Such a Long Journey – An Interview with Kevin Kelly

Photo: Michelle Gray

Kevin Kelly is a senior maverick for Wired magazine. Avi interviewed Kevin at his home in Pacifica.

I The Technium

Avi Solomon: Could you define the Technium?

Kevin Kelly: We all realize that we're kind of surrounded with technology: there's little device here recording us, there's tables, chairs, spoons, light bulbs. Each of these things seem pretty mechanical, pretty inert in a certain sense, not very interactive, you know, a hammer, roads. But each one of these technologies actually requires many other technologies to make and produce. So your little thing in your pocket that you use for a phone might require thousands of other technologies to create it and support it and keep it going, and each of those technologies may require hundreds of thousands of subtechnologies below it. And that network of different technologies and the co-dependency that each of those technologies have on each other forms a virtual organism, a super organism.

We can keep stepping back and realize that all these technologies are in some ways co-dependent and related and connected to each other in some way and that largest of all the networks of all these technologies together I call the Technium. What it suggests is that technologies like the spoon or light bulb are not standalone independent technologies but are part of the ecosystem of this superorganism and that superorganism, like any kind of network, exhibits behaviors that the individual technologies themselves don't.

As a whole the Technium has lifelike properties that the individual technologies do not. So your iPhone is not lifelike and the light bulb is not lifelike but the Technium itself is.

Avi: Is the Technium in conflict with the natural limits of living on a planet?

Kevin: The quick answer I would say is no, and the reasons why I would say no are several.

One is when we look at the behavior of the Technium over time we find that it obeys, in a certain sense, a lot of the same behavior or laws that evolution does, that it in fact is adaptive and evolving very much like life did, to such an extent that I would say the Technium is an extension of the same forces at work in the evolution of life and we can understand the Technium as a whole best as an extension of the life force, that it is what I would call the seventh kingdom of life, that it's a mechanism that's standing upon and built out of the thrusts of evolution through time that comes up through the primates and through our minds and is producing variation and complexity very much like life did because it is the same force.

That same force is working through the seventh kingdom of the Technium and that it means that the Technium is compatible with the natural system of life because they have the same origin, they're basically the same system. I think a demonstration of that, a kind of evidence proof of that is that so far there's been no technology that we've invented that we have not been able to invent a greener version of. So I don't think that right now the technology that we have is necessarily the most compatible with life but because we can always make the Technium more compatible it suggests that the Technium is not inherently incompatible with life, that that compatibility is there, resident; we have not yet expressed it entirely.

Avi: Is there any way an individual or a group of humans can influence the flow or the direction of the Technium?

Kevin: I would say over the long-term that humans cannot really influence the direction of technology and I would say that there are certain inevitabilities in the progression of technologies. What we can influence is the character of the technologies.

So I would say that the web, a web was inevitable, in that as long as we were producing things, that if we rewound history to the same start point, same conditions, and let it run, that you would keep getting the web at some relative point in the sequence. And that if you were to do an intergalactic survey of all the planets of the universe that had civilizations that all of them would also go through a moment when they connected everything to everything. That is inevitable. But what kind of internet, what kind of web they make is not inevitable. The character, whether it was open or closed, national or transnational, non-profit or commercial, based on this protocol or that protocol, those things are not at all inevitable, and those are political, entrepreneurial and market decisions we make. And they make a huge difference to us. So the kind of system we have is a choice that we have.

I think it's very similar actually to life in a certain sense. Where the controversy comes is that my view of evolution is that a lot of it is also ordained in a certain sense, or inevitable, that if you rewind life and do it again you're going to get a lot of the same stuff, not at the species level, not at the expression level, but at the higher levels, that it seems as if evolution wants to make minds because it's made them again and again, it seems to want to make camera-like eyeballs because it keeps inventing them throughout the different taxa. It wants to do bilateral symmetry. There's just lots of things that it invents again and again convergently. None of these are at species level, they're at much higher levels of things. When we get down to the species level of invention those are completely contingent. Those are very specific local adaptions that won't be repeated. And at that level those are not inevitable and they are different and unique in their choices. So the incandescent light bulb is pretty inevitable. Whether it was going to be AC or DC current, whether it's going to be tungsten or bamboo filament, whether it was going to be a screw, whether it was going to be a vacuum, their inert gas, those were not inevitable. And they made a huge difference in the kind of electrical system that we had.

