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The Moral Dimension of Technology by Kevin Kelly

What technology brings to us individually is the possibility of finding out who we are, and more important, who we might be. During his or her lifetime, each person acquires a unique combination of latent abilities, handy skills, nascent insights, and potential experiences that no one else shares. Even twins—who share common DNA—don’t share the same life. When people maximize their set of talents, they shine because no one can do what they do. People fully inhabiting their unique mixture of skills are inimitable, and that is what we prize about them. Talent unleashed doesn’t mean that everyone will sing on Broadway or play in the Olympics or win a Nobel Prize. Those high-profile roles are merely three well-worn ways of being a star, and by deliberate design those particular opportunities are limited. Popular culture wrongly fixates on proven star roles as the destiny of anyone successful. In fact, those positions of prominence and stardom can be prisons, straitjackets defined by how someone else excelled.

Ideally, we would find a position of excellence tailored specifically for everyone born. We don’t normally think of opportunities this way, but these tools for achievement are called “technology.” The technology of vibrating strings opened up (created) the potential for a virtuoso violin player. The technology of oil paint and canvas unleashed the talents of painters through the centuries. The technology of film created cinematic talents. The soft technologies of writing, lawmaking, and mathematics all expanded our potential to create and do good. Thus in the course of our lives as we invent things and create new works that others may build on, we—as friends, family, clan, nation, and society— have a direct role in enabling each person to optimize their talents—not in the sense of being famous but in the sense of being unequaled in his or her unique contribution.

However, if we fail to enlarge the possibilities for other people, we diminish them, and that is unforgivable. Enlarging the scope of creativity for others, then, is an obligation. We enlarge others by enlarging the possibilities of the technium— the greater ecosystem of technology – by developing more technology and more convivial expressions of it.

If the best cathedral builder who ever lived was born now, instead of 1,000 years ago, he would still find a few cathedrals being built to spotlight his glory. Sonnets are still being written and manuscripts still being illuminated. But can you imagine how poor our world would be if Bach had been born 1,000 years before the Flemish invented the technology of the harpsichord? Or if Mozart had preceded the technologies of piano and symphony? How vacant our collective imaginations would be if Vincent van Gogh had arrived 5,000 years before we invented cheap oil paint? What kind of modern world would we have if Edison, Greene, and Dickson had not developed cinematic technology before Hitchcock or Charlie Chaplin grew up?

How many geniuses at the level of Bach and Van Gogh died before the needed technologies were available for their talents to take root? How many people will die without ever having encountered the technological possibilities that they would have excelled in? I have three children, and though we shower them with opportunities, their ultimate potential may be thwarted because the ideal technology for their talents has yet to be invented. There is a genius alive today, some Shakespeare of our time, whose masterworks society will never own because she was born before the technology (holodeck, wormhole, telepathy, magic pen) of her greatnes was invented. Without these manufactured possibilities, she is diminished, and by extension all of us are diminished.

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. As technology expands the space of possibilities, it expands the chance that someone can find an outlet for their personal traits. We thus have a moral obligation to increase the best of technology. When we enlarge the variety and reach of technology, we increase options not just for ourselves and not just for others living but for all those to come as the technium ratchets up complexity and beauty over generations.

This article is excerpted from What Technology Wants (Viking Adult, 2010). Used by permission.