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Kevin Kelly

Photo of Kevin Kelly

Photo: © Tywen Kelly

About the Author

Kevin Kelly, author of the acclaimed Out of Control (called “required reading for all executives” by Fortune) is editor-at-large of Wired magazine. He has been involved in such cultural innovations as The Hacker’s Conference and The Well. He lives in the Bay Area.

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Books by Kevin Kelly published by Berrett-Koehler

Author Q&A

In the 1990s, we were bored and depressed. Today, we’re anxious, and one of the main drivers of that anxiety is technology.

Who can blame us? We live with the nagging feeling that we’re falling behind: Our phones constantly need updating, the software we just mastered has fallen out of fashion, the computer we bought last year is already obsolete. Headlines sound dire warnings: Automation is killing manufacturing jobs, cybercriminals are holding companies hostage via ransomware, bots are spewing propaganda and misinformation.

With technology revolutionizing—and upending—our lives in so many ways, it seems only natural to feel a little unnerved, especially for those who aren’t digital natives. But according to renowned tech guru and futurist Kevin Kelly, these winds of change are blowing us toward a bright future of innovation and empowerment.

In his new book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kelly breaks down the key technological trends that are already underway, sweeping away the old and ushering in the new. Rather than focus on specific technologies, Kelly breaks down these forces of disruption into “twelve verbs, such as accessing, tracking, and sharing”—and importantly, not merely verbs but “present participles, the grammatical form that conveys continuous action.” He also presents some fascinating “day in the life” scenarios from the not-so-distant future, where humanity and technology are so intertwined that we will regard “the web as an ever-present type of conversation.”

In a recent conversation with Penguin Random House, Kelly discussed the impact of these powerful forces, the future of truth and facts, and the most important skill we need to thrive in this brave new world where change is the status quo.

PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE:I’d like to ask you about machine bias. My understanding is that artificial intelligence (AI) learns bias from its human creators. For example, algorithms used in criminal sentencing have allegedly shown bias against African Americans. If machine bias stems from human beings, how do we prevent it?

KEVIN KELLY: In broader terms we will use the same kinds of approaches that we use for countering bias in humans: education, training, rules, valuation of outcome. So it’s going to be very complicated. In addition to what we normally use, we will also have to use the layers of AI to monitor other AIs. We’re going to make the things even more complicated because right now we humans don’t have very good access to the thinking process of AIs. We have only their results. How they get there—they can’t really explain it to us.

Having explainable AI is actually a current research agenda, and that entails adding other layers of AI to monitor the AI to see if it can actually articulate what the intermediate steps are or how it gets there. As you know, even humans have difficulty explaining ourselves, and we have a lot of apparatus to do that, including language. So it’s going to be an ongoing process. I think it’s possible, so it will require a multifaceted approach.

PRH:Much of the effect of technology as you describe it is to remove obstacles, to enable and empower us, to make our lives smoother and easier. In the future you write about, what will happen to the value of coping with adversity? Will technology make us soft?

KK: People ask that question particularly in relation to education and kids. If we use technology to remove all obstacles and overcome all hurdles, where will grit and gumption come from in our kids? My belief is that most of the problems and hurdles and challenges that we have today are caused by technology from the past, and so there will be plenty of new problems and difficulties created by the technology in the future. There will be new problems! So kids today maybe don’t have the same problems of overcoming nutrition, or getting easily broken bones, or other physical challenges, but now they have more problems that are mental challenges that come from our prosperity. So I don’t think we’re going to run out of things to challenge kids with.

PRH: Right now there’s a lot of concern about human beings losing jobs to AI. You write that the jobs that will disappear are low-skilled jobs people shouldn’t be doing anyway, like, say, picking fruit. That suggests the future belongs to creatives, to people who work with ideas. But not everyone is meant to be a creative. So do you think there will be jobs for people who are not creatively inclined?

