Full-body computing

“Channeling all interaction through a single finger is like restricting all literature to Dr Seuss’s vocabulary. Yes, it’s much more accessible, both to children and to a small set of disabled adults. But a fully-functioning adult human being deserves so much more.” – Bret Victor

What a world we live in

A fruit salad tree…bears up to six different fruits of the same family on the one plant. All fruits retain their own individuality, with staggered ripening times. – The Fruit Salad Tree Company

Empathy and imagination

Is it possible that, we human beings–who are soft-wired for empathic distress–is it possible we could actually extend our empathy to the entire human race as an extended family, and to our fellow creatures as part of our evolutionary family, and to the biosphere as our common community?

If it’s possible to imagine that, then we may be able to save our species and save our planet. And…if it’s impossible to even imagine that, I don’t see how we’re going to make it.

Quantum-sized quantum researchers

Jonathan Keats continues to blow my mind:

“Until today science has been completely dominated by one species,” says Keats, an experimental philosopher and former director of the Local Air & Space Administration…”People may not be biologically equipped to understand the universe at a fundamental level, he contends. “Other species might be better adapted to the task.”

Keats believes that the most promising candidates are bacteria…”But they need facilities,” says Keats. While their minuscule size lets them experience quantum phenomena on a first-hand basis, they have no natural way of exploring the galaxies….

“Rows of petri dishes filled with brackish water – teeming with cyanobacteria – will be set up atop a flat screen monitor laid flat on its back. The monitor will glow with images of the cosmos provided by the Hubble Telescope.”

10 minutes of gratitude

I think watching this would be a pretty good way to start each day; filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg explores gratitude, mindfulness, and the beauty of the world we live in and people we live with:

Could also be seen as the sentimental counterpart to Louis CK’s celebration of the modern world.

Notes from What Technology Wants

Kevin Kelly’s long-awaited treatise on technology explores it as if it were sentient and willful. Thinking about what technology “wants”–what it is driving toward and which paths it prefers–is both a good way to understand why technologies work the way we do and to try to design better ones.

My high-level takeaways, roughly reflected in the order of the notes below:

  • Technology is part of evolution, not separate
  • It has a direction, influenced by the material nature of the universe
  • We can’t realistically go back now; we’re too intertwined with technology
  • Our best course of action is to adapt ourselves, choosing which technologies to embrace carefully and preparing our mindset for a world of increasing technology, diversity, and choice
  • Characteristics of better technologies:
    • Open – you can build upon and learn from how past technologies work
    • Good relationships – a positive relationship with technology mirrors many aspects of a good relationship with a person
    • Artistic – over time, any technology becomes “useless” and is used as art (think candles, fountain pens, sailboats)
    • Enable creativity – Mozart without the piano would have been a lost talent

His summary, at the very end of the book:

What I hope I have shown in this book is that a single thread of self-generation ties the cosmos, the bios, and the technos together into one creation. Life is less a miracle than a necessity for matter and energy. The technium is less an adversary to life than its extension. Humans are not the culmination of this trajectory but an intermediary, smack in the middle between the born and the made. – 5370



His perspective on technology has shifted from individual bits to the overall direction:

Our confusion over technology usually starts with a very specific concern: Should we allow human cloning? Is constant texting making our kids dumb? Do we want automobiles to park themselves? But as my quest evolved, I realized that if we want to find satisfying answers to those questions, we first need to consider technology as a whole. Only by listening to technology’s story, divining its tendencies and biases, and tracing its current direction can we hope to solve our personal puzzles. – 127

As technologies became smaller, their true nature became clear:

However you define life, its essence does not reside in material forms like DNA, tissue, or flesh, but in the intangible organization of the energy and information contained in those material forms. And as technology was unveiled from its shroud of atoms, we could see that at its core, it, too, is about ideas and information. Both life and technology seem to be based on immaterial flows of information. – 200

Defining the “technium”:

I’ve somewhat reluctantly coined a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections. – 236

The essential quality of the technium [is] this idea of a self-reinforcing system of creation. – 236

The technium is now as great a force in our world as nature, and our response to the technium should be similar to our response to nature. We can’t demand that technology obey us any more than we can demand that life obey us. – 319


DNA may be the “original” technology:

We can seek alternative “acorn” molecules as a way to rerun this unfolding to see if something else besides DNA could generate similar diversity, reliability, and evolvability. – 1703

In the case of self-organizing life, we might want to be particularly hesitant to generalize about alternatives since everything we can say about it is based on a sample size (so far) of exactly one, here on Earth. But chemistry is chemistry, everywhere in the universe. – 1713

So far, all evidence points to DNA as the “perfect” molecule. For even though clever minds like ours may invent a new life base, finding a life base that can create itself is an entirely higher order. – 1725

It is not enough to find a molecule that can self-replicate and generate ever-larger mounds of increasing complexity. There may indeed be multiple amazing chemical nuclei capable of that. Rather, the challenge is finding one that does all that and can make itself, too. – 1742

A sobering thought…so should I exercise or not?

