Kevin Kelly, God, and Technology

As I have read and thought about technology and its cultural consequences, I have especially appreciated the work of Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, and Albert Borgmann.  My appreciation stems not only from the quality and originality of their work, but also from a curiosity about the manner in which their religion informed their thinking; all were deeply committed to some expression of the Christian faith.  We would do well to add the name of Kevin Kelly to the list of theorists and students of technology who bring a theological perspective to their work.

Of course, the Christian tradition is an ocean with many currents, and so it is not surprising that despite their common core commitments, the work of the scholars mentioned each takes on a distinct hue.  Of those mentioned, Kelly is in my estimation the most optimistic about the future of technology and that comes across quite clearly in his recent interview with Christianity Today.

There Kelly connects technology with God’s own creative capacity and the freedom with which He endows humanity:

We are here to surprise God. God could make everything, but instead he says, “I bestow upon you the gift of free will so that you can participate in making this world. I could make everything, but I am going to give you some spark of my genius. Surprise me with something truly good and beautiful.”

He also provides the following explanation of the term technium which he coined:

I use technium to emphasize that human creation is more than the sum of all its parts. An ecosystem behaves differently from its individual plant and animal components. We have thoughts in our minds that are more than the sum of all neuron activity. Society itself has certain properties that are more than the sum of the individuals; there is an agency that’s bigger than us. In the same way, the technium will have a behavior that you’re not going to find in your iPhone or your light bulb alone. The technium has far more agency than is suggested by the word culture.

I find this emergent model to be an interesting way to get at the influence of technology.  I try to navigate a path between approaches to technology that take the tools to be determinative of human action on the one hand, and others which take the tools to be merely neutral objects of human action on the other.  I’m not sure if I’m prepared to unreservedly endorse Kelly’s formulation, but I am generally sympathetic.

I’m less inclined to sign onto the remarkably positive outlook Kelly articulates for the technium, although I must admit that it is both refreshing and invigorating. Kelly is sure that “… the world is a better place now than it was 1,000 years ago. Whatever quantifiable metric you want to give to me about what’s good in life, I would say there’s more of it now than there was 1,000 years ago.” And, indeed, by many if not most measures, it most certainly is.  Yet, I would hesitate to claim that in every way that life has improved it has done so because of the technium, and I would be inclined to argue that in certain important respects elements of the technium have worked against human happiness and fulfillment.

Kelly acknowledges, but underemphasizes the fallibility and folly of humanity. He believes that God’s grace, seemingly operating through the technium, more than cancels out the folly.  I share the hope in principle, but would not so closely connect the operations of God’s grace to the sphere of technological advance.

Perhaps the point of tension that I experience with Kelly’s position stems from his definition of goodness:  “… overall the technium has a positive force, a positive charge of good. And that good is primarily measured in terms of the possibilities and choices it presents us with.”  Kelly illustrates his point by asking us to imagine Mozart being born into a world in which the piano has not been invented – what a tragedy.  This resonates, but then we might ask, what of all of those would be Mozarts that did in fact live, as surely they did.  Is their happiness and fulfillment so tied to an as of yet future invention that their life is otherwise rendered unfulfilled?  Would this not suggest that, in fact, the grass is always greener in the future perpetually and so happiness and fulfillment is never finally attainable?  Fulfillment would taunt us from just around the corner that is the future.

Perhaps the problem arises from too quickly eliding the infinite creative possibilities of the Creator with the limited, derivative creativity of the creature.  To be human is to flourish within the limitations of material and embodied existence. Expanding choice is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but hitching the possibility of human fulfillment to the relentless expansion of choice seems to overlook the manner in which the voluntary curtailment of choice might also serve as the path to a well-lived life.

Curiously, Kelly practices a way of life that would seem on the surface to be at odds with the gospel of choice maximalization.  He has written engagingly about the Amish and recommended aspects of their approach to technology.  In his personal life, Kelly has implemented a good bit of Amish minimalism.  When asked about whether this constituted an inconsistency between his words and his actions, Kelly responded:

Technology can maximize our special combination of gifts, but there are so many technological choices that I could spend all my time just trying out technologies. So I minimize my technological choices in order to maximize my output. The Amish (and the hippies) are really good at minimizing technologies. That’s what I am trying to do as well. I seek to find those technologies that assist me in my mission to express love and reflect God in the world, and then disregard the rest.

But at the same time, I want to maximize the pool of technologies that people can choose from, so that they can find those tools that maximize their options and minimize the rest.

I can see his angle and would stop short of suggesting that this was indeed an inconsistency on Kelly’s part, but I will say that for my part I find more wisdom in Kelly’s practice than in his unbounded hope for the technium.

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See also Nicholas Carr’s comments on Kelly’s interview (as well as Kelly’s response in the comment thread) and Kevin Kelly’s TED Talk.

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7 thoughts on “Kevin Kelly, God, and Technology

  1. Thanks for your post Nicholas. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and willingness to see the positive in Kelly’s position. It seems that there is too much optimism in this world and too little genuine Christian hope. I read a good blog on that topic recently on ThinkChristian.net called “How humanity’s optimism bias is different than Christian hope.” You might be interested in it.

    http://www.thinkchristian.net/index.php/2011/07/15/how-humanitys-optimism-bias-is-different-than-christian-hope/

    Also, for a less scientific reflection on our culture’s anthropological optimism, feel free to check out my blog at:

    http://unqualifiedreflecting.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/generation-next-to-be-or-not-to-be/

    Thanks for helping us think more deeply about these issues.

    Kyle

  2. good thoughts. been thinking about the concept of “arousal addictions” [term used in a particular TED talk], which is different from various drug/chemical addictions; the latter you want more of the thing that fulfills your craving, but the former is an insatiable desire for things that might/could be the next fulfillment. it is a cycle of boredom which goes searching for the next thing, only dismissing what is right before you.

    it seems Kelly has a coherent rubric for his own self-control, but I am thinking that digital technology inherently overstimulates our wonder of technology instead of encouraging synthesis of our application of technology. it is a medium that more often than not cultivates our passivity/consumption instead of activity/creativity.

    on a side note, i thought Kelly’s logical arguments were, in places, sloppy (i.e. Mozart). i thought he made false categorical shifts and abstracted his metaphors to suite his sensibilities. although i appreciated his attempted articulation of the incarnation, the trajectory of the incarnation doesn’t jive with the trajectory of technological abstraction….one is the divine embodying the human, the other is the human outsourcing the human.

    another reason more Christians need to read Herman Bavinck. The Creator/Creature distinction is a helpful rubric for any situation.

    i should be clear that this is my first introduction to Kelly, so I want to be fair and not completely dismiss his thoughts. he seems to be seeking honest theological expression with his field of expertise. that needs to be commended and encouraged.

    • “Arousal addiction” seems to describe what Pascal identified as our restless search for diversion to distract us from the human condition. And while certainly allowing for more creativity and activity than, say, the television, digital media does seem to cultivate habits that elide with such restlessness. If we’ve tapped into the information flow, it is hard to pull away. It seems to foster a perpetual fear of missing something or not being in the know and certainly a deep, visceral discomfort with the absence of media stimulation. None of that good.

      My familiarity with Kelly is also limited, but like you I commend him for not compartmentalizing his faith and his field of expertise. And, he does offer a great deal of wisdom for living with technology.

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