KK:: I do, and I think there will be a lot of them. I think we may even come to value them, meaning that we’re willing to pay for them. One of the few things that we make that are rising in real prices versus dropping over time—most things we manufacture are dropping in price over time, they’re headed toward zero; they won’t get there but they’re on that downward drift—the exception to that downward drift of prices for most things are experiences. And a lot of the experiences that we crave are just experiences of being around other humans, having someone sit next to us, or having an encounter in a shop.

So while everything else is going to, say, e-commerce and we don’t even deal with people, we still have a desire to encounter somebody and have a discussion and have that presence of a real person. Or if we’re sick, having someone sit next to us, or having a doctor come out to visit us, or have the personal attention of a coach, whatever. So those are not necessarily the most intellectually creative jobs in the world, but they require that we be empathetic, and socially creative. The value of human contact is something that I think is going to continue to grow, and as I’m saying, those are the things that we’re now paying a lot of money for. They’re increasing in prices. So that kind of face-to-face embodiment will continue to increase in value and that’s an opportunity for many people to offer something that the machine’s not going to offer.

PRH:How can the average person best prepare himself or herself for this future world?

KK: I think the primary skill, the meta skill, is learning how to learn. And that should be the major skill that schools should aim to instill in students — the ability to learn how to learn new things. And obviously that ability varies from person to person, but everybody can get better at it. We’re going to be perpetual newbies at any age. The young people today think they have a pass because they were born into this new environment, but in five years there’s going to be something that was invented after they were born, and they are going to have to learn it like the rest of us. So they will soon be back into the newbie position just like the rest of us. Everybody is going to be a newbie. Everybody is going to have to keep learning. So that ability to keep learning new things and unlearning the old things is the main thing that you want to be working on, because it’s not necessarily easy and it’s not necessarily comfortable, but we all can get better at it.

PRH:You note that governments are slow to adapt to changing technology. What are some key technological areas that governments should focus on in order to provide good governance and protect their citizens?

KK: Governance operates at various scales from the neighborhood, filling potholes and keeping home safe, to cities. For the most part, the governance of a city has more effect on your prosperity than almost anything else—even more than what country you live in. Cities and nation states legislate and regulate, and this is essential in a modern world. But these regulations should be slow and conservative. Regulation is good, but premature regulation is a real disaster. Early laws can lock in technology before we know how the technology works, what it’s good for, what it’s bad for, and that takes time. I think regulation should come late, not early.

There are other things that government does. It can pool resources to work on things that markets can’t, which among many other things are long-term investments into science and technology, working on projects that take longer than a company’s five quarters that a company could justify. I think our own government, the U.S. government, used to excel in that, and now it’s fallen behind in funding those kinds of basic investments into the future, future projects, future research and technology. Move a couple trillion dollars that are spent on fruitless war and bring it into science and technology and education and it would multiply a hundredfold.

Of course the government itself should modernize. That’s a challenge, but if you look organizations like Code for America, that’s a great, fantastic volunteer program of people who have technical skills coming into governments, often local and city governments, and helping them modernize their apparatus to match the rest of society. So we can upgrade the interface to government, which is full of many well-intentioned people that are often stymied because of existing infrastructure. That’s another way we can use technology to improve the world.

PRH:You talk a lot about personalization. In your chapter on flowing, you describe a future world where “the free copy of a book can be custom edited by the publishers to reflect your own previous reading background.” Doesn’t that kind of personalization risk creating a feedback loop where people become entrenched in their own interests and are less likely to encounter new things? Does personalization have a negative effect on discovery?

KK: Yes. You’re absolutely right that this isolating loop is a problem in the digital world. If you only see what you already like and agree with—which is ultimate personalization—then you’re certainly going to be stymied in terms of what you can learn, and you’ll probably even be stymied in your total satisfaction. So in trying to figure out what the ideal mix of your consumption is, it’s very clear that you want to be introduced to serendipitous stuff that you had no idea about, that you didn’t even believe that you were interested in, maybe even things that you previously disliked. And you need to check your likes again and again, so to speak, because people change over time.

