LISTEN TO THE PODCAST! The FASHIONTRIBES.com In-Depth Interview with Kevin Kelly, Founding Editor of Wired, Keeper of the "Cool Tools" Blog, author of "Out of Control" (Required Reading for "The Matrix Revisited" Cast). Thinker, Environmentalist & Philosopher Extraordinaire. FASHIONTRIBES POP CULTURE PODCAST - MP3 File
As the original editor of the Whole Earth Review, northern California resident Kevin Kelly (KK.org) has always been driven by a desire to help his fellow humans. “I guess my interest is in learning and helping other people to learn,” he explains.
A one-man force of nature, Kelly was/is also:
- founding editor of Wired magazine (& current on-staff "Senior Maverick")
- author Out of Control: The Rise of New Biology Machines (Neo Biological Civilizations) – required reading for Keanu Reeves & the other actors in The Matrix Revisited before they were allowed to open the original script
- chairman of the All Species Foundation
- Board Member of the the Long Now Foundation
- publisher of the Cool Tools blog which is about “tools that increase possibilities and empower self education”
And you thought you had a lot on your plate.
Fashiontribes got majorly lucky when Kevin recently granted us an interview. Here are the highlights of our discussion, but be sure to check out the podcast (above) to hear all about it from the man himself.
KEVIN'S COOL TOOLS BLOG As editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, which Kelly describes as “a catalogue of possibilities”, he began a personal compendium of tools - “in the largest sense of anything with a handle on one end and possibilities on the other” - which he would send around to friends whenever he uncovered something that he liked. And thanks to blogging & software advances, it was only natural to put his list in blog format. “It’s a way to compensate for the kind of exhaustive inclusiveness of the web where you can hear about everything. There are a lot of sites that kind of find new things that come up but they are judged by how they look, or how they sound and people put a link up. But there’s not a lot of places where comparative evaluations are done and where people do the very difficult things of saying, ‘I’ve looked at everything, and this is the best.’ I was interested in something very different. I was interested in stuff that people have used for a long time, or used for a while, and have used many other things - and even after using it for a long while they think it’s fabulous, better, and heads above the others. So, I wanted one place where there was a user-oriented, experienced-based review of stuff.” KK.org/CoolTools
THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW PROJECT
THINKING AHEAD AS A SOCIETY, AND THEN SOME In our ADD-addled society, five minutes is, well, so five minutes ago, a year is an eternity, and a century? Fuhgid’about-it. Kelly sits on the board of the Long Now Foundation (LongNow.org) – along with Roxy Music’s Brian Eno – which is devoted to getting us to think longer term. “It’s about trying to encourage civilization’s length of attention span. It is trying to encourage people to think in terms of multiple generations, to expand our sense of “now” from the last five minutes, the next five minutes or even …the next five years to a longer scale, of, you know, the last ten thousand years, and the next ten thousand years. That’s what we call the Long Now because it’s not the short now, it’s the long now, and as a prompt – as a reminder – of thinking in terms of thousands of years.”
SO WHY 10,000 YEARS…RATHER THAN, SAY 20,000 OR EVEN 5,000? It turns out that, when in doubt, assume you’re halfway there. “Ten thousand years is approximately the age of civilization so we’re about half way. I mean, when you don’t know the duration of something, it’s always a safe bet to guess that you are about half way because statistically that’s probably about where you are.” In the case of where our civilization, we’re about 10,000 years old. “We flipped the past ten thousand years of civilization and say, well …what’s the next ten thousand years? Let’s mirror that and use that as a goal.”
A CLOCK THAT GOES TO 11 In order to encourage people to think longer term, the foundation is building a mechanical, electricity-free clock designed by artist Danny Hillis that will tick for 10,000 years. Essentially a digital, binary mechanical computer, Kelly believes it could have been constructed by medieval craftsmen, and will be able to be repaired by anyone who examines it in the future. “It is to keep ticking for ten thousand years to encourage people to think about what you would use a clock [for] that could run for ten thousand years; why you would need it, what is happening over that time scale.” From the iconic picture of the atom bomb to pictures of the earth shot from space, the clock is fundamentally about provoking a perspective. “It’s a kind of iconicgraphic emblem that …kind of lodges in your mind, and you begin to think about the fact that, well, yeah, they should be thinking about it in the next ten thousand years.” LongNow.org
A VIEW OF THE FUTURE In a conversation in which Hillis told Jonas Salk – inventor of the polio vaccine – about his clock, Salk responded by asking: "Think about what problem you are trying to solve. What question are you really trying to ask?" As he pondered the fact that he had never really thought of the clock as a question, Hillis came to the conclusion that: “It was more of an answer, although I wasn't sure to what.” According to Kelly, what the clock stands for is the best way to view the future – a way for Hillis to unshrink his future. Growing up, Hillis was of the mind that the future was going to happen in the year 2000. “But it was never moving ahead so, you know when he was in the 60s, 2000 seemed far away, and then in the 80s it was still 2000, which is only 20 years away. And then in the 90’s, 2000 was only ten years away, so the future kept shrinking. And he wanted the future to kind of basically keep expanding. So, making the clock was a way to kind of expand the future.”
