Almost anything written by Kevin Kelly is worth a read. One of the founders of Wired magazine, and more importantly, the man behind Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools website, he is a thoughtful, humane and persistent examiner of what the future will look like. And the future is partly made by people who attempt to predict it…
Firstly, nothing is inevitable bar death and taxes, so we may be warned that this title is a challenge and not a statement of fact. Kelly wants to alert us to trends that are perhaps not obvious (such as climate change, population growth, increasing automation) but will, he thinks, have a large impact on the future. He suggests things that are all activities: becoming, sharing, remixing, flowing. In other words, human responses to the technologically-influenced world we live in.
In this he can be applauded. Though we may be dominated by technology in many areas, and although technology may define the parameters of our lives (cars lead to suburbs, and computers lead to working from home), it is indubitably true that human needs and wants will always dominate any future that occurs. The failure to appreciate this is what makes past predictions about the future so amusing: jet packs, meals in a pill, the leisure society, undersea living are all possible, were all predicted as inevitable, and yet have never really caught on because they are at odds with fundamental human behaviour. Texting was never predicted as significant, yet it suits very well the human need to keep things back, out of sight, a bit hidden – a characteristic overlooked by the futurists.
So has Kelly picked the right twelve verbs that will dominate our lives in the coming century? They are: Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Screening, Accessing, Sharing, Filtering, Remixing, Interacting, Tracking, Questioning, Beginning.
They are all really about adapting to, and living with, computers. Think about the time when printed books became widely available. It was spread over several centuries and its effect was enormous – most notably in the way it undermined existing authority and control. People rebelled against the institutions they had been quite happy with for centuries.
Though we have only been living with connected computers for a short while, huge changes have occurred. Kevin Kelly suggests we select certain human behaviours out of our vast repertoire, and concentrate on using these if we want to optimise our lives in the future.
‘Becoming’ deals with the common irritation we all have at having to upgrade and ‘keep up’ with technology. In the future we will all be ‘newbies’ all the time. Learn to exploit this humble and cognitively ‘open’ posture (and maybe use free software and reconditioned computers that are a fraction of new prices…).
‘Remixing’ is a direct result of having more access to more material all in a similar digital format. And as more and more is uploaded and shared (‘Sharing’ is another trend) then the more resources we will have to remix. And as Kelly points out, after a certain point economic growth isn’t so much about exploiting new resources as recombining existing resources in new and more valuable ways.
‘Tracking’ is one trend that is problematic. Machines can track everything with ease. And humans love to track others and themselves. And companies make vast amounts selling and using this tracked information. Yet to invade privacy is to corrupt the person whose privacy you have invaded, whatever your intentions. This corrupting influence is suspected by many and is one reason we oppose invasions of privacy on principle (rejecting the utilitarian call that only the guilty need privacy). But ‘tracking’ will be inevitable and so we must enact legislation to limit intrusion. Increasingly people will go off-grid, to places where they can’t be tracked, switching off their phones and GPSs to feel free…
‘Questioning’ is intriguing. Kelly rightly surmises that in the future we’ll be asking more and more questions simply because we can, and because – he assumes – the power of the internet to supply satisfying answers will continue to increase. Many of these questions will be trivial (how many times did James Stewart say the word ‘and’ in the movie Vertigo?), but some will be new and interesting. Having a vast library at our fingertips will encourage people to construct questions they really want to know the answers to, but which, even more importantly, will lead them to new and interesting areas of activity or study.
Some sections like ‘Screening’ seem a little out of date. Kelly makes the suggestion that we will give up books for screen-reading. We will have a cookery book on a screen. But cookbooks are more than information. They are gifts, objects of reverence, collectables, show-off items and lastly, things that won’t break if you spill kimchee on them. And book sales are up year on year whereas Kindle sales have levelled off, suggesting a case of ‘and’ rather than ‘next’.
The end chapter entitled ‘Beginning’ is replete with images of man-and-machine connectedness, AI dreams and talk of a ‘soft singularity’. In other words, a gleaming hyper-modern technofuture without ISIS, Preppers, Flat Earthers and all the other human phenomena that use computers to make a world that increasingly resembles the past rather than any futuristic vision. There is something almost old-fashioned in this trend (which doesn’t mean that along the way Kelly doesn’t turn up fascinating stuff).
And there is something pessimistic in the title: ‘the inevitable’. The notion that humans cannot control or direct significant change, but merely, like peasants bowing to their lord, must tag along and make the best of it, may reflect some aspects of life, but not all. Futurists tend to be sci-fi addicts and it shows. But the whole of human history indicates that the only inevitable thing about the future is that it will be very similar to the present in its essentials: human beings will still want meaning and enlightenment in their lives.