While a mouse’s heart and lungs beat rapidly compared to an elephant’s, both mouse and elephant count the same number of beats and breaths per life. It is as if mammals are assigned 1.5 billion heartbeats and told to use them as they like. – 1658

I’ve always wondered why people in hostile climates seemed to “develop” faster. Kelly’s theory is that it forced them to develop more technologies:

While Sapiens’ innovation allowed them to prosper in many new climates, the cold and its unique ecology especially drove innovation. More complex “technological units” are needed (or have been invented) by historical hunter-gatherer tribes the higher the latitude of their homes. – 392

The first population explosion happened about 50,000 years ago, likely due to the invention of language, one of our strongest technologies:

A number of scientists (including Richard Klein, Ian Tattersall, and William Calvin, among many others) think that the “something” that happened 50,000 years ago was the invention of language. – 407

The chief advantage of language is not communication but autogeneration. Language is a trick that allows the mind to question itself; a magic mirror that reveals to the mind what the mind thinks; a handle that turns a mind into a tool. – 418

Until we tame the mind with an organization tool capable of communicating to itself, we have stray thoughts without a narrative. – 422

It turns out that the bounty of nature, though vast, does not hold all possibilities. The mind does, but it had not yet been fully unleashed. Only when the mind, liberated by language and enabled by the technium, transcended the constraints of nature 50,000 years ago did greater realms of possibility open up. – 581

A world without technology had enough to sustain survival but not enough to transcend it. – 582

Does information represent our best fight against entropy?

Exotropy is another word for the technical term negentropy, or negative entropy. – 965

The best we can say is that exotropy resembles, but is not equivalent to, information and that it entails self-organization. – 973

Information is a signal of bits that makes a difference. – 978

Reminders of God’s Debris:

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that in the initial femtoseconds of creation there was only one thing in the universe, one superdense power that ruled all, and this solitary power expanded and cooled into thousands of variations of itself. The history of the cosmos thus proceeds from unity to diversity. – 930

We are all star children:

As we age we are really a river of cosmically old atoms. The carbons in our bodies were produced in the dust of a star. The bulk of matter in our hands, skin, eyes, and hearts was made near the beginning of time, billions of years ago. We are much older than we look. – 890


Technology is part of evolution, not separate.

When we look at technology, we tend to see pipes and blinking lights. But in the long-term view, technology is simply the further evolution of evolution. The technium is a continuation of a four-billion-year-old force that pursues more ability to evolve. – 5175

And it’s evolving us along with it:

Today, according to research on the mutations in our DNA, our genes are evolving 100 times faster than in preagricultural times. – 5196

As the technium expands, it accelerates the rate of evolution first begun with life, so that it now evolves the idea of change itself. This is more than simply the most powerful force in the world; the evolution of evolution is the most powerful force in the universe. – 5204

There are three main forces that propel evolution:

Charted, the tripod of evolution might look like this: – 1849

Within a given environment, evolutionary forces will guide common solutions:

“When similar forces converge, similar results emerge. Evolution is remarkably reproducible,” – geneticist Sean Carroll. – 1562

What, then, guides this return to the improbable? If the same protein, or “contingent” form, is evolved twice, it is obvious that every step of the way cannot be random. The prime guidance for these parallel journeys is their common environment. – 1623

Evolution is driven toward certain recurring and inevitable forms by two pressures: 1. The negative constraints cast by the laws of geometry and physics, which limit the scope of life’s possibilities.

  1. The positive constraints produced by the self-organizing complexity of interlinked genes and metabolic pathways, which generate a few repeating new possibilities. These two dynamics create a push in evolution that gives it a direction. – 1639

The direction of technological development is the same anytime it happens. – 2277

While technology will not lead us inescapably to utopia, it will continuously lead us to more possibilities, and the potential to choose better paths:

It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as un-soiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expanding possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now. – 1512


Slums might be an essential part of development, not a blight on otherwise perfect planning:

Propagating slums is what cities do, and living in slums is how cities grow. The majority of neighborhoods in almost every modern city are merely successful former slums. – 1233

In the favelas of Rio, the first generation of squatters had a literacy rate of only 5 percent, but 94 percent of their kids were literate. – 1254

Why do people flee what seems an idyllic rural lifestyle to huddle in the slums?

If you ask them why they come, it’s almost always the same answer, the same answer given by the Bedouin and slum dwellers of Mumbai. They come for opportunities. They could stay where they are, as the Amish choose to do. The young men and women could remain in the villages and adopt the satisfying rhythms of agriculture and small-town craft that their parents followed…

But the options aren’t equal. People of the world increasingly have TV and radio and trips into town to see movies, and they know what is possible. The freedom in a city makes their village seem a prison. So they choose—very willingly, very eagerly—to run to the city. – 1269

Perhaps why “science” as a topic is unpopular among individuals and in difficult circumstances:

The benefits of science are neither apparent nor immediate for individuals. Science requires a certain density of leisured population willing to share and support failures to thrive. – 1367

One of Kelly’s technology scenarios envisions a falling population, which would require a non-growth economy:

If every year there are fewer people as my potential audience or my potential customers, I have to create things for a different reason than growth in audience or customers. A nongrowth economy is hard to imagine. But stranger things have happened. – 1459


Kevin started out as, if not a technophobe, at least a tech-avoider:

As a teenager, I was having trouble hearing my own voice, and it seemed to me my friends’ true voices were being drowned out by the loud conversations technology was having with itself. – 63

And years later, remnants of that attitude remain:

I see my friends leashed to their vibrating handhelds, but I continue to keep the cornucopia of technology at arm’s length so that I can more easily remember who I am. – 108

In our current mindset (with its low emotional quotient) it would take technology to disprove technology’s value:

The way to reveal the full costs of technology and deflate its hype is with better information tools and processes. – 3200

Considering new technologies deeply and carefully, with a process in place to choose from among them, is one way to avoid mistakenly adopting harmful ones. Kelly spent significant time among the Amish, and he noticed that they do this:

In contemporary society our default is set to say yes to new things, and in Old Order Amish communities the default is set to “not yet.” When new things come around, the Old Order Amish automatically react by ignoring them. – 3225

Yet it would be hard to impose that model on the entire world.