THE ALL SPECIES FOUNDATION
AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LIFE The quixotic All-Species - All-Species.org - project is about learning the names and functions of every species on the planet. “We are sending probes into other planets and yet we have not even systematically catalogued what’s on Earth,” says Kelly, pointing out the amount of money spent cataloguing species on Earth is less than the cost of glassware in most labs. Because of the lack of a central depository for names and synonyms, many discoveries have been re-discovered & even re-named in different languages; in other words, it’s a complete mess. He also explains that we have somewhat of a moral obligation to honor that which supports us and “to be present and not know or be aware of - or acknowledge - all the things that support us, and to eradicate things that we don’t even know… let alone to make use of that knowledge which we also need to do in terms of managing eco-systems and as we try and make stuff like cities and deltas.” Cataloguing everything is crucial to understanding the “big picture”…of which we currently only know about five percent.
ADD TAXONOMISTS TO THE ENDANGERED LIST Part of the reason for the glacial pace of cataloguing is that there are simply not enough taxonomists – around 10,000 worldwide, and falling. “It requires way too much schooling to do it the classical way,” explains Kelly, about the labor-intensive work of identifying & declaring a new species. “The way that it is done has not changed in a hundred years. It’s not very efficient.” Some, such as Dan Janzen, Professor of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, have suggested recruiting local apprentices or “parataxonomists” to assist the experts in all the initial inventory efforts & sorting of specimens – everything prior to the expert identification. An entomologist from the California Academy of Sciences (CalAcademy.org), Brian Fisher, who is attempting to catalog all the ants of Madagascar (an island off of Africa), has been successfully employing locally-trained, “barefoot” taxonomists, “to great success…and at a scale that nobody ever thought possible before,” notes Kelly. “I think that we should do something more creative with the money we have now and hire people: natives and indigenous people in other parts of the world. We have lots of biological knowledge. We can actually employ them to bring into science their knowledge of what’s there and so the cost of this, actually, is not very great. It’s more of a willpower to dedicate tens of millions of dollars, maybe even hundreds of millions, which is still overall not very large in the budget of science.”
THE GOOD NEWS: THE PLUMMETING COST OF DNA SEQUENCING Another problem with species identification is the mindboggling amount: possibly 50 million species - of which we have catalogued about six to date. “So it was just as obvious that you wanted to have technology brought to this process, partly maybe pattern recognition, partly ways in which you could accelerate the dissemination of news,” says Kelly, explaining that as the cost of sequencing technology continues to drop, combined with J. Craig Venter’s advances in so-called “shotgun sampling” (a cost-effective “shortcut” way of identifying the DNA sequence - VenterInstitute.org), we’ll soon be able to sequence a base pair for around a penny. “You will soon be able to sequence the entire genome of an organism, or at least the crucial identifying part for a few cents.” In other words, simply by identifying an organism’s DNA, you can confirm whether or not it’s a new discovery. “Just taking a little snippet of a specimen and processing it, you can pretty well classify what it is, whether you know it or not, and whether you have seen it before.” Which means the good news is that, in Kelly’s estimation, we should be able to catalog the remaining 45 million or so species in a fraction of the time it took to do the first 6 million – around 25 years.
AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: A FUNDAMENTAL SHIFT IN MINDSET Until recently, society has pretty much failed to recognize the benefits of cataloguing. “People have not thought that it was worth doing, that there is no value in it,” he explains. “It was also derided as sort of stamp collecting. It was just people finding something, and seeing how many they could add to.” Yet, through the study of Ecology, for about the last twenty years we are finally waking up to the fact that previously unrecognized species are essential parts of a working ecosystem – a working whole – and when species go missing, imbalances occur. “If you were missing some of tiny species that you would often not even know about, that it could upset or tip the balance, or take into disequilibrium the entire ecology. And so there became more of an appreciation to try to find out what are all the parts, and then that became interesting.”
