How to embrace the inevitable technology trends shaping our future
[Amy Jo Kim] Welcome Kevin to the Getting2Alpha podcast.
[Kevin Kelly] It’s a real honor and privilege to be here, Amy. Thanks for having me.
I’m thrilled. It’s a real full circle moment for me, because you really helped to launch my career in online gaming. I’m really excited about your new book. I’ve read it. I’ve listened to it on tape. I’ve made a chart of all the different ideas in it. It’s really awesome. Now, some people don’t know you that well, so give us a whirlwind tour of your background. In particular, how did you get started in tech, and how did you decide what to pursue along the way? What were those key turning points that changed your course?
Yeah. I was basically kind of a technologist, less kind of a low-tech hippie mostly drifting in Asia, I owned a camera and later owned a bicycle but not much more than that and I had kind of a very, familiar, not distaste but skepticism with technology which I though was, in terms of kind of cold and maybe hard and was something you wanted to keep at arms-length. That changed when I had the opportunity to plug a computer into the phone jack and discovered that on this other side was an opening world of communities and experiences that seemed to me to be more organic and flexible and human scale and we could only call it technological but it wasn’t technology as I had imagined it.
It was new kind of technology or a different face of it, and over time as these technological digital tools became more and more prevalent, I saw a different face of technology. I became a little bit more interested in it and more involved in it and eventually I became basically full-time in trying to understand it. That was the big moment for me and that was around 1981 or so.
Then what happened?
As I became more involved in it and I was trying to understand it more, I was starting to write, I began as a photographer and then I gradually drifted to writing about travel. The very first big article I ever did was called Networks Nation. I treated this opening territory as if it was a foreign country and I was going to write a travel piece. I would go and try and describe this new world as if it was exotic country.
From there I began to try and understand it more, the second maybe galvanizing moment was when I went to my very first scientific conference, which happened to be the first artificial life conference at Los Alamos National Labs, which was basically a call out in the very embryonic internet, like in 1989 or something, was if you’re doing research in artificial life come to this conference talk about it. There were all these very unusual people who were doing very, very diverse things came together and I basically blogged, which we were now, say I blogged, big conference every talk, I wrote a summary of it, and posted it online. In that moment of listening, I got this vision that this technology that I was so interested in, now this computer kind of stuff was actually, it was more organic and human skill.
Because in fact it was much more biological and there was this biological face to technology that I had never seen and so I began to write and research about this idea. The technology was basically an extension of evolution in life. The two were two faces of the same god. They were two facets of the same thing. From that came my first book which I wrote, “Caught Out of Control”, which was trying to describe how this technology was becoming … We were importing biological principles into it in order to make it more complex and usable to us.
That in fact it really was sort of more organic in that sense and that stuff has informed word of what I do now and where I went even with Wired which was looking at this stuff that we were making as being derived from the same fundamental principles that has created all life around this our own lives in and our own lines.
Kind of. I mean eventually I think there is aspects of technology where we’re getting to bind the mechanical and we’re getting together, I think there is that but just that even when we don’t, even when there is the internet it’s good to increasingly behave more or less as if it was a living thing.
The line between that and your current book is very clear and I love the way that you really tease that out and give this very present advice to people. Your new book is called “The Inevitable.” In that you are describing how technology is really changing our world and how we are shaping ourselves with technology. What I want to know, how did writing this book, because you’ve been writing it for how long now? Now its published, how long have been working on it?
There are pieces that I began 10 years ago, writing on it.
Okay, so how did writing this book and getting to the finish line, which we’ll get back to, how did that deepen your understanding of where tech was headed?
In the course of, in the last 10 years I would say, in reading and researching this book and the previous book, “What Technology Wants,” I had a complete kind of change of mind in the process of writing it and that is I, against my wishes I became convinced that technology is deterministic in a certain sense. That there are some things inevitable about it that sequence of it is kind of almost developmental rather than evolutionary meaning that go through or some predetermined stages say on any planet they might occur on.
