Editor's Note: The Global Affairs column is curated by Stratfor's board of contributors, a diverse group of thinkers whose expertise inspires rigorous and innovative thought. Their opinions are their own and serve to complement and even challenge our beliefs. We welcome that challenge, and we hope our readers do too.
By Jay Ogilvy
Like culture or economics, technology provides another skein to weave through the warp and weft of the geopolitical tapestry. And Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired magazine, is a skilled weaver. The author of Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World and What Technology Wants, Kelly has just published his newest book, titled The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.
Because Kelly is such a skilled writer, this column will follow the format of an earlier column of mine, where Parag Khanna — another skilled wordsmith — was allowed to speak for himself through extended quotations. The irony here is that it was Kelly's former boss at Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, who invented this genre of the mostly silent reviewer and the more talkative reviewee.
The genius of Kelly's newest book lies in the way he goes meta, how he transcends particular technologies and pieces of hardware — the gee-wizardry of flying cars or spaceships — and focuses instead on fundamental technological forces like "cognifying," "remixing," "screening" and "tracking." There are 12 of these present participles titling his chapters, and for each he offers cogent insights, past and present examples, and future projections.
In what follows, I've chosen sentences and paragraphs with an eye to defining as briefly as possible just what Kelly means by each of his present participles, then homing in on their implications for geopolitics — and for the future.
Don't think of this as a longish column; think of it as a brutally abbreviated book that offers you the very essence of Kelly's vision of what's to come.
"'Inevitable' is a strong word. It sends up red flags for some people because they object that nothing is inevitable. They claim that human willpower and purpose can — and should! — deflect, overpower and control any mechanical trend. In their view, 'inevitability' is a free will copout we surrender to. When the notion of the inevitable is forged with fancy technology, as I do here, the objections to a preordained destiny are even more fierce and passionate. One definition of 'inevitable' is the final outcome in the classic rewinding thought experiment. If we rewound the tape of history back to the beginning of time and reran our civilization from the start again and again, a strong version of inevitability says that, no matter how many times we reran it, every time we end up with teenagers tweeting every five minutes in 2016. That's not what I mean."
Instead Kelly means something much closer to the kind of predictability we strive for here at Stratfor. Analysis should probe deeper than reporting on passing events or individual leaders who come and go. Likewise particular technologies — hardware hijinks — are increasingly ephemeral, as Kelly's first present participle announces.
In the land of perpetual upgrades, "In this era of 'becoming,' everyone becomes a perpetual newbie." You'll never have the opportunity to rest easy with a stable platform. But Kelly is nothing if not optimistic. While he acknowledges the inevitable anxiety of newbieness, the net gain, in Kelly's eyes, is worth it. More than that, as Kelly weaves his tapestry of technological forces into a future more connected than even that painted in Khanna's Connectography, we get a picture that sharply contrasts with gloomier prophesies.
"So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2016 is the best time to start up. There has never been a better day in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more opening, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute. This is the moment that folks in the future will look back at and say, 'Oh, to have been alive and well back then!'"
Everything's getting smarter — not just computers and phones, but thermostats, refrigerators, shoes and shirts. Behind and beneath each of the particular smartening technologies is the inexorable advance toward artificial intelligence (AI). Note the preposition, "toward," not "of." Despite the attractive fictions of movies like Her and Ex Machina, we do not yet possess human-like robots with AI so strong that they can seduce and overpower their makers. But the real promise of advances in computing power has less to do with sexy robots than with the network effects that accrue when we connect both people and devices.
"The bigger the network, the more attractive it is to new users, which makes it even bigger and thus more attractive, and so on. A cloud that serves AI will obey the same law. The more people who use an AI, the smarter it gets. The smarter it gets, the more people who use it. The more people who use it, the smarter it gets. And so on. Once a company enters this virtuous cycle, it tends to grow so big so fast that it overwhelms any upstart competitors. As a result, our AI future is likely to be ruled by an oligarchy of two or three large, general-purpose cloud-based commercial intelligences."
Thus, an imperative to scale for a few commercial behemoths that will span the globe and exercise geopolitical power rivaling that of nation-states.
Kelly's third force will strike fear into the hearts of those who wish to conserve the things they want to keep the same. Contrary to the famous phrase from The Communist Manifesto — "All that is solid melts into air." — Kelly sees the fluidity induced by fast-changing technologies as additive rather than subtractive.