To fulfill the Amish model we’d have to get better at relinquishing as a group—which is very difficult for a pluralistic society. Social relinquishing relies on mutual support. I have not seen any evidence of that happening outside of Amish communities, but it would be a telling sign if it did appear. – 3360

Even the Amish could not exist without the context of the outside world adopting many technologies.

In short, the Amish depend on the outside world for the way they currently live. Their choice of minimal technology adoption is a choice—but a choice enabled by the technium. Their lifestyle is within the technium, not outside it. – 3441

As far as I can tell, there are no other ongoing large-scale communities based outside North America that have built a lifestyle around minimal technology. That’s because outside technological America the idea seems crazy. This opt-out option makes sense only when there is something to opt out of. – 3447

Such elegant rejection can only exist in, and because of, a modern technium. – 3453

Simplicity is one of the strongest pulls of anti-technological lifestyles. But moderation in all things:

I have observed that simplicity’s fullest potential requires that one consider minimalism one phase of many (even if a recurring phase, as is meditation or the Sabbath). – 3475

Utoptian dreams depend on a false belief in fixed human nature:

It is only possible to optimize human satisfaction if you believe human nature is fixed. – 3487

We have domesticated our humanity as much as we have domesticated our horses. Our human nature itself is a malleable crop that we planted 50,000 years ago and continue to garden even today. – 3512

So embracing that change may be our best way of optimizing happiness:

Our mission as humans is not only to discover our fullest selves in the technium, and to find full contentment, but to expand the possibilities for others. – 3547

Even to find our own simplicity:

To maximize our own contentment, we seek the minimum amount of technology in our lives. Yet to maximize the contentment of others, we must maximize the amount of technology in the world. Indeed, we can only find our own minimal tools if others have created a sufficient maximum pool of options we can choose from. – 3559

For instance, the number of technologies to choose from so far exceeds our capacity to use them all that these days we define ourselves more by the technologies we don’t use than by those we do. – 3568

It is true that too many choices may induce regret, but “no choice” is a far worse option. Civilization is a steady migration away from “no choice.” – 4279

Is it possible to truly reject any technology completely–even one that seems harmful or outdated?

I recently examined all the cases of large-scale technology prohibitions that I could find in the last 1,000 years. – 3593

I am not counting technologies that are ignored, but only ones that are deliberately relinquished. I found about 40 cases that met these criteria. That is not very many cases for 1,000 years. – 3595


The discussions about accepting or rejecting technology, as a society, are at this point moot:

We are coevolving with our technology, and so we have become deeply dependent on it. If all technology—every last knife and spear—were to be removed from this planet, our species would not last more than a few months. We are now symbiotic with technology. – 590

We treat technology as something separate from us, that acts if at all on our bodies. But it’s perhaps better thought of as a mental augmentation:

If technology is an extension of humans, it is not an extension of our genes but of our minds. Technology is therefore the extended body for ideas. – 684

The technium—the organism of ideas – 685

Progress seems agonizingly slow sometimes, but even a 1% improvement gradually changes the world:

When measured against the large-scale imperfections of our society, 1 percent better seems trivial. Yet this tiny, slim, shy discrepancy generates progress when compounded by the ratchet of culture. Over time a few percent “not much better” accumulates into civilization. – 1084

There’s no going back; we can’t and we won’t:

We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools but with the tools of tomorrow. This is what we call progress. – 1510

Information technology, starting with printing, has completely transformed our experience of the world:

Libraries, catalogs, cross-referencing, dictionaries, concordances, and the publishing of minute observations all blossomed, producing a new level of informational ubiquity—to the extent that today we don’t even notice that printing covers our visual landscape. – 743

The invention of language marks the last major transformation in the natural world and also the first transformation in the manufactured world. – 758


Mostly, we are users of technology, and intelligent ones who can prepare for its inevitable arrival.

Our choice, and it is significant, is to prepare for the gift—and the problems it will also bring. We can choose to get better at anticipating these inevitable surges. We can choose to educate ourselves and our children to become intelligently literate and wise in their employment. And we can choose to modify our legal and political and economic assumptions to meet the ordained trajectories ahead. But we cannot escape from them. – 2582

Our current choices can shape the near term form of the technium.

