Kevin Kelly is one of the most original thinkers of our time. A prolific writer, he confronts in his books and essays the enormous changes wrought by technology and offers predictions that nearly always turn out to be right. His most recent title, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, addresses the coming social, economic, and cultural impacts of artificial intelligence while also dissecting the autonomous biases of computing to evolve in certain directions. “It’s not quite neutral,” he says of technology.
Lighting out for a frontier—be it geographical or intellectual—and immersing himself in it is a pattern for Kelly, one that dates back to at least 1971, when he dropped out of college. “Instead of going to university, I went to Asia,” he writes on KK, his widely admired blog. Throughout the 1970s, he visited off-the-beaten-path villages throughout Japan, Iran, and points in between, taking 36,000 photographs. The result was a book of images called Asia Grace.
In 1984, Kelly was one of the first journalists to spot the emerging online culture, penning a seminal essay, “The Birth of a Network Nation.” He became part of the team of futurists and writers behind the hugely influential Whole Earth Review and helped create the WELL, one of the earliest online communities. Nine years later, he helped found Wired magazine, where he served as the executive editor until 1999. Kelly remains on the masthead there as “Senior Maverick.”
An optimist with a restless mind, Kelly is actively involved with the Long Now Foundation, which promotes long-term thinking and is building a clock that will run for 10,000 years. He also produces Recomendo, a weekly list of six recommendations for such products and services as plant-based burgers and home vision tests. When he turned 68 this year, he posted on his blog “68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice,” including this gem: “Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.”
Alta editor and publisher Will Hearst caught up with Kelly on a Zoom call to discuss the power of networks, the importance of free time, China’s rise—and what interests him most at this moment.
WILL HEARST: Your work explodes in different directions, like the Nile delta. So let’s start in a random place. What is interesting to you at the moment?
KEVIN KELLY: What’s exciting me is what we’re doing right now: teleconferencing. This new media of videoconferencing has been around for 20 years, maybe more, but it feels like the early ’80s of the internet, when we had bulletin boards. Where people were logging on. The tech then was terrible, crude, and user-unfriendly, but you had a sense of its power and potential.
All the great things that we’ve done as a species so far have been done shoulder to shoulder, living within walking distance of each other. These new telecommunication tools allow us to do things together, but not necessarily in real time. Look at Wikipedia: It’s a tremendous achievement of mankind but achieved asynchronously. It’s bit by bit, here and there. These new tools are going to allow us to collaborate at vast scale in real time.
I suppose there’s no need for everybody to be in the same building. If they need a meeting, they can have a meeting. If they need to get together in person, that’s possible too. Companies don’t need to house everybody in an office.
When you give people total freedom for their schedule, you find it’s not a binary thing of either they work at home or they work in the office. Generally, you find people spend two or three days together and then two or three days alone. And those two, three days together are very important.
They allow for serendipitous, chance meetings. New things happen in the hallway. And those are very, very crucial for long-term growth. I’m a huge believer in waste, in slack, in taking time off, in buffers, in inefficiency.
Because if you want efficiency, then you need a machine. Productivity is for robots. It’s not for humans. Humans excel at all the things that are inefficient. For example, science by definition is hugely inefficient. If you’re discovering the same thing, a hundred percent perfectly, you’re not learning anything. If you’re not making mistakes and having failures, you’re not going forward.
If an experiment has a known outcome, it’s not an experiment?
Exactly. Also, art is famously inefficient. Nobody was judging Picasso on how many paintings per hour he was making, right? All the things that we really like doing, like the chitchatting we’re doing now, are hugely inefficient. That inefficiency has to be present. And we’re really best at being inefficient when we’re face-to-face, because we’re there for something other than that efficiency. We’re there for the inefficient, the romantic, the poetic, the human scale: all those other things that can’t really be transmitted very easily with electrons.
But I’m also interested in new things that we haven’t been able to do yet, like getting a million people together in real time. Maybe you can get that in a city. So we’ll have to make a city, like Burning Man does. Every year, they cocreate a mini city for a week. Now imagine a million people coming together virtually to collaborate on something. And those million people are from all parts of the world. We can use these new tools that don’t exist yet to make something that we could not have made any other way before.
In your book The Inevitable, you describe the value of the hallway experience at a TED conference. Even though the organizers might film the entire conference and make all the speakers’ content available, people would pay only $10 for that. But they might pay $5,000 to attend physically, to get all that primate-to-primate connectivity. Why is that?
Yeah, smelling the other person is part of it. But there’s another element, which is this serendipitous, chance meeting.
