Speculation from #alamw_vinge: technology as selfish gene

So I finally got the chance to see some of Vernor Vinge’s talk from ALA. Of course, I was there, but I was head-down in the internet for two solid hours monitoring all our incoming question streams, and after that Cindi (who’d been liveblogging) and I turned to each other looking roughly like this:


So it was nice to get the context for some of those smart things I heard him saying as isolated fragments. Because Vinge, yo. Smart guy. Who thinks about things.

Somewhere in there I was reminded of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. If you haven’t read it, highly recommended. Basically, it’s about how some plants — e.g. tulips, apples, pot — have hacked humans. By appealing to our urges — for beauty, tasty things, intoxication — they turn us into the mechanism whereby they replicate and spread and are protected.

It struck me that, really? This is the iPhone. This is technology in general.

I’ve been holding out on getting a smartphone, in part because they’re expensive and I don’t have a full-time job, but in part because I fear their ability to shred what’s left of my attention span. I know I get those sweet, sweet neurochemical hits from novel information, even if it’s trivial and not connected to any bigger project of mine — just that satisfaction of knowing — and if I had that in my pocket? Which of us would be using which as a tool, here?

So: to what extent is technology hacking us? We are, after all, the tools by which it replicates and spreads. We are willing to devote vast resources (not just of money) to speeding its evolution. Insofar as technologies happen upon strategies which hack us, are we not more willing to be complicit?

This perspective intrigues me because it puts technology at a different level, in a different metaphor, than what I normally see. When we think about technology we anthropomorphize it. We think about it on an organismal level, in terms of intelligence (you can see how Vinge’s Singularity thoughts were driving me here). But through this Pollan lens, the technology of desire, technology lives on the level of a gene. Questions of AI are orthogonal to this kind of evolution. Technology is less about devices than species, types. Overtones of Richard Dawkins.

Does this perspective go anywhere? Heck if I know. You tell me.

3 thoughts on “Speculation from #alamw_vinge: technology as selfish gene

  1. The idea that technology has “intention” is misleading but it is the best metaphor that I can think of.

    We want and expect certain things from technology (a great part of which is greatly influenced by science fiction, esp. Star Trek) and as a result, the technology that “sticks” is that which somehow progresses toward those expectations: faster, sleeker, and definitely wireless. So in a sense, technology is selfish in the way Dawkins uses the term: it “wants” to survive and so those things that do… well, they do. And they go on to spawn more survivable copies.

    Have you seen Kevin Kelley’s “What Technology Wants“? In it he talks about the “technium” which is very similar to what you’re getting at.


    1. Yeah, I have issues with the idea of intentional technology myself, but it’s so hard to phrase oneself to avoid the implications — anthropoids anthropomorphize, you know? It’s part of what I like about the gene metaphor, though: genes have interests, but pursue them without intention.

      Re Star Trek: I keep thinking about the sort of techs they have in the original series — which were, you know, Wildly Futuristic at the time — and thinking — well, some of this we already have — but on the whole, today we would not design our future-tech that way! Nor will the future; even though we don’t know how they will, we know they have all these options open to them in terms of data storage capacity (all the information of civilizations on your tricorder? sure!), wireless connections (remember how in Star Trek they had ‘books’? that lived on colorful disks and had to be inserted to be read?), interfaces…

      The book: I have not seen it. But I have seen it referenced twice in the last five minutes. Library hold time!


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