Kevin Kelly’s Apple II

November 8, 2010, 5:49 PM UTC

How a founding editor of WIRED learned to live with technology like the Amish do

Kevin Kelly. Photo: Fashion Tribes

My favorite part of Kevin Kelly’s new book “What Technology Wants” is the story he tells about how his first computer — an Apple II — changed his life.

You see, although Kelly is one of America’s most influential tech writers — he was the editor of the Whole Earth Review, one of the founders of the Well, a founding editor of WIRED and author of Out of Control (which the creators of The Matrix required that all their actors read) — he keeps technology at arms length, living his life without broadcast or cable television, a laptop or a smartphone.

In his most recent book — a natural history of technology as if it were a living, evolving organism with its own unconscious needs and tendencies — he tells how he dropped out of college and wandered for nearly a decade through remote parts of Asia in cheap sneakers and worn jeans, “with lots of time and no money.”

“The cities I knew best were steeped in medieval richness,” he writes, “the lands I passed through were governed by ancient agricultural traditions. When I reached for an object, it was almost surely made of wood, fiber or stone. I ate with my hands, trekked on foot through mountain valleys, and slept wherever.”

When he returned to the States, he sold what possessions he had, bought an inexpensive bicycle, and rode 5,000 miles across America, where the closest thing he found to the state of minimal technology he had experienced in Asia were the Amish communities of eastern Pennsylvania.

At age 27 he retreated to some woods in upstate New York where he built a house with beams he carved himself from oak trees using a chain saw — a power tool that taught him, as he puts it, “that some technologies are simply superior to others.”

Then someone loaned him an Apple (AAPL) computer. He writes:

At the age of 28, I started selling mail-order budget travel guides that published low-cost information on how to enter the technologically simple realms most of the planet lived in. My only two significant possessions at the time were a bike and sleeping bag, so I borrowed a friend’s computer (an early Apple II) to automate my fledgling moonlight business, and I got a cheap telephone modem to transmit my text to the printer. A fellow editor at the Whole Earth Catalog with an interest in computers slipped me a guest account that allowed me to remotely join an experimental teleconferencing system being run by a college professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I soon found myself immersed in something altogether bigger and wilder: the frontier of an online community.

It was a new continent more alien to me than Asia, and I began to report on it as if it were an exotic travel destination. To my immense surprise, I found that these high-tech computer networks were not deadening the souls of early users like me; they were filling our souls. There was something unexpectedly organic about these ecosystems of people and wires. Out of complete nothingness, we were barn raising a virtual commonwealth. When the internet finally came along a few years later, it seemed almost Amish to me.

As computers moved to the center of our lives, I discovered something I had not noticed about technology before. In addition to technology’s ability to satisfy (and create) desires, and to occasionally save labor, it did something else. It brought new opportunities. Right before my eyes I saw online networks connect people with ideas, options, and other people they could not possibly have met otherwise. Online networks unleashed passions, compounded creativity, amplified generosity.

At the very cultural moment when pundits declared that writing was dead, millions began writing online more than they ever had written before. Exactly when the experts declared people would only bowl alone, millions began to gather together in large numbers. Online they collaborated, cooperated, shared, and created in myriad unexpected ways.

This was new to me. Cold silicon chips, long metal wires, and complicated high-voltage gear were nurturing our best efforts as humans. Once I noticed how online computers stirred the muses and multiplied possibilities, I realized that other technologies, such as automobiles, chain saws, biochemistry, and yes, even television, did the same in slightly different ways. For me, this gave a very different face to technology.

Excerpted from What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. Copyright 2010 by Kevin Kelly. Published by Viking Books. Available in hardcover at Amazon and in an electronic edition for Kindle, Nook or iPad.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]