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I loved this interview with author Steven Johnson. It covers a lot about the way he writes and how he structures his books and articles. It also reminded me about the piece he wrote back in 2022 on ChatGPT which has a wonderful opening paragraph that illustrates the simple premise behind Large Language Models – predicting the next word.

The article still rings true even though the technology has moved on a lot. Re-reading it reinforced my view that what people are calling ‘AI’ is really just ‘applied statistics’ (as Ted Chiang calls it. That doesn’t make it any less interesting but it does put some boundaries around how we should think about it.

I, for one, welcome our new technological overlords

One of my favourite reads of 2010 was Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. The idea at the heart of the book is that technology’s evolution is inevitable and even predictable and that our future as the human race is bound up with the direction that it takes.

Kelly traces all technology in a long historical arc looking not just at the gadgets alone but at what the combination of technology and human activity enables. He argues that it’s the combination that matters, not either one in isolation, and I completely agree. Kelly calls this combination the ‘technium’ because there isn’t another word for it yet.

What I love about the book is that it leaves you thinking on the biggest possible level. It’s way beyond the level of Facebook/Apple valuations or whatever new app is out this week. It’s a look at technology and the human race’s place in the universe.

There’s a short section later on in the book where he talks about just how amazing the internet is as an invention and talks about the joy that he feels using it. I feel that too. Clay Shirky says that technology only becomes interesting when it becomes boring — which is very true — but when you take a breath and realise what’s going on as you use the technology you’ve become used to, it’s quite possible to accidently blow your mind.

At a more down to Earth level it set me thinking about how I use technology in my own life because the book isn’t straightforwardly positive. Kelly explores how the Amish decide which technologies to use or not bother with. He quickly dismisses the idea that the Amish are anti-technology and finds a number who use mobile phones and solar cells. What happens is that a member of the community will suggest that they try out a new gadget and then meet with the bishop to talk it through. They will decide to have a trial period and everybody agrees that once that period is over they have to be willing to give up the technology if it hasn’t had a positive effect. I think I might start to do something similar and I’ve certainly become much more aware of what I use since reading the book.

Kelly’s previous book Out of Control (written in 1994), is still one of the best books about the web ever written in my opinion. It captures the distributed, emergent ‘feel’ of the internet in a way that no other books really have since, perhaps with the exception of Steven Johnson’s Emergence. That’s important because for me that’s the best use of the book as a form. I get a bit fed up with books that are really just extended feature articles. For me a book should absorb you and leave you with a feeling rather than just being a way of distributing information and ideas. With What Technology Wants, I think Kevin Kelly has done it again: opening up a new way of seeing the world and even Universe around us.
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