That was not this idea of sort of seeing that we … There were some aspects of technology that we didn’t have much choice about including the discovery of the fact that that most technology is … if not all technology is being simultaneously independently discovered around the world so that when it’s ready many people will have the same idea, instead of the heroic visionary that invents things themselves, these are things that are kind of going to happen no matter who discovers them. That position was not where I thought I would become or go towards. The evidence sort of just compelled me to reluctantly accept that.
I think writing it over time I became more and more aware that we needed to accept and embrace the certain aspects of technology which were going to come anyway and maybe give ourselves focus on the parts that we could change. The idea is that the large scale genre level trends are inevitable whereas the specific particular species of things are completely unpredictable. By the way they make a huge difference to us, so the analogy I might say is like I can imagine rain falling down on to a valley and the bottom which is a river so that the pathway of a particular raindrop as it falls down the hillside is completely unpredictable, but the direction is inevitable which is downward.
The particulars we can’t … The particular product or species or company, is unpredictable yet this direction is known, is going to keep going down. The internet would be at the level of a valley which is going to happen, but the character of the internet whether it’s national or international, open or close, commercial or nonprofit, those are not decided, those are not inevitable, those are not predictable. That character makes a huge difference to us.
I became convinced that we have to embrace these larger inevitabilities of more tracking, more AI, more interaction, more copying, more sharing so that in order that we can then steer in the particulars. That we can’t, if we prohibit stuff, or try to stop it or to outlaw it or to turn it off or turn it down, then we can’t steer. So it’s by embracing these things in their largest view that we can actually then determine and choose the particulars.
In that way you’re providing a roadmap for those who choose to see it that way and get out ahead of what’s happening and I love that idea of steering. A lot of what’s really interesting to me about what you describe in this book to me I am seeing this vision for a collective and connected world where products morph into services, and content is supplanted by experiences, and what product development means is the continuous feedback loop with customers for something, they’re delivering that never stops evolving.
Yeah that’s correct, I think trying to put your finger on it very well which is that the general arc of a lot these trends have something in common which is that there is this move from the solid and the material, the nouns to verbs in the fluid, and the immaterial where you have emphasis, either on products, either on services and so that’s true in general and that’s actually … There is evidence in the data that that’s actually happening.
That general shift is fundamental, so once you have things that are more fluid and dynamic and flexible and in facts, then that allows all these other things to happen like where we can deliver them on demand, the shift from owning things to accessing things, the shift even in the way that we understand how things are true because there is no longer fixed authorities, there is much more of a kind of a network to truth, you have to assemble yourself. The ramifications go across the board.
Yup, and that’s all part of a larger trend that’s very impactful in my world which is toward building systems rather than say building web pages or building apps. Paul Adams, who is one of the really interesting people in the internet design world, is a VP of Product Intercom, told me that his toughest UX recruiting challenge is that so many people don’t think in terms of systems and he believes the future is systems. I see systems thinking embedded in all your work?
Yeah, that’s a really good point that I don’t think other people have noticed as much as you have and that is, is that fluidity is really based in fact that there is these systems and the systems have their own behavior and that’s where some of the biases, and what I call the leanings or the directions in technology comes from is the fact that there is a system. Right now, that your pen and your shoe and your car and your stairway or with your own technology those aren’t alive but the system of all these technologies together which are interdependent, co-dependent and you need a drill press to make a computer and a computer to make a drill press, so there are these cursive connections.
These are systems, so that the system of technology which I call the technian, does behave as if it was a living thing, because it has these recurring patterns. It’s a system, and you’re right, I think if you edit to add to my short list of things to teach in school it would be system thinking in addition to I would add it to my techno-literacy list of learning how to learn, critical thinking and then systems thinking would certainly be on that list.
How did you become a systems thinker? You told us about your background, how and when did you become and how did you learn to be a systems thinker?
All I know is that when I read “The Whole Earth Catalog” the last year of high school, there was a section of “The Whole Earth Catalog” by Stewart Brand which was this bible for back to the land, do-it-yourself hippies or when to build their own house and grow their own food and start a small business. There was a chapter or a section of the book called whole systems, and somehow I just, I want to use the word I grok’ed that.
