Kevin Kelly, founding Executive Editor of Wired Magazine joins us in a dialogue on the evolution of technology, the future of Artificial Intelligence, and his new book, The Inevitable.
His lifetime of world travel, publishing travel books, and being a key player in the early days of the Internet, provide us with a forward-thinking perspective on the momentum of technology, yet keeps us highly aware of the importance of staying present to really be able to ‘see.’
DIGITAL CULTURE AUTHORITY, AUTHOR, & EXECUTIVE EDITOR OF WIRED MAGAZINE, KEVIN KELLY
Rimma Boshernitsan: How did you grow up?
Kevin Kelly: I was born in Pennsylvania and graduated high school in New Jersey. My father worked in systems analysis for Time magazine, which piqued my interest in cybernetics.
I dropped out of college after my first year, and spent about nine years backpacking all over Asia with a friend from high school. The experience of travel was my Bachelor's, Master’s, and my Ph.D. degrees.
When I came back in 1979, I lived in Georgia and began writing a monthly travel column for New Age Journal and launched several other publications about travel, because no one was doing that at the time. After that, I had this urge to see my brothers and sisters who were living all over the country, and I decided to venture out west and see them along the way. I spent three months riding 5,000 miles around the country. In 1984, I moved to California to co-edit Co-Evolution Quarterly, published by Whole Earth Catalog, which was owned by the non-profit, Point Foundation, and founded by Stewart Brand (the magazine then changed its name to Whole Earth Review). By 1992, I was hired as the co-founding Executive Editor of Wired Magazine.
RB: In your book, you talk about, ‘Protopia,’ or the state of ‘Becoming.’ How would you say your travels have influenced your own process of ‘Becoming’?
KK: I didn’t set out with any particular agenda in my travels other than to go somewhere that sounded very different from where I grew up. The motivation, in the beginning, was simply to transfer to a different place. When I got there, I was confronted with a level of ‘otherness’ that I was not expecting nor prepared for. Dealing with a type of process, which later on became a habit, proved to be useful, because among the things you get when you travel somewhere, you get to look back at your own home and see it from a difference perspective. This proved pretty formative when technology came along—also a different country, and a different culture—so that I could look at it with new eyes, allowing me to internalize and assess on a new level.
One of the first articles I wrote was for New Age Journal on travel, about this ‘Online World,’ as if it was a new country, seeing it through a traveler’s eye, and these happenings as a cultural phenomenon. That’s where Wired stemmed from—it wasn’t a magazine about technology, but a magazine about the culture of technology. That came, in many ways, from my time on the road, and it was one major aspect of being able to put on a perspective and use otherness as a way of thinking.
RB: How did you come to the realization that you’d be considered a futurist, and be able to step back and look at societal trends and their impact on the trajectory of tech?
KK: I wouldn’t really refer to myself as a futurist. Most of what I think can be done is describing the present without any blinders. Part of what I am trying to do is to remove some of those assumptions and counter those expectations to see technology as what it is right now. That’s what people might call ‘unlearning’ or ‘unseeing.’
Sometimes it’s more valuable not to know something. That kind of Zen beginner's mind, where you are trying to see what you’ve been immersed in for 20-30 years as brand new. That often is a good starting point of where we can begin to extrapolate, and is why I find the edges of things to be more revealing. Once the awareness is there, it’s easy to remove those assumptions and to get a better glimpse of natural tendencies. That hunt for what I call “naked technology...” technology that is not cloaked in assumptions in what the designers or companies had for it. Getting to that image is often half the battle in thinking about the future.
RB: You mentioned reading a lot of history. Does that help you see the flow, the opportunity for confluence and convergence?
KK: I would also say that you get to see the momentum of where things have been going. You see a trajectory. It’s like a battleship—even if it’s running—if you change course slightly, it’s still going to continue along that same path to some extent.
General rule: if you can’t tell how long something is going to go, all things being equal, you can usually assume that you are statistically and probabilistically in the middle. There is a principle that you’re likely to be in the middle of something if you don’t know how long it is going to last. We did this at the Long Now Foundation—statistically the universe is 10,000 years old and so probabilistically, we are in the middle, and it will last another 10,000 years.
For example, Neuronets, the software algorithm for the current AI has been around for about fifty years, and I would say there are about another 50 years in it. That could be wrong, but probabilistically that is likely to be true.
RB: How were you involved in the early stages of the Internet?
KK: I first logged on in the early ‘80s. At that point, it wasn’t the internet that was available to the public, but these online worlds called bulletin boards. It was restricted to those who had some facility with programming, the arcane typing of code to get in and a lot of familiarity with network technology just to hook up a modem. Bulletin boards were servers run by individuals. A modem was needed to connect to a phone. You would dial in directly to someone’s server, individually, and if there were too many people occupying the ports available, you couldn’t get in. We passed these bulletin board numbers around as a good place to visit. It was like a bar or a coffeehouse, or cafe, where you would go for connection.
There were a couple experimental online systems that would have many people dial in with many things going on at the same time. It was like a city, where there were multiple conversations going on in multiple threads. I got invited by a friend to get on to one of these early experimental systems, and it was very clear from the very first day, that something important was happening. The way in which virtual relationships and communities were being born —there were real communities in a virtual place.
