Kevin Kelly is always fun to read. I share his optimism for technology, the Internet, in particular, and its role in progressing civilization.
Kevin Kelly is a former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and co-founder of Wired magazine, where he remains editor-at-large. He has been an irrepressible prophet of our digital future for 40 years. His most influential book was Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World (1995) – mandatory reading for all the actors in The Matrix. His latest book marks a development of such thinking. In What Technology Wants (newly published in the US by Viking), Kelly sees technology as an extension of evolutionary life, a selfish system with its own urges and desires. Kelly takes technology in its broadest sense to include all invention, including language and culture. Some of the things that technology wants are diversity, beauty and complexity. Technology may be, Kelly writes, “as much a reflection of the divine as nature is”. As well as being a devoted evolutionist, Kelly is a Christian. He is 58. He lives just outside San Francisco.
At one point in your book, you write that “technology is as great a force as nature”. How so?
Well, I am arguing that technology is both an extension and acceleration of natural evolution; what I am trying to suggest is that it is greater than the organic. Tools and technology drive us. Even if a problem has been caused by technology, the answer will always be more technology.
You sense that we are in a special moment in technology’s journey; do you think every civilisation has felt that?
We like to think that the most marvellous organ in the world is our brain, but we obviously have to remember which organ is telling us that; we have a natural tendency to put ourselves at the centre of things. But I do think it is true that we are always at the edge of this process and have been for 10,000 years. The first singularity was language, 15,000 years ago. That was the first great technology. Are we at another cusp? I think we are. A lot of people say the invention of the internet was like the invention of fire, but I’m going further – I think actually what is happening right now might be comparable with the invention of language.
And you see that as an overwhelmingly positive fact. Is that just because you are an optimistic character?
If I am totally honest, I would have to say that all this is part of my temperament. When I was a younger man, instead of going to college, I went to Asia, and travelling there I caught this disease called optimism. Right before my eyes, I saw an entire continent begin to transform itself using technology from third world to first world-plus. You could see progress happening daily. When I was growing up, we prayed for the starving people of China; pretty soon they might be praying for us. So I have come to believe in the impossible.
It is technology that creates these impossibilities?
If I went back now 20 years and told you that all of the world’s information – second-by-second stock quotes, a constantly revised encyclopaedia, 24‑hour news – would be available to you for free, at all times, in your pocket, you would have dragged me off the stage as a lunatic…
Does technology change the underlying dynamics of what it is to be human?
It is very clear that our media change our brains – to what extent, we are still working out. Literate people think differently to illiterate ones and the internet will no doubt have a similar effect. And if it changes the way we think, then it changes our identity and therefore it changes the way we live and the way we love. Right now, the changes are small. But I think in the long run bigger change of who we are is inevitable.
And in your terms these will inevitably be changes for the good?
The orthodoxy is to say technology is neutral. I acknowledge the fact that there are many destructive problems created by technology. But what I am saying is that despite all the problems, there is always a small advantage to the good, and if you multiply that small advantage incrementally, then over years and generations it becomes a very positive thing. Even if there is only one-tenth of a percent more good than bad in technology, or if we create one percent more than we destroy each year, then that compounded is how civilisation progresses.
Should we describe this purposive force, this compound interest of goodness, as God?
I call it exotropic force. We can’t describe it without supernatural language. It is the force that runs counter to entropy – the force of life if you like. This energy is not evenly spread in the universe but we happen to live in a little corner where exotropy is greatly accelerated to produce not only life, but also minds and now technology from those minds.
And the purpose – what technology wants – is understanding?
The point of technology, I would say, is to create structures that organics cannot. What life is trying to do is to discover all the possible ways to evolve. What we are seeing is that there are possibly minds in the universe that biology cannot get to, but technology might be able to get there. We are making minds that biology can’t make. The long-term trend will be to make as many different kinds of mind as possible, because only in that way can we comprehend the universe.
Is more of this exotropic energy found in California than elsewhere?
A hotel clerk in Delhi once said to me that the centre of the universe is where there is least resistance to new ideas. The hippy origins of the computer revolution are well documented. Changing consciousness and changing tools, they have always gone together, and in our lifetime California is where this has happened.
How would you describe yourself in religious terms?
I’m a Christian.
A Christian with caveats?
We go to a rock’n’roll church in San Francisco. I’m an evolutionist but I happen to believe that Jesus was some incarnation of God. My epiphany for that came from looking at virtual realities, god-games. Those who create the rules always want to put themselves inside the world they have made to see how it feels. There it was: the Christian story. I believe that we are creators and that we will create in the way that we were created. The minds we create will eventually have free will. When we achieve that we will start to appreciate the complexities of godhood.
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