So the optimal mix is not one-hundred percent personalization. We do need unexpected and uncomfortable things, but not much of it. The amount of serendipity that we need is actually not super high, maybe only less than five percent, so personalization is still going to be the majority of what we filter. But we also have to be prodded and surprised by other stuff, and that mix is going to vary by individual. Maybe there are people who want fifty percent new things that they’ve never heard before. That’s a very unusual person. I think the non-personalized percentage is a much smaller number for most people.

PRH:In your chapter on screening, you write about a future where “truth is not delivered by authors and authorities but is assembled in real time piece by piece by the audience themselves.” In this future, “people of the screen make their own content and construct their own truth.” This calls to mind ideas like “alternative facts” and “fake news.” If people construct their own truths, what happens to the baseline of facts that we as a society require in order to have civil, intelligent discourse?

KK: It’s a real issue these days with fake news, alternative news, and it’s a challenge. I think there are deep currents to this challenge. For one, the world of facts, the amount of facts, the amount of known things keeps expanding, so there is no way I could be expert on everything. It’s actually not surprising that a lot of people have difficulty deciding what’s true, because we have escaped the realm where we can actually be masters of all this information. We have to ultimately rely on institutions or other sources to say, “This is true, this is not true,” whether it’s Wikipedia or the New York Times or whatever. Increasingly I think what we’re going to do is, if we want an answer, we’re going to ask a machine. So the questions can become: Which machine are you asking? Where is your source going to be? Because the machine will give you answers, but how reliable are those answers? We see this already with different politically slanted news sources.

And so part of what I think we’re going to evolve is a kind of truth-signaling layer where statements are given by the internet, by the system, by a company, by an institution, and they’re given a probability of being true. Say, the capitol of the U.S.A. is Washington DC. This has confidence level of ninety-eight percent of being true. A different statement that New York is the capitol might have a confidence factor of only twenty-five percent chance of being true. This probability level is generated by the fact that each source has a reputation of truthfulness that is given by other sources who confirm or refute it, and these sources themselves are rated by others. So the confidence is not given by an authority or agency; rather it’s given by the authority of the entire system. This is like the blockchain in cryptocurrency. In fact you can actually have kind of a blockchain-like distributed system that would suggest a level of confidence in something being reliable or true. I think we’ll just get used to that idea that every fact has a probability rather than a certainty.

PRH:Along those same lines, in your chapter on questioning, you write that in an age of global connection, for every fact we come across, “there is, within easy reach, a challenge to that fact.” Therefore, our sense of certainty decreases, so we must constantly question what we think we know. But we now know that people prefer to seek out information that reinforces what they believe. In a world of facts and “antifacts,” can we be confident that people will question what they think they know?

KK: On average, yes. Of whatever political stripe you want to mention, there will be people who will be fundamentalist and dogmatic about it. There’s no escaping that. I think in general though, I think we’ll see a trend where ideas may be given less certitude on average than in the past. So this is the nature of science, right? In theory, scientists are all provisional, despite what they really believe they should say—“Well you know, I believe, but I’m not one-hundred percent certain because I could change my mind”—and I think that sensibility is increasing.

But we’re never going to get to one-hundred percent. I don’t think we’re going to get to maybe even a majority soon, but the general trend is that the world is more relativistic, more provisional, more uncertain. Again, as the world gets more complicated, as truth itself becomes more complicated, as counter facts become wider known and everyone has access to doubts and counter-arguments, I think there is inherently going to be a continuing crisis in certitude.

Here’s the other thing that I think happens: I think people can become dogmatic in certain domains but actually still pretty open-minded in others, so they may retreat to some dogma about politics or religion or something and still be very, very open to things that they don’t know anything about or that are foreign to them—which will be more and more of the world. So I think while there are certainly dogmatic personalities, I think the dogmatic people I know are actually sometimes very open in other domains.

