Listgeeks Feature #3 – Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly is a man of intensely varied passions and wide-ranging interests – interests that have morphed and broadened over the course of a distinguished, innovation-obsessed career.  Kevin played an instrumental role in launching Wired Magazine in 1993 (serving as its Executive Editor until January 1999), having worked as the publisher and editor of Whole Earth Review (a “journal of unorthodox technical news” years before countless blogs would claim a similar mission) prior to his time at Wired, from 1984 to 1990.  Often tagged with the “futurist” label, Kevin has authored three groundbreaking books, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Economic and Social Systems (1994), New Rules for the New Economy, (1998) and, most recently, What Technology Wants (2010). Each of these books has increased our understanding of the implications and consequences of technological development in new and different ways.  Among his numerous other areas of interest (a complete bio is posted here) Kevin spends his time on the All Species Foundation (which he co-founded) and the Long Now Foundation (of which he’s a board member) when he’s not curating films (check out, a website which chronicles his interest in “documentary films, educational programs and non-fiction cinema”) or giving a talk, or hanging out with his wife and kids, or losing himself on a long walk in the woods.  Be sure to check out Kevin’s Listgeeks lists, “Favorite Walk-Intensive Destinations,” “Favorite Documentaries,” and “Things I Always Have with Me” after you read our below discussion with him about his latest book, What Technology Wants.

Derick/Listgeeks:  First, allow me to say that I found the book incredibly inspiring – I love the way you managed to merge the story of technology with the story of evolution, and then point out how they’ve always essentially been interwoven parts of the same whole.  I haven’t been able to interact with the countless gadgets/technologies around me in the same way since I put the book down, which I consider a good thing.

Kevin Kelly:  Thank you for your kind words and encouragement.

LG:  One of my favorite sentences in the book is on page 215, where you write, “We willingly choose technology, with its great defects and obvious detriments, because we unconsciously calculate its virtues.”  There are obvious (and not-so-obvious) downsides to adopting new technologies, but I certainly feel the “unconscious calculations” you describe when selecting a new technology.  I’m curious about how this plays out with your own process of selecting technologies – are some decisions easier than others? Do you fret over certain choices while others happen almost thoughtlessly/intuitively?

KK:  I generally don’t fret much; that is simply my temperament. There are always costs, and downsides, to our choices. Of course with technological choices the downsides may not yet be visible to us collectively, so we need to keep our eyes open. I am a possibilian. I think if we adopt new possibilities — new technologies — while maintaining as many of the old as we can then we will distribute the risks and keep it easy to modify our behavior if needed. So if kids play video games but still play outside, or read the Kindle and read paper, that’s good. These expanded horizons can only benefit them. Same goes for adults. I think there is something immensely powerful about my ability to video conference from my kitchen and then immediately go hiking in the woods. It is true that sometimes, or maybe even often, a technology we are trying out does not live up to its promise, or solicits more harms than we like. But I have not found it that difficult to abandon technology when this happens. The main thing is to have no regrets about abandoning stuff in our own lives. It is not a moral choice, not a matter of good and evil. It is a compromise. The hardest part is articulating to ourselves what we are trying to optimize our lives for. If we can determine that, then I think we can make the calculated trade offs in the tools we use.

LG:  From my perspective, one of the most fascinating sections of the book is “Mutualism” in the chapter “Technology’s Trajectories.”  You claim (on page 314), that, “For the next 10 to 20 years, the socializing aspects of the technium will be one of its major traits and a major event for our culture.”  As fascinating as the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms has been (especially at the moment, in light of the very recent political developments in Africa and the Middle East), it does feel like we’re literally at the very beginning of realizing the potential of real time, transparent collaboration online.  What types of potential innovations and developments in this area do you find most compelling at the moment?

KK:  I think the potential for mutalism exists in almost everything we can think of. One could take any institution, any device, any process, any verb today, and ask, what would happen if we had 5 brand new ways to do this collectively? For example, I’ve been thinking about reading lately. Reading is mostly done alone by individuals. But what if we shared the texts as we read? We might share the passages we spent the most attention on. Or share our comments and marginalia. What if we coordinated our reading in synchrony, like a real-time book club? What if we could share our underlined (highlighted on the Kindle) passages to particular friends? At particular times, say when they get around to reading it? What if the text of what I am reading is “polished” by others reading it before me, in the way Wikipedia is? What if every book accumulates annotations from every reader, hidden until you ask for them? The possibilities go on and on. We are just at the start of socializing everything.

LG:  You cite health care, throughout the book, as one of the areas most continuously altered by technology as it develops.  Generally speaking, we’ve seen a gradual transition – as a result of improved technologies – from doctors/experts collecting and reporting health-related information to us as individuals to individuals themselves having the ability to monitor their own health, and make their own decisions about what they find.  I wonder if we’ll reach a point where technology will essentially be able to “guarantee” a certain degree of longevity. What’s your take on this typing of thinking?

KK: I do think there is a long-term movement towards decentralized and personalized health care. But I think the complexities of longevity are so huge that I am not expecting technology will ever be able to guarantee it. Whenever life is involved, no guarantees can be made.  If we could make life predictable, farming would be a matter of pushing buttons.

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