Podcast • October 19, 2010

Kevin Kelly on Tech: the Unabomber was Right; the Amish, too.

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Kevin Kelly (44 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Kevin Kelly, most engaging of technophiles, has never been a techie. He was a low-consumption hippie growing up, then dropped out ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Kevin Kelly (44 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Kevin Kelly, most engaging of technophiles, has never been a techie. He was a low-consumption hippie growing up, then dropped out of college to photograph the simple life in Asia and Africa. In the 1970s, his twenties, he edited The Whole Earth Catalog, “…sort of like Google in paperback form,” Steve Jobs has said, “35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.” In the 90s, Kevin Kelly became, of course, the genius ghost inside the WIRED magazine machine, where his title now is “senior maverick.” All along, and especially in his new book, What Technology Wants, the tilt of his thinking is away from gadgetry, very much in the direction of philosophy and theology.

The networking of computers 30 years ago marked a turning point, when Kelly came to see technology not just as a continuum from caveman times — a set of man-made systems we could not live without; but also as a process that was getting to have an organic and evolutionary life of its own. “We began to see through technology’s disguise as material and began to see it primarily as action,” he writes. “No longer a noun, technology was becoming a force — a vital spirit that throws us forward… Not a thing but a verb.”

Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was right, Kelly argues, in seeing that technology is a wholistic, dynamic, self-aggrandizing process with “its own agenda.” He was wrong in failing to see that the freedom of his little shack was an illusion. “Millions of people,” Kevin Kelly is telling me, “flee their shacks every year to go to cities and live in slums. They’re coming to cities for increased choices and options, which is what technology brings us.” But the Amish, says Kelly from behind an Amish-ish beard, are righter than Kaczynski ever was. “They’re not Luddites,” Kelly says, “they’re hackers. They love to play with the rules.” Amish communities are driven by religious belief, but they’re also making choices. “When the cellphone comes along, the questions are: is this good for the family? And is it good for the community.” And then they make their choice collectively.

I am pushing Kevin Kelly to confront our worst fears of technology — those remote-control drones, for example, poisoning minds and morals of millions of people beyond the thousands who get blown up by them. What about the computer systems presumed to avert market collapses or BP drilling disasters, which have quickly come to seem a big arrogant part of the problem? Where is the progress to console us for the extinction of the tiger? But of course Kevin Kelly knows the dark side well. “Most problems today are technogenic,” he says, meaning they’re born in our machinery. “I regard these as illnesses,” he goes on, not knowing whether they’re terminal or not. But better technology is the only chance of a remedy. Or is it? Has this symbiotic relationship turned against its creator?

First of all, I think we are in large part an invention of our own minds, that we have made ourselves, that we invented language and language transformed our selves, and that our bodies, instead of slowing down are actually speeding up. Our biological evolution continues to speed up because of technology. But at the same time, of course, that we are the parents of what we make, we are also the children of it: we are both the master and the slave of technology. … We serve technology and technology serves us: that tension will never go away.

The question you’re asking is ‘What’s preventing technology from just taking over?’ and I think part of the answer is that we are always going to be part of it. When I talk about the autonomy of the Technium, we have to remember that we will always be part of it — the Technium includes us.

I think what’s happening is that we are going to transform ourselves, we are not the people who walked out of Africa and we will not be the same people that we are today in another twenty, thirty, hundred years. We are going to become something different.

Kevin Kelly with Chris Lydon, October 13, 2010