E31: Kevin Kelly, Author of “The Inevitable”, Founding Executive Editor of Wired Magazine – Interview

June 15, 2016


Kevin probably doesn’t need much of an introduction but I’ll do a short one anyway. Kevin was the founding executive editor of Wired magazine. Wired was started back in 1993.

Kevin is a wonderful technology author who has written the books “New Rules for the New Economy” and “What Technology Wants“.

Today we are going to focus on Kevin’s new book, “The Inevitable“. It’s about the trends over the next 20 years that will shape our lives. There is so much to this book and we only have about 25 minutes. So we’ll let Kevin provide a broad overview and then take a deeper dive into some issues Kevin talks about.

I love books that make me think of new ideas, or make me think about things in a new way. This book does that. It’s pretty amazing. After reading it I had so many different ideas. And I’m honored Kevin’s on our show so I can ask some questions.

Some of the questions Kevin answers:

-Why did Kevin write this book?
-How does Kevin identify trends? Learn about them? Understand them?
-My favorite chapter was the first one on Cognify (AI). Kevin tells us more about his vision around this.
-Under the flowing chapter, Kevin mentions mashing up movies to allow for a kid version, different endings, different music, how did he find or come up with this idea?


Dave Kruse: So today we have an amazing guest with us, we have Kevin Kelly. And Kevin probably doesn’t need much of an introduction, but I’ll do a short one anyway. Kevin was the Founding Executive Editor of Wired Magazine, which was started back in 1993. And Kevin is also a wonderful tech author. He has written books such as New Rules for the New Economy and What Technology Wants. And so today we are going to focus on Kevin’s new book, The Inevitable, and it’s about trends over the next 20 years that will shape our lives. So there is so much to this book and we only have about 25 or 30 minutes. So we’ll let Kevin provide a broad overview and then take a deeper dive in some issues that I’m curious about and talk more about those. So I love books that make me think of new ideas and when I think of technology or life in a new way, and this book does that and its pretty amazing. So after reading I had lots of different ideas. So I’m honored that Kevin’s on our show and excited to talk more. So Kevin thanks for joining us today.

Kevin Kelly: It’s always my pleasure, thanks for having me.

Dave Kruse: Definitely, definitely. So can you just give a brief overview of what’s the book about?

Kevin Kelly: The book is describing in its 25 to 30 years of the evolution of digital media and are focused mostly on digital stuff rather than say other kinds of technologies like biotech or energy, because I think that is what most people are familiar with and will be encounter the most often and in general I’m looking to large scale trends rather than the specifics; the products and looking at the forces that have worked behind the specifics.

Dave Kruse: And what prompted you to write the book or why did you write the book?

Kevin Kelly: I think there is a lot of fear of what’s coming and a lot of what is coming is kind of scary from you know pervasive artificial inelegance, to ubiquitous tracking and surveillance, to screens everywhere which are fluid and ever changing and constant upgrades and the shift from owning things to accessing things, all these things are can be worrisome and I think there is also a natural tendency to want to maybe slow them down or in some cases people are interested in prohibiting them or stopping them, and I’m suggesting that in fact we need to embrace them and engage this technology as a way of steering it and making it more civilized. And so I think these trends are at the same time inevitable, but I think the way that they are expressed is not inevitable and we have a choice in there to make a huge difference. So I want us to embrace the large scale trends, so that we can decide the particulars.

Dave Kruse: Now I like that when you say embrace these new technologies. And do you have an example of let’s say, we didn’t embrace new technologies, what could happen versus embracing them now and you know maybe making certain guidelines or developing some measure?

Kevin Kelly: Yes sure. A great example of – and this situation is something in the recent past, which is the having revolving around this trend is just biased and biased is a new way to think of it. There was a bias is the technological systems that we make that they tended to want to lean in a certain directions. And that whoever is bias leans towards wants to copy things and so the internet, the world wide is a copy machine and if anything touches the internet it will be copied, whether it’s a movie, music, book or anything, a drug. If it touches the internet it’s going to be copied indiscriminately, vigorously and for many years the music industry – for decades the music industry fought against us. They tried to outlaw all the coping, they tried to copy protection, prohibit the easy copying. They wrote laws assuming their best customers in some cases to try to prevent them from coping and so they did everything they could to work against this grain, this natural bias in this technology towards ubiquitous copy and they are now only slowly after three decades coming around to the idea that they have to accept the fact that ubiquitous copies are going to be the norms. If they had done that three decades ago they would have much further ahead, they would have been much richer, they would have had a better grasp, a better industry and they could have exploited more of its benefit, and so I’m suggesting that a lot of the trends that I’m talking about are kind of similar to that. They are baked into the very nature, the very physics of the technology and they come out of the fact that these systems are leaning in those direction.