You absorbed it, you grok’ed it. Everyone should know what grok means, for those because it’s a great reference.
Right, exactly it’s a reference to stranger-
Robert Heinlein story. Grok would mean basically to deeply understand almost be at the level of technician where you just kind of you’re in-tune with the-
Yeah, it’s like your vision…
Yeah exactly, somehow I just immediately understood what it was and I don’t know why but I just intuitively said, “Yeah I get this, this is like, this is key, this is important.” What Stewart Brand was doing with the catalog was giving resources and I probably delved into the resources and that probably became more literate in that way and then which only encouraged me to think more. Yeah you’re right I do think in terms of systems and I think technology is one of our systems and it is a system it’s not a thing, it’s a system. So applying that systems thinking is I think a key skill really right now to doing anything today because that’s what we’re dealing with and systems have their own antics really.
There is a great book out written long ago called “The System Antics” and it’s a little lighthearted but it actually, there is a lot of profound wisdom in it and it’s talking about the general principles of systems, how they tend to want to persevere, how the only way to make a big complicated system that works is to start with the small system that works and you kind of make it more complex. There are some basic understandings about how systems work which-
That’s actually one of the quotes I start my programs with is every complex system started as a simple system that worked.
It’s so true and I learned all that in gaming and game design that you’re building all kinds of systems, it’s totally systems engineering. You mentioned Stewart Brand and I know you’ve mentioned him as a real influence and compadre in all of this. He wrote an amazing book called, “How Buildings Learn.”
There is a thread between that and your book because that’s a counterintuitive idea for a lot of people, a building is solid and you just make it. You also bring up some counterintuitive ideas about technology and how fluid it is. Is that like an influence on you?
I’m sure it must have an influence but Stewart and I, we interact probably every other day for the past 35 years, so I’m undoubtedly I’m influenced by that idea. Briefly he sees buildings as basically things that change constantly over time and that to make the best kind of building you actually want to make it with the full knowledge that is going to change. That’s one of the arguments you’d have against kind of these buildings and sculpture is kind of art because they’re not really made to adapt but instead all good buildings are in constant evolution as they adapt to how they’re being used by the people who are using them.
You ideally want to make something, a building that is changeable at some level, because he said, building is a system, it’s not a noun, it’s not a single thing, it’s a system of all different things that are in the process of becoming something else, and that’s the first chapter of the book is called “Becoming,” which is basically everything is mutable. The things that are more complicated in systems likes are more mutable than other things which makes them, in this today were better. That we ourselves of course are becoming something and to kind of sit ourselves with this emerging world of everything always becoming and being upgraded.
That we have to sort of learned to do that and part of that is taking the stance that the newbie, that perpetual newbie which is always willing to unlearn and then re-learn.
Sort of a Zen Beginner’s mind.
It is, and that’s easier for some people than others but I think we all can get better at it.
It’s a skill, you can build it. You’re not just a writer and editor and an analyst, you’re a creator and a maker, you’ve made a website, you’ve made many books. You now have just made an, how to publish a book, how do you grapple with becoming this theme. This theme of change in your own creative projects? How do you decide which ideas to pursue and which ones to filter it out?
That’s a good question because actually it began making things as a kid, as a model train maker then I made a nature museum then I made a chemistry lab all for high school, and continued along and built a house from scratch, including cutting down all the timber, et cetera. The idea of what to do next is that’s the core that’s what Peter Drucker called the executive function which is not just a matter of doing the job right you want to make sure you do the right job, which is actually more important.
That used to be something the executives, the higher boss, used to decide, now everybody has to decide that so it’s a kind of like it’s been pushed down, so deciding what’s the right thing to do is really extremely difficult and the one main as I have gotten older and have had some successful projects. The opportunities expand so that this job becomes even more difficult because I have more choices and the thing that I use recently that the heuristic that I use recently to help is to asking myself whether anybody else can or would do what I want to do or what I was thinking of doing. The way I deal with that is I try and first of all I talk about what I’m doing or thinking about doing to everybody who wants to listen.