Lowering the barrier to discuss things candidly is not cheap. Marc Andreessen has a famous question, when he’s talking to entrepreneur-founder types. He likes to ask them what they do on their days off or for their hobby. He says the signal for what’s really new and up-and-coming is where the really busy people are wasting time, spending time for free, or giving their time, because that’s going to be the next frontier. That signal is easier to discover casually.
SLACK TIME AND CREATIVITY
You’ve reminded me of a famous statement of J.P. Morgan’s: “I can get a year’s worth of work done in 9 months, but not 12.”
Yeah. I’m a huge believer in people also taking time off and sabbaticals, a break from work. Not because work is bad, but because work is so good. And that distancing helps. This is why ideas work better after you’ve slept. It’s a very powerful thing, to sleep on it. I know from doing workshops that it’s best to end the session at a certain time in the afternoon, demanding that people sleep on what they’ve done. The next morning, invariably, everybody would come in with a whole bunch of really new ideas that they could not have gotten after another two hours of work past that point.
Very true. Is there a name for that? It’s such a well-known phenomenon.
COVID-19? I’m joking. But I actually think that this reset, this pause, will have some of this benefit. The other thing about slack time I’ve realized is that the business of business is to be efficient. But the business of governments is to be inefficient.
Think of the supply of masks and PPE [personal protective equipment]. You want the government to have a stockpile, a million masks that they may never use. You want them to have extra capacity in doctoring. You want them to have things no business in their right mind could ever afford to do. You want governments to take the long-term view, which is inefficient at times. Also, governments should be fair. And, in a certain sense, fairness is inefficient.
A person might gain more by being unfair?
Consider insurance, like medical insurance. You would charge people who were slightly sick more than the healthy people if you were being efficient. However, if your goal was fairness, you’re going to charge everybody the same. So fairness is not necessarily efficient. We want governments to be fair, not necessarily efficient.
COPYRIGHT AND MEDIA
I remember you finished writing a book and wanted it to be published online the same day that the physical book went on sale. And your publisher was saying, “No, that’s a terrible idea. You’re going to cannibalize the sales.” And you said, “No, no, you are wrong. Actually, I’m going to increase the sales.” You turned out to be right.
That’s true. Here’s why: I side with those critics who say there’s a bias in technology. It’s not quite neutral.
For example, digital technology wants to copy things. Right now, whatever you do on your computer or your phone, it’s being copied multiple times a second, either internally within its own chips or transmitting copies from one machine to another, through the network. It’s so easy to make a copy of a file, copy of a picture, et cetera. There is a bias in technology towards copying things. We could say that technology kind of wants to copy.
Meanwhile, the existing copyright setup, at least in the U.S., is based on the idea that copies were supposed to be rare and precious. And so we have copyright law and protections of copies as if they were gold or unique. These two ideas are in conflict, and my general premise was that in the end, the way technology wants things, that direction will prevail. You can’t really go against that. You have to go along with the fact that you will have multiple copies, super-distribution, copies everywhere, so that copies are free. My book sales strategy followed that logic.
And if copies are free, then you have to have a business model built around things which are better than free; you need something more valuable than selling a copy. What else can you sell? Generatives. There are lots of things that you can generate in the process that are not just a copy.
One example of a generative is immediacy. Consider music. You can say, “Well, eventually you’ll be able to hear a copy of music for free if you wait long enough.” And that’s absolutely true: either you’ll hear it on the radio, or you’ll hear it on YouTube, or you hear it somewhere. But if you were a really big fan of a musician, you might be willing to pay to hear some music as soon as it was released. You are then not paying for a copy. You’re paying for immediacy.
The second part of my rant is that I believe that the natural home for all ideas and creations, anything that our mind makes—it could be a business model, it could be an invention, a new type of laser, it could be a film, it could be a novel that we write—is in the commons. And that’s because if you study the creation of ideas, they always occur simultaneously, and independently. An idea that nobody shares is just worthless. So stuff becomes more valuable the more it is shared.
In science, if your experiment isn’t copied, if you don’t open up an area of inquiry, the original idea wasn’t very good.
Exactly. The way we make ideas, no idea is a stand-alone. Existing ideas, in networks of other related ideas, are needed to support each new idea. The next idea depends on the network of other ideas that are happening at the same time.
This pattern is also true for artwork and other creations. Whenever there’s a big hit, people come out from the woodwork submitting legitimate evidence of having come up with a similar idea at the same time, including the Muggles and wizarding schools in the case of Harry Potter.
My view of an ideal copyright regime is that it does away with the idea of ownership. Ownership is just the absolutely incorrect model for thinking about ideas. Ideas cannot be owned. We can provide a temporary stewardship over something, but not ownership. Ownership works in real estate; it doesn’t work for intangibles.