"Most of the good fixed things in our civilization (roads, skyscrapers) are not going anywhere. We will continue to manufacture analog objects (chairs, plates, shoes), but they will acquire a digital essence as well, with embedded chips. (Except for a tiny minority of high-priced handmade artifacts.) The efflorescent blossoming of liquid streams is an additive process, rather than subtractive. The old media forms endure; the new are layered on top of them. The important difference is that fixity is not the only option anymore. Good things don't have to be static, unchanging. Or, to put it a different way, the right kind of instability can now be good. The move from stocks to flows, from fixity to fluidity, is not about leaving behind stability. It is about harnessing a wide-open frontier where so many additional options based on mutability are possible. We are exploring all the ways to make things out of ceaseless change and shape-shifting processes."
Kelly distinguishes between "People of the Book" and "People of the Screen."
"People of the book favor solutions by laws, while People of the Screen favor technology as a solution to all problems... People of the Screen make their own content and construct their own truth.
"Screens provoke action instead of persuasion. Propaganda is less effective in a world of screens, because while misinformation travels as fast as electrons, corrections do too. Wikipedia works so well because it removes an error in a single click, making it easier to eliminate a falsehood than to post a falsehood in the first place. In books we find a revealed truth; on the screen we assemble our own myths from pieces."
"In the coming 30 years the tendency toward the dematerialized, the decentralized, the simultaneous, the platform enabled, and the cloud will continue unabated. As long as the costs of communications and computation drop due to advances in technology, these trends are inevitable. They are the result of networks of communication expanding till they are global and ubiquitous, and as the networks deepen they gradually displace matter with intelligence. This grand shift will be true no matter where in the world (whether the United States, China, or Timbuktu) they take place. The underlying mathematics and physics remain. As we increase dematerialization, decentralization, simultaneity, platforms, and the cloud — as we increase all those at once, access will continue to displace ownership. For most things in daily life, accessing will trump owning."
In Silicon Valley, a land of libertarians, Kelly only grudgingly admits: "The frantic global rush to connect everyone to everyone all the time is quietly giving rise to a revised technological version of socialism." Wikipedia's structure is flat and wide. So are "collaborative commenting sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Pinterest, and Tumblr."
"These developments suggest a steady move toward a sort of digital 'social-ism' uniquely tuned for a networked world. We're not talking about your grandfather's political socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school political socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government — for now...
"… Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing picks and shovels, we share scripts and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of free government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free commercial goods and services...
"… The new OS [operating system] is neither the classic communism of centralized planning without private property nor the undiluted selfish chaos of a free market. Instead, it is an emerging design space in which decentralized public coordination can solve problems and create things that neither pure communism nor pure capitalism can."
We used to say of Brand and his National Book Award-winning Whole Earth Catalog that they were the ultimate filter. Brand — as well as Kelly when he worked there, and afterward with his blog Cool Tools — were acting as filters or choosers, including and praising some tools, books, clothes and other items while excluding others.
With the aid of AI, firms like Amazon and Spotify can filter the vast array of available content to find what your past selections suggest you'll like. This self-referential dynamic has a future.
"'What do you want?' the filters ask. 'You can choose anything; what do you choose?' The filters have been watching us for years; they anticipate what we will ask. They can almost autocomplete it right now. Thing is, we don't know what we want. We don't know ourselves very well. To some degree we will rely on the filters to tell us what we want. Not as slave masters, but as a mirror. We'll listen to the suggestions and recommendations that are generated by our own behavior in order to hear, to see who we are. The hundred million lines of code running on the million servers of the intercloud are filtering, filtering, filtering, helping us to distill ourselves to a unique point, to optimize our personality. The fears that technology makes us more uniform, more commoditized are incorrect. The more we are personalized, the easier it is for the filters because we become distinct, an actualized distinction they can reckon with. At its heart, the modern economy runs on distinction and the power of differences — which can be accentuated by filters and technology. We can use the mass filtering that is coming to sharpen who we are, for the personalization of our own person."
For millenials who buy their music by the track, not the album, remixing is a way of life. For their elders, like the suits who shut down Napster, it looks more like theft. But habits borrowed from the industrial era will not work in the future.
"The entire global economy is tipping away from the material and toward intangible bits. It is moving away from ownership and toward access. It is tilting away from the value of copies and toward the value of networks. It is headed for the inevitability of constant, relentless, and increasing remixing. The laws will be slow to follow, but they will follow."
This very column is a remix: a sampling, cutting and pasting of Kelly's book customized for Stratfor's readers.
