Kevin Kelly on Why Technology Has a Will

Christopher Michel/Kevin Kelly, portrait

We live in a timeline that oscillates somewhere between strangeness and doom. Much of the blame gets placed on new technologies and society’s digestion of them. And though many of the growing pains we’re experiencing amount to history rhyming, our newfound access to enormous amounts of  information has produced anomalies. Notably, we can create and live in elaborate simulative bubbles. Whether via politics (QAnon) or nostalgic cultural recreations (‘80s Downtown Art Scene), many choose to roleplay a world or previous historical era while increasingly intangible forms of technology become more powerful. It’s world-building that’s become almost a new social contract: let others do what they want politically and economically, so long as we can continue to roleplay without too much interference.

Technologist Kevin Kelly has pinned this simulative aspect on technology’s function as a kind of nascent biological entity with its own agency. The “Technium” as he refers to it, is “the sphere of visible technology and intangible organizations that form what we think of as modern culture.” While some would interpret technology to be a driverless, chaotic system made all the more destructive by its attachment to a market economy, Kelly argues that it’s part of a system acting on its own vague accord, interacting with humans as a way to further itself.

Kelly is also a boomer, and after dropping out of college and tramping around the world for a few years, he was invited by Stewart Brand to work on the Whole Earth Catalog, the phonebook-like compendium that published guides on subjects such as how to build a buckyball, along with ads for chemistry sets and saw mills. In a pre-Unabomber world, the catalog influenced people to seek civilizational exit from an America in turmoil by escaping to the countryside to experiment with off-the-grid living. But as other figures of that generation, like Timothy Leary and Jerry Rubin, started donning suits and publicly espousing the benefits of capitalism, Kelly would make a professional pivot by helping found Wired in 1993, where he continues to be an editor.

In the decades since, Kelly has published a number of books, including What Technology Wants, which introduced his Technium concept. Like many former Whole Earthers, Kelly continues to live in the Bay Area where he writes about technology with an almost supernatural optimism that, ostensibly, seems more impractical the further we go into the 21st century. But for Kelly, who identifies as a Christian, technology is akin to a religion. The answer to our ills is more technology, not less.

Technological Optimism for Anti-Utopians

Patrick McGraw: Where does your optimism come from?

Kevin Kelly: Most of my optimism comes from history. The older I get, the more interested I become in history. I hated it in high school, but I spend more time reading about history than I ever did before. And the more time I spend studying the past, the more evident it becomes that progress is real, and that we should acknowledge it.

Statistically, it makes sense that we continue. It’s possible that hundreds of years of progress could suddenly stop, but it’s much more likely that it continues. That’s the first source. The second source of my optimism is kids. I have kids; you have to be optimistic if you look at the young.

The third source of optimism is a kind of more recent understanding that progress—the progress that we have had—is not really visible. It’s a very small delta. So, we may only create 1% more progress every year than we destroyed. Net progress of 1% is really not visible in any given year. But 1% compounded over decades and even centuries is what civilization is. So, we can be optimistic with a 1% increase every year—or at least, I can be. That is enough to compound over time to make a difference. 

And so, I reject utopianism. I believe in progress only in terms of slight incremental betterment. It’s not visible year to year, but only when you look back. 

Do you think that to be an optimist, you have to ignore certain things that are happening in the world?

No. You have to only understand that we can enlarge and increase our ability to solve problems. 

You say most of the problems we’ll have in future will be created by today’s technology. What are some of those problems? 

Most of the problems we have today are from technology that we’ve invented in the past. But I’m also a techno-centric person. I believe that the solutions to the problems created by technology is not less technology, but better technology. I equate technology to a type of thinking. And if you have a stupid idea, or a hurtful idea, the solution is not to stop thinking. The decision is to have better thinking, better ideas. 

You might say, well, what’s the game? The game is that every time we create a new technology, we’re creating new possibilities, new choices that didn’t exist before. Those choices themselves—even the choice to do harm—are a good, they’re a plus. 

