Kevin Kelly writes in his new book, The Inevitable, about the unstoppable momentum of technology and how it will change our lives over the next thirty years. He is optimistic about the outcome, but not blind to the pain, conflict and confusion that accompanies great change. Whether you agree or disagree, his ideas are always thought-provoking.
Many years ago I had a client in the communications industry, who's Founder was very involved with the project my firm and I were leading. His understanding of their business and their legacy system we were hired to help replace, were far above anyone within the company or outside it. I thought this would be a recipe for disaster. In the first year of the project there were many times he would have a very different perspective on a problem, and a very different approach than me or our team. At the time I thought I knew much more than I actually did, so I would assume I was right but begrudgingly follow the client's approach. Over time, however, I began to realize the Founder was almost always right. He had this clarity and an ability to remove complexity and noise to get to the core of the problem whereas I tended to apply complexity to an already complex problem. After getting over the innate desire to be right, I realized this was an opportunity to listen, understand and learn as much as I could.
When I read Kevin Kelly's new book, The Inevitable, I get that same feeling. He convinces me to look at his future vision, in this case, the 12 technological forces that will shape the next 30 years, from a different angle where I end with a different but better perspective than where I began. He has that same clarity and vision that I admired in the Founder. The starting point for Kelly's vision was the convergence of computers and communication that started to take place 30 years ago. In essence, the future of technology is the progeny from computers meeting telephone. The forces are all ones that currently, and more so in the future, will shape both our personal and professional lives. In this first blog I wanted to introduce the author and his book, and then dive deeper into the forces in future blogs.
Funny thing about Futurists, they tend to only get graded in the present. What they predict for 10 years from now we love to debate and grade, but 10 years from now we won't be looking back and grading results. We will be too busy debating what the futurists 10 years from now will be predicting for 20 years from now. I haven't looked back myself, but from my research on the views of his peers, Kevin Kelley seems to be one who's predictions end up being right. He was co-founder and executive editor of Wired magazine when it started in 1993. Since then he has been a visionary thinker and communicator on both the technical and cultural impact of technology on our society.
"The future is coming very fast and most people are not really prepared to make the most of it, There’s a tendency to be worried about it and try to prevent it from coming and be confused by it, so I try to help people understand it and embrace it." - Kevin Kelly
Kelly's path to Technology Futurist was filled with irony and contradictions. When growing up in the 50's and 60's he was different than most of the other kids in his disdain for TV and technology. He felt technology had a tendency to control us. After dropping out of college he spent 8 years wandering in Asia with no money and little more than few items of clothing and a sleeping bag. After returning to the US he went on a 5000 mile bike journey across the US from California to the East. Along the way he met the Amish. He immediately was impressed with their minimalist approach to technology just as he had found in Asia.
He then decided to buy some land in upstate NY and build a house with some help from a friend using some basic tools - essentially by hand. Although feeling pride and contentment with his work he realized he was not Amish. He recognized that perhaps a tool such as a chain saw had value. Technology can be good.
"Airplanes had stretched my horizons; books had opened my mind; antibiotics had saved my life; photography had ignited my muse." - Kevin Kelly
In the early 80's, Kelly became a freelance writer for the Whole Earth Catalog with an idea to write about the "tools that elevated his spirit''. Steve Jobs referred to the Whole Earth Catalog as the Google search before the internet. In the end of his famous commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 he quoted the message on the back cover of the farewell edition from 1974 - "Stay hungry. Stay foolish".
For the catalog he began writing low budget travel guides for low tech destinations. To automate the process a little he borrowed an Apple II from a friend and telephone modem to plug in to transmit his text to a printer. At the same time, a fellow editor at the Whole Earth Catalog gave him access to an experimental teleconferencing system run by a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He was introduced to an online community that would further change his mind about technology and pave his work for the next 30 years. He realized that technology could not only satisfy one's desire or increase efficiency and productivity but also present new opportunities. The groups on these early online communities were trading ideas and learning new things that they would not have if they were limited to their smaller physical circles. From here he realized that other technologies, even television, could do the same.
Even after 30 years of researching, writing and leading one of the pioneers in technology publishing, he still doesn't own a smart phone or even a laptop. His kids grew up without television and he continues without it. Yet he is immersed in the tools of the trade and sees it's value.
"Our lives today are strung with a profound and constant tension between the virtues of more technology and the personal necessity of less" - Kevin Kelly
When clarity and vision are accompanied with pragmatism rather than dogmatism - I'm interested. It doesn't hurt that Kelly is also a great writer. After reading The Inevitable, I wanted to share the ideas from the book in a series of blogs with this first one as an introduction. In some cases I thought it was best to use text from the book which are all blocked in italics.
The Inevitable: Understanding The 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future envisions how technology and human life will converge over the next 30 years. On whole it's an optimistic perspective but doesn't glance over the pain, confusion and push back that will result along the way. The starting point is the natural state of the universe - change.
Change is inevitable. We now appreciate that everything is mutable and undergoing change, even though much of this alteration is imperceptible. The highest mountains are slowly wearing away under our feet, while every animal and plant species on the planet is morphing into something different in ultra slow motion. Even the eternal shining sun is fading on an astronomical schedule, though we will be long gone when it does. Human culture, and biology too, are part of this imperceptible slide toward something new.
Kelly feels technology is the accelerant of change for humans. There is never an end state as we are always in the state of "becoming". Just like our software, there is always an upgrade coming ahead. This momentum from technology is inevitable. He says "there will be heartbreak, conflict, and confusion in addition to incredible benefits." An example is when Hollywood and the music industry pushed back on the digitalization and copying of their products angering their customers. It was of no use as today streaming has changed both industries dramatically and now they are working with the momentum rather than against.
A vigilant, eyes-wide-open embrace works much better. My intent in this book is to uncover the roots of digital change so that we can embrace them. Once seen, we can work with their nature, rather than struggle against it. Massive copying is here to stay. Massive tracking and total surveillance is here to stay. Ownership is shifting away. Virtual reality is becoming real. We can't stop artificial intelligence and robots from improving, creating new businesses, and taking our current jobs. It may be against our initial impulse, but we should embrace the perpetual remixing of these technologies. Only by working with these technologies, rather than trying to thwart them, can we gain the best of what they have to offer.
Technology tends to follow its own bias rather than society. An example of this are industrial processes like steam engines and chemical plants that favor temperatures and pressures outside the comfort zone for humans. This bias tends to place manufacturing away from humans in large-scale and centralized factories. On the other hand, digital technologies are biased towards cheap, ubiquitous, duplication which make them independent of nationality, economics and human desires, always steering towards social ubiquity. As a result, it's in our interest to align expectations, regulations and products in the same direction as these biases - understand and embrace.
Kelly translates this technological momentum into 12 forces or motions into verbs - Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Screening, Accessing, Sharing, Filtering, Remixing, Interacting, Tracking, "Questioning and Beginning where each are chapters in the book. Cognifying is the advance of AI and Robotics to transform society but also may replace us in many of our current jobs. Tracking is the ability to use our personal digital data for our benefit but on the flip side it will be available for all. The others are less easily interpreted from the verb alone but the underlying forces are easily recognized by all of us. Most of them are and will be happening to all of us.
In future blogs I will review and discuss them. I hope you will also read the book and provide your feedback and experiences with some of these forces. Stay tuned.