I also try to give the idea way, try to encourage other people to steal this idea and do it and oftentimes if I can’t give the idea away I’ll kind of return to it and then give it a couple more tries, where else trying to kill it sounds this really bad idea, I think it’s stupid. And if it keeps coming back as a good idea that can’t I can’t give it away then I decide, well then if I really want to have done I have to do it and I’m confidently then no one else is going to do it because I haven’t been able to give it away. I haven’t seen anybody else do it so the jobs, the projects that are given away or that I find other people doing it, actually to me are a relief.
It’s like, oh I don’t have to do that one, that one has been done by somebody else and if someone else is working on something similar to me while I’m doing it , it’s like I stop, they go on. For me it’s a matter of finding those few projects that I like to do, that I want to do that maybe makes sense and I am the only one who can do it, and that’s a little bit of a process it takes some time. I’m not fast about it, a little slow but those are the best ones because then it’s kind of easy a little bit in the sense that it’s going to be, you know it’s more of me and it’s a little bit more natural in that sense because there is no one else who can do it so that’s sort of what I am looking for is those things that, if unless I do and no one else would do it.
You partially answered my next question but we can dig a little deeper because it’s a great topic. As a creator and maker … Because I know you have a super power as an editor because I experienced that myself. As a creator and maker on your own projects what’s your super power, what’s your sweet spot and what kind of projects really light you up?
In my professional realm, the place where I make my money, I ask good questions and I’m often not afraid to ask the stupid question that a lot of other people are embarrassed to ask. That’s something I did all my life and even when I was a kid, I always sat up front of the classroom. I raised my hands and asked all the stupid questions that everybody else had in their mind but weren’t about to ask, but I did. In interviews and stuff I did the same thing and it’s not just the stupid questions so I also asked the good questions that kind of are able to unleash some kind of insight which I can then write down.
I think the kind of things that I do don’t always require questions but they do require … The kind of things I like to do are things that are just the adjacent step they’re just one step away but they’re not an obvious step. I like things that are … I wouldn’t call them hacks, they’re are sort of things that are near but adjacent but not quite visible and I’m trying to give a good example of this. Well, in the sort of sense, Wired was like that. The thing about Wired in retrospect was it was probably inevitable somebody would do it somebody would come along. It was sort of it was a near space it was something that was the next our step that looked obvious in retrospect but at the time seemed to be a jump a leap.
To outsiders like whole that’s an amazing thing but to us it was like this is just a natural step and it maybe not unlikely, but it was a very … It was just a single step it wasn’t like two steps down the road or five steps down the road it was just one step. To get kind of belief that this was the center of things even though it seemed like on the margin that was the kinds of things I’m looking for more often is something that’s not ten steps down the road. Just one step but off to the side that wasn’t such an obvious step that would seem obvious anyway in retrospect.
Well I had that experience with you personally when you nudged me into doing an article about MMO’s when Ultima online was in the data because when we started and it wasn’t that obvious. I told you about many projects that my students were working on at the time and you’re like that one, that one is interesting you should write about that one for Wired. Like you really zoomed in on it, in retrospect obvious, but at the time it wasn’t at all obvious.
I think it’s like when they give you a story writing class what you always want to have is to have your characters and have to make decisions constantly. When they are making decisions you want it to be so that the decisions seem like a real decision but that in retrospect it looks very obvious. Of course they had issues of course Luke had to go with Obiwan, but at the moment that we had it still had to be a real decision not between good and bad but between two goods. There is that same kind of sense of what the decision should be unclear at that moment but it should be very clear in retrospect.
I really want to know now to follow up on that, you’ve actually, you’ve finished your book it’s published, it’s awesome everybody should read it. You’ve actually made something get done which is hard in a becoming world to get something done. Now that that’s in the can, as they say, what new trends are you most closely follow, whose work are you paying attention to, what’s in your radar?
I feel involved in the things that I’ve talked about, the most profound disruptive to use the old word, impactful thing going on and for the next 30 years is artificial intelligence. I think we are still underestimating the degree to which this going to transform our lives even within 30 years. I’m trying to kind of keep up in a certain sense of trying to read what I can to not get too out-of-date, because it’s really moving very fast. That’s not really something new that’s just trying to continue that because I think it’s important and interesting things will happen.