NETWORKS AND MONOPOLIES
You write about network effects, which are so powerful that technology seems to also want monopolies. But I’m wondering if there’s a dark cloud in our future because monopolists tend not to be the low-cost provider of anything.
Yeah. But in some cases, services are free—
They’re free, but you’re paying by giving your information to these services, which they then monetize and don’t pay you any royalty for.
Right. I was not the first to note that in this world of abundance, the only scarcity we have is our human attention. Whether you’re a billionaire or not, you have only 24 hours a day. No technology that we know of has been able to expand the amount of attention that we can give to something. And yet, we give away our attention for cheap. I did a calculation about how much our attention is worth in this digital world, including television: it’s like two and a half dollars an hour. I mean, we’re giving our attention away for two and a half bucks an hour, which is ridiculous.
What if you broke up some of these monopolies? Wouldn’t you employ more people? You’d have more competition, which would tend to lower prices.
Well, I mean, I guess if you were going to break up Google Search into search companies, that might be something, but that’s not what people are talking about. They’re talking about spinning off Amazon’s cloud service and their book service. They’re not talking about making two booksellers.
It’s interesting to look at it from a shareholder’s point of view. Most of the historic breakups didn’t cost shareholders anything. If you were an owner of Standard Oil, you got shares in all of these different oil companies, and you could buy them or sell them and decide which ones you liked and which ones you didn’t like. Same thing with AT&T. There would be probably some competition if it was done properly.
Generally, yes, but by the time a monopoly suit winds its way through the courts, it’s already too late because it is no longer dominant. It was once unthinkable that another computer company could displace IBM. But it was a software company—Microsoft—that displaced the dominance of IBM. Then for a long time, many people tried to displace Microsoft’s dominance as an operating system; they all failed.
And it wasn’t until a search company came along that Google displaced the dominance of Microsoft. And then social media—Facebook—came along to displace Google, and now many people are trying to displace it. My point about all this is that the competition comes from outside of the current dominance.
THE THIRD THING
The traditional government reaction to natural monopolies, like water and streetcars, was to either municipalize them or regulate them, a way to tame private abuse where natural monopolies occur.
I have not written about this yet, but I want to write about it. I think we might see the emergence of a third thing. Think about Howard Schultz, the CEO who built Starbucks into a powerhouse. The whole idea of Starbucks was that there needed to be a third place. There was your home, the first place. And there were the public spaces, the second. Starbucks would be a third place, much like cafés in Europe where you could sit and you could kind of own that space while you were there. It was an in-between space, a third space.
In Paris, if you buy a cup of coffee, you own that chair, and they might try to sell you a second cup, but you’ve rented that space by virtue of buying one thing.
Right. Is it a private space or public? Well, it’s a third place. So now we have new media platforms, which have aspects of governments, and of corporations, but are neither. They are something else: a third thing. They have to have their own set of laws and understandings and stuff.
An example of the third thing is Uber drivers. They’re not employees; they’re not contractors. They’re a third thing. And we need to have a whole set of laws that deal with the fact that they are not employees and not contractors.
And free speech. When you say something on Twitter, is it public? Is it private? Neither; it’s a third thing. And so what I’m suggesting is that we’re in this era now where we have a whole bunch of things that are the third thing and we’re still trying to govern them in an outdated binary way, as if it’s either a government or a corporation.
FINDING VERSUS OWNING
In your book, you talk about a car company that doesn’t own any cars, a media company that doesn’t create any content. Those are different kinds of economies. There’s very little capital structure in those companies.
Yes, it’s not my insight, but the quote goes something like this: “The largest taxicab company in the world was Uber and they didn’t own any taxicabs. The largest lodging company in the world was Airbnb and they didn’t own any of the real estate.” And so the point I was making in this chapter of my book The Inevitable was that there is a benefit to having access to things rather than ownership of them.
The idea of ownership is overrated. In the world where you can have instant delivery of anything you want from this jukebox in the sky, this access is almost the same as owning it. In fact, many times it’s better than owning it. You don’t have to store it. You don’t have to catalog it, insure it, clean it. You don’t have to find it. I mean, it would take me an hour to find a camping stool in my basement. And I could order it and have it from Amazon in probably that same amount of time. And it would be brand-new, clean, and state-of-the-art.
I have done that. I have reordered a book I can’t find.
It’s absolutely true. There’s always the question of, How many things do you want to carry in your pocket? My answer is none. I don’t want to carry anything in my pocket. I want to have what I need appear in my hand when I need it. And that’s actually not far from the hunter-gatherers of the past who’d walk through the forest and they would make the tool that they needed right on the spot and leave it behind. They didn’t carry this stuff with them. They didn’t carry their house. So what you really want to have is what I call a “smart environment” that provides things to you on demand.