"What could be more intimate and interactive than wearing something that responds to us? Computers have been on a steady march toward us. At first computers were housed in distant air-conditioned basements, then they moved to nearby small rooms, then they crept closer to us perched on our desks, then they hopped onto our laps, and recently they snuck into our pockets. The next obvious step is for computers to lay against our skin. We call those wearables…
"…Cheap, abundant VR [virtual reality] will be an experience factory. We'll use it to visit environments too dangerous to risk in the flesh, such as war zones, deep seas, or volcanoes. Or we'll use it for experiences we can't easily get as humans — to visit the inside of a stomach, the surface of a comet. Or to swap genders, or become a lobster. Or to cheaply experience something expensive, like a flyby of the Himalayas. But experiences are generally not sustainable. We enjoy travel experiences in part because we are only visiting briefly. VR, at least in the beginning, is likely to be an experience we dip in and out of. Its presence is so strong we may want it only in small, measured doses. But we have no limit on the kind of interacting we crave."
A friend came up with a vivid image for life in the digital age: It's like life after a fresh snowfall; you leave tracks wherever you go. But sometimes you don't want to leave tracks. Sometimes you want anonymity. You want privacy. At least people used to want privacy.
"If today's social media has taught us anything about ourselves as a species, it is that the human impulse to share overwhelms the human impulse for privacy. This has surprised the experts. So far, at every juncture that offers a choice, we've tilted, on average, toward more sharing, more disclosure, more transparency. I would sum it up like this: Vanity trumps privacy."
Kelly recalls many of the things that supposedly "couldn't happen" over the past 30 years, from Wikipedia to Linux to the internet itself, and then summarizes a spirit of questioning appropriate to the next 30.
"Our society is moving away from the rigid order of hierarchy toward the fluidity of decentralization. It is moving from nouns to verbs, from tangible products to intangible becomings. From fixed media to messy remixed media. From stores to flows. And the value engine is moving from the certainties of answers to the uncertainties of questions. Facts, order, and answers will always be needed and useful. They are not going away, and in fact, like microbial life and concrete materials, facts will continue to underpin the bulk of our civilization. But the most precious aspects, the most dynamic, most valuable, and most productive facets of our lives and new technology will lie in the frontiers, in the edges where uncertainty, chaos, fluidity, and questions dwell."
We are only at the beginning of the coming together of a vast superorganism.
"A hundred years ago H. G. Wells imagined this large thing as the world brain. Teilhard de Chardin named it the noosphere, the sphere of thought. Some call it a global mind, others liken it to a global superorganism since it includes billions of manufactured silicon neurons. For simple convenience and to keep it short, I'm calling this planetary layer the holos. By holos I include the collective intelligence of all humans combined with the collective behavior of all machines, plus the intelligence of nature, plus whatever behavior emerges from this whole. This whole equals holos."
Prior to H. G. Wells and the rest, Hegel called it Weltgeist, or world historical spirit, a transcendent subjectivity that comes to self-consciousness in and through the coming to self-consciousness of humans in history. When Hegel saw Napoleon ride into Jena in 1804, he went home and wrote in his journal that he'd just witnessed "Spirit on horseback."
Hegel believed that through Napoleon's actions in unifying Europe, combined with Hegel's own reflections on those actions, Spirit had finally achieved the unity necessary for a truly mature self-consciousness. Spirit had become conscious.
But it didn't quite work out that way. Since Hegel, it has seemed more apt to think of Spirit as going schizophrenic, shattering into world wars and culture clashes. Or take the deconstructionist tack — not so much taking something apart, as "deconstruction" is misused in phrases like "the deconstruction of the administrative state"; rather, the real meaning of "deconstruction" as showing how the object of deconstruction was never really unified in the first place. Thus, we look back and say that Hegel was guilty of premature totalization. So-called Spirit never really got it together, however tall Napoleon may have looked in the saddle. Processes of connection and convergence do not always definitively coalesce.
Like his invention of the Technium in What Technology Wants, where Kelly posited the coming together of all of our technologies into a single giant Technium with a mind of its own, I fear that the holos may represent an equally premature totalization. I don't doubt that there are technia — specific regions and technologies with high degrees of interconnectedness and momentum. But, like Hegel's Spirit, claims to have achieved some sort of massive, self-conscious autonomy may be premature.
But stay tuned.
"We are in the Beginning of that process, right at the cusp of that discontinuity. In this new regime, old cultural forces, such as centralized authority and uniformity, diminish while new cultural forces, such as the ones I describe in this book — sharing, accessing, tracking — come to dominate our institutions and personal lives. As the new phase congeals, these forces will continue to intensify. Sharing, though excessive to some now, is just beginning. The switch from ownership to access has barely begun. Flows and streams are still trickles. While it seems as if we are tracked too much already, we'll be tracking a thousand times as much in the coming decades. Each one of these functions will be accelerated by high-quality cognification, just now being born, making the smartest things we do today seem very dumb. None of this is final. These transitions are but the first step in a process, a process of becoming. It is a Beginning."