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BUSINESS BOOKS

Review: What Technology Wants
 

Author Kevin Kelly coins the term "technium" and breaks down conventional thinking about technology.
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The Book:  What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly, Viking Books, Hardcover, October 2010.

Business changes. We don't do business today in the same way we did it at the turn of the century—either 1900 or 2000. And though it's not specifically about business, the inevitability of change is why you should pick up Kevin Kelly's latest book, What Technology Wants.

Kevin Kelly has written big idea books before, most notably Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World, which we chose for The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. And like Out of Control, What Technology Wants is vast in scope. It attempts to break down old ways of thinking by clarifying a large, hard-to-grasp-in-its-entirety issue—technology.

This isn't the first book this year to try to tackle the subject holistically. In Linchpin, Seth Godin challenged us to redefine work, to give up the industrial era mindset that new technologies have made obsolete. The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus both looked at the way technology affects the very way we think. But Kelly takes it a step further, defining technology as part of our thought process, as a natural extension of evolution and a natural, living system. In fact, technology is not a sufficient word for what Kelly is trying to grasp, so he's coined a new word—the technium.

For the rest of this book I will use the term technium where others might use technology as a plural, and to mean a whole system (as in "technology accelerates"). I reserve the term technology to mean a specific technology, such as radar or plastic polymers. For example, I would say: "The technium accelerates the invention of technologies." In other words, technologies can be patented, while the technium includes the patent system itself.

He then traces the technium back to our hunter-gatherer past to document how it evolved to its current state.

The technium gains immense power not only from its scale but from its self-amplifying nature. One breakthrough invention, such as the alphabet, the steam-pump, or electricity, can lead to further breakthrough inventions, such as books, coal mines, and telephones. These advances in turn lead to other breakthrough inventions, such as libraries, power generators, and the Internet.

The technium is "human extended," something we've been building and evolving since we have been building and evolving. It is the "extended body for ideas." And to be in business today, to truly innovate, it is important to have a grasp on that "extended body for ideas"—to know that the answer to your business's troubles isn't to get on Twitter, but to understand the changing environment that bred it. You won't find any immediately applicable business solutions in What Technology Wants, but you will find something that could much more important to your business—a new way of looking at the world.

Reviewer Jack Covert is the founder of 800-CEO-READ, a leading bookseller to corporations and large organizations, based in Milwaukee.

Last updated: Oct 24, 2010




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