So I think it is a general trend that the explosion of information and knowledge and multiple degrees—and even things like virtual reality as it comes along, enabling people to try out empathy in different domains—will also contribute to the relativistic view of the world. Spend a day as a woman, spend a day as a minority in this world and see what happens. I think that will also contribute to a little bit more open-mindedness.

PRH: The future you depict in some of your “day in the life” scenarios seems to require a lot of multitasking. But studies show that humans’ executive function isn’t really good at multitasking. To succeed in the world of the future, must we evolve to multitask better?

KK: It might have seemed as if my scenarios had a lot of multitasking, though if it did it was inadvertent, because I’m not a big believer in the power of multitasking. Some of the studies I’ve seen suggest that the profession of digital millennials that they can multitask is actually incorrect. They’re not very good multitaskers, though they think they are. It’s possible that we could have some training in this and learn how to do it better. There are certainly some tasks which we can multitask with, [like] listening to something while doing other things. There may be some new, other exceptions that we uncover. But I think it’s more like the time-sharing model where we might be shifting things, where we’re not doing two things at once but we’re doing things in very short bursts. I don’t know what that word would be, but that’s what time-sharing was, where you’re only doing one thing at a time but you’re switching a lot. So there could be kind of fast-switching—maybe we could call it that. That seems likely and something I think humans can be capable of and probably trained to do, where you’re fast-switching between different projects or things. You may be giving your attention for five minutes then switching to something else. So I think fast-switching is maybe more the model that I’m imagining rather than multitasking.

PRH: Let’s talk about the future of equal access to technology. In fifty years, how will the poor experience technology differently than the rich?

KK: That’s a good question. There certainly will be a difference. Inequality won’t be eradicated in fifty years. So I tend to think of the structure of these things as the haves and the have-laters. The haves basically pay for technology when it’s really crummy and early and expensive, so they overpay for it. And that overpayment and use of it brings down the cost until it’s affordable by the have-laters. And then the have-laters get great technology for very cheap. That’s sort of what happened with cell phones. So you have all the early cell phone business guys who were paying [multiple] thousands of dollars for this brick that didn’t work very well, and because they were all overpaying for it, it enabled the cycles of innovation and commerce to generate cell phones that cost, say, $30. And everybody had one and they were really great. So the haves in some senses, like, say, of the early VR, will overpay for technology that doesn’t work very well, enabling the have-laters to get really great stuff that works fantastic. So in a certain sense the have-laters have the best deal, because they get cheap technology that works fantastic. But of course they get it later. And they may get it a decade later.

So in some senses the shift is in time. I don’t buy state-of-the-art camera equipment even though I’m a very serious photographer, but I always pretend that I’m buying something a decade ago. Like the $300 or $400 I’ll pay for a camera now, a decade ago that camera was state of the art. I’m just buying this in 2007, and it’s like the best camera in the world, and I’m very excited. I’m not buying an inferior one. I just pretend that I’m shooting a decade ago and then I’m happy. So that’s one thing going on with that is that there’s the haves and have-laters. And I think fifty years from now, the have-laters, they’ll be living like the super-rich today in a certain sense. You’ll have not the whole lifestyle, but you’ll have all the kind of stuff that everybody on Earth will have access to—smartphones, and they’ll have access to the bandwidth that we have now, and they’ll have access to VR greatly exceeding what the rich have today. But of course there won’t be anything like what’s available to the rich.

So there’s a slow rise of all boats, but there definitely is going to be a gap, and the question people really want to know is, is that gap widening or not? I think technologically the gap is narrowing over time. In other words the difference in the technology that a billionaire can buy versus somebody in India in another fifty years will be even less; there won’t be as much of a difference in fifty years as there is today. So technologically I think the gap is going to decrease slowly. But there are social, cultural differences. The historical evidence is that on a global average—not America, not the West, but all the countries of the world on a global average—that differential is actually closing and has been for the last two-hundred years. Whether it will continue, that’s a question we don’t know. At least I don’t know whether the global average between the super rich and the super poor—or even the average rich and the average poor—whether that’s going to close. We’ll see. There is certainly a power imbalance in what the rich can do.

