Where the Linear Crosses the Exponential: Kevin Kelly

Snip from an essay published by Kevin Kelly today over on his Technium blog:

All extropic  systems -- economy, nature and technology -- are governed by self-accelerating feedback cycles. Like compounding interest, or virtuous circles, they are powered by increasing returns. Success breeds success. There is a long tail of incremental build up and then as they keep doubling every cycle, they explode out of invisibility into significance. Extropic systems can also collapse in the same self-accelerating way, one subtraction triggering many other subtractions, so in a vicious cycle the whole system implodes. Our view of the future is warped and blinded by these exponential curves.

But while progress runs on exponential curves, our individual lives proceed in a linear fashion. We live day by day by day. While we might think time flies as we age, it really trickles out steadily. Today will always be more valuable than some day in the future, in large part because we have no guarantee we'll get that extra day. Ditto for civilizations. In linear time, the future is a loss. But because human minds and societies can improve things over time, and compound that improvement in virtuous circles, the future in this dimension is a gain. Therefore long-term thinking entails the confluence of the linear and the exponential. The linear march of our time intersects the cascading rise and fall of numerous self-amplifying exponential forces. Generations, too, proceed in a linear sequence. They advance steadily one after another while pushed by the compounding cycles of exponential change.

Balancing that point where the linear crosses the exponential is what long-term thinking should be about.

Where the Linear Crosses the Exponential [Kevin Kelly]


  1. I once read that Ayn Rand was convinced when she died the world would die with her.
    It’s nice to hear from people who further the idea of a positive future built generation upon generation.
    Personally, I was a teen during the Reagan/Gorby years and as a result accept the idea of a future on a day to day basis.

  2. Humor me for a moment, BB readers.

    There was one good thing to come from Star Wars: Episode One. It flew by at the speed of light, but it was the quick discussion about the Living Force and the Unifying Force.

    The Living Force was Qui-Gon Jinn’s mastered skill: focusing on the moment, the ‘here and now’. Due to his focus in the living, he was able to come back from the dead and communicate with Yoda and later Obi-Wan Kenobi in turn, learned how to transcend the corporeal and appear to Luke in spiritual form.

    I try to live my life somewhat like this; I see it as having already happened. I try to treat each moment as if it’s a photograph in some scrapbook. Seeing the past and the present as one, I feel grounded and much more in-tune with things.

    (The Unifying Force, on the record, was the bigger, grandiose sense of the universe that Obi-Wan Kenobi was apt with. It was how he sensed the ‘Phantom Menace’ as a ‘bad feeling’ that was “Elsewhere, elusive.”
    It was how he could sense the victims of Alderaan as well. In one way, Kenobi had the innate skill of feeling closer to the Force than Qui-Gon could, sensing that the Unifying Force bonded everything together in the universe, not just that around him.)

    Why did I go off into this geekspeak? I just wanted to offer a way of seeing the way I view linear time. It’s already happened. Center your physicality in the here and now, and set your vision back as if you’re peering from the future. It helps you focus on problems at-hand, choose which battles to fight in your daily life, and know that ultimately, things will be just fine regardless what may happen.

  3. KK’s blog is quite inspiring and creative, but it is also full of pseudo-science and bad math, and he has a strange affinity for the work of George Dyson that I can’t say anyone in the realm of professional science shares. So read it if you’re interested in science fiction, not in science fact.

  4. This phenomenon also explains the way entrepreneurs think and behave. You build in “linear time” and feel the heat to produce in linear time because as you build (generally) you are not getting paid.

    But what keeps you going is the hope of non-linear returns, otherwise known as leverage. From an economics perspective this way of thinking is radically different that having a job, even if, let’s say, your job is business development.

    Why is that? Because entrepreneurs are taking risks in linear time that are different in kind than the risks that employees take. You really do not understand this kind of risk until its your money that you are rolling the dice with. That is why it is difficult to teach entrepreneurship in school.

    Reading about risk in a book or studying it mathematically, while useful, is not the same thing as experiencing it.

  5. @#4, I think it’s fair to say that I, and others or most if not all of my colleagues here at BB, also have a strange affinity for Dyson’s work.

    I don’t buy the allegations you’re making about Kelly’s work, or Dyson’s, and am somewhat offended that you’d type that here in such a casual way.

    Don’t come here to make vague character attacks, you’re welcome to use your own blog or another forum for that.

  6. I fully support everything Xeni said regarding Kevin Kelly & George Dyson. Furthermore, I groan at reading the phrase “professional science”, which for me drudges up memories of Norbert Wiener’s criticisms of “big science” in The Human Use of Human Beings, or Ted Nelson’s remarks in Computer Lib / Dream Machines:

    It is imperative for many reasons that the appalling gap between public and computer insider be closed. As the saying goes, war is too important to be left to the generals. Guardianship of the computer can no longer be left to a priesthood. I see this as just one example of the creeping evil of Professionalism, the control of aspects of society by cliques of insiders. There may be some chance, though, that Professionalism can be turned around. Doctors, for example, are being told that they no longer own people’s bodies. And this book may suggest to some computer professionals that their position should not be as sacrosanct as they have thought, either.

    I see Professionalism as a spreading disease of the present-day world, a sort of poly-oligarchy by which various groups (subway conductors, social workers, bricklayers) can bring things to a halt if their particular demands are not met. (Meanwhile, the irrelevance of each profession increases, in proportion to its increasing rigidity.) Such lucky groups demand more in each go-round – but meantime, the number who are permanently unemployed grows and grows.

    Along with some echoes of the conclusion of James Burke’s Connections series.

    And just to bring it full-circle, here’s Kevin Kelly’s Speculations on the Future of Science. (Which strongly echoes James Burke’s conclusion of The Day the Universe Changed.)

  7. @#6:

    Why even bother to have a comments section if you’re just going to edit, ‘disemvowel’, ‘unpublish’ or dissuade people from posting their opinions?

    Why not just turn them off? Or state your “all opinions posted in comments must be in accordance with the opinions of boingboing’s editorial staff” clearly and prominently?

  8. Why even bother to have a comments section if you’re just going to edit, ‘disemvowel’, ‘unpublish’ or dissuade people from posting their opinions?

    Nerdler, I went to your party the other night, and the music sucked. The food sucked. The beer sucked. Your apartment sucks. Your friends suck. And you suck.

    But I’m not going to host my own parties.

    I’ll just keep coming to yours to tell everyone there how much I think it sucks.

    (That said, I do think that “unpublishing” defeats the meaning of an “archive” and reduces it to something like a “best of” compendium. But I’d sooner write a web proxy that redirects 404s to matches on archive.org, conceptually not unlike OpenDNS (or SQUID+YaCy, or the tangle proxy), than try to have a rational discourse in that toxic thread.)

  9. Magic Whiskey, look for some Zen and strip -if you will- the buddhism from the practice. You’ll find it quite cool.

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