I’m doing another project we’ve been working on a long term and I have an assistant working on that which is I’m collecting all the existing long term forecasts into the future the next 10 years plus. I’m trying to take each of these forecasts which by definition are very unreliable. We are trying to integrate them into a unified forecast for the next 20 years to make it kind of like … I’m trying to build a world that’s based on this forecast just to see if it could happen. This has a high likelihood of failure but if it worked it might be useful to people. There are some science fiction authors talking about trying to write a shared world and so …
What kind of a world?
This is a near future world this would be a world on the planet in the next say 25 years from now so it’s nearby it’s just …
You mean a digital world or a physical world?
No just a description of a world, they call it world building. If you were too make a science fiction film.
Oh okay like Tolkien.
Like world building in the narrative sense.
In the narrative sense.
This would be all the details about what does the beds look like what do they have for breakfast. It’s not so much the big things it’s the particulars like the little scenarios they did in this book “Inevitable.” Give a little hint of like doing a little vineyard of like what would the actual world look like. More than that would be a historical world meaning that we would have every year along the way. Is like how did you get to that you would have to work back through years so that every year there would be a version of that world. It’s an experiment that might be useful to fiction writers and it might be useful to people trying to make forecasts by trying to integrate it. That’s something that I’m working on right now that’s probably another eight months left. By the way if you’re already doing it let me know then I won’t have to do this because I’d much rather look at that … but there is a third thing.
The thing about artificial intelligence and virtual reality and all these things is that they are very hot. There is a lot of attention, a lot of people talking about it a lot of energy being devoted to trying to mention it. I want you to look at something that nobody was, nobody was looking at, nobody cared about and I found something that I find really interesting and this is me here I am right now I’m going to try and give a way these ideas.
Hopefully someone will do it. I don’t want to have to do it but here is the thing that I’m kind of conjuring with. That is I’m taking the idea of world government seriously. What would be a functioning democratic world government look like if we decided we want one and I think we should have one. None of my friends on the left think it’s a good idea, none of my friends on the right thinks it’s a good idea and actually that’s why I’m interested in it. It seems to me that its inevitable, Star Trek, I mean every planet has to have world government. What would that look like? What does that actually … What’s the contours, how does it work what level does it … We won’t talk about how we got there but just like if you wanted to make it happen if you wanted to design it it’s like a design problem.
You know what though I don’t think you can talk about it as a design problem without how it got there because it has to be a system.
I would say this is where we want go how do we get there would be the second question.
Okay got it, okay so the vision is this is where you want to go, so my question for you based on just having built lots, and lots, and lots of systems. Is what’s your MVP, what’s your Minimum Viable Product if you were going to go there, what’s the smallest version of it that would get it going, that could get it going?
For world government?
That’s exactly the right question to ask and it might be possible that in one of these extremely large social VR worlds, like a Second Life VR that you could play around with alternative governmental models.
Oh people have for years most of them feel like oh my God there is so much anthropology to be mined there.
Exactly so one would be when that worked that didn’t fail I don’t know, I mean, here what it is, I don’t have any thoughts on this I don’t know anything about this.
You just think it’s an important question.
I just think it’s an important question, so I have not even taken one step to trying to answer those questions. It’s just that I’ve been telling people I think it’s an important question and hoping that somebody will come forth and say, “Oh talk to someone so they have the whole thing worked out.” Anyway that’s where I’m going and your question about the Minimum Viable Product is or even-
Minimum Viable System so, and that’s really that’s at the heart of the work I do is to help people find their Minimum Viable System.
That turns out, especially if you come out of gaming, to really be how you bring interesting things to life.
I agree a 100%.
Thank you so much, Kevin, for sharing your time and wisdom and stories with us I could just go on and on. And if you want to understand systems thinking, read Kevin’s book.
Thank you, Amy Jo, I really appreciate your attention and your enthusiasm for the book.