Dave Kruse: Yes, can you imagine where the music industry would be now if they would have embraced it that long ago? Oh man.

Kevin Kelly: Exactly, right, that’s the whole thing. If they had instead of trying to kill Napster, if they had tried to work with Napster, which I mean eventually they kind of have to do. They start to working eventually with some of the file sharing companies, because now they have to work with the steaming companies, but under different terms they could have had better terms before.

Dave Kruse: Yes, better terms and just kind of own their future a little bit more.

Kevin Kelly: Right.

Dave Kruse: So, I really like how you structured the book. It was smart how you broke it into 12 chapters or what you call Tech Forces, like tech one, tech four. The first one is, cognify where there is flowing and questioning. How did you come up those ideas or come up with those titles for each chapter, because it’s a lot…

Kevin Kelly: I think the idea was, they were all verbs, they are actually, they are called Jurans. They are continuous action and part of the message of this book is to generally shift from nouns to verbs, from things that are static and fixed to the things that are constantly in flex. So we flex a little bit about the sub text of the book, which is embrace of processes over products and the second thing is a sort of umbrella terms that capture many other specific trends and so they made, they make for a convenient grouping, there is really – there is nothing I would say inevitable about the groups. They are more usefully and handy than anything else.

Dave Kruse: That makes sense. And I think my favorite chapter is probably the first one, the cognify about artificial inelegance. Could you just give a brief overview on that chapter for the audience?

Kevin Kelly: Yes, I think I agree that it was the favorite, but I think it was the probably the most potent force at work launched today and I think the effects of this would be, will exceed the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution, which produced the kind of prosperity that we are now doing, the cities that we see. I really think that’s not afar basically, which is produced by the industrial revolution and that came about because we invented artificial power. We could make still relying on human muscle and animal mussel to compensate anything we wanted to do. We actually made machines that were artificially powered, or maybe probably say machines that could employee artificial power and that artificial power enables us to say – could harness 250 horses, put them under our hood and drive down the highway. And to commend, it’s for very little money. And so this artificial power, we made factories and automation possible and as I said, it produced this tremendous flowering of prosperity for several hundred years. Well, it wasn’t the thing that they did included, by the way it was the distributor allowed this artificial power on electrical mini grid and brought it to every home, so we could have kind of a very convenient artificial power. All we had to do is turn a switch and we had it or plug something in and we had it. And we weren’t generation the artificial power. We were just purchasing it and then using it in any way you wanted to, applying it to a motor or whatever. And now we are going to do basically the same thing with artificial minds, with artificial smartness. So instead of having – in addition to having 250 horses under your hood, you are going to also have 250 minds and we call that smart car, the auto driven self driving car, the AI car. And again, we are not going to – we are just going to buy this AI over the cloud, over the grid and then apply it to everything that we have electrified, we are now going to cognify, make smarter and apply this cheep industrial grade thinking, thought and mind – smartness maybe the best work. We are going to apply it to that thing we already have electrified and that’s a huge thing, because I think my, it’s really good to have artificial power, we still need it, that can’t go away. But then we take and we add the artificial smartness to artificial power and we have something really potent that loosens the world that will really change everything we did just as the first industrial revolution that affected education, entertainment, food, sports the military, so will AI, so will this artificial smartness.

Dave Kruse: I remember, well I’m paraphrasing here, but there is one part of the book and that chapter we said, that the next 10,000 startups will be take X and add AI, and…

Kevin Kelly: Exactly, right. I think that’s one easy way to kind of summarize it and that if you want the formula for something to do now, find something, anything the more obsequies the better the more unlikely the better. You know knitting, I don’t know, transportations, sports and then take that X, that unknown and then add AI to it, just as we took the X and added the electricity to it, now we are going to take the X and add AI to it and also you can also do the reverse so to speak, you can take the AI and the X. If AI becomes the commodity like I’m suggesting, then many businesses and artists will have to distinguish themselves by what they do with the commoditized AI. If everybody has access to it, then those will offer a better X, a better inter phase to it or a better story about it or better guides to it, whatever, that’s also really valuable. So both of those formulations work, take X and add AI or take AI and add X.