COGNIFYING AND CENTAURS
There’s also a chapter in The Inevitable that is devoted to what you call “cognifying.” What does that mean?
I used the word cognify because lots of times we’re just making dumb things a little bit smarter. But we can make some things very, very smart. Let me say at the outset, we have a misperception that intelligence is a single dimension. No, it’s a complicated multidimensional space of many different attributes, many different kinds of cognition, many different ways of thinking and solving problems.
There are certain aspects of animal intelligence that are superior to our attributes in that same domain of thinking. If you look on YouTube at a chimpanzee matching and remembering the location of numbers on a screen, it will blow you away, because it’s a thousand times faster than any human could possibly do.
When we unleash machine thinking, we’re going to populate that space with a thousand different kinds of thinking, a thousand different kinds of AIs. Think of them as a zoo of many species of minds, where there’s going to be some that are very, very good with memory or perception and some that are very, very good at translating. And some that are very, very good at ideation. The AI that will drive your car will not be the same AI that’s going to be used in the buds that you have in your ear that’s doing the translation from Chinese to English in real time.
A lot of AIs will exhibit what I call “dumbshmarten.” A kind of machine which will be incredibly smart in one thing and incredibly dumb in another. And we’ll say, “How can you be so dumbshmarten?”
One of the things you wrote about was that when you have a team of a human and a machine, you sometimes have higher performance than either one alone. So you’re kind of getting the analog and the digital working—
Yes. Garry Kasparov had the misfortune of being the first human chess champion that lost to Deep Blue, the supercomputer. And he complained to the judges after the fact that it was unfair because Deep Blue had access to this database of every single championship chess move ever made. And if he had had access to the same database, he would have won. And some people think he would have.
So Kasparov decided to make a new league of chess playing, where you could play with computers at your side, or a database; you could play any way you wanted to. You could play as a human by yourself. You could play only as an AI. You can play as a team of an AI plus a human. And in recent years, every champion has been a team of human and AI.
The term for such a half-human team is centaur. Centaurs have actually been put into the U.S. military. Today they do drone driving and things like that. They have a centaur relationship, where you have a human working with an AI. I think there are going to be HAL whisperers, people who can whisper to computers who have an intuitive sense of how they work, and are really, really good at working with them.
I never knew what a wordsmith you are: “generatives,” “dumbshmarten,” “cognify,” “centaur,” “HAL whisperer.” I keep interrupting you in the middle of great thoughts.
This is why we’re having a conversation: it’s to be interrupted. I used to tell people at Wired, “Don’t come into Wired to work; work at home. Come into Wired to be interrupted and have chance meetings.” And so interruption is actually, I think, a crucial part of how we learn.
We’ve been talking about digital media, and I understand you recently finished a new book.
Yes, you asked me at the very beginning what I was interested in, and this is one other thing. It’s a book of images, 9,000 images, called Vanishing Asia. It’s a book about all the things that are disappearing across Asia. I have a deep love, a long history, and respect for the continent. My wife is Asian. I spend almost as much time in Asia as in the U.S.
We have just begun to see the Asian century coming. For Americans, the rise of China and India is going to hurt. We still may be number one in certain things, but not most things. And so psychologically, I think what we see right now going on in this country is just a glimmer of the kind of psychological shock that we’re going to have as Asia continues to march forward.
What parts of Asia are disappearing?
The traditional parts. It’s shocking how fast the countryside is being emptied. China is moving hundreds of millions of people into cities, which means that there are millions of villages that are empty. There are villages that have existed for centuries that are going to be abandoned forever. On the other hand, you have a city like Shenzhen that was once a fishing village. It’s a brand-new city that’s barely 20 years old, and it has a larger population than New York City.
But nobody was born in Shenzhen; they’re all immigrants. That means they’ve left behind everything. The immigrant experience was the foundation of the American experience. People coming from all over the world, coming in and bringing that new energy. So imagine a New York City where not a single person living in the city was born there. China is experiencing something similar, because the people coming in are speaking different dialects. They speak a common language, but they grew up in different parts of the world. They are transforming their culture with immigrant energy.
I’ve moved a few times in my life. Normally when you move to a new place, you’re kind of disoriented. After a couple of years, you start to wonder, What was here before? Who are the old families? What are the traditions of this place? It’s hard to imagine a place where nobody is of the “older generation.”
I know. I claim that Shenzhen is the hippest city in the world because nearly everybody’s under the age of 30. It’s like 12 million under-30-year-olds. They’re changing what they think is important. The past is being left behind. It’s a new, innovative culture. I believe the world will be surprised when China starts making world-class products that the entire world wants.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.