Like personality, technology is shaped by a triad of forces. The primary driver is preordained development—what technology wants. The second driver is the influence of technological history, the gravity of the past, as in the way the size of a horse’s yoke determines the size of a space rocket. The third force is society’s collective free will in shaping the technium, or our choices. – 2681

In the view of cultural historian David Apter, “Human freedom actually exists within the limits set by the historical process. While not everything is possible, there is much that can still be chosen.” – 2693

If we can discern the large outlines of persistent forces, we can better educate our children in the appropriate skills and literacies need for thriving in that world. We can shift the defaults in our laws and public institutions to reflect that coming reality. If, for instance, we realize that everyone’s full DNA will be sequenced from birth or before (that is inevitable), then instructing everyone in genetic literacy becomes essential. – 2747

Technology is a separate force, outside our full control.

The vortex of the technium has grown its own agenda, its own imperative, its own direction. It is no longer under the full control and mastery of its parent and creator, humanity. – 2766

Humans are both master and slave to the technium, and our fate is to remain in this uncomfortable dual role. – 2782

Rejecting technology is no longer a real option.

But our concern should not be about whether to embrace it. We are beyond embrace; we are already symbiotic with it. – 2783

The conflict that the technium triggers in our hearts is due to our refusal to accept our nature—the truth is that we are continuous with the machines we create. We are self-made humans, our own best invention. When we reject technology as a whole, it is a brand of self-hatred. – 2787

Although some people are trying:

In 2006 Derrick Jensen penned a 1,500-page treatise on how and why to topple technological civilization, with hands-on suggestions of the ideal places to start—for instance, power and gas lines and the information infrastructure. – 2960

Visualizing something is the first step toward accomplishing it. Yet really visualizing an alternative to civilization (a technology) has been impossible:

The great difficulty of the anticivilizationists is that a sustainable, desirable alternative to civilization is unimaginable. We cannot picture it. We cannot see how it would be a place we’d like to move to. We can’t imagine how this primitive arrangement of stone and fur would satisfy each of our individual talents. And because we cannot imagine it, it will never happen, because nothing has ever been created without being imagined first. – 3108

Technology allows us the potential of transcending natural limitations.

“We trust in nature, but we hope in technology,” says Brian Arthur. – 2789

But utopian dreams rarely turn out that way.

David Nye, a historian of technology, adds to the list of inventions envisioned as abolishing war once and for all and ushering in universal peace the torpedo, the hot-air balloon, poison gas, land mines, missiles, and laser guns. Nye says, “Each new form of communication, from the telegraph and telephone to radio, film, television and the internet, has been heralded as the guarantor of free speech and the unfettered movement of ideas.” – 2811

“Problems are the answers to solutions,” says Brian Arthur. – 2819

As techno-critic Theodore Roszak says, “How much of what we readily identify as ‘progress’ in the urban-industrial society is really the undoing of evils inherited from the last round of technological innovation?” – 2823

Interestingly, the technium is sometimes used to convince people to work on building…the technium.

At the same time, mass education and media train humans to shy away from low-tech manual work, to seek jobs working for the digital technium. – 2828


Our genetics might drive its mutations in a non-random way:

In the old view, the internal (the source of mutation) created change, while the external (the environmental source of adaptation) selected or directed it; in the new view, the external (physical and chemical constraints) creates forms, while the internal (self-organization) selects or directs them. – 1804

We are the hands and feet of technology, doing the manual labor to evolve it. But the actual direction seems almost preordained, and that we are simply following a trail of breadcrumbs.

As both parent and child of the technium—evolution accelerated—we are nothing more and nothing less than an evolutionary ordained becoming. “I seem to be a verb,” the inventor/philosopher Buckminster Fuller once said. – 1937

If discovery is a lottery, the greatest discoverers buy lots of tickets. – 2001

Once an idea is “in the air” its many manifestations are inevitable. You just need a sufficient number of smart, prolific people to start catching them. – 2104

Gladwell observes, “The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.” – 2106

So the greatest iconic genius of the human race is able to leap ahead of the inevitable by maybe 10 years. For the rest of humanity, the inevitable happens on schedule. – 2157

We develop art and culture to prepare the mindsets of the explorers:

In addition to instruments and tools, a discovery needs the proper beliefs, expectations, vocabulary, explanation, know-how, resources, funds, and appreciation to appear. – 2303

Marshall McLuhan had a more provocative way of putting this:

Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth. – Marshal McLuhan


The idea of “leapfrogging” stages of technology is mostly a dream. In reality, some technologies can appear ahead of schedule, but the older ones are still necessary and are dragged along with them.

The fact that billions of poor in the developing world have purchased cheap cell phones and bypassed long waits for industrial-age landline telephones has given hope that other technologies could also leapfrog into the future. But my close examination of cell-phone adoption in China, India, Brazil, and Africa shows that the boom in cell phones around the world is accompanied by a parallel boom in copper-wire landlines. Cell phones don’t cancel landlines. Instead, where cell phones go, copper follows. Cell phones train newly educated customers to need higher-bandwidth internet connections and higher-quality voice connections, which then follow in copper wires. – 2317

And even “high-tech” is remarkably bound to boring old commodity materials.

Cell phones, web pages, solar panels all rest upon heavy industry, and industry rests upon agriculture. – 2323

Since these curves begin and advance independent of our awareness and do not waver very much from a straight line under enormous competition and investment pressures, their course must in some way be bound to the materials. – 2474

We can’t really see very far ahead anyway:

In the apt phrase of futurist Paul Saffo, we often confuse a clear view of the future with a short distance. – 2876

An interesting parallel are the tech trees used in many simulation video games:


The evolution of new technologies is inevitable; we can’t stop it. But the character of each technology is up to us. – 3999

Technology escapes our predictions, both for good and bad. Don’t limit how people can use your product.

