Last night I went to hear Kevin Kelly speak on “The Next 30 Digital Years,” a talk that was part of the Long Now Foundation’s series of Seminars About Long-term Thinking.
I admire and look up to Kelly for many things, but the talk was a disappointment. His previous book, What Technology Wants, was ambitious, informed, deep, stimulating, and surprising. His argument that technology has an autonomous tendency towards unstoppable expansion and lifelike growth, beyond our volitional control, is disturbing but also important to consider. And he mustered an enormous amount of research to make the argument.
By contrast, last night’s talk felt like a superficial attempt to draw the most obvious lines from current trends in the tech industry. The best thing about his talk is that the vision he painted was very disturbing: A world governed by alien AIs, with screens on every surface, crowdsourced advertisements and influencer marketing campaigns assaulting us from all directions, and overwhelming flows of ephemeral data and “facts” making it impossible to judge the truth of anything. In short, it was very much like today’s world, except more.
Is this really what we want? I think it is important to ask this question, over and over, and I am glad Kelly helped point it out.
This video paints the picture much more vividly I think.
But what was more disappointing to me was Kelly’s lack of context or of truly long-term thinking.
As to context: He repeated the canard that ownership is becoming less important, as Uber is a huge taxi company that owns no cars, Airbnb a huge lodging company that owns no real estate, Facebook a huge media company that owns no content, etc. But this is false: Each of those companies is very much concerned about ownership. It’s just that what they want to own — the marketplaces and networks they control — is not what they appear to be selling.
As to long-term thinking: His sketch of technology’s arc seemed divorced from any long-term trends outside Silicon Valley, such as the steady increase in global temperatures, the relentless destruction of biodiverse ecosystems, the concentration of wealth in smaller and smaller populations and the concurrent increase of political anger, resentment, and instability among the rest. Other more techie trends also went without mention: Massive changes in energy generation, for instance, or the shift towards robotic manufacturing, both of which have already had global economic impacts and seem poised to do far more. It seems to me that any of these macro trends have a strong potential to disrupt any internal “inevitable” tendencies of the tech industry, with potentially significant effects both during and well beyond the next three decades.
And finally, apart from one comment about how ubiquitous tracking of everything we say, do, places we go, and even expressions we make might be “sort of scary,” Kelly didn’t offer much of a path for people to make choices about this future, or to even evaluate whether this future might be good or bad.
Kelly does have a knack for the thought-provoking coinage and sound bite. His redefinition of AI as “artificial smartness” is clever and on point. He referred, provocatively, to many different kinds of intelligences and minds, and suggested we are about to see a “Copernican revolution” in intelligence, where the human mind is no longer the central or most advanced or most general-purpose type of intelligence. Instead, Kelly said, “Our job for the next century is to discover and invent as many kinds of intelligence as possible.” I think that’s intriguing and worth thinking about deeply.
But in practical terms, he suggested that means adding AI to everything we can. (Something that hundreds of tech startups are clearly already doing.) In that world, he says, humans’ earning power will be predicated on how well they get along with these alien artificial minds. Another sort of scary point!
Despite this somewhat dystopian (to my mind) vision, Kelly’s an optimist. He thinks that we are still in the earliest stages of the Internet revolution, and that people in 2046 will look back enviously at the opportunities we have. “All the easy things to find are still before us — and we’re going to find them in the next 10 years,” Kelly said.
However, I think Kelly is naive. During the Q&A session, he and Stewart Brand started discussing how capitalism might be reaching its end point, superseded by an emerging sharing economy where ownership is unimportant, and where accumulating wealth is less important than, I don’t know, accumulating experiences, or collecting useful AIs like Pokémon. I think this is hopelessly clueless.
Uber, Facebook, Airbnb: These companies are triumphs of capitalism. They are not about to change the ownership paradigm. They are the culmination of it. They have found a way to eliminate consumers’ ownership of things and replace it with their (the companies’) ownership of what really matters, in a new dimension where individuals and smaller companies cannot hope to compete. And, in that way, these companies are contributing to the concentration of wealth and power among the few, not distributing it.
A truly long-term perspective would have to ask: Can these trends last? Do we want this kind of a future? What happens if we get there and it’s awful? What happens next? Can we do anything about it? And if so, what?