Image courtesy of Boaz Rottem.

II Jerusalem Assignment

Avi: I just want to go back to your life history, something profound happened to you in Jerusalem.

Kevin: I had a conversion experience in Jerusalem. I was there as a photographer. I was coming from Iran indirectly to Germany. I was kicked out of Iran during the Khomeini revolution and until that moment I really loved Iran, I was learning Farsi, I just absolutely loved the country and the people. But I was thrown out and made my way back through the Mideast and I was on my way to Yemen to continue photographing, which is what I had been doing. I came to Jerusalem during Passover and Easter when they were coinciding. And for very complicated reasons that were beyond my understanding I had a religious conversion in Jerusalem and became a Christian. And I stopped traveling, basically, after that moment and went back to the U.S. I "graduated".

The circumstances in Jerusalem were very colorful because I was locked out of my Salvation Army hostel in the Old Quarter. I missed the curfew and was locked out on the Saturday evening before Easter morning. And so I had this sort of conversion on Easter morning in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was all very dramatic in ways that I did not consciously choreograph but that's how it all turned out. It prompted me for an assignment, so the short story was I sort of got this assignment and the assignment was I was to live as if I was going to die in six months, to prepare to die in six months, and to live accordingly, even though I was in perfect health. Rationally there was no reason to do this but that was the assignment.

So I proceeded to do that. And I was kind of surprised by my answer, which was to go back home and visit my brothers and sisters. Since they were dispersed across the country and I had no money, my way of visiting them was to ride my bicycle from San Francisco to New York, and visit them along the way and arriving there to kind of die in six months. So that's what I did. That was a three-month bicycle ride, starting on a foggy day in August. I'd never been to San Francisco and riding up the coast of California, I was utterly frozen. I had no idea, I thought in California, it's going to be warm, but it's not!

Avi: How did that exercise end?

Kevin: There was a religious angle to it that I was not aware of at the time. In Christian circles there's a belief that when you experience salvation, and my experience of this , my religious conversion, was to believe that God bound Himself into a being on Earth, in Jerusalem, who took upon himself the consequences of free will. So God gave humans free will and said, "I'm going to give you a choice to surprise me with good," which means that you're going to do harm to each other of your own choice. And God absorbs, remedies, or redeems that harm himself, takes it upon himself saying, "I take that responsibility." And He did that through coming to Earth and suffering, in some sense, and experiencing Himself that harm.

So the theological and personal belief usually in Christian circles is that when you accept that, you become reborn, you have a reborn experience. When I was in Jerusalem and I accepted this I had no feelings whatsoever. It was like, "Okay, intellectually I understand that, but I don't feel, I don't hear voices of angels, I don't feel any kind of weight taken off me." I didn't have that kind of low rock bottom experience, which often people have to get down to before they have this belief. But for me I was perfectly healthy, I was fine, I was enjoying myself and there was no sense of "Oh my gosh, I'm reborn. I have a new perspective." But I had this assignment to live as if I was going to die. And it turned out that by the end of the six months that I was riding my bicycle, I was throwing off more and more stuff I had.

I gave everything I had away, I wasn't quite naked but I owned a bicycle and that was about it. I had stripped away my future, I had literally come down to almost nothing. I had gone to bed that night before the six months were up at my parents' house, where I rode to at the end. I went to bed that night, and as much as was humanly possible, I had done with my life, written all my notes, with no regrets, I was fully prepared to die, to not wake up. And even though I said, "I know that this is like an assignment, a fantasy, but I'm going to inhabit this assignment."

So when I did wake up, which I obviously did, that next morning I remember opening up my eyes and it was at that moment that actually I was reborn. It was like being born. I really had a complete sense of "Oh my gosh, I have this future before me." I wasn't just waking up to another day, I was being born. It was really literally like waking up with babes eyes and just seeing the world again. So even though I don't know how I engineered this, I had this experience of really being reborn and seeing that "Oh my gosh, I have a future before me, I have all this stuff."