An entrepreneur named Larry Brilliant was working with the Seva Foundation to cure blindness in India. He became interested in telecommunications and wanted to set up something that would allow his organization all around the world to communicate cheaply and exchange information. We set up several experimental systems, bigger than bulletin boards, called The WELL. It was kind of like the early days of America Online—these were closed systems—and you could only email other people on the system.
We were inventing virtual systems where you could start a conversation on a wide open, blank slate and form things. I was involved in engineering how we were going to form this and what it would look like.
As part of the team at Whole Earth Review, we were not allowed to be connected to the internet, which was a curious thing. I tried to get us connected for many years, because at that time, the internet had very strict rules around commercial activity. They saw this as a pure, noncommercial area and were policing that. We were run by a nonprofit and allowing anyone to pay $8 a month to be in this world, and they were afraid of that. Eventually, we engineered a little hack and had them sign a meaningless disclosure to agree not to use this for commercial purposes. Then, The WELL was connected to the internet, and we became the first public access to the internet. When you got on The WELL, you got an address and you could send an email to anyone else on the internet. That was a first—the public ramp onto the super highway.
RB: In your recent book, you mention that the twelve inevitable actions are rooted in the nature of technology and not in the nature of society. What role does human connection play in an increasingly technological space of business?
KK: The more powerful a technology is, the more likely it will be abused. There is an inherent, erasable, and inevitable paradox of conflict within technology due to the fact that we are the masters of technology and slaves to it. We are the creators and the created, we have full control over how we utilize technology, and how it utilizes us. We are trying to navigate our personal relationships with technology. It is baked into the nature of our own curated humanity. We shape our tools, our tools shape us, and we are the tool.
We tend to use technology like we tend to a garden—there are things we weed out and there are things we choose to select. We are conscious of the way they interact with each other. We can imagine that we are gardening the technology of our lives.
There are several religious cultures that are balancing technology and their worlds in a smart way: the Amish, the Hasidic Jews, and the Jain in India. All three are very deliberate in their use of technology and are able to focus the connection to their lifestyles and the optimization of technology in a good way. I think it’s important to be open to the realm of possibility that there are people that show us that there are different answers to this, that being a minimalist with technology is an option.
RB: How do you see the role of nature affect the way in which we experience our lives in cities?
KK: The truth is, nature in the wild, every single acre of it, has been already affected by humans. We will continue to affect it, bring it together with the digital and technological realm. We are domesticating nature. The wildness of it has long been transformed into something that we will have more of a hand in. We will use it to make it serve us and the other species. The relationship of technology to nature is to not harm it further, and is to make it more compatible with our own civilization. I see technology as derived from evolution. It’s not antagonistic to life in general, it’s inherently compatible.
To that end, urbanization and concentrating people into cities is something we can do to benefit nature. Cities are the most complex technologies that you make. We will continue to improve them, make them better, and move more people into them.
RB: AI has made significant progress over time—what do you see as the role of AI in the future?
KK: One of AI’s major roles in the next 20-30 years will be to be a probe to understand what our own brains do, not by opening them up, but by trying to model them and replicate them. This is what I call the third way of knowledge.
There’s the ‘humanities’, which figure out how things are, by looking at human expression, going inside themselves, and doing what artists do. Then there’s the ‘scientists’, the second way, who run experiments and probe by trial and error. Then there’s the third, the ‘nervous’, the technologists. In the ‘nerve way’, you investigate something by trying to make something new. Which means, the way you investigate intelligence is not to probe it or not think about it, but to try to actually make artificial intelligence.
The way to study AI is not to probe it, but to try to make artificial intelligence. You study reality by creating a virtual reality. In the same way, you study democracy by creating a virtual democracy. The way in which you try and probe the basis of this state of being is through making something so that you learn by making, and that is what AI is. This is actually the Third Culture, the third way of knowing, the way in which we render the human condition is by making things.
RB: What are you most excited to explore moving forward? What new projects are coming for you?
KK: Well, as I mentioned above, I enjoy reading history. I enjoy correlating the findings, the directions, and seeing the flow.
I’m particularly fascinated with the idea of a “World Government.” I think we have not just global climate issues, but immigration issues. These are planetary skills we need to have. This is an idea that nobody on the right likes, nobody on the left likes, but I think is a good idea. I have no idea how that is possible.
What interests me is, how do you even have a representative democracy for 8 billion people? What are the mechanics of that? Is that even conceivable? How would that possibly work? So I have no idea how to do it, other than I think we do need it. It would be really helpful in tackling some of the biggest problems we have.
I’m also excited about my recently published book, The Inevitable. It’s about the deep trends in the next 20 years that will shape your life. I suggest we embrace these changes, including ubiquitous tracking, accessible artificial intelligence, constant sharing, getting paid to watch ads, VR in your home, etc. I am very excited by the book; I’ve been told it is my most readable work yet.
RB: Is there a philosopher or a thinker that has impacted your work the most?
KK: Stewart Brand is someone who is a long-time friend and someone I look up to immensely. He is an enlightened person—he enables people to see in a different way. We’ve been working together over the past 30+ years on the Whole Earth Catalogue, The WELL, The Long Now Foundation, and I’m still so impressed by him and his thinking.
He’s doing some amazing things in the realm of wildlife conservation and the Genetic Rescue Mission: some of the most radical ideas that will enable us to bring back species that have been extinct, to regenerate a species like the woolly mammoth, which will generate ecosystem changes capable of altering adverse climate change on a global scale. It’s fascinating what they are working on.