Saturday, January 29, 2011

Science, Etc.

We're wrapping up Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants Tuesday night in 516. I won't offer a full-blown review here; maybe another time. For now, it suffices to characterize this as a precarious read for how out of the blue and underdeveloped some of these ideas are. That is, Kelly's discussion sometimes advances solidly for pages and then, suddenly and without forewarning, it plunges into the quicksand. I am saying this even while I continue to hold much of Kelly's other work in high regard, yet I have found in What Technology Wants more of these soft spots than I expected I would.

For instance, there's this:

Yet there is one legitimate way in which we can claim that Columbus discovered America, and the French-American explorer Paul du Chaillu discovered gorillas, and Edward Jenner discovered vaccines. They "discovered" previously locally known knowledge by adding it to the growing pool of structured global knowledge. Nowadays we would call that accumulating of structured global knowledge science. [...] Columbus's encounter put America on the map of the globe, linking it to the rest of the known world, integrating its own inherent body of knowledge into the slowly accumulating, unified body of verified knowledge. Columbus joined two large continents of knowledge into a growing consilient structure. (336)

That this turns up near the end, in a chapter called "Technology's Trajectories" and a section called "Structure," and, as well, that it is fitted between an ever-more-conciliatory argument for technological determinism and a large-scale, large-tarp theory of everything-technology called the Technium leaves me wishing for just a slightly tighter linkage between Columbus and science—if that linkage must be attempted in the first place, especially by putting Columbus on stage with du Chaillu and Jenner. Stepping sof...quicksand, possibly worse.

Here's another puzzler, two pages later:

The evolution of knowledge began with relatively simple arrangements of information. The most simple organization was the invention of facts. Facts, in fact, were invented. Not by science but by the European legal system, in the 1500s. In court lawyers had to establish agreed-upon observations as evidence that could not shift later. Science adopted this useful innovation. Over time, the novel ways in which knowledge could be ordered increased. This complex apparatus for relating new information to old is what we call science. (338)

Maybe it's adequate for Kelly to trace the origin of "facts" to Europe in the 1500s. But I read this and feel unsatisfied, fatigued: the linkage is too crude. Again, this is in a brief section called "Structure," which is, in effect, a tale of science as beholden to the Technium's build-up. And that I am impatient with the idea of facts being invented the way Kelly says they were is all the more aggravated by the unnecessarily grandiose flourishes in the book's concluding chapter, e.g., where this theory inflates to include (or assume correspondence with) God: "If there is a God, the arc of the technium is aimed right at him. I'll retell the Great Story of this arc again, one last time in summary, because it points way beyond us" (354). The circuit from science to facts to God: that's a lot to expect from one unifying theory of technology.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at January 29, 2011 7:28 PM to Reading Notes

Derek, that last excerpt about facts sounds like it was written by a very imaginative middle-schooler.

Posted by: Joanna at January 30, 2011 7:22 PM

There are too many moments like this one in the book, Joanna. I know Kelly blogged it all first and then had an editor assist with stitching the blog entries together, but every so often these sorts of passages read to me like they slipped through unnoticed, under-scrutinized.

Posted by: Derek at February 3, 2011 3:01 PM