MAKE WAY FOR THE AGE OF BIOLOGY Although we have recently entered the century of biology, Kelly believes it has yet to hit the street level. “You still can’t do genetic hacking very easily,” he explains. “We do not have garage science where you can do your own sequencing. I monitor that arrival, but it has not yet come, not yet arrived. When that happens that would be huge. I think this intersection of collaborative social software [such as Wikipedia, Flickr & Friendster] is extremely powerful - lots of experiments going on. Something more interesting than Google will happen there.”
THE GAME DESIGNER AS THEOLOGIAN
WALK A MILE IN ANOTHER PERSON’S…TECHNOLOGY? Just as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (World-of-Dawkins.com) imagined switching places with a gene and viewing the world from that perspective – and discovered a brutal, Hobbesian world of molecules competing for scarce resources and space as they attempt to create more of their same kind – so Kelly is trying to view the world through the eyes of technology, and figure out what technology wants. “I’m wrestling with several perspectives in my own mind about what technology means to us. What does it ultimately bring us? What is its role in the cosmos and, you know, what relation if any does it have to God? We spend a lot of time thinking about the role of nature in our lives …what it means. We spend lot of time thinking about maybe even the role of technology in humans, but, where does it fit into the ultimate larger scale of things in the cosmos? What is technology?”
SO WHAT DOES TECHNOLOGY WANT, ANYWAY? Apparently, the same things we humanoids want. “I think remarkably [technology] wants things very similar to what life wants. It wants to increase diversity, it wants increased energy density, it wants to optimize the evolvability, which is a big thing…It basically wants to evolve faster. It wants choices and I think that’s, in the end, what technology brings to us... is that it increases our options and possibilities. Which is, I think, a very, very good thing - if not a divine thing.” Quoting techie/environmentalist (and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog) Stewart Brand (Well.com) – “We are as Gods, and might as well get good at it” – Kelly points out that technology has imbued us with godlike traits. “I think what technology brings us is the power of a creator … of Godhood …of actually having freedom to make a world. And in that sense it’s divine, in the sense it’s a mirror or a completion of creation … in the sense that we have the full power of creator.”
THE GAME DESIGNER AS THEOLOGIAN So how exactly are we-the-people dealing with being gods? Why not ask an expert: a video game designer. In interviews, Kelly has stated in interviews [such as an interesting one in cyberstage.org] that rather than talking to philosophers or economists, he would rather chat with someone actually doing the dirty work of attempting replicate an economy world. “Game designers are practicing amateur theology as they try and figure out the rules of their creation, and they’re much broader theologians because of that. Because they are not just in an armchair trying to contemplate things, they actually wrestle with things like prime causes, whether the casualty of chain or field, all these things. What’s deterministic, and what’s not. They actually get to try things out this way, unlike most philosophers in the past, they decided to use their brain. I mean … the difference is like sort of imagining a fully realized building - a cathedral that is something you build in your mind - versus really building one.”
100,000 AMATEUR THEOLOGIANS An extremely popular 3-D virtual world is Second Life (SecondLife.com), built & owned by its inhabitants which now number close to 100,000 around the world. The developers sell a virtual plot of land, and a number of people are even making a living as real estate brokers in Second Life, buying the land from Second Life & developing it & putting homes on it, which they then rent or re-sell. “It’s the future. absolutely where things will be headed. The point about the Second Life economy is that it’s a real economy, it’s not a virtual economy. It’s a real economy in a virtual world, and you know, it’s sort of like The Matrix…How far down do you want to go?” Like the “real” world, Second Lifer’s socialize, eat, drink, party and even rent movies to watch…as their Second Life avatar. “It’s only inevitable that someone has a second life version in Second Life.”
What is surprising is how, well, mundane the Second Life worlds seem. In a realm where gravity is optional and the rules of physics need not apply, I was surprised that instead of breaking new ground creatively, the Second Life worlds seemed to merely mimick real life…minus the nasty social diseases – a phenomenon which Kelly credits to two facts: 1) you need enough participants – a critical mass, and 2) the newness of the experience. “I think that’s partly education. The first movies were basically films of plays or theatre. And I think in the beginning that most of the worlds are strange enough, and there are enough of new things going on that you want to have something familiar and you don’t have to make the world completely new. As people become familiar and maybe a little bored with that, then they’ll head into more fantastical places where they have different physics and everything. I think if you just start off right away being creative with physics and other kind of outlandish things, it’s very disorienting and you kind of limit that number of people. So, I think that will be a matter of education over time… So I think incrementally you’ll begin to see drastic alterations - but not initially.”
