “This is the best technology book I have ever read.” (Sadly, I remember when Nicolas Negroponte was credible. The director of MIT’s Media Lab. Author of Being Digital.)

And others – who shouldn’t have – also gave the book high (and worshipful praise) like Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence). “Kevin Kelly has given us a magisterial tome that should be ingested slowly and savored to the last paragraph”. (As if Kevin Kelly actually delivered on the title and explained ‘what technology wants.)

So why did I pick up an execrable book when the first time through I positively loathed it?  Quite frankly I read through it so quickly, wanting it to be only over, persevering only on to the end in hopes there would be some redemption to come. In this second reading I decided to try to identify the source of my rancor (which unfortunately saw me no further than Chapter 4).

And so it is I find the philosophy of exotropy as posited in Chapter 4 to be woefully inadequate for this premise of a self-organizing, evolutionary view of technology.

I only see shoddy science.


2 thoughts on “What Technology Wants

  1. Oh dear. I have REPEATEDLY said that “extropy” is NOT to be taken as the opposite of either the thermodynamic nor the informational definition of “entropy”. Extropy is a metaphor.
    ‘Extropy’ as coined by Tom Bell (T.O. Morrow) and defined by Max More in 1988, is “the extent of a living or organizational system’s intelligence, functional order, vitality, energy, life, experience, and capacity and drive for improvement and growth.”[citation needed] Extropy is not a rigorously defined technical term in philosophy or science; in a metaphorical sense, it simply expresses the opposite of entropy.


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