I have not taken a moment of that time for granted since. I have this countdown clock where I'm really aware of the fact that I have a very limited number of days or years- days is kind of a little more compelling to think about. We think we have 20 years but you have less than 7,000 days, 7,000 days to do whatever I want to do. It's not that many days. So you really have to think about, "Today, if I keep doing this will I get done what I want to get done?"

Avi: You don't have to be a Christian to attempt to do this?

Kevin: No you don't.

Avi: And you can only understand this by doing it.

Kevin: Yes, I think it's an experiential thing. Everybody needs to have their own journey, and I'm not suggesting that anybody else needs to take this journey, but I do think we should be open to assignments and changing our mind. I think that's what I had, a change of mind. I'm a huge believer in science and scientific method; I also realize that every time that we get an answer in science it also provokes two new questions. And so in a certain curious way science is expanding our ignorance – our ignorance is expanding faster than what we know. So while I'm a huge believer in scientific method I realize that what we know is just a small, small fraction of what is going on in the world. So most of what's happening in the world we're not aware of and science will agree with that.

They talk about dark matter – 90 percent of the matter in the world is "dark". "Dark" is a code word for ignorant, so we don't have any idea what it is. So what we're saying is we have no idea about most of the matter and energy and other stuff going on in the world. So while I think the scientific method is a way to understand some of that, I think we have to be very clear that we really have no idea what's really going on.

Avi: The word "metanoia" (lit. "change of mind") was coined by Plato, and Plato is the guy who said that philosophy begins in wonder. Science can be an opening to wonder which leads to changing your mind, being open.

Kevin: Yes, I think we just have to be aware that we are probably wrong about most things. Even though we know a lot and we should really be scientific about it and kind of work with what we know as best explained. But at the same time be really open to the fact that a lot of our assumptions will turn out to be wrong. I mean as soon as you even adhere or acknowledge some of the stuff in Quantum physics it's already telling you that this is going to be a really strange trip.

III The Theology of Virtual Worlds

Avi: I was reading something you said about Jaron Lanier. There was a kind of realization for you when he was in some kind of virtual world.

Kevin: What happened there was that Jaron Lanier was inventing virtual reality, that's the technology where you put your goggles and gloves on and you see an alternative world that you can manipulate and you have this immersive experience where you're actually in this alternative world, moving around and manipulating the world, and it feels very much like you're inside this world.

That's called virtual reality, and Jaron was one of the pioneers in the technology of inventing these goggles and gloves in the Eighties. You use kind of a polygon 3-D software to make the worlds, which he was also a pretty good expert at. So I was present one evening when he was trying some new technology out and had just made a new world to explore himself. So he designed a kind of crazy imaginative abstract world. And then he put on the goggles and gloves and he crawled into his own world. And as he was crawling around, he was literally on the floor under a desk to get to these viewpoints, he was exploring his own world and he was constantly in this sort of surprised state of "Oh, wow, I had no idea about that." And so I had this vision of a God who creates a world, binding himself into kind of this technology of incarnation and appearing in the world to both experience it and then maybe to correct it.

It was for me like a religious parable of an infinite god binding itself into its own world to in some ways redeem it. And I saw similarities to religious allegories in this idea of the nature of godhood, and began to think about the varieties of godhood. So if you were there, if that was God what are the different ways you could interact with the world that you made? You could decide to intervene and make a miracle, you could do something evolutionarily and not intervene but change the initial parameters and let the thing unfold. You could intervene disguised as an individual. So I found the guys who were making the God games and stuff to be tremendously powerful metaphors for understanding religion.

I also became convinced that, as we make these worlds more and more detailed, more and more rich, more and more hyper-real in the sense of being so complex that they have some reality of their own, we're going to return to religious ideals in order to deal with them. At the point that we're in these worlds we make, beings maybe have some consciousness, then we have a whole series of questions that we have to answer about that. Who's responsible for their actions? Is there real harm? If one being harms another is that real? Does that count? How do we fix it? Where is free will? And I think we'll come back to those questions, and at that moment religion will be a little bit more relevant than it is now.

