Book Review: Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable. Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Shape Our Future
Choosing „The Inevitable“ as a title for one’s book makes a clear statement: I am in a position to declare the future. I don’t bother if I am right or wrong. My prediction sells anyway. Kevin Kelly has done it before: “Author of What Technology Wants” is displayed proudly on the book’s cover. Kelly has a known track record as a technology evangelist. He has been editor famous of the Californian counterculture’s catalogue Whole Earth Review, co-sponsor of the first Hackers Conference and executive editor at Wired Magazine. The Inevitable makes a big promise: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Shape Our Future. That’s the book’s subtitle. Cool trick: Every review of the book will surely spend the maximum allowed number of characters just to sum up these twelve forces! We will not. (For a list of the twelve, see Wikipedia). As a matter fact, the book has received much attention, but hardly any criticism. Although the book is listed as a “New York Times Bestseller” and is among the Top Ten in Amazon’s Business Processes and Infrastructure-section, no solid review is to be found via Google – only interviews with the author, which basically function like advertisement. The impression of a Silicon Valley conspiracy is hard to resist.
Tech Evolution: The Cornerstones
To be fair: In the opening chapter, where Kelly sets the tone, everything is done to avoid the impression that The Inevitable will just present random guesses at the future. The basic concept is this: There are some technical developments which are inevitable. These are the cornerstones. But within the areas defined by these cornerstones, many options are possible. That sooner or later someone just must have come up with the invention of the telephone is, according to Kelly, inevitable. The i-phone, on the other hand, is not inevitable. The car was inevitable – the SUV is not. Instant messaging: inevitable. Tweeting every five minutes: not. One might argue about the specific examples. But that there are some inventions which, in the history of a civilization such as ours, are very likely to happen is per se an appealing thought.
A second element of inevitability is process. Once installed, a process will run by itself. If successful, it will be replicated. Kelly’s example for this is the scientific method. “This methodical process of constant change and improvement was a million times better than inventing any particular product, because the process generated a million new products over the centuries since we invented it.” Again: One might argue if something like the scientific method exists and if it does exist, it will really breed products. But as a general approach, looking for processes in order to detect inevitabilities seems promising.
Some parts of the book indeed follow this line. In these parts, Kelly shows us how to think about the future in an interesting and inspiring way – without making predictions. My favourite is where is explains how Artificial Intelligence will permeate our lives:
“You’ll simply plug into the grid and get AI as if it was electricity. It will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century past. Three generations ago, many a tinkerer struck it rich by taking a tool and making an electric version. Take a manual pump; electrify it. Find a hand-wringer washer; electrify it. … Now everything that we formerly electrified we will cognify.” (p. 35)
That’s great! Also Kelly’s explanations why AI has been predicted to come for a long time but will, this time, really arrive, sound convincing (cheap parallel computing; big data and better algorithms). The different scenarios he presents of implementation of AI in robots are another way of helping us to think about the future without surrendering to the guesswork of predictions.
Listen and bend your expectations!
Unfortunately, this line of thinking is not developed much further. The greater part of the book is stuffed with what the opening pages successfully avoided: random guesses at the future, mostly in form of descriptions of technological gadgets. As already promised by the book’s title, the story is woven together by the narrative of the technological imperative. Kelly offers a full-flavoured version of it, claiming that new technologies are not only inevitable, but also that they must be developed and accepted for the good of society. He calls us to “’listen to the direction the technologies lean, and bend our expectations, regulations, and products to these fundamental tendencies within that technology.”
We are here offered myths where empirical facts would be expected and more appropriate.
We learn that the takeover of streaming is inevitable, and that pervasive copying of everything is something to be embraced rather to be combatted. (One might add: At least that’s what we should do – embrace and see what happens. Whereas others, such as Microsoft, having installed its’ operating system on the greater parts of all personal computers, might continue to successfully defend their property rights…) To be fair again: Kelly does mention that society’s prosperity and happiness will depend upon how “we handle rewards for innovation, intellectual property rights and responsibilities, ownership of and access to the copies”. We just don’t read more about this than this very sentence. Instead, we are offered myths where empirical facts would be available and more appropriate.
One of these myths is certainly the assumption that the main outcome of today’s de facto copyright abolition has been to turn all of us into remix-amateur-artists. Has it? “Democratization of the arts”: Sounds great. Not mentioned is the destruction of business models for artists. Crowdfunding is offered as a solution – again, without any empirical backing about how crowdfunding might work out as a general model. Not mentioned also: the loss of role models and ways of building a personal identity as a musician, when ‘making music’ becomes – by way of “democratization” a mere hobby.
Everything’s flux: Say yes to updates
Instead of facts or arguments, persuasive philosophical jargon is used to bring home rather specific points. Because “in the intangible digital realm, nothing is static or fixed”, permanent and automated updates are something one should embrace – and not to worry about. Not a word is lost about how permanent updates establish dependency on changing terms of one’s provider’s terms of service. (It was not out of charity that Microsoft offered the continuously updating OS Windows 10 first as a gift, and then more or less forced the upgrade on users of lower versions!) Analogies from the world of natural phenomena are employed to convince the reader to accept pseudo-truths without any arguments. This is Kelly on anonymity:
“For the civilized world, anonymity is like a rare earth metal. In larger doses these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. … If anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system. .. It should be kept as close to zero as possible.” (230)
Just one counter-example: Traditional money in forms of bills and coins has worked as an anonymous tool for centuries. No poisoning. No reason to distrust anonymity in general!
Me & Google: At eye level
To come to the more serious issues: Power relations are very poorly treated in the book. Just read this short paragraph on how Kelly thinks transparency and symmetry will resolve conflicts of data sovereignty and privacy:
“Obviously, the relation between me and Google… is inherently not equitable or symmetrical. The very fact they have access to everyone’s lifestream, while I have access only to mine, means they have access to a qualitatively greater thing. But if some symmetry can be restored … and I benefit from their greater view, it might work.”
That’s all. No further thoughts. Embrace tracking!
You & me
After all, human beings are strangely absent in the story (besides editors of tech magazines testing new features). They are not totally absent, though. Here’s a short glimpse where Kelly sees ordinary people like you and me in the picture.
“Startups (…) take assets that are unused part-time (such as an empty bedroom, a parked car, unused office space) and match them to people eagerly waiting for them right this second. Employing a distributed network of freelance providers, they can approximate near real-time delivery. Now repeat these same experimental business models in other sectors. Delivery: Let a network of freelancers deliver packages to homes (Uber for FedEx). Design: Let a crowd of designers submit designs, just pay the winner (CrowdSpring).”
Some of us will give our bedrooms, cars and office rooms, while the others will work as “crowd-workers” and freelancers. Constant tracking by Google & Co. will be to the benefit to all of us. Anonymity is poison. Property was yesterday. Access (ruled by terms of service which can be changed with any update) is the future. Not to forget: We will be proud to support our much-esteemed creatives via crowdfunding. Embrace!