Digerati - Chapter 16

Digerati - Chapter 16

Kevin Kelly [10.1.96]

Chapter 16


Kevin Kelly

THE PUBLISHER (Jane Metcalfe): Kevin's on the road to Buddha-hood. He's a deeply spiritual man. He has an intellectual curiosity that is infinite. His Socratic method of inquiry and development is wonderful. It used to annoy me. I used to think, This guy's an editor. He's a futurist‹that's fine‹but I've got to do some business. Why is he bothering me with these questions? But the more time I spend with Kevin, the more I realize that the way his mind wanders across things keeps us all on the edge.

Kevin Kelly is the executive editor of Wired magazine. He is the author of Out of Control (1994).

Kevin Kelly believes that computers are over. "They're history," he says. "All the changes that computation is going to cause in our society have already happened. Computers primarily sped up society by automating a lot of processes, which was a sufficient change, but that is all it was." Kevin believes we are in the initial stages of a communications revolution, which he finds more exciting because communication is the basis of culture.

Kevin is executive editor of Wired. According to The New York Times, he is "Wired's 'Big Think' guy." He brings depth and fresh ideas to a publication that can otherwise get carried away with "attitude." He's a mature influence for a group of creative young people who work at a place characterized by Jaron Lanier as "a dormitory for the hormonally challenged." I have known Kevin since the early '80s when he was a contributor to the Whole Earth Software Catalog. He has also served as editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and the Whole Earth Review.

Kevin thinks and writes about the new biology of machines, economics, and social systems. His book, Out of Control, a '90s classic and a bible for the business and technological communities, describes a new universe in which the economy and all that soars around it take on the attributes of an ecological, or living, organism. That may sound poetic, but enough is known about the new economy and new kinds of technology being created for the digital world that we can take new approaches that are useful to businessmen as well as to scientists, and try to understand how these systems work.

Kevin points out that we are about to live in an era governed by the law of increasing returns. "Bigness is not going to go away in this new economy," he says, "it's going to be made and composed in a different way. Rather than being monolithic and vertical, it's going to be flatter, horizontal, with nested hierarchies, rather than hierarchies by rank (i.e., differences of control are nested within each other as concentric circles rather than stacked on top of each other as they are in a pyramid). It is going to have lots of blurred edges. It's going to be a decentralized being. Robots or other large systems can't operate in a fast-changing environment unless they're decentralized. In the new digital economy, things are changing hourly, and you have to be very adaptable, very flexible. The cost and the price of that kind of adaptivity is to have decentralized control."

In May 1996, Kevin sent me an email in which he announced that his own Web page would provide an interactive version of Out of Control. What was of interest was the site's URL: absolutvodka. "That's the other half of what is going to be on the site." he wrote. "Besides being a different kind of book‹one in which you can tweak the ideas‹it is also a new type of advertising on the Web." Kevin went on to explain that "magazinelike ads, even great ones, don't work on the Web. The Absolut Company has been hip enough to realize this, and so they have initiated a new theme. They are encouraging 'visionaries'‹instead of their trademark visual artists‹to create some wild 'thinking spaces' on the Web. These endeavors are located within their general home space of absolutvodka.com."

Oh, by the way, the name of Kevin's Web page Š Absolut Kelly. Is he trying to give us a better idea of what he means by Out of Control?

Kevin is "The Saint." I have an image of him walking barefoot on the road to Damascus, questioning everything. His questions question themselves.

THE SAINT (Kevin Kelly): Wired is a cultural magazine. It's about the culture of technology. It's not a technology magazine. It rocketed out of nonexistence into a circulation of 300,000 in the United States in two and a half years because it hit the right place at the right time‹by recognizing that a new culture is emerging from technology. This technology culture was, in some curious way, invisible, even in 1991, when Wired was conceptualized. The concept for the magazine came from Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, who were publishing in Amsterdam an odd and interesting English-language computer magazine, Electric Word, that very few people saw. I had been reviewing it and raving about it because it talked about computers in a very broad way. They were interested in the consequences of the technology. That magazine closed down because it grew too far from its original premise, which was machine translation and word processors.

Louis and Jane came to California because that's where digital technology was happening. They got in touch with me because I also was trying to cultivate the culture of technology‹with my experiences at The Well and the Whole Earth Software Catalog, as well as Signal, a catalog of personal communications. It was evident that they were interested in communicating about this same culture, so they started Wired to talk about technology in a cultural way‹the visionaries who were making this revolution happen, the personalities, some of the common devices and instruments that we all saw but didn't know who made, and the future.

All these things rolled in with a design, that by its mandate felt like it was coming from the future, dropped in from the year 2020, were all the right ingredients. It was a very optimistic magazine: it was saying the future is friendly and a place where we want to go to.

We watched, in about a year or less, as Al Gore and the National Information Infrastructure and the superhighway became common terms. By that time Wired was there. After writing about this mass migration onto the Net, Wired now has a lot of imitators, not so much in any particular magazine, but every single publication now has a Wired-like cyberbeat to report all these things.

While Wired embodies an optimistic view of the future, it is not a noncritical view. It suggests that the future increases our options and possibilities. Although many of these possibilities will be negative or harmful, the positive possibilities will be increased. The best way to prepare for the future is to have some optimism about it. Doomsayers don't prepare for the future well.

