The Cool Tools of Kevin Kelly: Part Three of Our Q&A

Kevin Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. He co-founded Wired in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor from its inception until 1999. He is the author of several books, including What Technology Wants, New Rules for the New Economy, Out of Control, and most recently Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities, released in December.

Cool Tools, Kevin Kelly, edtech

Kevin Kelly is the author of Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities, published in December.

Q:  You just published the book Cool Tools, A Catalog of Possibilities in December. What was your inspiration behind that project?

A: As you mentioned, I used to work for the Whole Earth Catalog. That’s what we were doing there. We were reviewing tools. And we had access to tools. As I said, the catalogs were user-generated reviews, with amateur enthusiasts writing in. If you read the old catalogs, you will recognize their voice because they were bloggers. They were blogging on newsprint, user generated bloggers on newsprint, and we were the hub, the server. We were basically doing the web on newsprint. When the web came, the real web, the electronic web, it killed the catalog. There was no need because the web was doing 95% of what the whole earth catalog was doing and it did it better. But there was 5% that the web didn’t do, and I was interested in that 5%.

That 5% was the amazing experience that you would get by opening up this very large format book, about the size of a small towel, and it would sit on your lap and you could fall into it. There was something about unconscious associations that you would do in your brain as you looked at this large real estate and make these connections between tools that did not seem to be related. There was a buzz, there was an energy, a vibration that you would get when you looked at these old catalogs. Most of the information was completely out-of-date but still, they would have this kick in them.

I would study them at night over the years, trying to capture that, and I decided to take the online version of the catalog, which I kept going as cool tools, and give it this 5% that the web was not doing and give it back as a paper experience, this time in color and with QR codes, a little hint of the web, to see if that worked, to see if that magic worked for anybody else. I think it does work.

My hope and my aim is really not for the gray beards that remember the whole earth catalog but for another generation, my kids and below, teenagers today who I feel should experience what I experienced with the catalog, which is the idea of, ‘oh my gosh, all these things are possible. I can do all this stuff, if I want to. What I can do here are things I never thought about. I didn’t know that you could do this by yourself, I didn’t know you could make your own maple syrup, I didn’t know you could make your own whisky, I didn’t know you could build your own house, I didn’t know you could hire a designer in India really easily.’ These are possibilities. You don’t need to buy any of them, you just need to know they exist, and they are there if you need them, and they may inspire you to do something that has never been done before.

Q: What are some of the coolest tools?

A: I define tool in the broadest possible strokes, from a hand tool to a machine tool to a calendar to a web app to a service. Looking at the education space, there are some really cool flashcard apps, like Anki, SuperMemo, that are superior to other things in terms of learning a set of something.  Quizlet is another one that high schoolers around here use. Those are cool tools. Those are things that, if you’re studying, you should know about.

So, Cool Tools are all my favorite things, things that I am actually looking at right now, like this really cool microscope on my desk, a block microscope. It only has one moving part. It’s very rugged. I know people that have sailboats, and when they go out to sea, they have one of these on board because it’s indestructible. So this is an example. An indestructible, basic microscope. Very, very rugged. Very versatile. If you have kids and are looking at stuff, you should have a really good microscope, and this is the one to get.

That’s the kind of thing that the website and the book include. My desk is littered with some of these things. Like the Snark tuner. If you play guitar or ukulele or any kind of string instrument, this is a little tiny tuner that just clips on to the neck of the stringed instrument. It is very accurate and it helps you to tune an instrument very methodically and precisely and it is very inexpensive. That’s a cool tool.

The Technium and the Future of Education, Part Two of our Q&A with Kevin Kelly

Writer Kevin Kelly talks about what technology wants and the future of education.

Kevin Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. He co-founded Wired in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor from its inception until 1999. He is the author of several books, including What Technology WantsNew Rules for the New EconomyOut of Control, and most recently Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities, released in December.

Technium, Kevin Kelly, Edtech

Kevin Kelly is the author of several books, including What Technology Wants, New Rules for the New Economy, Out of Control, and most recently Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities,

Q: You often compare technology to an organism, the Technium, a seventh kingdom of life, which has its own goals and agenda. How do we avoid a Matrix or Terminator-type scenario where technology truly takes control?

A: I like to hang out with the Amish quite a bit. They have taken some collective decisions to limit the amount of technology and, I tell you, it’s very exhilarating to hang out with the Amish and live the life they do because they are living in the past. I mention that because, one answer to your question is, we always have a choice to go back and live with less.

