Prepare For The Coming Wave of Changes

By understanding and embracing these forces described in Kevin Kelley’s new book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, it will be easier for us to remain on top of the coming wave of changes and to arrange our day-to-day relationships with technology in ways that bring forth maximum benefits. Kevin Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine. He co-founded Wired in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor until 1999.

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Related Podcast: Can Kevin Kelly Predict the Future?

Can Kevin Kelly Predict the Future?

 Note: This is a transcription of an interview. It has not gone through a professional editing process and may contain grammatical errors or incorrect formatting.

Joe:  Welcome everyone. This is Joe Dager, the host of the Business901 podcast. With me today is Kevin Kelly. Kevin helped launch Wired magazine and was its executive editor for its first seven years. He has written for seemingly every publication, and his previous books include Out of Control, The New Rules for the New Economy, Cool Tools, and What Technology Wants. His present position is described as the Senior Maverick at Wired, and author of the new book, The Inevitable.

Kevin, welcome to the podcast and besides having fun, was what does a Maverick at Wired do?

Kevin:  It bosses around the junior mavericks, I guess. The whole idea is I am a dotted line to the side. I get to basically research and write one big think piece a year. Otherwise, I have no operational duties, whatsoever.

Joe:   You’ve been around the internet for a long time, I would say. How does that experience help you forecast technology trends and how does it maybe hinder you too?

Kevin:  That’s a really great question. I look for where technology reveals its true colors, which I think is wherever it’s either misused, abused, unsupervised, and that’s sort of basically where the criminals use it, where the kids use it, and where it’s being sued for free or non-commercially, and where it’s in some ways, not being used the way it was invented for. I think in those kind of margins is where we get to see where technology wants to go because it’s not being hindered by our preconceptions.

Joe:  Does it hinder you at all? Because I mean we build these mental models of what it’s supposed to be and in forecasting, sometimes you have to break your own mental model, don’t you?

Kevin:  Exactly. That’s what I’m suggesting is that we have the official futures that we imagine for things, and then there’s actually the way people use them. I’m reminded of in the early days of Wired, maybe around 1995, at that time I uncovered a survey of what people expected to do on the web, which had just been invented a couple of years before and one of the computer magazines had done this. They said, what are you going to use this thing, which was still very unpopulated. At the top of this was kind of like electronic voting, voting in elections, like virtual democracies and then there was going to be for education and for research, looking up and finding facts. Then there was something socially uplifting. I went down the list and at the bottom of the list was like, oh I might play some games on it, or there might be porn, or there might be sports scores or something. And so whites happened is that reality has flipped that completely and so the things that people that they were going to use us for, and even designers were designing it all wrong, and you could get a lot better understanding of what it was actually going to be used for by looking at the last things on the priority list, which was actually what people wanted to do with it. I think by looking at the margins, you have a much better idea of where the center is going to go.

Joe:  To me, it reminds me of the type when you go out and look at the customer using your product and the workarounds that he uses to use it and to me that kind of makes sense because that’s where we got our ideas, to extend our product and develop our product more, right? 

Kevin:  Exactly. They even have a codified term these days for having the consumer or the user define or even co-create the product. The term is often called ‘prosumers.’ It’s the producers and the consumers being the same people; which was a term by the way that was invented by Alvin Toffler in the 80’s. Alvin Toffler, the futurist who just died a couple days ago. So, it’s a term that has been around the notion of relying your customers to help you co-create the products that they’re using has a long genesis, but these new technologies really do enable that to happen, such that your customers are kind of hacking the things that you made, but if you can actually formally use that to capture those changes and those redesigns and make that a formal process so that in fact, customers are co-designing, and co-creating, and co-financing with places like Kickstarter, the very products that you’re selling, and I think that’s now regarded as a very legitimate cycle or process for even established companies and not just your kind of experimental startups.

Joe:  Your new book, The Inevitable, talks about understanding the 12 technology forces that will shape our future. And I always kind of pride being somewhat of a system’s thinker or whatever, but when I looked at that, I sat back, and I looked at those 12, and that was like, that’s a lot of information and I started grouping them and clustering them together, and just playing around with them a little bit, because there is a lot there I guess.  

