I found Kelly’s book flawed in its comparison of biological with technological evolution, but did in general agree with his thesis that the expansion of technology has been a pretty unalloyed good, since it gives people the maximal opportunity to fulfill their potential. Note, though, that this is not my thesis, but Kelly’s. And of course lots of technology doesn’t serve that purpose. Mr. Daniel, however, would have us return to the halcyon days before antibiotics and modern medicine, when most people were ineluctably stuck in their class—and women were always in the second class—and when infant mortality was much higher.
To the Editor:
Jerry A. Coyne, in his review of Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” (“Better All the Time,” Nov. 7), too hastily endorses Kelly’s notion that unlimited choice is a pure good. Of the 48,000 supermarket food items he cites, many are insubstantial or outright harmful, and many of the rest are redundant. How many brands of linguine do we need, and if there were none, would spaghetti do? The colonial pantry, containing vastly fewer items, probably held superior nutritional value and no lack of flavor.
When Coyne asserts that the choices technology makes possible enhance “our potential for self-realization,” does he mean that we can fulfill ourselves through TV, Twitter and video games? By purchasing a new car? I’ve seen more happiness in the hovels and muddy streets of Mexican villages than in the affluent suburbs of America. The problem with ever-expanding technological variety is that it spawns ever-expanding desires, a condition unknown to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, with their three-hour workdays.
Many helpful goods have come of our technological genius, and for those I am grateful, but paeans to material progress seem never to acknowledge its shadowy side. What Coyne calls self-realization looks a lot like obsession and addiction, or at least like perpetual distraction. Henry David Thoreau, content with his limited 19th-century choices, got it right: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”
Of course I didn’t endorse every technological innovation as an unalloyed good, or a tool for self-realization. Had Daniel read Kelly’s book, he would have seen that Kelly indeed points out the “darker side” of technological advance. But who among us would want to return to, say, 1930, when the smallest infection could kill us?
And the statement, “I’ve seen more happiness in the hovels and muddy streets of Mexican villages than in the affluent suburbs of America,” seems palpable and romanticized nonsense. Yes, some individuals in those hovels may be happer than some dour denizens of American suburbs, and perhaps sociological surveys would show such a parity. But would those people stay in their hovels if they were offered a swap? I doubt it.
There is a reason why people are abandoning villages throughout the world and swelling the populations of cities, and why people are flocking from poorer countries to richer ones—and it has something to do with fulfillment, choice, and technology. In this I’m with Kelly.
h/t: Miranda Hale