Dave Kruse: That makes sense and that was kind of one my questions going through this. It was – you mentioned that success will go to those who optimize the process of working with the bots and machines and I was curious like, would it just be AI researchers, but you know – of course your discussion that the AI will be available almost as a utility that you can add it, which makes sense, okay. And then another question there. I thought that was a clever idea, so I was curious to regard it. Under the flowing chapter you talk about movies, national movies and how eventually movies could – well maybe you can expand on your concept to the movie and kind of be able to spice it up and have a, edit it; the mass is going to essentially edit movies.

Kevin Kelly: The way I might explain that is – there was sort of a whole suite of inventions that came along with the invention of say the book in text. It wasn’t just the alphabet. There was many other inventions that made it really very essentially to or lives and there were things like, well if you have many pages and you had a book, then you wanted to have a table of content that will give you to different parts of the book. Do you also – maybe in the back you have an index that would kind of link back to each special word in the book or you might have footnotes which is somebody invented in the fourteenth centaury that gives like a hyperlink or you could, you might need page numbers. So all these things had to be invented and they are also parts what I would call the kind of Gutenberg revolution in the sense that they made text, particularly big libraries of text more and more useful and we don’t have that right now. I mean one of the other things that text has, it has a summary and an abstract and all these things and we don’t have a lot of these tools for moving images and even though video clips, and movies and TV and gifts and all this stuff are now much more to the center of our culture, we don’t have all these Gutenberg tools being able to summarize or abstract or hyper link, footnote to it in a frame to point to something that’s sustainable over time. I mean there is a whole bunch of very sophisticated tools that we can do with a text, what we can do with video let’s say. But when we can I think – as we do get these tools it will, I think accelerate that shift, so that the videos and moving in it has become the central thing in our culture. They become the things that we all refer to, that we can dive down into, that we use to explain things, that becomes very sophisticated and rich and basically we network all the books, all the movies together into one large interconnected hyper linked, footnoted, annotated things, and so that’s coming and I think AI will have a big hand in being able to do that. So the only way to kind of like find every scene in any move that has a rabbit in it, you can do the search for any test that had the word rabbit, but you can do the search for all the movies that might have a rabbit in it, but you will and the way we get there is having AI basally go through all these things and look for them and that’s coming very, very fast.

Dave Kruse: And you even talked about how a movie could be split up into like sounds and all the different special effects and people like could take a Hollywood move and make for a kid friendly or…

Kevin Kelly: Right, so that’s another verb in my captures of remixing, which is the idea that one of the kind of cheep benefits of the digital world was what all the parts were fungable and they could be what we now call unbundled. They could be taken apart into their – just assembled into their parts very easily and we saw a little bit of that evidence in what happened to a song, in a sense that e use to get in – the only way – the major way to buy songs, the only way we used to hear them was a part of an album. So that was a unit, was a music album and you wanted to buy music that’s got the whole album, you got all these songs. And so the first thing that happened was you know iTunes came along and said, well, we are going to unbundle the album. We are going to disassemble the album into just this part of this song. So you could, if you want to just buy one song. Well that was the beginning but then as we know songs have tracks and if you listened to a podcast called Songexploder, you can hear how all the different tracks in a particular say popular song, has been assembled in some order to kind of disassembling that song into all the tracks. But that will become much more common, where people will have access to different tracks deliberately and you can do things with the different tracks in the song and if not, beyond the tracks maybe, well the notes, so the melodies or the cords. So there is ways in which these are assembled that outlay right now they can be reassembled in the same way, because being able to reassemble them will be value and its one of things that actually the music company will sell rather than the song itself, they will sell the components, the important ability to unbundle it and do stuff with it, remix it. Some, not every artist will do that, but that will be a viable thing for some artists and if you can unbundle it, you also have the ability to personalize it, so you could rebalance the audio I it so that its perfectly tuned to the acoustics of the living room and you would be willing to pay for that, even though the song is sort of free, you are really paying for these remixed version, personally remixed version that is working with the element. And I think, that’s a lot of what’s going to happen with moves as well which is that, the parts of them will be available in many cases for us to remix or rebundle or personalize and that’s the new power. That’s going to be one of the sources of the kind of innovation and wealth that are going to be coming from media built around the screen.