Avi: I had the thought that organized religion is a kind of ossified science fiction. At the roots of every religion there's a PKD type who has that imagination and scope. Let's say that each of us is an incarnation, this world is a simulation. We are incarnations, and we have the potential to be godlike but we have to figure it out on our own. So by being born in this world we have accepted a limitation, we have accepted this body as our way of experiencing this world, and we have to live within that world, with its choices, including the existence of people who kill other people and stuff like that.

Kevin: I do agree with your observations. I think the most active theologians today are science fiction authors, they've taken over the role of theologians in the past, and they're asking the important questions of "What if?", all these questions that I was just asking, you know, like what if a robot says, "I am a child of God" what's our response to them?

If robots make free will choices will we include them as one of us, or will they be slaves? How will be treat them? Will they be different from animals? What is the place of humans in the cosmos? And what's our relationship to things that we make? Will we be like gods? Those are the kinds of questions that not theologians are asking in any religion that I am aware of, but science fiction authors constantly are exploring that. And they're the ones who are going to have the answers for us that the theologians will have to look to. But at the same time these are fundamentally religious questions that are not being asked in that vocabulary.

There are answers to these things in the history of religion, and we'll get to see if they work. I think as we become more godlike ourselves and we begin to make these worlds and these other beings that there will be a return to the sacred texts and people looking through them for suggestions about coherent systems of thought to deal with these ethical quandaries. Right now, in a kind of curious sense we decided that we're open-ended and it doesn't really matter, and that's because we're not thinking in these systems terms.

I think as soon as we understand that we are an intermediate species and that we will be the creators of a lot of downstream beings and civilizations then we need to return to this systemic thinking about ethics and choices and responsibility. Right now we don't feel that we're responsible for anybody beyond our individual selves and I think we're completely wrong there for two reasons. One is because we're actually going to become part of this more global superthing, whatever it is, but we have our own individual parts, we have some sort of responsibility for this larger things. And two, there is another larger thing which is generational – I don't mean our children I mean generational in terms of technological generation, that there's the alternative worlds and beings that we're going to generate, we have responsibility to them.

IV Bicycling across America

Avi: Your bicycle trip across America alerted you to the importance of having a future.

Kevin: During my bicycle trip one of the things I discovered was it's very hard to live without a future. We were talking about the "Be Here Now" book and I think you can be here now for maybe a day, or maybe a couple minutes here and there, but I was trying to be here now as I was riding because I was trying to cut off my future, saying, "There's all kinds of things we do thinking that I'm going to take a picture because in the future I want to look at it."

It's like, well there is no future, so why should I even take a picture? Why should I record anything? Why should I think about it? And maybe I live in the future more than many, but I realized that sort of not having a future was inhumane in that part of what meant to be human was to have a future, was to look forward, was to in some ways be future oriented and live in the future a little bit. I think that is part of what being human means because when I didn't have a future I felt my humanity shrinking. I think that a big lesson I got from that experience was the vital importance of the future.

Afterwards I became a little bit more unabashed about emphasizing the virtues of the future and trying to think about that more because I realized how important it was to being a full person. When I say I was surprised by my reaction, it was only that I had imagined that if I had six months to live I felt that I would climb Mt. Everest or go down to the deepest part of the sea or do something kind of risky or extravagant or extreme. But what I chose was not that.

Avi: But bicycling across America takes courage.

Kevin: Well actually I didn't believe that then and I certainly don't believe it afterwards. Actually anybody could do it, it's fairly easy. It's physically not that demanding, and secondly, at least in America, you're treated as a hero. If you're walking across America you're kind of suspicious. If we find a pedestrian walking around, even with your backpack there's a little bit of distrust, you're kind of maybe a vagrant or homeless or something. If you're in a car of course you're just another schmoe who's a nobody. If you're riding a bicycle you're a hero, and everybody loves people riding bicycles across the country. So you're treated well, you're asked to come home, you're given meals and stuff.

I didn't own a car so I lived my life on a bicycle when I was living in America. It was the only way to get around. And I never really thought that it was a heroic or difficult thing to do because I knew that you can just keep pedaling and you'll get there.

