Date: 7/18/18 New Episode
 
It’s easy to be angry with Silicon Valley right now. The emergence of big tech monopolies, the proliferation of fake news, surveillance-based business models and digital addiction – that’s just a sampling of the issues that are forcing people to question the Valley’s underlying culture and power structure. But it’s worth remembering that, not so long ago, a very different narrative prevailed. For years, the Valley had been celebrated as a hotspot for innovation, ingenuity, and idealism. All these features are very real and have made the Valley a magnet for visionaries. There’s even a philosophy of technology that has a power all its own. And there is perhaps no better spokesperson for this philosophy than technologist and former WIRED editor Kevin Kelly.

Kelly first migrated to California in the early 1980s when was hired by Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Catalog) to edit a Whole Earth spinoff. A few years later, Kelly helped create the WELL, one of the first online platforms and communities. In the early ‘90s, Kelly became the founding editor of WIRED magazine, which quickly became the de facto, exuberant champion of the internet’s power to change the world. He is, without question, one of the most important techno-visionaries of this generation. If you’ve grown disillusioned with tech and are trying to remember why you once loved it, Kelly’s theory of technology is a good place to start.

For Kelly, Darwin’s evolutionary theory and humankind’s history of innovation are part of the same phenomenon. In his writings, Kelly breaks down the boundaries that separate nature from humankind, and in so doing, helps reveal What Technology Wants. He describes himself as a minimalist in the way he makes deliberate choices about his own use of technology, but a maximalist in his full-hearted support of a technologically enhanced future. Embrace the inevitability, Kelly proclaims. VR, AI, self-driving cars: it’s all coming, like it or not, and you’ll probably enjoy and appreciate it more than you think.

Obviously Kelly’s rhetoric of inevitability does not sit well with everyone. Some see this way of thinking as too closely aligned with an unfettered free-market mentality. And at a moment when Silicon Valley criticism is reaching a fever pitch, particularly among left-leaning progressives, Kelly’s techno-optimism seems to conveniently overlook the tech industry’s mounting transgressions.

To be clear, Kelly’s recent books – most notably The Inevitable and the aforementioned What Technology Wants – are more or less apolitical. He articulates the major trends in the tech sector, but describes the pace of innovation in a way that almost feels as if it’s above simple market forces. He is also deeply empathetic. Simply put, he’s a humanist as well as a technologist. His ideas are provocative and compelling, and exemplify the heady thinking that’s helped the Valley grow and thrive.  

What Kelly seems to omit, however, is the hierarchical structure of the tech industry’s people and businesses where inventors are granted incredible power and authority. This power – in the form of algorithms, data mining, surveillance – is increasingly infiltrating our own lives.  

Where is the accountability in a world of inevitability? Kelly does not directly tackle that subject, and instead directs his intellect towards painting a hopeful future. Yet he’s surely aware that something is rotten in Silicon Valley, and you just wish that Kelly would devote more of his talents toward helping us improve the present.  

This framing highlights an underlying question: How much agency do we actually have in directing the flow of innovation? What role should human institutions play in determining the trajectory of technology, and how might those institutions be strengthened? If one of today’s  grand challenges involves reforming systemic problems in the tech sector, then Kevin Kelly can certainly helps us understand what good could look like. Putting in place the right checks and balances may be a much harder task.

Music Credits:
Blue Dot Sessions - Slate Tracker
Bitbasic - Sparkles The Wizard
Bitbasic - Stealth Elk
Lj Kruzer - Tam814
Junior85 - 5 Dan B4g, in C [Instrumental]
Junior85 - Ebow3
Augustus Bro - Afternoon in Hammerfest
Augustus Bro & Gallery Six - C
Blue Dot Sessions - Just the Feeling in the Room
Monplaisir - Untitled #3
Monplaisir - Dance of the Electronic Fairies

Guests: 

Kevin Kelly