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.
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.