Avi: So what prevents us from doing the same thing?

Kevin: I have no idea why more people don't because it's actually the best way to see this country. It's at the right speed. If you're walking you can see a lot but my gosh it'll take you forever. In a car you're just driving by it. But when you bicycle you're on the back roads, it's really a great way to see it. I've been trying to talk my son into having us do another trip across because I would have loved to have done it in high school, it would have just been really fabulous. It's just it never occurred to me then.

Avi: It's kind of a coming of age trip.

Kevin: Yeah, exactly. I think it's just fantastic. You're kind of on your own and there's an amazing sense of achievement at having used your own power to cross a continent. I mean you think about the fact that basically you're a quarter horsepower. We're a 100-watt brain and we have a quarter horsepower, you're going to go across the country on a quarter horsepower. That's pretty cool.

V The Long Now

Avi: The realization about the importance of the having a future, is that what led you to the Long Now Clock?

Kevin: Not directly. I started my career writing about travel, but very early on I had an opportunity to participate in an online world and I began to write about that as a foreign country. That's where I got involved in the future by actually experiencing it online. I began to have an appetite for exploring the future through the online world and that online world also, by the way, was the place where I changed my mind a little bit about the nature of technology because previously I tended to have bought into the hippie view or hippie suspicion of technology as being sort of inhumane, big brother, this sort of machine, mechanical world that you really want to keep to a minimum and that you really want to work to offset. So I was kind of living in a very simple hippie way and really trying to opt out of that technological way.

Being online in the very beginning I saw an organic aspect to technology that I'd not detected before, partly because it had not been manifested before so much. One of the big changes that came in the world was that through this sort of communications technology, it revealed a softer, more organic side to the Technium that allowed the hippies, and I'll insert myself too, to embrace it. And it forced me to re-examine the other aspects of technology and to see the more organic, life-like human aspects of those technologies as well.

Avi: I find the Long Now Clock being built in the mountain cave quite astonishing!

Kevin: My interest in The Long Now came not originally through the clock but through my time in Asia, where societies had a respect and maybe even an obsession with the past, the long past. Which was not the milieu for California. California really has almost no past. And it's a very, very short past. So we don't think about the past very much and we don't think about the long generational things that they do in Asia.

The idea of the clock was originally by Danny Hillis, a computer scientist. I published his essay on it in Wired very early. Danny had the idea of a clock that ticked for the long term, that ticked every year, tocked every century and every thousand years a cuckoo came out, that's how he described it. He wanted to build it because he thought it would be cool. I was involved with Stewart Brand, the originator of the Whole Earth Catalog, who was beginning to think about the necessity of thinking long-term. When he heard about Danny's idea he was seized with the idea of actually trying to build it and to have an organization around it to build it. And he asked me if I was interested in that and I said I definitely was. That was the origins of The Long Now.

So when Stewart was saying, let's think about long-term responsibility, let's use the clock as the little symbol or icon for that, and let's find out what it means to think long term, we decided from the very beginning rather than try to be so abstract we'll try to make this real by constructing an actual clock. We began to plan, buy land, do all these other things about what it was. We are on a dual track now where we have property in Nevada, trying to buy a national park with bristle cone pines, one of the longest-lived organisms on Earth, but at the same Jeff Bezos is building a version of the clock in a mountain in west Texas.

Avi: And how long can the physical clock last?

Kevin: It's being engineered to tick for 10,000 years. Inasmuch as possible it will tick for 10,000 years with a minimum of maintenance. Can it go for 10,000 years with no maintenance? We don't know. It seems unlikely that if absolutely nobody pays any attention to it that it would do so for 10,000 years, but it might be able to do it with a minimum amount of attention because it's inside a cave in a mountain. So there will be water coming through, there might occasionally be earthquakes in 10,000 years and things happen. So we don't imagine that there will be no maintenance necessary but we're trying to engineer it as much as possible with some very technologically sweet solutions but nobody's tested them for 10,000 years!

Avi: What do you think the feelings of the people in 10,000 years will be upon visiting the clock?