Advertisements at the beginning of the last century tried to sell hesitant consumers the newfangled telephone by stressing ways it could send messages, such as invitations, store orders, or confirmation of their safe arrival. The advertisers pitched the telephone as if it were a more convenient telegraph. None of them suggested having a conversation. – 3664

Don’t be afraid of abuse. In fact, all great technologies could be used for both good or evil.

An invention or idea is not really tremendous unless it can be tremendously abused. – 3682

In a letter Orville Wright wrote to his inventor friend Henry Ford, Wright recounts a story he heard from a missionary stationed in China. Wright told Ford the story for the same reason I tell it here: as a cautionary tale about speculative risks. The missionary wanted to improve the laborious way the Chinese peasants in his province harvested grain. The local farmers clipped the stalks with some kind of small hand shear. So the missionary had a scythe shipped in from America and demonstrated its superior productivity to an enthralled crowd. “The next morning, however, a delegation came to see the missionary. The scythe must be destroyed at once. What, they said, if it should fall into the hands of thieves; a whole field could be cut and carried away in a single night.” And so the scythe was banished, progress stopped, because nonusers could imagine a possible—but wholly improbable—way it could significantly harm their society. – 3729

Its open-endedness is often part of its appeal.

Our first encounters with the internet/web portrayed it as a very widely distributed electronic dynamo—a thing one plugs into—and that it is. But the internet as it has matured is closer to the technological equivalent of a place. An uncharted, almost feral territory where you can genuinely get lost. – 4845

Powerful technologies will engender powerful emotions. Design for love and hate, not indifference.

In the technium, revulsion and reverence often go hand in hand. Our biggest technological creations are like people in that way; they elicit our deepest loves and hates. – 4830

Prepare for continual attention and repair of your technologies:

Eternal vigilance is the price of artificial complexity,” says Langdon Winner. – 3795

Although complexity isn’t always the enemy. Biological life is more complex than its atomic origins in the stars, and that’s been good to us.

Like with a ratchet, exotropic systems rarely reverse, devolve, or become simpler. – 4121

Design “convivial” technologies:

Convivial is a great word whose roots mean “compatible with life.” – 3977

A convivial manifestation of a technology offers:

  • Cooperation. It promotes collaboration between people and institutions.
  • Transparency. Its origins and ownership are clear. Its workings are intelligible to nonexperts. There is no asymmetrical advantage of knowledge to some of its users.
  • Decentralization. Its ownership, production, and control are distributed. It is not monopolized by a professional elite.
  • Flexibility. It is easy for users to modify, adapt, improve, or inspect its core. Individuals may freely choose to use it or give it up.
  • Redundancy. It is not the only solution, not a monopoly, but one of several options.
  • Efficiency. It minimizes impact on ecosystems. It has a high efficiency for energy and materials and is easy to reuse. – 3982

In general, design a technology that behaves similar to a healthy natural relationship.

So the more lifelike we train our technology to be, the more convivial it becomes for us and the more sustainable the technium becomes in the long run. The more convivial a technology is, the more it aligns with its nature as the seventh kingdom of life. – 3993

Extrapolated, technology wants what life wants:

*Increasing efficiency * Increasing opportunity * Increasing emergence * Increasing complexity * Increasing diversity * Increasing specialization * Increasing ubiquity * Increasing freedom * Increasing mutualism * Increasing beauty * Increasing sentience * Increasing structure * Increasing evolvability – 4024

Thinking of ourselves as elements of the universe puts us in an interesting position:

Our body size is, weirdly, almost exactly in the middle of the size of the universe. The smallest things we know about are approximately 30 orders of magnitude smaller than we are, and the largest structures in the universe are about 30 orders of magnitude bigger. – 4193

Expect that the first uses of a general technology will be focused on the technology itself. Design for that!

The internet was invented in the 1970s and offered very few benefits at first. It was primarily used by its inventors, a very small clique of professionals fluent in programming languages, as a tool to improve itself. From birth the internet was constructed in order to make talking about the idea of an internet more efficient. Likewise, the first ham radio operators primarily broadcast discussions about ham radio; the early world of CB radio was filled with talk about CB; the first blogs were about blogging; the first several years of twitterings concerned Twitter. – 4537

Technologies become art over time. Design for that even when they are new and “useful”.

Technology does not want to remain utilitarian. It wants to become art, to be beautiful and “useless.” Since technology is born out of usefulness, this is a long haul. As utilitarian technologies age, they tend to become recreational. Witness sailboats, open convertible cars, fountain pens, and fireplaces. Who would have guessed anyone would burn candles when lightbulbs are so cheap? But burning candles is now a mark of luxuriant uselessness. Some of our hardest-working technology today will achieve beautiful uselessness in the future. – 4865

Are designers this rigorous in our product experiments? Not typically…

A typical scientific discovery today will rely on facts and a falsifiable hypothesis; be tested in repeatable, controlled experiments, perhaps with placebos and double-blind controls; and be reported in a peer-reviewed journal and indexed in a library of related reports. – 5122

Design technologies that help people reach their creative potential. What if Van Gogh had been born before oil paints? Or Mozart before the piano?