So, what are we making today that will cause the problems of the future? Well, augmented reality, which I am talking a lot about, will require the total surveillance of us in this world. That’s how we make an avatar. That total surveillance is going to be a problem that we have to deal with. AI, which I am very bullish on, will inherently create all kinds of problems, from identity issues, to how we control it, to embedded biases and how we overcome them.

We’re just beginning to understand all the many problems that AI will bring. And I would say that the more powerful a technology is, the more powerfully it will be abused. Since AI is one of the most powerful technologies ever, there will be powerful abuses of it, absolutely. 

How much of what you’re saying is tied to technology being developed in tandem with a market economy—or capitalism, if you want to call it that? I mean, can you see a future scenario where it’s not being developed in tandem with the competitive market? 

In America, we rely a lot more on the market to solve things. And there’s evidently many, many things that the market wants. One of those primary things is long-term infrastructure—long-term anything. Businesses are horrible at trying to solve a problem that may take 10 years, 20 years to solve. They’re just not built for that. And that’s the role of governments. They should be inefficient. We want them to be inefficient. We want them to stockpile two million masks, just in case.

And governments can do other kinds of things, including long-range projects that may take more than a generation to complete. And we need other institutions that also are doing that. The world of possible institutions is not just made up of government or corporations. We’re seeing some that are platforms. Platforms are somewhat like governments. And they’re somewhat like corporations, but they’re so big that they have attributes of both. Nonprofits have some of those aspects too, they may be able to take a 25-year horizon to do something. 

So, I don’t think technology is at all bound or requires free market capitalism. And one of the things that people object to in capitalism, in addition to the free market solution to things, is the fact that it seems to want or demand unlimited growth. There’s a little bit of a language issue there, because in English, at least, we have different ideas wrapped up in the word growth. We have growth as in gaining weight, as in getting bigger, as in growing the size of the company, the number of dollars flowing through GDP. But we also can use growth in terms of evolutionary growth, maturing. ‘I’m growing up’ doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m getting heavier. It can mean that I’m getting wiser, I’m getting better. We have evolutionary growth, which doesn’t mean there’s more things. It just means that they have evolved and become more complicated. 

We want an economy that’s growing in the second sense: unlimited betterment, unlimited increase in wisdom, and complexity, and choices. I don’t see any limit there. We don’t want an economy that’s just getting fatter and fatter, and bigger and bigger, in terms of its size. Can we imagine such a system? That’s hard, but I don’t think it’s impossible. 

In Silicon Valley, exit as opposed to voice was a very popular idea, at least 10 years or so ago. Do you think exit is a viable option still?

No. The same goes for the Mars contingent, who think they’re going to go to Mars and set up their alternative world without sovereignty or existing institutions. I mean, first of all, there aren’t going to be colonies. There’ll be a research station. It would be a million times easier to build a city underneath our oceans. There could be a research station, you know, an outpost for colleagues, people and families. 

But the impulse that you’re talking about—people escaping from the current paradigms and rebuilding—this is a little bit like the 1960s commune movement, and probably won’t succeed for the same reason. The problem with globalism is that there really is nowhere to hide. There’s no frontier to escape to. And people running off into the hills has always been a part of the human story, kind of like an escape valve. It’s possible that we might have the VR or the Oasis version, where people might spend their lives interacting in a kind of invisible world, an underworld created within the system. In a way, that’s what 4chan or 8chan are. But you could have a full-fledged alternative world with maps and everything else. I suspect that might serve a similar purpose as the world becomes more global. But I don’t think it’s ever going to be significant. I have no evidence for that.

The Whole Earth Catalog, which you were part of, was kind of a predecessor to this sentiment—the desire to exit. Do you think that in terms of the physical reality, there’s really nowhere left to run? 

I could imagine, in the next 20 years, that someone does try a Burning Man-ish outpost. You know, Turkmenistan is a very crazy, weird place, with a lot of space and a crazy dictator. It could welcome a bunch of people to set up an outpost there and reinvent things. So, I think we can see something crazy and silly like that. It would be very amusing. But I don’t feel there’s a wholesale exit sentiment brewing. The comfort and the amenities of urban living are so strong. And the hardship means the commitment would have to be almost religious. You’d have to be something like a cult, where part of what they’re buying into is the difficulty itself, the self-sacrifice and the hardship. I could see that as a possibility, but I can’t see it as a significant thing.