Kevin: We don't know. The thing about long-term thinking is that we're not trying to be Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov's Foundation. We're not trying to make a plan for the next 10,000 years, for two reasons: one is because it literally is impossible; we cannot know what will be there. And secondly it's irresponsible. We don't want to take away the choices of people in future generations. Long-term perspective, long-term thinking doesn't mean long-term plans, it means trying to optimize the choices for the future. It's to make sure that the future generations continue to have choices, rather than taking them away by something that we decide now. So it's sort of the opposite of planning in the way that we normally think of where there's something going to happen and it's going to follow that plan because that's what has to happen. It's more of the way that you would plant a seed now for something that will blossom and grow later and bring benefits to other generations.

Recalling the so-called Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, Professor Philip Zimbardo describes the affects of present and future orientation in children.

Avi: So by doing this I feel like you're actually showing an extraordinarily high degree of care for our present moment in a way.

Kevin: Perhaps. But there is a tradeoff of do you take the benefits now immediately or do postpone benefits, like the great psychological experiment they did with the young kids and the marshmallows. The kid's shown that he can have one marshmallow now or you can have two marshmallows later. It's very hard for the child to resist the one now and postpone it. But that's often the case that in the present right now, you take the money or the resources or whatever it is, but oftentimes you actually postpone that. And I wouldn't call it sacrifice so much because what we want to find is some way where you shift the quality of the benefits. It's not that you sacrifice but you sort of satisfy a different kind of appetite now.

Avi: It's more of a selfless appetite. It is an expression of hope like a grandfather planting a redwood seed, as a biological example, and it makes you happy by doing it.

Kevin: Right. But the time and resources you spend planting a tree you're not watching TV. You have to give up something. There is a cost, that you're not watering your grapes this year, the water has to be diverted to the redwoods. So there's no doubt that there's a cost to that and this is not just free. While you can sometimes make it sort of appear free, out of nowhere, that's not always the case.

VI The Future of Reading

Lorem Ipsum


Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP)

Avi: What's the essence of a book?

Kevin: My current definition of the book is that it's a single long argument or narrative, it's form is not as important, whether it's on paper or electronic. I think what is important is that there's a unified argument or narrative sustained at some level. I do think that the media something appears in does make a difference.

I'm McLuhanish enough to say that the medium and format does carry a message that can often transcend or is in some ways at least as important as the content. McLuhan says that in a certain sense it doesn't matter what you watch on TV, it's more important that it's on TV, that it has that effect on you, by the same sense, reading a book on paper, that alone has a power. When we read things on tablets the fact that we're reading on a tablet will affect where it comes into us and what it means to us. And because your brain works differently in each reading mode, we're not really sure yet what those qualities are, and it'll take us some time before we understand the effects that reading things on the screen will have. But we should be prepared for the fact that they will be different and they will have some upsides and downsides.

Avi: You imagined a three dimensional eink reader. It would look and feel exactly the same as a paper book but it would change as you flip through it.

Kevin: You could just hit the spine or shake it and you could have a new book.

Avi: A metabook!

Kevin: The same leather-bound, beautiful thing that maybe you could even cut and paste into. So I don't see any reason why people won't imitate the form factor. But it's like people using the cinema to imitate the stage. I'm really interested in a kind of reading called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP). It's a single word displayed on the screen and the word itself gets replaced by the words behind it. It's being refreshed with the next word, and you're just looking at one spot. And it has an amazing effect.

Avi: Talk about focusing attention.

Kevin: Yes, we very well may read like that on our phones. Why have to scan when you could just have it be replaced?

Avi: That's a great app!

Kevin: Yes, exactly. I don't think yet we've finished exploring the ways to read. So why don't we read like that?

Avi: Still early days!

Kevin: We still have another 10,000 days to invent new ways of reading.

Avi: We now have eink watches being made. You could read using a RSVP app on your watch while waiting in line at the post office, and you set the speed.

Kevin: Yes, you don't have to have a big screen to read. And I think there's a beauty there. I think it may take some training to read like that. We spend four or five years teaching kids how to read! Reading is not actually that natural, so we might need to be trained in other ways of reading.