From the very beginning, Wired was seen as a male magazine. That was a demographic we understood, primarily because as editors we knew that the best way to make a magazine is to write about things you want to read about. The advertisers have to have a clear idea of what works. We wanted a young audience. What is interesting about youth magazines is that they're all to one side or the other. Rolling Stone is predominantly male, not as male as Wired, but it's male. We were going after a core audience of people who were very tech-oriented, and our demographics reflect that audience: 85 percent male, 15 percent female, about the same as the population on the Net in 1993.

We broaden the content in each issue. And, as Wired gets broader, the curious thing is that the entire culture is shifting toward Wired. Our pool is expanding tremendously because mainstream culture became nerd culture or, rather, nerd culture became mainstream culture. It won't be civilized until it has gender equality, until it has just as many women as men. That is the definition of civilization. First you have this frontier: cowboys, male hormones, wild, rough. That has been the Net, but the Net cannot become more civilized unless women play a greater role.

The old hoary have/have-not question in the digital realm concerns many people. The premise is that digital technology is somehow widening the gulf between those who have or know and those who have not and know not. The evidence for this is flimsy. The concern is really between the haves and have-lates. People are going to get this technology. The questions are, When are they going to get it and Can we speed it up? In fact, this technology is penetrating as fast or faster than most technologies‹ like washing machines, air conditioners, cars, telephones, TVs‹have penetrated in the past. Globally, TVs have been one of the fastest penetrating technologies, while telephones have actually been penetrating very slowly.

Alan Kay says that technology is anything invented after you were born. In a sense I agree with Jaron Lanier that for the older generation, content is something that is fixed, while for the younger generation, content is interaction. Something else will have to come down the line to wow them. Content is the new technology for us.

Jaron asks how we would know if we were wrong about the future, if we were wrong about our optimism. First of all, if you know you were wrong, you would know too late. We'd go ten years into the future and find fewer options than there are now. If I want to create art, I would have fewer choices about where I can make art. If I want to think something, I'd have less of a space in which to think. It would be a pretty dire future, if that were to happen.

There is a utopian dream that the coming of the Net will bring positive social changes. I have my doubts about that. It is going to bring great social changes, but they won't all be positive. At the same time, if I have a positive feeling about what's happening with digital technology and the revolution that it brings, it is because netification, computerization, and digitalization all increase choices. That is about all that technology gives, but that is a very large thing. For example, a person born now who is interested in the arts can paint, sculpt, make films, and make music in many different spheres. Two centuries ago, there were fewer choices. Each time the media reinvent themselves, they expand the number of choices without excluding any of the previous ones. On this simple level, the Net and the literary space‹the thinking space that it creates‹will allow a whole new space for the arts. It is also a space that will allow new kinds of political and social structures, and it will allow them as a net gain.

What we are talking about now is a communications revolution. That is exciting, because communication is the basis of culture. Culture is a process of communication among individuals and groups. We are amplifying and enhancing the foundations of culture and society with this communications revolution. All the dynamic and revolutionary effects we are going to see will come from these tiny chips being used in a communications mode.

With the Net, we're going to see ideas of a type that were almost impossible to think about earlier. Technology shapes our thought, just as our thought shapes technology. We're in a period where technology is going to re-engineer and redesign the space in which we can have thoughts.

One of the effects of this new-coming thinking and literary space, due to the Web and the Net, is a continual shift into a new sphere of thinking, which is ecological, relativistic, postmodern, full of uncertainty. Philosophically, this creates and further promotes the kinds of things we've seen happening in the culture in the last two decades. Compare the idea of the book, which is fixed, to the post-modern idea in a space in which truth is assembled and not fixed (e.g., a hypertext novel, slippage of authority, a sense of interconnectedness, rejection of prime causes of things, the dogma of relativity). Moral certitude becomes more and more difficult to find. Agreement on some basic societal values becomes more and more difficult. Socially, we are going to see an even more difficult period ahead.

THE THINKER (Doug Carlston): Kevin is deceptively perceptive.He sees things for what they are, but more importantly he finds things that other people haven't considered yet or haven't thought about.

THE GADFLY (John C. Dvorak): Kevin is a guy who is stuck in a rut, and he can't perceive that he is in a rut, and he can't extricate himself and go on to something important. It's just a rut; you can see it.

THE COYOTE (John Perry Barlow): Kevin and I have become so joined in our intellectual enterprise that he can finish my sentences accurately and I can finish his sentences accurately. Kevin contributes a great part of what I would otherwise regard as my thinking. It's our thinking to a large extent. He's right when he says computers are over. This is not about computers. Computers are in the way. Computers are most valuable when their users don't know they are there.

THE SEER (David Bunnell): Kevin's view is that the personal computer is dead because it's built into networking, and what's important is the ability to communicate and network and interrelate with people. Well, I've got news for Kevin. The first application we thought of with the Altair was looking at the modem in a phone, creating information links, and using it as a communications tool. That's not something that came along recently; it was in the works and in the plans from the go. The personal computer has facilitated that transformation, and to say that it's dead is silly.

THE BUCCANEER (Louis Rossetto): Kevin is the progressive priest in a small Irish village in the middle of the nineteenth century. Everybody comes to hear his far-out ideas and at the same time gets the most down-to-earth wisdom out of the man.

THE IMPRESARIO (Richard Saul Wurman): The branch of inquiry that is represented by Out of Control, like its subject matter, will reproduce by dividing and infesting our fundamental thoughts about progress and change. A disarmingly great presenter of his ideas.

THE CYBERANALYST (Sherry Turkle): Kevin Kelly combines an open mind, intellectual generosity, and good taste in ideas. This is a winning combination.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.