When you look at online cultures, do you get the sense that they’re a form of escapism?

That’s what QAnon is, isn’t it? It’s part of this deep, deep world that you can lose yourself in. I think some of this VR stuff may become the hottest game—it’s actually, you know, an exit, a counterculture. So we could certainly expect countercultures thriving in the kind of virtual world where it would satisfy people, and they would feel very real. That’s what A Rape in Cyberspace by Julian Dibbell was, and its effects were very similar.  

Rise of the Technium

In general, people kind of live in this cultural simulation. For instance, when you look at something like Twitter—sure, there’s some tech that goes into it. But the way that it’s marketed to people—the way they interface with it—is through metaphors, as a simulation. So for you specifically, I wanted to tie this to the Technium: this idea of technology as its own thing that we almost aren’t a part of, that we actually just interface with.

Well, technically, we are part of the Technium. Humanity is itself an invention, a creation. We have engineered ourselves, and eventually will genetically engineer ourselves too. But for the most part, it’s something that is Other. 

That is the curious paradox of the Technium: that we are both creators and the created, we are both the parent and child. That tension is going to remain forever—the tension of, are we in control, or is it controlling us? And the answer is yes. 

What I’m trying to garner is, to what degree is that part of the Technium’s bargain for advancing? It seems like the majority of the population is not going to be aware of its functioning, or its growth.

Well, the thing is, from my perspective, technologies succeed when they become invisible, right? That’s a sign of success. We don’t think about most of technology in our lives, because it’s invisible. But that means it’s actually the predominant one, from concrete, to electrical wiring, to plumbing, to the motors that are everywhere. We only notice them when they don’t work. These higher technologies, 5G, or AI, or whatever it is—most of AI is already invisible. As it grows in importance and power, it will continue to become invisible. 

So there will be some ways that we will interface with AI. Most of it, though, is going to be in the back office, or below deck, doing massive amounts of work that we’re not even aware of. And so in that sense, yes, the Technium still won’t be front of mind. I really like Danny Hillis’ definition of technology, which is “anything that doesn’t quite work yet.” In other words, all the new stuff. It will just always be the new stuff. And as it becomes old and now works really well, it will disappear from our awareness. But it will still be very, very important. And you know, again, it’ll be subsumed into the background. That’s when it becomes the most important, at the same time.

I mean, when you look at something like QAnon, that’s heavily influenced by AI, right? That’s an AI system pushing people further and further into these wormholes.

Maybe, but it’s also just Jim Watkins in the Philippines creating QAnon. So there’s humans there. 

In terms of influence, technology seems to affect the way that people were radicalized through these forms. 

Actually, I don’t quite buy that. I tried it myself, that YouTube experiment of just clicking through recommended videos. And the funny thing about it was, when I tried it with a clear cache, it took me to the most generic, you know, the most common thing. It wasn’t going to the extremes. 

So, I think it might depend on where you’re starting. I was starting with pretty innocuous stuff, bland stuff. Maybe if you start with something pretty radical, a little extreme—but in my experience, I couldn’t even get it to replicate that experiment. 

I have no doubt that AI will be responsible for some really weird stuff. I don’t have any examples so far of AI leading people astray—you know, the stories of people becoming radicalized from watching YouTube. I like to see some more data before I believe that. I am 100% open to the idea that that’s possible, again. But if you were going to ask for data and evidence of it, I don’t see it. 

Do you think that some of the instability we’re witnessing is related to growing pains of the Technium? 

Of course, yeah. But ditto for the last hundred years, ditto for the next thousand years. That’s going to be the nature of this constant disruption and change. The question people are asking is, how much can I accelerate? What is it accelerating? Can we accelerate forever? Is it something we can deal with? 

And that’s a really fair question. How fast are things changing? We don’t even have very good metrics for that. At one level, you know, people like Tyler Cowen argue that we have stagnation. Patrick Collison is saying that sciences are not advancing very fast as they used to. They need to be even faster. So there’s a disagreement on whether things are changing faster now. You could make an argument that from when my father was born to when he died, that was more change than I’ve seen or ever will see in my life. Being born in a house that didn’t have any electricity, or running water, there was no radio—you know, all these things. Going to the moon. 

