Kevin Kelly is a thoughtful man, who has taken the time to think critically about the development of technology. He highlights that though technology can not be guided by any one, specific human, the entire sphere evolves in a non predictable, yet logical way. As technology becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, more value is placed on finite resources, and none more finite than human time and attention. Kelly makes no specific predictions of the future (which is a good thing), but provides a framework for looking at and living with technological innovation. Be conscious of the goals of technology and you can use it to your advantage.
The disruption ABC could not imagine was that this “internet stuff” enabled the formerly dismissed passive consumers to become active creators. The revolution launched by the web was only marginally about hypertext and human knowledge. At its heart was a new kind of participation that has since developed into an emerging culture based on sharing.
In fact, robust intelligence may be a liability—especially if by “intelligence” we mean our peculiar self-awareness, all our frantic loops of introspection and messy currents of self-consciousness. We want our self-driving car to be inhumanly focused on the road, not obsessing over an argument it had with the garage.
Our most important mechanical inventions are not machines that do what humans do better, but machines that can do things we can’t do at all. Our most important thinking machines will not be machines that can think what we think faster, better, but those that think what we can’t think.
We need to let robots take over. Many of the jobs that politicians are fighting to keep away from robots are jobs that no one wakes up in the morning really wanting to do. Robots will do jobs we have been doing, and do them much better than we can. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we never imagined even needed to be done. And they will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are. They will let us focus on becoming more human than we were. It is inevitable. Let the robots take our jobs, and let them help us dream up new work that matters.
In this new supersaturated digital universe of infinite free digital duplication, copies are so ubiquitous, so cheap—free, in fact—that the only things truly valuable are those that cannot be copied. The technology is telling us that copies don’t count anymore. To put it simply: When copies are superabundant, they become worthless. Instead, stuff that can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
Since we prefer to deal with someone we can trust, we will often pay a premium for that privilege. We call that branding. Brand companies can command higher prices for similar products and services from companies without brands because they are trusted for what they promise. So trust is an intangible that has increasing value in a copy-saturated world.
All this material is currently contained in all the libraries and archives of the world. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50-petabyte hard disks. Ten years ago you needed a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. Today the universal library would fill your bedroom. With tomorrow’s technology, it will all fit onto your phone.
Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking.
A reporter for TechCrunch recently observed, “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”
Now that most people are equipped with a supercomputer in their pocket, entirely new economic forces are being unleashed. If smartly connected, a crowd of amateurs can be as good as the average solo professional.
As more items are invented and manufactured—while the total number of hours in a day to enjoy them remains fixed—we spend less and less time per item. In other words, the long-term trend in our modern lives is that most goods and services will be short-term use. Therefore most goods and services are candidates for rental and sharing.
Sharing is the mildest form of digital socialism, but this verb serves as the foundation for all the higher levels of communal engagement. It is the elemental ingredient of the entire network world.
Indeed, a close examination of the governing kernel of, say, Wikipedia, Linux, or OpenOffice shows that these efforts are a bit further from the collectivist nirvana than appears from the outside. While millions of writers contribute to Wikipedia, a smaller number of editors (around 1,500) are responsible for the majority of the editing. Ditto for collectives that write code. A vast army of contributions is managed by a much smaller group of coordinators. As Mitch Kapor, founding chair of the Mozilla open source code factory, observed, “Inside every working anarchy, there’s an old-boy network.”
It’s taken a while but we’ve learned that while top down is needed, not much of it is needed. The brute dumbness of the hive mind is the raw food ingredients that smart design can chew on. Editorship and expertise are like vitamins for the food. You don’t need much of them, just a trace even for a large body. Too much will be toxic, or just flushed away. The proper dosage of hierarchy is just barely enough to vitalize a very large collective.
These days I live constantly connected. The bulk of what I share, and what is shared with me, is incremental—constant microupdates, tiny improved versions, minor tweaks—but those steady steps forward feed me. There is no turning the sharing off for long. Even the silence will be shared.
The vastness of the Library of Everything quickly overwhelms the very narrow ruts of our own consuming habits. We’ll need help to navigate through its wilds. Life is short, and there are too many books to read. Someone, or something, has to choose, or whisper in our ear to help us decide. We need a way to triage. Our only choice is to get assistance in making choices. We employ all manner of filtering to winnow the bewildering spread of options.
The danger of being rewarded with only what you already like, however, is that you can spin into an egotistical spiral, becoming blind to anything slightly different, even if you’d love it. This is called a filter bubble. The technical term is “overfitting.” You get stuck at a lower than optimal peak because you behave as if you have arrived at the top, ignoring the adjacent environment. There’s a lot of evidence this occurs in the political realm as well: Readers of one political stripe who depend only on a simple filter of “more like this” rarely if ever read books outside their stripe. This overfitting tends to harden their minds.