Kevin:  And there are fairly arbitrary categories. Just for the benefit of the readers, there are 12 forces, 12 megatrends, and I labeled them all with verbs or actually gerunds. They’re on-going motions, and I call them directions. So they’re like 12 general forces, directions in the next 20 to 30 years, which is the time horizon, and they’re all on-going and also, by the way, they’re all interdependent upon each other. And those forces, I call them inevitable because they’re inherent, and they’re derived from the very nature of the bits and the chips and the wires and electrons. They’re recurring, kind of independent of what human institutions do with them. They’re going to show up again and again. And these are large forces, and I’m not trying to predict the specifics, the particular, which I think are inherently unpredictable.

The way that I would make an analogy is the telephone was inevitable. Once you invented electricity and wires, you’re going to have telephones.  But, the iPhone was not. Telephones are inevitable, but iPhone was not. The internet was inevitable, but Twitter was not. The specifics aren’t. The species are not at all predictable. And those specifics are something that we have a lot of control over and make a huge difference to us. I also use the analogy like gravity, in the sense that if you have rain falling into a valley, the path of a particular drop as it goes down to the river is unpredictable. The specific path is completely unpredictable, but the direction is inevitable, which is down. I’m talking about those general directions, and they are increased smartness, the cognifications, there’s increased tracking, there are more and more things tracked because these things are built to track and they are inherently going to track. There’s an increased shift from owning things to accessing things, just because access is distributed, because, through food and decentralization, we can get access to things. These are some of the kinds of large scale bends, large scale tilts in the cause to lean in a certain direction. Those leanings are what I’m trying to describe, and if we can embrace those leanings, then we can actually steer the particulars.

Joe:  How am I going to put them into practice? How am I going to use them in business? Can I take and look at them and see how parts of my business are progressing towards them? Should I be doing that?

Kevin:  Yes. So what I would say, in terms of like trying to apply them to your business is when you are trying to decide what to do or where to invest in, where to put your money or whatever it is, or where you’re going with the strategic direction is that, all things being equal, if you lean in the direction of increasing tracking, increasing surveillance, increasing shift away from the fixed to flows, if you side, if you air or lean in that general direction, you’re going to be better than leaning in the other direction. And so it’s very similar to Moore’s Law, which is this very famous law by now. Of course, it’s not a law; it’s a principle, it’s a trend, and it’s a direction which says that the cost of computers and computations, having every 18 months and doubling in value, while also halving in price. So you have this vastly increasing power and decreasing cost, and then that is going to run for 40 years, and so every year is going to continue with that. If you know that 40 years ago, you could have made a killing but you also could have prepared the school system to be better prepared in terms of the education of people or politics could have changed; if everybody had accepted that, even if you didn’t know anything about Apple or IBM or anything like that, if you just believed 40 years ago or 30 years ago that computers are going to be having in cost and getting twice as fast every year, that would be enough to actually harvest huge, huge benefits, economically and socially.

Joe:  Technology, it is, of course, a big part of business? Do we need more of a technology background and maybe an MBA, let’s say? Do we need an MTA or something like that?

Kevin:  It’s kind of interesting because I make a lot of parallels with becoming AI revolution as kind of a second industrial revolution. In the first industrial revolution, when we harnessed what I would now call artificial power. So before, we had natural power, which was human and animal muscle. That was natural power. And then we had artificial power which was this ability to harness a machine power, which was like steam power or electricity and then we made a grid, which we would now call a cloud. We made a cloud of electricity which was the grid and delivered it to everybody in their homes, in their frames, in these new factories. That electricity was so mysterious and complicated that the company said VP is electricity. But then, eventually, it was worked out and became a commodity, utility, ubiquitous, and we don’t have it. I think in the beginning, we may have VPs of AI. We may have to have more technologically astute managers, but if it succeeds, it will become invisible to us in the same way that electricity has. I think it’s not unlikely that there will be VPs of cognition, say for every large organization. Someone’s who’s really an expert in the mysteries of how AI works. And I’ve said for a long time that I think you’ll be paid by how well you work with AIs. I do think that this will be a valuable skill for people to have, but I think that’s short term.

Joe:  I don’t need to rush out and get a Chief Inevitable Officer right now, right?