What kinds of technologies are these? Perhaps the ones that let you experience an emotion or sense in a new way; that let you experience memory or sound or smell or emotions or relationships programmatically, or in new contexts or ways. The ones that let you combine your unique location, resources, and talents to do something brand new.

How can technology make a person better? Only in this way: by providing each person with chances. A chance to excel at the unique mixture of talents he or she was born with, a chance to encounter new ideas and new minds, a chance to be different from his or her parents, a chance to create something his or her own. – 5237

I read this, again, in Gambia and Senegal and recognized the lack of opportunities and choice there.

For most of history, the unique mix of talents, skills, insights, and experiences of each person had no outlet. If your dad was a baker, you were a baker. – 5280

Design something simple, a building block for general use, easy to modify and adapt.

The simple invention of a wheel unleashed a hundred new ideas of what to do with it. From it issued carts, pottery wheels, prayer wheels, and gears. – 5287


Fears of a global homogenization due to technology are probably overblown. Technology celebrates diversity and helps share it globally:

The distinctive foods, medicinal knowledge, and child-rearing practices of, say, the Yanomamo tribe in the Amazon or the San Bushmen in Africa were only esoteric, local knowledge before. Their diversity constituted a difference that did not make a difference outside the tribe, because their knowledge was not connected to other human cultures. – 4304

The places most renowned for their beauty (Venice, Kyoto, Esfahan) are those that reveal intersecting deep layers of time. Every corner carries the long history of the city embedded in it like a hologram, glimpses of which unfold as we stroll by. – 4785

I read this passage while floating down the Gambia River, thanks to many technologies including my Kindle and several transportation inventions.

All these tools will gain new powers by sharing the universal – 4421

Even convergence of technologies seems to be a temporary state. Also, “intelligenation” is a cool word.

All portals have become the simplest possible window: a flat screen of some size. This convergence is temporary. We are still in the early stages of computerization—or rather, intelligenation. – 4413

We can forecast the future of almost any invention working today by imagining it evolving into dozens of narrow uses. Technology is born in generality and grows to specificity. – 4431

If your technology only solves a current problem, it is likely an evolutionary dead end. If it is more general and productive, then it can lead to more.

The problem with remedial technologies is that once their niches are filled, they lead nowhere else. A vaccine has no future if it is universally successful. In the long run, convivial technologies that open up other technologies tend to ascend to ubiquity fastest. – 4443

Even technological intelligence will likely move toward diversity rather than full unification. For instance, once Google has a strong AI, others will be even more important to balance and work with it.

What technology wants is increasing sentience. This does not mean evolution will move us only toward one universal supermind. Rather, over the course of time the technium tends to self-organize into as many varieties of mind as is possible. – 5018

Technology is linked to choice; it will always diversify.

Rather than a series of meandering lines that travel into a set future, picture these arrows of technological trends exploding outward from the present. – 5214

The technium is an explosion of information, organization, complexity, diversity, sentience, beauty, and structure that is changing itself as it expands. – 5216


Most technologies are not exclusive to certain people; they will just arrive at different times. And the early adopters make them possible for others to have later.

This was simply a case, as computer scientist Marvin Minsky once put it, of the “haves and have-laters.” The haves (the early adopters) overpay for crummy early editions of technology that barely work. They purchase flaky first versions of new goods that finance cheaper and better versions for the have-laters, who will get things that work for dirt cheap not long afterward. In essence, the haves fund the evolution of technology for the have-laters. Isn’t that how it should be, that the rich fund the development of cheap technology for the poor? – 4560

Assume that everyone will have access someday soon. What will you do then?

“If you want to worry about something, don’t worry about the folks who are currently offline. They’ll stampede on faster than you think. Instead you should worry about what we are going to do when everyone is online. When the internet has six billion people, and they are all e-mailing at once, when no one is disconnected and always on day and night, when everything is digital and nothing offline, when the internet is ubiquitous. That will produce unintended consequences worth worrying about.” – 4575

We were so focused on those who don’t have plenty to eat that we missed what happens when everyone does have plenty. – 4580

Technology prefers being social and ubiquitous; it will spread itself to everyone.

At nearly every turn, the powers of socialization—sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, and transparency—have proven to be more practical than anyone thought possible. Each time we try it, we find that the power of mutuality is greater than we imagined. Each time we reinvent something, we’ll make it yet more mutualistic. – 4758


If you can honestly love a cat, which can’t give you directions to a stranger’s house, why can’t you love the web? – 4859

Do we love the human form specifically, or the fact that it is the most evolved we’ve seen?

Humans are the most complex, highly evolved organisms we have encountered, so we fixate on imitations of this form (quite naturally), but our technophilia is fundamentally not for anthropy, but for anything highly evolved. Humanity’s most advanced technology will soon leave imitation behind and create obviously nonhuman intelligences and obviously nonhuman robots and obviously non-Earthlike life, and all these will radiate an evolved attractiveness that will dazzle us. As it does, we’ll find it easier to admit that we have an affinity for it. – 4875


I haven’t heard of many natural (non-learned) human-animal interactions, but this one is fascinating:

The honeyguide bird in Kenya lures humans to wild bee nests so that the birds can feast on the remaining bee brood after the humans remove the honey; sometimes, according to ornithologists, the honeyguide will “deceive” the hunters about the actual distance to a deep forest nest if it is more than two kilometers away, so as not to discourage them. – 4903

Our best chance for communicating in depth with another intelligent species is likely to create it ourselves.