But I also have to make one other final observation, which is if you look at the lifestyles of billionaires, they’re not a thousand times richer in their lifestyle than millionaires—because a billionaire is a thousand times richer in dollars, right? So in that sense, there is some threshold beyond which more money doesn’t make any difference. They have more power and other kinds of stuff, but in terms of their lifestyle and the cars that they drive and the clothes that they wear, the standard of living—the standard of living of a billionaire is not a thousand times more than a millionaire. So there are limits to how different your living standards can be, just practical limits, and I think some of those limits continue to shrink over time.

PRH:In discussing the idea of remixing, you use the example of filmmaking “being liberated from the stranglehold of photography.” But filmmakers still see a value in achieving things “in camera” as opposed to manipulating things in post-production. Isn’t there a value in doing things the analog way? Is there an artistry that we stand to lose by relying too much on technology?

KK: You’re asking the wrong person because I am completely over analog. I don’t get the whole retro fascination with film. My son is into it. It’s like there’s just simply nothing that chemical film can do that computers can’t do better. Computers can imitate any look in film. Analog film is a fetish, it’s a superstition. There’s a kind of regard for lenses and heavy glass that also is going to go away, because you can have flat lenses—I mean just a flat plane of a thousand million little micro lenses and some of the stuff that they’re working on now with light fields. I think when VR comes along and we have a full 3D volumetric capture, a true light field capture—that is every ray in every possible direction. I think once we get into the full volumetric capture of a light field then we’ll get over the kind of concept that there’s anything sacred or special about a camera with a lens.

Computational photography is really the only kind of photography there’s going to be in the future. Of course there are going to be collectors; there is a beauty in physical artifacts. I see that and appreciate it. In fact I have a whole trunk full of heavy glass, brass-bodied cameras. I have paid my dues, so I understand the attraction there and that will never go away. But let’s just say ninety-nine percent of the images in the future will be captured without that kind of gear. There’ll be a tribe of people who enjoy the analog version and its constraints. I spent enough hours of my life in a dark room; I understand the magic of a wet plate, it is really amazing to see images appear in the dark. And tintype photos are just so cool—but this is an avocation. It will always be kind of a hobby thing. The analog mode is not even going to register in the amount of photos taken worldwide each day.

PRH:I want to ask you about co-veillance. There’s a lot of talk about police body cam videos for example. They were conceived as a way for us to keep police accountable, but the police control them and they’ve become as much if not more of a way for the police to surveill private citizens. Or take CCTV; that footage stays in the hands of the organizations or governments conducting the surveillance. So what’s the incentive for those in power to participate in co-veillance?

KK: It’s a great question. There isn’t any self-interest, so that to me is where civilization comes in. The answer is it has to come from citizens. We have to combat that and we have to be organized in our demand for it. Where does the incentive to spend money on education come from? Yes, it could come from teachers, but it has to come from the citizens demanding that you use taxes for that. So it just has to be something that, if the cops are going to film, then we have to be able to film the cops. It has to be very simple. It has to be kind of a social demand, a social equation, and so far there’s not a lot of grassroots organizations for that, but I don’t see any other route to it. It has to be written into law, it has to be something that’s embraced widely and have the force of enforcement. But we’re not doing that right now, so it’s a big step. It’s like privacy stuff, it has to come from the consumers, and consumers are not actually demanding that right now.

PRH:In the future when we’re even more connected than we are now, will there be a place for loners? Will they be penalized for being the way they are?

KK: There are all different kinds of loners, and in a certain sense they will be penalized and rewarded. The penalty is that as always, I think society makes people better, that you’re a better person because of the support and guidance and everything else that we get from people around us. And if you’re a loner, then you don’t get the benefit of that. At the same time, when everybody is connected all the time and we have seven billion people whose minds are all interwoven and connected together, it gets really difficult to think differently. And if you’re a loner, you have the advantage that you can think differently, but of course your thoughts, your ideas don’t mean anything unless you’re connected.