Only Facebook knows, and it considers the formulas trade secrets. What it is optimizing for is not even communicated. The company talks about increasing the satisfaction of members, but a fair guess is that it is filtering your news stream to optimize the amount of time you spend on Facebook—a much easier thing to measure than your happiness. But that may not be what you want to optimize Facebook for.
“In a world of abundance, the only scarcity is human attention.”
Our attention is the only valuable resource we personally produce without training. It is in short supply and everyone wants some of it. You can stop sleeping altogether and you will still have only 24 hours per day of potential attention. Absolutely nothing—no money or technology—will ever increase that amount. The maximum potential attention is therefore fixed. Its production is inherently limited while everything else is becoming abundant. Since it is the last scarcity, wherever attention flows, money will follow.
The principle of paying people directly for their attention can be extended to advertising as well. We spend our attention on ads for free. Why don’t we charge companies to watch their commercials?
At first it may be hard to believe that technology wants to be free. But it’s true about most things we make. Over time, if a technology persists long enough, its costs begin to approach (but never reach) zero.
The only things that are increasing in cost while everything else heads to zero are human experiences—which cannot be copied. Everything else becomes commoditized and filterable.
Paul Romer, an economist at New York University who specializes in the theory of economic growth, says real sustainable economic growth does not stem from new resources but from existing resources that are rearranged to make them more valuable.
While talking on an early cell phone, people raised their voices as loud as the ringers. If you imagined back then what the world would sound like in the near future when everyone had a cell phone, you could only envision a nonstop racket. That didn’t happen. Silent vibrators were invented, people learned to text, and social norms prevailed. I can go to a movie today in which every person in the theater has a cell phone, and not hear one ring or even see one lighted screen. It’s considered not cool. We’ll evolve the same kind of social conventions and technical fixes that will make lifelogging acceptable.
I am looking forward to having my mind changed a lot in the coming years. I think we’ll be surprised by how many of the things we assumed were “natural” for humans are not really natural at all. It might be fairer to say that what is natural for a tribe of mildly connected humans will not be natural for a planet of intensely connected humans.
Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we’ll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens that focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everydayness. As long as we are online—which is almost all day many days—we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.
In every life there is probably at least one moment that is freakish, so everyone alive is a world record holder for 15 minutes. The good news may be that it cultivates in us an expanded sense of what is possible for humans, and for human life, and so extremism expands us. The bad news may be that this insatiable appetite for super-superlatives leads to dissatisfaction with anything ordinary.
For some people the disintegration between these two realms marks all that is wrong with the internet: It is the high-priced waster of time. It breeds trifles and turns superficialities into careers. Jeff Hammerbacher, a former Facebook engineer, famously complained that the “best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” This waking dream is viewed by some as an addictive squandering. On the contrary, I cherish a good wasting of time as a necessary precondition for creativity. More important, I believe the conflation of play and work, of thinking hard and thinking playfully, is one of the greatest things this new invention has done. Isn’t the whole idea that in a highly evolved advanced society work is over?
This new mode of being—surfing the waves, diving down, rushing up, flitting from bit to bit, tweeting and twittering, ceaselessly dipping into newness with ease, daydreaming, questioning each and every fact—is not a bug. It is a feature. It is a proper response to the ocean of data, news, and facts flooding us. We need to be fluid and agile, flowing from idea to idea, because that fluidity reflects the turbulent informational environment surrounding us. This mode is neither a lazy failure nor an indulgent luxury. It is a necessity in order to thrive. To steer a kayak on white-water rapids you need to be paddling at least as fast as the water runs, and to hope to navigate the exabytes of information, change, disruption coming at us, you need to be flowing as fast as the frontier is flowing.
In 2007, I calculated the cost to Google to answer one query to be approximately 0.3 cents, which has probably decreased a bit since then. By my calculations Google earns about 27 cents per search/answer from the ads placed around its answers, so it can easily afford to give its answers away for free.
There is an asymmetry in the work needed to generate a good question versus the work needed to absorb an answer. Answers become cheap and questions become valuable—the inverse of the situation now. Pablo Picasso brilliantly anticipated this inversion in 1964 when he told the writer William Fifield, “Computers are useless. They only give you answers.”
Question makers will be seen, properly, as the engines that generate the new fields, new industries, new brands, new possibilities, new continents that our restless species can explore. Questioning is simply more powerful than answering.
Thousands of years from now, when historians review the past, our ancient time here at the beginning of the third millennium will be seen as an amazing moment. This is the time when inhabitants of this planet first linked themselves together into one very large thing.
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