Someday we might meet other intelligences in the galaxies. But long before then we will manufacture millions of new kinds of minds on our own world. – 4998

This seems a bit overreaching however:

What technology brings to us individually is the possibility of finding out who we are, and more important, who we might be. – 5251


Pursue spiritual and emotional growth alongside our technological improvements. Right now we’re not matching our emotional intelligence to our technological abilities. Reminds me of the quote by Lhasang Tsering: “For centuries our best minds, our saints and our philosophers concentrated all their time and energy to understanding the nature of the mind. And who can say which would really matter in the end–the landing on the moon or the understanding of the mind?”.

I asked him, “Do you think technology is making the world better or worse?” Lucas’s answer: If you watch the curve of science and everything we know, it shoots up like a rocket. We’re on this rocket and we’re going perfectly vertical into the stars. But the emotional intelligence of humankind is equally if not more important than our intellectual intelligence. We’re just as emotionally illiterate as we were 5,000 years ago; so emotionally our line is completely horizontal. The problem is the horizontal and the vertical are getting farther and farther apart. And as these things grow apart, there’s going to be some kind of consequence of that. I think we underestimate the strain of that gap. In the long term, the erosion of the traditional self may prove to be a larger part of the technium’s cost than its erosion of the biosphere. – 2882

We currently separate spiritual and scientific knowledge, but that may be due to our own scientific limitations.

Currently science has no way to accept these strands of spiritual information and weave them into the current consilience, and so their truth remains “undiscovered.” Certain fringe sciences, such as ESP, are kept on the fringe because their findings, coherent in their own framework, don’t fit into the larger pattern of the known. But in time, more facts are brought into this structure of information. More important, the methods whereby knowledge is structured are themselves evolving and being restructured. – 5098


If there is a God, the arc of the technium is aimed right at him. – 5349

An interesting theological branch:

There is even a modern theology that postulates that God, too, changes. Without splitting too many theological hairs, this theory, called Process Theology, describes God as a process, a perfect process, if you will. – 5357

That prime self-causation, which is not preceded but instead first makes itself before it makes either time or nothingness, is the most logical definition of God. – 5363

Does technology show us more of God?

We can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog. The phone extends the frog’s four billion years of learning and adds the open-ended investigations of six billion human minds. – 5413


Families in 39 countries, including Nepal, Haiti, Germany, Russia, and Peru, let Menzel and his delegates haul the entire contents of their homes outside into the street or yard to be photographed, inventoried, and published in Menzel’s book, called Material World. – 1133

The only source I have found for a reliable projection of what happens on the other side of the peak of human population around 2050 is a set of UN scenarios for World Population in 2300, that is, for the next 300 years. – 1410

In a list he drew up of possible uses for the phonograph, Edison added at the end, almost as an afterthought, the idea of playing recorded music. – 3648

Visions of Technology: A Century of Vital Debate About Machines, Systems, and the Human World. Richard Rhodes, ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. In this one-volume anthology, Rhodes collects writings about technology written over the past century or so. Critics, poets, inventors, authors, artists, and ordinary citizens present some of the most quotable passages and perspectives on technology. I found all kinds of insights I had not seen elsewhere. – 5492

Finite and Infinite Games. James Carse. New York: Free Press, 1986. This tiny book holds a universe of wisdom. Written by a theologian, you probably need to read only the first and last chapters, but that is enough. It altered my thinking about life, the universe, and everything. – 5527

Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began. Colin Tudge. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. A courageously tiny book that manages to sum up the reasons for the birth of agriculture into 52 small pages. It packs in about five volumes of insight a whole library of research and then distills the essence into one beautiful essay. I wish I could write a tiny brilliant book like this. – 5552

The Ascent of Man. Jacob Bronowski. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. Based on the 1972 BBC-TV series of the same name, this book inspired the sweep and scope of my own and provided some key concepts. Part geek, part poet, part mystic, part scientist, Bronowski was way ahead of his time. – 5560

Interesting and Typical

The most interesting man in the world, and the most typical.

Though I actually find the typical man much more interesting.

Computational X

I like this technique from Kevin Kelly to simply add “computational” before any current practice to imagine its future. Computational biology, physics, chemistry already exist; but how about computational cuisine, real estate, politics, etc? It becomes surprisingly compelling.

Similar to Chris Dixon’s prediction advice for the Internet: “Anything it hasn’t yet dramatically transformed, it will”. We live in exciting times.

Notes from Where Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

(I’ve started reading more books on the Kindle; this is an experiment to see how well clipping and sharing highlights from there works. The numbers after each quote are the Kindle “locations”.)