WHAT SURPRISES KEVIN
GOOGLE AD SENSE: BIG VALUE IN SMALL BOXES Those ubiquitous vanilla blocks of Google text ads – the content of which is customized to whatever is on the site – are actually quite innovative. Kelly admits that even as recently as five years ago, he never would have predicted that they would have been so successful. “We thought that advertising worked primarily in terms of conveying emotion and brands, and awareness. And with the Google ad Sense, and the Google key word where they’re making their billions of dollars, they realized there was a service retail market. There was this huge market of more boring kind of ads, which were context driven.” Reading a blog about strategies for taking a standardized test? Lo and behold, there are Google ads promoting various ways to improve your SAT (a standardized test for American High Schoolers, typically part of US universities’ admissions criteria). “It was all about affinity, adjacency - about contextual, boring text ads that had such power. This was a surprise to me that it would work at that scale. It’s like classified advertising, a few lines of text, but you put them everywhere next to things that you’re reading about, and they actually read these ads because we never had that experience.” Unlike standard print media such as newspaper, where an article about the World Trade Center is next to an ad about flower pots, Google ad words have harnessed the power of context, creating value for the reader. “The idea that if you actually made a very, very contextual text ad right next to what you are reading about - that it can actually bring tremendous value to you as a reader - I just had never thought that that would work.”
THE HYPERTEXT LINK: CREATING ORDER THROUGH ASSOCIATION Kelly’s pick for one of the most important inventions of the last hundred years? Drumroll…the hypertext link. “I think we don’t recognize how powerful that idea has been, how new it actually is; new as a mechanical working thing, and the extent to which it has transformed our intellectual and conceptual life of the mind.” The hypertext link has helped to make accessible the vast sea of information that is the internet – a prime example of which is Wikipedia, a world encyclopedia that anyone can change and update. “I would not have thought that Wikipedia could have worked. That was just something that could not work in theory because you’re allowing anybody in the world to change an encyclopedia article.” Rather than disintigrating into a chaotic free-for-all, Wikipedia is a resounding success. “Any 18 year-old jerk who just gets the computer can go in and change the article instantly. I was like, ‘how is that going to work? How are you going to have something that is going to be of an authority on things if anybody can go in and change it?’ It just didn’t seem like that was feasible, and yet, look at it, it’s astounding.”
Fundamentally what makes a project like Wikipedia (Wikipedia.org) work is that it’s easier to contribute positively rather than to harm it. Kelly credits internet scribe Clay Shirky (Shirky.com) for the insight that it’s easier to heal Wikipedia than it is to damage it. “The revert function is the single button that you click; it actually takes less energy than to type stuff and to mess it up. So when you have the healing being energetically cheaper than the vandalism, it gives great power to this thing. It is easier for people to monitor, watch, attend it, it became a very low cost thing to do which was to be the keeper of a particular article or whatever. So that is something that should not work in practice, should not work in theory, but actually work in practice.”
OUT OF CONTROL: CIVILIZATION 2.0 The real power of the link, it turns out, is the power to harness what countless individuals are up to, and transform it into a mass effort. “That’s what links have sort of unleashed - is a way for some very interesting things to happen where many people with their own little interests and agendas are building very, very large scale things. Enabled by the link, the new frontier is the power of many, working in tandem, but without centralized control.
Ultimately, the link and the new frontier are at the heart of culture. “It is a type of civilization…which is much more about the conceptual, mental, the meaning of things, the relations that we have, the intangible version…All the stuff that touches on this intangible world of the mind, that’s where all this is happening. Second Life is an example of that. Very intangible, very virtual, … the media is all in this world, you know the information, science, the mind. That’s where we’re living, and I don’t think our physical civilization is going to change very much, but the mental civilization that we live in will,” explains Kelly. “Civilization version 2.0.”
For more info on Kevin, his Cool Tools blog, and everything else he's up to, visit KK.org.
- Lesley Scott
Fashiontribes Pop Culture Kevin Kelly Wired Magazine Long Now Foundation All Species Organization Brian Eno Fashion Danny Hillis Clock of the Long Now Cool Tools Richard Dawkins Second Life Accessories Podcast Fashion Expert