Dave Kruse: Yes I thought that was quite a clever idea. So how did you, do you remember how you came up or found that idea about kind of unbundling movies and music in that way or was it just pattern recognition or…

Kevin Kelly: Yes, so I was writing about people who are kind of working on movies and actually we did an interview with George Lukas many, many, many years ago when he was rebooting the Star Wars and he was describing how he was making moves and it occurred to me that he was constructing them from these pieces, layers which sometimes were found and sometimes were created and so I began to get a picture of the way he made a movie was by bundling all these pieces and if they were bundled they could certainly just be unbundled. And we mix just like music had been going in that direction, so it was kind of an extension of well, if you can do it with music, then why can’t you do that with movies and eventually with VR and so that – but I think the beginning or the genesis was in some ways in seeing how Lucas was doing its Lemon, of course the more current movies are extreme versions of that where there is not really a single frame in these action thrillers. There is not a single frame that hasn’t been in some ways assembled from parts. I like to think of them as almost being more like painted in the sense of adding layers and layers of what are photographs and – but they are almost more like, what writers do and again, my analogy is that writers just take found words, words that exist in the dictionary. I mean we combine them, that’s all that they do. They are very few that make up a new word. Occasionally they may have a meaning for an old word, but by and large are text and found existing primitives, we call them words and they remix and rebundle them. But sometimes they may borrow a phrase from someone else either deliberately or inadvertently, but most of the time they are trying to make them in kind of new patterns and new orders and new arrangements and that’s the – I think that’s what we do with cinema as well, with video and that lots of the things that you may start with are not things that we actually generally defined. There is you know, big licensing things that are kind of are computer generating and there is almost sometimes very little different between the eye can see, the audience can see between something that’s been photographed in the physical versus something that’s been computed in the imaginary and I think the word, that we the species, but film writers in particular would just reach into this vast library of existing models for a lot of the backgrounds of setting whenever and they will be very dynamic. They won’t this flappy, they will be kind of like a VR world that you assemble maybe from parts, you buy the building, so here you modify them a little bit, you get your mountains over here and they could be total recreations of New York city or Sydney, Australia and they will look for every purpose to the viewer as if they were filmed in the real location. So you have the ability to tweak them, change them, but you are just finding these things, and so you don’t need to have the camera pushing through. You might need actors that you are inserting into that and so in that sense it means – there maybe a couple of hundred of movies a year that are not made that way, that are still handcrafted in the old way, but my point about video is that those few hundred handcrafted Hollywood things that are done that way are just a tiny, tiny drop in the video bucket and that most video is not this handcrafted thing that will rely on a lot more of this remixing of things in the same way that most authors remix words and don’t handcraft new words. If you are Joyce you can do that or Mark Twain or some other great writer but most of us and most the written word is very pedestrian and doesn’t – isn’t trying to invent new things, they are just trying to rearrange the found things.

Dave Kruse: Well, somebody should help bring that idea to fruition early, so a group of people. It’s an interesting media world that could help hands out.

Kevin Kelly: Yes, exactly.

Dave Kruse: And I know we are running out of time, I got a couple of more questions. One was under your questioning chapter and you talk about how, essentially you changed kind of how you do research or when you have an idea you used to contemplate more, but now you act and that was interesting, because I think I had more like that now too, and can you expand a little bit on that and why do you think that’s the case now, that we are more.

Kevin Kelly: Yes, so to one of the acquisitions against – because the digital book over the paper book is that there is something about paper, the constrains, the isolation of being in the book that kind of allows you to go very deep and be very contemplative and I think that’s actually a good accurate description, whereas if you are reading on the web you are highly distracted, you kind of flip from one thing to another. And a lot of the critics of reading suggest that that’s a bug, that’s a problem, but I think it’s actually highly adaptive feature that where minds sort of work this way because of this long slot of constant new update of information that we just kind of had to skim over and I think that what it does is kind of it changes our approach, particularly when we are new to it. So I have found that my first response in hearing things now is to engage with the idea, to begin to do a search, Google it, look to double check Wikipedia, have my one questions, maybe challenge it with thing that I can come up with, see what other people think, maybe you put it, maybe search Twitter, you begin to in some ways engage with the idea. So that you are doing something, you are not just sort of sitting back, passively. Now I mean the best thinkers would read a book a very actively making margins in the notes, but this sort of applying what they were doing with greater ease and more effects, sharing. You might start to share to see what other people think about it and etcetera. So there is an extremely kind of active engagement with things that’s I think part of this sitting and surfing that we see. I see it as actually also including a form of engagement rather than being passive to it and which I think is a plus and part of the character of this merging you know culture of the screen, where it is culture of book and I think it’s a positive development and I would expect that kind of return to continue as the on slot of new things continues to accelerate. We are going to probably have to do more of that, quick immediate interaction with an idea to see if we can own it.