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

How ideas happen

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. 362

Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts 417

Carbon atoms measure only 0.03 percent of the overall composition of the earth’s crust, and yet they make up nearly 20 percent of our body mass. That abundance highlights the unique property of the carbon atom: its combinatorial power. Carbon is a connector. 559

One flask connected to the chemical soup contained a pair of electrodes, which Miller and Urey used to simulate lightning by triggering a series of quick sparks between them. They ran the experiment for seven straight days, and by the time they had completed the first cycle, they found that more than 10 percent of the carbon had spontaneously recombined into many of the organic compounds essential to life: sugars, lipids, nucleic acids. 573

The work of dreams turns out to be a particularly chaotic, yet productive, way of exploring the adjacent possible.1146

Kekulé’s slow hunch had set the stage for the insight, but for that hunch to turn into a world-changing idea, he needed the most unlikely of connections: an iconic image from ancient mythology. 1157

John Barth describes it in nautical terms: “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously.” 1224

The problem with assimilating new ideas at the fringes of your daily routine is that the potential combinations are limited by the reach of your memory. 1276

The errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one. 1562

Error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. 1569

Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore. 1571

Benjamin Franklin, who knew a few things about innovation himself, said it best: “Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists, and does not seem to require so much an active energy, as a passive aptitude of soul in order to encounter it. But error is endlessly diversified.” 1711 Note: study failures instead of successes in business? biz books and school both…

New genres need old devices. 1820

How to measure innovation

There are many ways to measure innovation, but perhaps the most elemental yardstick, at least where technology is concerned, revolves around the job that the technology in question lets you do. All other things being equal, a breakthrough that lets you execute two jobs that were impossible before is twice as innovative as a breakthrough that lets you do only one new thing. 210

Environments that encourage good ideas

Kleiber’s law proved that as life gets bigger, it slows down. But West’s model demonstrated one crucial way in which human-built cities broke from the patterns of biological life: as cities get bigger, they generate ideas at a faster clip. 146

The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments.224 Innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. 495

The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table. 515

Building 20 resisted those calcifying forces for a simple reason: it was built on the cheap, which meant its residents had no qualms about tearing down a wall or punching a hole in the ceiling to adapt the space to a new idea. 747

Building 99 was created from the ground up to be reinvented by the unpredictable flow of collaboration and inspiration. All the office spaces are modular, with walls that can be easily reconfigured to match the needs of the employees. 750

Liquid networks create an environment where those partial ideas can connect; they provide a kind of dating service for promising hunches. They make it easier to disseminate good ideas, of course, but they also do something more sublime: they help complete ideas. 853

The groups that had been deliberately contaminated with erroneous information ended up making more original connections than the groups that had only been given pure information. The “dissenting” actors prodded the other subjects into exploring new rooms in the adjacent possible, even though they were, technically speaking, adding incorrect data to the environment. 1622

The best innovation labs are always a little contaminated. 1630

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings. 2324

In the private sector, the proprietary breakthrough achieved in a closed lab turns out to be a rarity. 2621

Innovative thinking was much more likely to emerge from individuals who bridged “structural holes” between tightly knit clusters. Employees who primarily shared information with people in their own division had a harder time coming up with useful suggestions for Raytheon’s business, when measured against employees who maintained active links to a more diverse group. 1918

Apple calls it concurrent or parallel production. All the groups—design, manufacturing, engineering, sales—meet continuously through the product-development cycle, brainstorming, trading ideas and solutions, strategizing over the most pressing issues, and generally keeping the conversation open to a diverse group of perspectives. 1974

How to keep track of your thoughts

Keeping a slow hunch alive poses challenges on multiple scales. For starters, you have to preserve the hunch in your own memory, in the dense network of your neurons. 947

We can see Darwin’s ideas evolve because on some basic level the notebook platform creates a cultivating space for his hunches. 953

Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper. 955

The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. 962

Each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. 1000

You need a system for capturing hunches, but not necessarily categorizing them, because categories can build barriers between disparate ideas, restrict them to their own conceptual islands. 1004

Bill Gates (and his successor at Microsoft, Ray Ozzie) are famous for taking annual reading vacations. During the year they deliberately cultivate a stack of reading material—much of it unrelated to their day-to-day focus at Microsoft—and then they take off for a week or two and do a deep dive into the words they’ve stockpiled. By compressing their intake into a matter of days, they give new ideas additional opportunities to network among themselves, for the simple reason that it’s easier to remember something that you read yesterday than it is to remember something you read six months ago. 1280

I use DEVONthink as an improvisational tool as well. I write a paragraph about something—let’s say it’s about the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask DEVONthink to find other passages in my archive that are similar. 1318

But imagine if the FBI had been using a networked version of a DEVONthink archive instead of the archaic Automated Case Support system. The top brass at the Radical Fundamentalist Unit would still have read the search warrant request for Moussaoui’s laptop and thought to themselves, “This sounds like a pretty shaky hunch.” But a quick DEVONthink query would have pointed them to the Phoenix memo, to another hunch about flight training and terrorism. 1464

Designing for context

Designing an incubator for a developing country wasn’t just a matter of creating something that worked; it was also a matter of designing something that would break in a non-catastrophic way. 319

This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network. 679

Follow up

In 1964, Arthur Koestler published his epic account of innovation’s roots, The Act of Creation. 680

(In a New Yorker essay, Malcolm Gladwell wonderfully described this trend as the West Village-ification of the corporate office.) 728

For more on Apple’s design and development processes, see Lev Grossman’s “How Apple Does It.” 3566

Plant a tree

Deforestation is the single biggest factor in greenhouse gas emissions, nearly twice as big as either road transportation or residential buildings.

Plant With Purpose is a great organization working to replant trees in damaged areas. Here’s their compelling intro video.</>