The Inevitable, by Kevin Kelly
A TLF Book Club review
Predicting the future is a notoriously tricky business. Stories like IBM boss Thomas Watson who said* there might be a world market for "about 5 computers" should give us all pause, however expert we are in a particular field. But trends are endlessly fascinating and important to think about, so at TLF Book Club we keep turning to books that try to predict the future.
Kevin Kelly's "The Inevitable" takes a slightly different tack to most. He argues that, although the details may surprise us, there are broader tendencies in technology trends which are predictable. For instance, the exact way that ARPANET technology would be fused with the WorldWideWeb to create the internet would have been impossible to predict, but the tendency towards networked computing and global connectedness was foreseeable. Kelly would go further and say that it was not just foreseeable, but inevitable.
In this book, Kelly outlines 12 technology trends which he believes will inevitably shape the future.
This may be the most positive chapter of the book. Kelly points out that technology is surprisingly fleeting and fragile (if you're under 40 ask someone about MiniDisc!) Change is constant, and that means that it's not too late for you to get on board the next big thing. "There has never been a better day in the whole history of the world to invent something."
Kelly's take is that the universal use of relatively simple AI is much more important than the superbrains. "...there's nothing as consequential as a dumb thing made smarter." The power will not come from a single brilliant AI, but from billions of networked simple AIs. They will take our jobs, but largely the boring bits of them, and they will think about things in ways we can't. "Let the robots take our jobs, and let them help us dream up new work that matters."
Copying is central to the internet, and it powers the shift from fixed physical products (books, music) to streaming and updateable content. There is an inevitable trend towards decentralisation and dematerialisation, eventually affecting even the most solid aspects of our manufactured environment - "...the soft will trump the hard".
Everything will have a screen, according to Kelly, from our augmented glasses to the ceiling above our beds. We'll screen non-stop while we're awake. I'm no luddite, but this chapter made me yearn for a book and a quiet pub with no network coverage.
Dematerialisation means that owning things will become rarer and rarer, and not just because hipsters are spending all their money on avocado toast. Everything will become a service. "I feel like a hunter-gatherer who owns nothing as he wends his way through the complexities of nature, conjuring up a tool just in time for its use and then leaving it behind as he moves on."
A more networked world has enabled us to share more and more, and to collaborate in ways we couldn't have imagined until recently. Crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and co-creation will grow and expand. "Harnessing the sharing of the crowd will often take you further than you think, and it is almost always the best place to start".
It won't come as news to you that we have access to an incredible amount of information and content, so much that we rely on filters of various kinds to stay sane. Personalisation will increasingly begin to filter for us, knowing us better than we know ourselves...perhaps beginning to shape who we are? "More filtering is inevitable because we can't stop making new things. Chief among the new things we will make are new ways to filter and personalize, to make us more like ourselves."
The move away from the tangible makes it much easier to reuse and repurpose existing creations, but I can't help wondering what happens to the originators? "Remixing - the rearrangement and reuse of existing pieces - plays havoc with traditional notions of property and ownership."
Virtual reality's real benefits come not from immersion, but from interactivity. More sensors, more technology in our private lives, and more immersion will see technology embedded in our lives in unprecedented ways. "In the coming 30 years, anything that is not intensely interactive will be considered broken."
Anyone with a Fitbit on their wrist or Strava on their phone knows that personal tracking is on the rise, but where will it end? The "Quantified Self" movement will allow us to know ourselves better than ever...but I wonder at what cost to privacy? As Kelly says "Ubiquitous surveillance is inevitable." The payoff is that "...this vast ocean of informational atoms can be molded into hundreds of new forms, novel products, and innovative services."
Coupled with the deeper principles of decentralisation and dematerialisation, which underpin much of Kelly's thesis, is the idea that "...answers will become omnipresent, instant, reliable, and just about free", meaning that asking the right questions is where the value creators will be.
These mutually reinforcing trends add up to something unprecedentedly huge, in Kelly's view, something we are only beginning to see the results of. "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."
Kelly's tone is consistently positive, but to my mind many of his predictions have a distinctly dystopian feel. Are these changes really inevitable? If so, will they make us happier?
Overall we enjoyed this book; it's an easy and thought-provoking read, and we thought that the focus on broad trends rather than specific technologies was a useful approach to take. We also found it hard to disagree with many of Kelly's conclusions, even if we didn't like every aspect of the picture he paints of the future.
Definitely an important book to read, and consider how you and your business will adapt to the flowing, becoming, remixing society of the future.
* Actually, he probably didn't.