Dave Kruse: Interesting. And no, I think that makes a lot of sense. And like I said, I never really through about that’s how I work, but that is how I work and I think it’s changed over the last 10, 15 years. So last question I have is around how do you identify trends? So you are – you have a lot of – you identify a lot of trends. So how do you identify trends versus just a fad? Is it kind of gut feeling? I mean seen a lot of veterans over the years, yes.

Kevin Kelly: Yes, right, so that’s a fare question and I think my method is sort of – my assumption, my theses is that the technological systems have biases and certain tendencies in them and those tendencies can be seen in several different ways. One of the ways that I look is to see the ways in which they are abused, misused, not used officially, ways in which they have used without permission, basically Bill Gipson has a term, how the street uses technology, rather than how it was designed or whether how the inventors through it would be used. And what’s happening there is that there is three uses in some ways reflecting the bias because of the desires or trying to sear us away, but this is kind of like the unsupervised version of the technology. And watching where it goes, how people actually use technology versus how they are supposed to use it. So that’s one of the evidence, is this kind of unsupervised event. The second thing that I look to see is, I call it kind of like listening to technology, which is trying to see the ways in which it goes if there is no money involved, which is not sort of being redirected by money. So, are you still there?

Dave Kruse: Yes, yes.

Kevin Kelly: So an example would be if – what people do with it on weekends, what they do with it when it’s free, what they do before it commercialized. So that’s another piece of evidence that I’m looking for and so also whoever you see kind of simultaneously things from people, things that are happening very fast or more than one person is discovering things, that’s also another indication that this is sort of where it went to the end and how people misuse it. How is it used by the underworld, again this is the unsupervised versions. So that tells me a lot about where the technology wants to go and particularly, if there are laws applied to it and those laws aren’t working to change, that again suggests that this is something inherent, an inherent bias in the technology and so I’m using that as sense of the direction. So my inevitable is to be inevitable based on the fact that these are trends and meanings that happen no matter what the political regime, what the nationality, what the time, due inherently baked into the bias of the technology that we can kind of see in the ways that I just talked about. So that’s what I spend my time trying to do is to look at where these things want to lean, particularly repeatedly as a suggestion of where they are pointing.

Dave Kruse: Yes, that’s really helpful and I know you talked about how – I know we are out of time here, but virtuality – you have been experiencing virtuality for many years, but now you know finally it is this that obvious and then is like the technology ready and that’s another whole podcast, so we’ll leave at that, but…

Kevin Kelly: Yes, there is that whole think about the timing, because in general I’m not talking too much about timing, I’m talking about just general drift in direction. I think, I would just close by saying that I think you know the large forms genres are inevitable and maybe even predictable in the sense of, you know if you can do biology on the planet you are going to have quadrupeds. So quadrupeds are pretty expected, but the zebra is not, the specific species is unpredictable. And the internet as a whole is going to be found on a new plant that has electricity and communications, they are going to do an internet, but what kind of internet is not at all predictable and Twitter is not inevitable. And so the large forum character is and so the telephone was inevitable, but the iPhone was not. So I’m not trying to predict these very, very specific fashionable products. It’s looking at the long term big mega trends, the drifts that I think are inevitable and while they are inevitable, again the specific products for instances are not at all predictable and we have a lot of choice about and they make a huge difference to us. So we still have a lot of power to form our future.

Dave Kruse: Well, thanks. What you do is a great service to all of us trying to see the future and understand how it’s going to shape. So I definitely appreciate you work and I highly recommend everyone to read The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly. It’s quite good, it makes you think. Even if you are super big in the technology, although I’m also as listeners are, it just tells you what we are going to be dealing with and it’s an exciting feature I think that you shape which is – which I love. So definitely appreciate it Kevin and I appreciate you coming on the show today.

Kevin Kelly: Sure. It was really a real pleasure to be here as I said and I hope that I was able to explain this very complicated book, but I think you readers will enjoy it and I again appreciate your support in having me.

Dave Kruse: Definitely, all right thanks Kevin and thanks everyone for listening. Bye.

Kevin Kelly: Bye-bye.