In 1988 Kevin Kelly (my friend and business partner at Cool Tools) edited Signal, a book about “Communications Tools for the Information Age.” With articles about smart phones, artificial life, computer viruses, interactive literature, online databases, teleconferencing, image processing, and the “world information economy,” Signal was years ahead of its time. (In 1993 it served as the prototype for Wired, the magazine Kevin co-founded.) Signal changed the way readers thought about technology – we weren’t in a computer revolution – we were in a communications revolution. Kevin understood that people were co-evolving with technology, transforming the way we received, processed, and transmitted information, both as individuals and a society.
Kevin has never stopped thinking about the implications of the communications revolution. He co-founded the first Hackers Conference in 1984, was a founding board member of the WELL (an early online service launched in 1985) and in 1990 he launched the first virtual reality conference. His first book, Out of Control, about technology’s lifelike patterns and behavior, was called “essential reading for all executives,” by Forbes. His latest book, released in June, is called The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. This clear-eyed guide explains the twelve inevitable, interrelated technological trends (including robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality) that are already disrupting every imaginable human activity, from the way we work, learn, and play, to the way we exist as a species.
In this excerpt from The Inevitable, Kevin imagines a future were people own nothing but have access to everything-- Mark
In the coming 30 years the tendency toward the dematerialized, the decentralized, the simultaneous, the platform enabled, and the cloud will continue unabated. As long as the costs of communications and computation drop due to advances in technology, these trends are inevitable. They are the result of networks of communication expanding till they are global and ubiquitous, and as the networks deepen they gradually displace matter with intelligence. This grand shift will be true no matter where in the world (whether the United States, China, or Timbuktu) they take place. The underlying mathematics and physics remain. As we increase dematerialization, decentralization, simultaneity, platforms, and the cloud—as we increase all those at once, access will continue to displace ownership. For most things in daily life, accessing will trump owning.
Yet only in a science fiction world would a person own nothing at all. Most people will own some things while accessing others; the mix will differ by person. Yet the extreme scenario of a person who accesses all without any ownership is worth exploring because it reveals the stark direction technology is headed. Here is how it works.
I live in a complex. Like a lot of my friends, I choose to live in the complex because of the round-the-clock services I can get. The box in my apartment is refreshed four times a day. That means I can leave my refreshables (like clothes) there and have them replenished in a few hours. The complex also has its own Node where hourly packages come in via drones, robo vans, and robo bikes from the local processing center. I tell my device what I need and then it’s in my box (at home or at work) within two hours, often sooner. The Node in the lobby also has an awesome 3-D printing fab that can print just about anything in metal, composite, and tissue. There’s also a pretty good storage room full of appliances and tools. The other day I wanted a turkey fryer; there was one in my box from the Node’s library in a hour. Of course, I don’t need to clean it after I’m done; it just goes back into the box. When my friend was visiting, he decided he wanted to cut his own hair. There were hair clippers in the box in 30 minutes. I also subscribe to a camping gear outfit. Camping gear improves so fast each year, and I use it for only a few weeks or weekends, that I much prefer to get the latest, best, pristine gear in my box. Cameras and computers are the same way. They go obsolete so fast, I prefer to subscribe to the latest, greatest ones. Like a lot of my friends, I subscribe to most of my clothes too. It’s a good deal. I can wear something different each day of the year if I want, and I just toss the clothes into the box at the end of the day. They are cleaned and redistributed, and often altered a bit to keep people guessing. They even have a great selection of vintage T-shirts that most other companies don’t have. The few special smartshirts I own are chipped-tagged so they come back to me the next day cleaned and pressed.
I subscribe to several food lines. I get fresh produce directly from a farmer nearby, and a line of hot ready-to-eat meals at the door. The Node knows my schedule, my location on my commute, my preferences, so it’s really accurate in timing the delivery. When I want to cook myself, I can get any ingredient or special dish I need. My complex has an arrangement so all the ongoing food and cleaning replenishables appear a day before they are needed in the refrig or cupboard. If I was flush with cash, I’d rent a premium flat, but I got a great deal on my place in the complex because they rent it out anytime I am not there. It’s fine with me since when I return it’s cleaner than I leave it.
I have never owned any music, movies, games, books, art, or realie worlds. I just subscribe to Universal Stuff. The arty pictures on my wall keep changing so I don’t take them for granted. I use a special online service that prepares my walls from my collection on Pinterest. My parents subscribe to a museum service that lends them actual historical works of art in rotation, but that is out of my range. These days I am trying out 3-D sculptures that reconfigure themselves each month so you keep noticing them. Even the toys I had as a kid growing up were from Universal. My mom used to say, “You only play with them for a few months—why own them?” So every couple of months they would go into the box and new toys would show up.
Universal is so smart I usually don’t have to wait more than 30 seconds for my ride, even during surges. The car just appears because it knows my schedule and can deduce my plans from my texts, calendar, and calls. I’m trying to save money, so sometimes I’ll double or triple up with others on the way to work. There is plenty of bandwidth so we can all screen. For exercise, I subscribe to several gyms and a bicycle service. I get an up-to-date bike, tuned and cleaned and ready at my departure point. For long-haul travel I like these new personal hover drones. They are hard to get when you need them right now since they are so new, but so much more convenient than commercial jets. As long as I travel to complexes in other cities that have reciprocal services, I don’t need to pack very much since I can get everything—the same things I normally use—from the local Nodes.
My father sometimes asks me if I feel untethered and irresponsible not owning anything. I tell him I feel the opposite: I feel a deep connection to the primeval. I feel like an ancient 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. It is the farmer who needs a barn for his accumulation. The digital native is free to race ahead and explore the unknown. Accessing rather than owning keeps me agile and fresh, ready for whatever is next.