So there’s a paradox, a challenge for the loners, because even if they have a fantastic insight, it’s lost unless it’s communicated to everybody else. So I think in general that possibility should always continue to exist. We should always be able to drop out if we want, and not just as a loner but also to drop out of technology, to not adopt something. But the reason why people do adopt it is because generally there’s some benefit, and so you have the benefit of thinking different but you have the challenge of being able to make a difference. I think that’s nothing new. I think that’s always been true. There have always been loners in every community and that’s the challenge they have—they can be eccentric and exotic and brilliant, but oftentimes a lot of that benefit is lost to the community because they aren’t as fully connected. For some of them that’s fine, and that’s a decision, and I think we should always honor that decision.

So we should always allow that ability, and I have to say that when you have a one-world government as we’re moving toward, it becomes kind of harder to—you can drop out of the communication, but you can’t really drop out of the system in terms of what laws you’re going to obey. If we have a unified one-machine global super-organism, if globalism really becomes real, then if you don’t agree with the system that’s a much harder thing to drop out of. You can’t just say, “Well, I’m not going to obey the laws. I don’t like these laws.” But if these are the only laws you have and you can’t drop out, that’s a much more difficult thing.

I can certainly imagine in the future that there are more people who are outlaws in that sense of, they’re just dropping out of the system entirely and don’t want anything to do with it. And that will be the challenge for society is, how do we, what do we do with the people who just don’t want to play by the system at all? They may be homeless or whatever, but it’s by choice. It’s kind of a deliberate dropping out. I think that’s going to be a real challenge as we become more global.

PRH:Do you believe people should have the fundamental right to drop out?

KK: That’s a good question. I believe we’ll have eventually the basic human right of mobility, meaning you can live anywhere you want as long as you obey the local rules. But do you have the right to obey no rules? Or your own rules? I don’t think so. I haven’t thought about it but my first guess would be that you don’t have a right to not obey the local rules. So will you be able to define a place where there’s no rules? I don’t know. Maybe if we have a global world government, there’s an island where all the anarchists can go and feud. That’s a really good question. I don’t know. My first impression is that it would be kind of hard to imagine a place, although you could have “Freedonia” where the anarchists all go and it’s an island state that they’d have free of laws. That would be interesting.

PRH:Is there anything analog that you love?

KK: Well, I’m right now talking in the middle of a two-story high library of paper books. And the last two books I did were oversized—they weight five pounds—and I’m working on another book that’s going to be even bigger. So yes, I have an absolute love of paper books. In fact [collaborator and Boing Boing co-founder] Mark Frauenfelder and I ran a website called Wink, which was about books that belonged on paper, where every day we reviewed or ran other reviews of books that belong on paper. And of course I read on the Kindle and I do probably most of my reading on a screen, but I do appreciate the longevity and the ease of access and the navigation of paper books. I think the books that exist now will be around a long time, though I think increasingly they will become scarce. In fact the way I say it right now is, books have never been as cheap as they are now and they will never be as cheap as they are right now. If you really want to build a library, this is the time to do it.

I think in the long future, fewer and fewer books will be printed on paper, because we can actually make an e-book that looks like a lot like thin pages and each of those pages is basically a screen, and you can bind them into a book and you can turn the pages. But you can actually swipe over the pages, and they respond, and you can have a whole new book displayed in the same pages. So that format of the book could continue, and there would be some very fine analog examples of these books, but the contents would be dynamic inside these stable forms. So I think that’s one of the ways we could go with e-books. You’d have five or ten beautiful books in your house, and it could be any kind of book that you wanted, and you could read it like a regular book today. But I think the old-fashioned paper books, they can last for hundreds if not thousands of years if they’re cared for, so they aren’t necessarily going to go away. There will just be less of them produced in the future because the price of them is unnecessary. It’s not that they’re expensive. Technology is actually making books cheaper and cheaper, so it’s just that the digital version of them will get better and better.



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