Kevin:  Exactly, right. So, the inevitability part is getting us. It’s like if you were living 150 years ago or something and you saw electricity and automation coming, you certainly could have a career in automating it, but even if you didn’t, even if you’re just a general business but you just understood and accepted that everything is going to get automated, you’re not going to resist that you’re going to embrace that. And so I think what I’m talking about is embracing this at whatever level and not trying to prohibit it, or slow it down, or block it, or turn it off or whatever. We want to try and use it, and it’s through use that we can steer these things. It’s through use that you actually become an expert at it. right now, today, at this minute, you can buy some AI, just like you can become electricity. You can buy AI from Google, and you should be buying some AI and trying it out. Get some batteries and start to play with it. Now is the time to educate yourself on Artificial Intelligence, because this is going to become a ubiquitous commodity.

Joe:  I think that you touched upon something there that I’ve noticed is that the younger generation, how I want to put it is they seem so adaptable to things not quite working. They’re used to this continues deployment. They’re used to adapting and responding I guess, versus always expecting everything to be right. They live in a state of flux with technology changing on them so quickly. It’s the way they’ve grown up. It’s just part of life.

Kevin:  Right. So now, the default of a product we launch is the beta version, which means basically that it doesn’t work yet. And sometimes even people climb or they get into the beta version which is really kind of like, yeah give it to me now when it doesn’t work. So yes, I think that is part of what I would call a tech literacy, which is that you are at ease with using things in beta and of course as we were just discussing, when you’re using something in beta, you’re basically acting as the research and development arm of that company  or product. That instead of hiring a bunch of people and paying them, they’re going to let their customers do the job, and you are going to help them complete the product by messing around with it and then enduring it and tolerating it while it was still in beta.

Joe:  We take that SaaS model, and we become part of the experience, and that’s kind of okay with us, right?

Kevin:  Yes, exactly. So, both sides derive benefits from this. I mean, the benefit of troubling yourself with the beta version is that you have some sway in actually making it more suited for your own purposes. The consumers benefit and of course, the producers likewise benefit in the sense that they are better able to tailor this to how the users actually ant it. So, I think that co-evolution is going only to become more intense as we develop more tools for collaboration at scale, more real time adaptiveness in the things that we make and more mass personalization, mass customization, so that when appropriate, you can tailor the service or the product to the individual user. We don’t always want a mass customization, but when we do, that’s increasingly becoming possible.

Joe:   Is that the promise of this trend for us, or are we just producing technology for the sake of technology, because it’s there?

Kevin Kelly:  That’s a really, really good question and the background is, the unsaid part is that these new things often generate a lot of problems. I might say they generate almost as many problems as they solve. With the coming of AI or VR, whatever we want to talk about, there’s going to be huge, huge challenges and problems and things that are harmful. What do we get out of it? I mean if it’s not all sweet goodness, then why tolerate this endless parade of novelty? The answer is very simple; I think what we get out of individually and societally is we get more options, more choices, more possibilities. Which is important and good because each one of us is born with a different set of abilities, of views, potential and so they’re a little different.

What we want to have is we want to have the tools necessary so that every person born would have a chance to share their genius. If you would imagine Beethoven being born, let’s say 2000 years before there were music instruments like a piano, or a violin or the symphony. What a loss to the world and to Beethoven that those things did not exist. Maybe he could drum, but as good as a drummer as he would have been, we would be missing this genius. If the people invented those later on, but others, Mozart, to share their genius, or imagine of Hitchcock or Lucas had been born thousands of years before we invested cinema technology. What a loss to them and to us.

There are people born today, being young people or people to be born in the future who are waiting for us to invent their tools that they can use to share their genius, and so we have a moral obligation to actually increasing all this stuff. Even if there is a sense in which this stuff is just being produced for its own sake, it’s actually not. Each one of these options adds possibilities is a potential tool for somebody in the world. We, of course, need to make sure that these other people, kid around the world, have access to clean water and education, the old technology as well, so there’s a lot we have to do, but that’s what it’s about. It’s this parade of novelty has a purpose and that purpose has to expand the space of the possible and to expand the choices and the opportunities for anybody, both born today and born in the future.

Joe:  It’s kind of like we’re given more options to become me.

Kevin:  Yes, right. And becoming you is your lifetime job and for most people, it will take your lifetime to do that.