Any of us could buy a bus ticket and within 10 hours be somewhere in the world where there is a whole lot less. Or we can go to Pennsylvania and live like the Amish. It’s not hard to just get rid of the stuff. It’s not hard to unplug your TV. I know because we don’t have TV in our house and our kids grew up without it. It’s not hard to do. The reason we don’t is not because it’s hard but because we don’t want to. We complain about machines taking over but we want them to. This is who we are. We are wholly dependent on our technologies. We, as human beings, can no longer live without technologies. We passed that point thousands of years ago.

My argument is that we are part technological ourselves, and we cannot unravel this. We are not going to go back because that means fewer choices. We like to have more choices, we are happier. We may worry or complain about it, but we are not going back. We are going to go forward.

I make long arguments in my books that this is a system and it does have its own agenda. The question is: how do we know what its agenda is?  My only argument is that this system, the technium, the stuff we made, is propelled by the very same forces that made life. We might as well ask: how do we know life isn’t going to take over? Well, life is trying to take over, if you haven’t noticed. Life is trying to take over your house and it’s ruthless. It is always there, but we deal with it. It is the same thing with the technium. It is another kind of life, a kind of dry life.

I think that we should treat it more like a second nature, literally like another wilderness that we are dealing with.  That means that you don’t let it come into your house. You erect barriers and that’s what we were just talking about. But at the same time, you want to work with it. You want to use its forces. That’s what we did with agriculture, for example. We domesticated it. I see our lives as an effort to domesticate technology. That’s what we are trying to do with it. We are not trying to eradicate it, we are not trying to stop it, we are just trying to domesticate it.

Q: Looking at technologies like nuclear energy, genetic engineering, or other controversial technologies, how do we mold their development in the proper direction without any restrictions on the use of the technology?

A: That is a great question and that is the question. Prohibition does not work, but we do want to domesticate it. Is technology going to be more like a dog or is it going be more like a cat? How do we house train the technium?

First, I think that we want to be engaged with it and again not try to prohibit it. But we do eternal constant vigilance, we do constant testing, we use science as much as possible, which we should be reevaluating and testing all the time. We should constantly look at how it affects our behavior.

We should use money, instead of building aircraft carriers, to do science and testing and evaluation of technologies that we do use. We should spend money on that kind of science and on science in general.

This evidence-based, data driven attitude toward our use of technology is really going to help us and that’s one of the reasons why I am a big proponent of quantified self and self-tracking which is that, in addition to all of this health stuff, we should be tracking the effects of our behavior as we use things. It will help us understand what’s happening, what’s good and what’s not good.

Q: Who should be responsible for that constant revaluation and tracking? Engineers, consumers, policy makers?

A: All of the above. If you are using it, you have a responsibility to evaluate it. I like to think that whenever there is a right, there should be a corresponding duty. If we talk about human rights, there should be human duties. If you have the right to use certain technologies, you should have a duty in using them as well. One of those duties is to be involved in evaluating its effect on you and your community and your society. You are participating in the greater constant vigilance of what we were doing.

This is scary talk for a lot of people. Self-tracking is one thing, but when there is a kind of mandate to self-track, it begins to sound like big brother. But to me, it’s like voting. I think you have a duty to vote. It is not mandatory in this country, like in Brazil and other places, but we still have a duty. Participating in evidence about the effects of technology is something that we have a duty to do.

Q:  What does technology want from the education industry?

A: I am a lifelong learner and always think of myself as a student. Being a college dropout, I am still in college, you know. I often get paid to learn, that’s what writing an article is. I write articles on things I want to understand. It’s like a homework report.

I do acknowledge, though, that third graders don’t always learn in the same way that I do.  A lot of elementary education is not just education. It’s also about training, about child-rearing. The dynamics of child rearing are not the same as those of education, and that’s why there are differences.

But in terms of the educational aspects of what technology wants, it is more choices, more options. Ideas like the Khan academy, where you can go at your own speed and use scientific data to both guide you in your pace and guide you in what you are learning next, that sort of auto-correction. That is one of many choices.

There is also the choice to sit next to another human and have that person engaging you as a student. That is also a choice, an option, and a good thing that should not go away. Technology wants to have even more possibilities in that space.

When I think about education in the future, there will still be teacher-student human relationships. There will of course be more online remote learning, and there will be all kinds of things in between, like devices that are augmented for the teacher or magic windows that you can hold up, and you will be able to work either alone or with someone else or with a group, all these things.

I don’t see any kind of uniform, major killer thing that everybody is doing. In 100 years from now, I think you will see almost every variety and way of learning. Of course, some kids and some people are more visual or auditory or whatever, and they are at different times in their lives and want to do different kinds of things and that’s what we want.  We want a million different tools, a million different ways to go about it, and some knowledge about what’s best for what and what’s best for you.

Writer Kevin Kelly talks about the Past, Present, and Future of Technology

Writer and technology visionary Kevin Kelly talks with Rukuku, Part 1. 