Okay, so I look out, and things haven’t changed at all in the neighborhood that I live in, or even the one I grew up in. It kind of depends on what we’re measuring, actually. That’s one of the questions: what do we care about? I do think things are changing, but I think they’re not changing in the physical realm. We had the Industrial Revolution, which was a rearrangement of the physical world. And I think most of that has already happened. Then, 100 years ago, cities already kind of looked like they do now. 

But the changes now are more intangible. And in terms of what it means to us, and what our relationships are, and other things—all those kinds of intangible things are under great disruption.

Right. The ability to communicate with someone across the world instantaneously, the effect that is having psychologically is very, very strong. The instability is becoming more intangible, more hidden. 

I’m not sure it’s hidden, but it is certainly intangible. And maybe harder to point out. It comes down to things like assumptions, like the water that we’re in. It becomes harder to see it—not because the waters are hidden, it’s just that they’re ubiquitous. Things can kind of disappear, precisely because they’re ubiquitous. Even terrible things become hidden and ubiquitous. 

God and the Absence of Destiny

Does the Technium have agency? Or will it? 

Yes. The whole point of the Technium is that it is a system. And all systems have agency. That doesn’t mean it’s conscious. You know, grasshoppers and bacteria have agency, but they’re not conscious of it. They move toward the light, looking for food—they make decisions, so to speak. But they may not be conscious of it. So you can certainly have agency without consciousness. 

The Technium absolutely has agency, meaning that there are biases and tendencies and urges—that it kind of wants to go in certain directions. And that’s controversial. I would say that of evolution itself. That’s the controversial thing, whether there’s any direction in evolution. I would say, there is direction at the very large scale. How these systems could have agency, and where that agency lies, are not easily explained. 

Nor is where it’s going. And I kind of tried, in my book, to tease out where it’s going—some very elementary things: it’s moving towards more complexity, it’s moving towards more mutualism, it’s moving towards specialization, from the general to specific. But, those are kind of—they’re broad, but I believe they indicate the fact that there is agency in the evolutionary process. And the Technium, as an extension of those same forces, it’s going in the same direction. 

You wouldn’t have any firm, specific notions of what the Technium wants?

There’s no destiny, there’s only a direction. And it’s radiating outward, so it’s increasing possibilities and choices. So there’s no destiny, just directions. 

So that’s what technology wants? 

Yeah. I’m a technological determinist, which is something I didn’t think I would be. I believe there is a developmental sequence of technology. And it’s one that we will probably find other planets with technological civilizations, they would kind of go through a similar sequence of things. The thing is, there aren’t standalone technologies. Technologies are always coming out of networks that require other related ideas to have the next one. The fact that we have simultaneous independent invention as a norm works against the idea of the heroic inventor, that we’re dependent on them for inventions. These things will come when all the other pieces are ready. 

And we have a kind of inevitability when it comes to the larger technological shapes. So, any planet with the right, similar kind of gravity is going to have quadrupeds, because that physically is a very stable form. There’s nothing inevitable about a zebra. It’s way too specific. 

Do you think that there’s a connection between your faith in technology and your actual religious faith? Is there a cross-over there? 

Well, I don’t think there’s many people who have my faith in technology. The question is, where does this all come from? Where has the universe come from? You can kind of have two answers. First, it always was—which is really, basically saying it was self-created. Or you can have a God that always was and who created the universe. In either case, you’re starting with self-creation. Either way, you have something that has always existed or created itself. Neither one of those explanations is very satisfying, wherever you want to start. I think the idea of self-organization is what runs through what we see of the universe. In some ways, I’m continuing to self-organize and self-create into something. That’s what life is. 

So, we have this universe that’s running down, with entropy everywhere. It’s becoming disordered. But there are these really weird pockets—places where you have self-organization. First, it’s at the scale of atoms, and then it coalesces into stars, and then self-orders into planets. Life, in that process of self-organization, actually increases entropy. So, you have what I call extropy, at the expense of increasing entropy. That, to me, is a reflection of the very nature of the universe. The beginning of the Technium was at the Big Bang. I see an arc running from the origins of the universe to technology. And that’s one story.

It could be that this is the universe doing its thing, and there’s no God, or it could be that there’s a God. Either one of those explanations, again, is unsatisfying. But both of them are religious stories. Both of them are saying that there’s something bigger than us, and that this bigger thing is running through it all, and it’s beyond us, and will continue after us. I like the God version, because I think it’s more interesting. 

Okay, so, my view of technology is that its origins are not human things. Its origins are at the cosmic level, the Big Bang. That is my religious view of technology, that it’s not an output of humans. It’s an output baked in at the beginning. And we’re part of this long arc, going through the universe, which is increasing its possibilities, making more possibilities. It’s a recursive, self-organizing entity, and it will be present in millions or billions of other planets. It’s part of that universal story and arc of something big, going back to the beginning. So, that is the religious view. 

And that matches with my own view of God, as somebody or something that is ever perfect, ever improving. I don’t believe in a static God. I believe in a God that is remaking itself, constantly. It’s a disruptive God. It’s a God that is so powerful, in its infinite dimension, it’s making an infinite bigger than itself. It’s a God that is improving. A perfect God that is becoming more perfect. 

The Road Ahead

This idea that humans have to get technology under control, or even that they can, seems to be false. 

Humans are in the middle. We are a product of technology, so we’re not going to get technology under control. My first book was called Out of Control. No, we’re not in control of it at all. But again, we have this curious relationship to it, because we are both the parent of it, and the child of it. Right, so it’s coming through us, we’re carrying it. When you’re a parent, you don’t really ‘make’ a baby, in a certain sense. You’re kind of a conduit for the baby. We’re conduits for this technology. But we also can have a lot of say about the character of it. 

That’s the analogy I make: when your child is growing up, they inherit all kinds of things you have no control over. We may not have any choice about what precisely is going to come next. But we have a lot of choices about the character of these things. I would say the internet was inevitable. But the character of the internet—whether you were going to be owned by a corporation, whether it was going to be international, whether it was going to be open or closed, whether it was going to be, you know, dominated and centralized—those are choices that we did have. We can shape the character of it, just like we can shape the character of a child, even though they’re going to go and become a teenager.

Do you think things will become more unstable over the next decade? 

Americans have a very parochial view of the world. We tend to think what happens in America is what’s happening the rest of the world. To answer that question about the instability or disturbances, I would immediately leave America and look around the world—what’s happening in China, what’s happening in India? 

Up until COVID, I would say we were on the verge of another long boom, meaning that we would have had another couple decades of prosperity globally. People like Robert Gordon have argued that we have stagnation, or we’re nearing stagnation, because we had five big once-in-a-lifetime events that aren’t going to be repeated. That was, sort of, the basis of the good times that we had. And one of those was women moving into the workforce. It happens only once, and then we benefit from that. But that’s it. I think there’s a bunch of once-in-a-lifetime headwinds coming up that will also propel prosperity globally—and by prosperity, I mean this 1% net improvement that we discussed earlier. 

So, to answer your question: no, I don’t feel that we’re going to head into this hugely chaotic, crazy time. I think there will be the usual chaos, there’ll be local wars. That’s my prediction. Predictions are always wrong, though. I would do scenarios. And I would say there’s a scenario in which there’s actual war with the U.S. and China, probably over Taiwan. That would be pretty bad. That would really disrupt things.

What I’ve learned about thinking about the future is that you have to think of in terms of scenarios, you have to try to not predict. But in a sense, you have to not be surprised either. The one thing you know about the future is that it has to be possible. Anything that’s impossible is not counted. But, of course, deciding what’s impossible is part of the process. You want to kind of stake out the corners of what’s possible, so that you aren’t surprised. 

So you can’t be right, but you can be ready. And I would have to count on things like, you know, a war with China, cyber-war, cyber-conflict of some other sort. Those would be very disruptive. I think, for me, they’re low probabilities. But I would have to include them as within the realm of possible. 

Patrick McGraw is a writer and editor based in New York City. He is active on Instagram @ptrkmgrw.