Joe:  It kind of reminds me of all this accessibility to things and all these things is where we’re going with virtual reality and artificial intelligence. I think of the kid in the candy store. So, maybe self-discipline is that huge trait to be able to manage these things is the first thing that pops in my mind.

Kevin:  Yes. It’s inevitable that there’s going to be more choices. That’s the thing. And if we look at the scale or the rate at which new things are being invented, both objects with skews, with the bar codes, the number of things that we could buy, and the number of the species of things that we manufacture, and the number of songs or books or the things that we create, they’re all skyrocketing and if you extrapolate that into the future, not just 20 years but 50 years or 100 years, it’s like eventually on average, every person on earth will on average have written a book, written a song, written a movie or whatever. I mean it’s just not even talking about all the stuff that’s already been done. So if you have this immense, immense ocean of stuff to choose from and our ability is to navigate through that, to find the good stuff, to find the stuff that’s appropriate for us at this moment in time. It is challenging, exhausting, but also an opportunity for yet more technology. Because I think, the solution to that challenge is not going backwards. It’s not to say we need fewer options and opportunities. The only way we can deal with this is this overwhelming we should stop. No, no, no. We could actually invent additional technology that will assist us in navigating and not being paralyzed by this overwhelming choice. It is huge, and it will require us to learn how to deal with choices at that scale, but we will also use technology to help us do it.

Joe :  The inevitable is that we should take control or not maybe take control, but we should certainly assist in shaping our future by being positive and understanding it better.

Kevin:  We need to engage it, in order to steer it. We can’t steer the specifics by prohibiting it, or turning it off, turning it back, undoing it. None of those work. The way that we can, the specifics, make the character work for us, is by using it. It’s through use that we can steer it. It’s through engagement that we can manage it. And so that doesn’t mean everybody has to do everything because that’s the other thing, that we have so many choices, that more and more, we will be curating our technologies and using a small percent of all the things that are available, and that’s fine too, but I think collectively, the way that we steer this is by engaging it and bot by prohibiting it or trying to turn it down.

And so just yesterday or just recently, the first human died at the hands of an auto robot AI driven car. There will certainly be attempts to prohibit this, but the people who do that conveniently forget the fact that humans kill 1 million people, other humans a year in traffic accidents, and there’s no call to outlaw humans from driving. The proper response is better AI, better tools to make this work. It’s not to try and stop it. We need to embrace this inevitable in order to form the unpredicted special particulars.

Joe:  I think your book is a great way to start for business and even from a personal standpoint, to be looking at those 12. And like I said, I wanted to take them and put them on post-it notes and group them around subjects that I am working on and everything, just to generate some ideas from it.

Kevin:  Yes. I think they’re good at that level of guiding principles and so, sharing. People think, my gosh, we’re over-sharing right now, but we’re nowhere near peak sharing. We haven’t even really begun to share or to find out the additional values that we can gain by sharing things because it’s actually by sharing things that we gain the most value. So medically, the dawn of what we’re going to gain by sharing the information about our health, our bodies, our lives and there’s so much to be gained by that. So sharing, if you could just remind yourself, what do I touch, or what am I in charge of, or what’s my business about, that we could share this not being shared right now. If you just ask that yourself every day, you would come up with something marvelous because again, we think we’re over-sharing but in 30 years from now, they’ll look back, and they’ll say, oh my gosh, I  wish I was in 2016, because they hadn’t started sharing it. They didn’t have anything with AI. They didn’t have the internet yet. All these general trends are just still in their infancy in some ways. The filtering, the movements away from ownership to access, we’ve just begun in all these things, and there’s just so much opportunity in front of us. People will be envious that we got to live right now.

Joe:  I think that’s so true, and that’s well said. What’s the best way to learn more about Kevin Kelly and the book, The Inevitable.

Kevin:  My website, which is my initials, will guide you to more on the book, interviews, foreign language translations, my Twitter and Facebook handles, etcetera. By the way, my email has been public for 30 years, so I’m glad to hear from you if you decide to write.

Joe:  Well, is a pretty simple address to remember, so they should be able to get that. I’d like to thank you very much, Kevin. This podcast would be available on the Business901 iTunes store and the Busienss901 blog site. Thanks everyone for listening.

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