Kevin Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. He co-founded Wired in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor from its inception until 1999. He is the author of several books, including What Technology Wants, New Rules for the New Economy, Out of Control, and most recently Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities, released in December.

Kevin Kelly, Technology, Future

Q: Early in your career, you worked at the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a counterculture, do-it-yourself type of publication. How did that set the stage for your role now as a well-known writer and observer of technology trends?

R: It was certainly not the route I ever imagined. The Whole Earth Catalog, which I was editing at the time, was a completely subscription-supported publication, very unusual even today, because it was all planned by the readers directly. There was no advertising. There may be some models that can do publishing like that today but those are outliers. It was also user-generated content in the sense that there were no professional writers, there were no staff writers. We paid very little, if anything, for the material that we used. It was almost all submitted by readers. In that sense, it prepared me to believe in the idea of user-generated content as a means of making the community and the publication.

For reasons not very clear to me, Whole Earth got involved very early on with online networking and communities. It was very experimental, at first. We, the editors, were communicating on a highly experimental bulletin board-type system which, for those of you who are younger, means we had a server that had a small group of users that could email and have a forum, but it was closed to anyone outside of that group. You had to send mail and discuss only with people who were on that server. From that we began to see the cultural power in having these kinds of communities.

We then had the opportunity to start something bigger called The Well. It was open to anyone who wanted to pay $8 dollars a month. The users got unlimited email and forums and discussions, and the attraction was we invited some journalists and other writers to come on by giving free accounts to them. That made it a place that was very literate and buzzy. It was a coffee house. It was a thinking community and there were not many like it. It attracted a lot of very interesting people and those interesting people attracted others. What we realized from that was that the users were the attraction. The users were generating all the value, and the more value that was user-generated, the more valuable it all became. From that general direction, I got more and more involved in technology.

It was a funny way because, as you know, the Whole Earth Catalog was a hippie publication and we were, the Hippies, myself included, were very suspicious of big systems and big technology, and we were very much in favor of the do-it-yourself, self-empowered individual. A lot of the technologies applied at the time, in particular new technologies, seemed to be biased in favor of big corporations. I was trying to keep the amount of technology in my life to a minimum and didn’t really have a big interest in technology stuff.

The online experience changed my mind because it was very organic. It felt very humane. It was more like an Amish barn-raising than a steam shovel or a factory. My experience being online made me revise my idea about what technology was, and I began to see a more organic or biological or dynamic image of technology. As the digital world started to rise, I became very interested in that. So, to make a long story short, the route was from Whole Earth Catalog to online communities to technology.

Q: Keeping that hippie background in mind, I know you often write about the ways in which technology has created more options and more personal freedom. For some people, though, technology has made life busier and in a sense, less free. What advice would you give those people?

R: It’s a familiar dilemma for people in the sense that we have more and more options. At times it can be paralyzing.There’s a good book on this subject by Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice where he discusses the fact that too many choices can actually lead to paralysis. Often times even companies that offer too many different product models can actually narrow it down, offer only a few products, and increase sales by making it easier for people.

I have a great example, the idea of the default. If you are using software online, on a computer or a phone, you know the idea of a default. The default settings mean that you have lots and lots and lots of choices that are hidden from you, until you need them. But the options are still there. The default is a technology that is part of the solution to the problem of too much technology.

So, the short answer is yes, there are too many choices and we can become overwhelmed but the solution is not less technology, the solution is actually more and better technology, just like the default is the additional layer of technology to manage the choices that we have. That’s a very primitive way, and I think we will continue to develop other ways.

At the same time, personal discipline will help. To relate this to education, you and I spent four to five years when we were very young learning how to read and write. It was not something you can learn by hanging around books. It takes some kind of deliberate practice and study.

Learning to live in this digital world, learning to thrive, and read, so to speak, technology, will require a techno literacy that may take a number of years of very deliberate practice and certainly an amount of skill. We may actually have to learn how to manage these choices, learn how to manage our attention, learn how to manage distraction. And that may take training. You’re not going to learn just by hanging around technology. We and our kids will have to both use new technologies to help us learn and also learn how to do it ourselves.


Rukuku At Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools Show And Tell

On December 4, I had the honor of showing Rukuku’s toolset at Kevin Kelly‘s first ever Cool Tools show and tell.
bl3I like to think of Rukuku as a tool for customizing one’s education, and that makes it a Cool Tool as defined by Kevin Kelly in his latest book Cool Tools: A Catalog Of Possibilities “A cool tool is … Anything useful that increases learning, empowers individuals, does work that matters, is either the best, or the cheapest, or the only thing that works.”


And check out the very cool Styrobot, which Kevin Kelly made together with his son.


If you have an hour and a half to kill, here’ s the recording of the Google Hangout broadcast: