Kevin Kelly on the technology trends that will shape the next 30 years

Kevin Kelly is an enthusiastic observer of the impact of technology on the human condition. He was a cofounder of Wired, and the insights explored in his fascinating book, The Inevitable, are deep, provocative, and wide-ranging. In his own words, “When answers become cheap, good questions become more difficult and therefore more valuable.” The Inevitable raises many important questions that will shape the next few decades.

In the following interview, we discuss why most people fail when they try to make predictions, what the future holds for the creative class, and why The Inevitable will be Kevin’s last print book.

If none of the important things of the next 100 years have been invented yet, how do you generate or select the next project or idea to pursue?

It is wide open! Most new ideas — including my own — will fail in the long term, but the ones that will succeed in becoming dominant in the next decades are most likely to come from the edge, as they have always. I’m good at working on the edge, so I look for ideas that are NOT popular at first, that seem marginal, niche, barely plausible. I’m looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.

David Pogue points out that what differentiates your work as a futurist is that you have an incredible track record of getting it right. What are the most common mistakes you see people make when they try to make predictions? Why do so many intelligent analysts get it wrong?

The most difficult part about looking at the future is unlearning what we know. There is so much baked into our generally held assumptions that tend to blind us — all of us. You have to keep questioning the assumptions. But at the same time, most assumptions of what is correct are actually correct! So you have to keep knocking at the door, even though most times it yields nothing: “Is this really true? Who says? Why? Do I really believe it? What if it is wrong? What happens then?” That can be exhausting, frustrating, unproductive, so unless it becomes a habit, it gets old fast. You also have to question without too much stake in the answers.  You want to have strong opinions loosely held, ready to shift rapidly when needed. Most people have trouble changing their minds. I like to have my mind changed.

Most sweeping surveys of what to expect in the coming decades focus on economic and geopolitical implications, but The Inevitable goes far beyond that. What does the future hold for artists, writers, and creatives? What practical steps would you recommend we take to set ourselves up for success over the long term? 

There will be a thousand new creative genres developed in the next two decades. Each of these forms will breed a new crop of stars that did not exist the year before. Cultivate a techno literacy. The tech will constantly change faster than you can master it, so you master life long learning. Aim lower; you don’t need a million fans; it’s a world of niches. The biggest challenge is to think different while being connected. It’s easy to think different while in isolation; it is easy to be connected. It is vastly harder to see different, make different, be different while connected to 7 billion humans all the time. Taking vacations and sabbaticals from the hive mind become important; cultivating a lateral view, nurturing the orthogonal will be essential. Not living in Silicon Valley will probably be an advantage.

In the ever-propagating multiverse of the cloud, we will rely more and more on filters to deliver us the stuff we want. You discuss some potential ways to escape the filter bubble or overfitting problem. But if relevance is what captures attention and attention is the scarcest resource, isn’t building filter bubbles commercially optimal because that attention drives profits higher?

Social media is less than 2,000 days old. It is unclear to date whether or not overfitting a filter optimizes commercial profits, or whether or not consumers want to optimize relevance. We simply don’t know yet. But we do know that if a service tends not to produce what consumers ultimately want, they will leave and use a different service. So it is very much in the commercial interests of social media to provide its customers with the attention tools they need. Since neither side yet know what those tools are, this will be an ongoing development.

Books are one of the primary examples used in The Inevitable to illustrate the forces shaping our future. How are you applying those insights to your own work as an author?

This will be my last native text book, meaning the last book I write in print. My “books” in the future will either be born as update-able digital e-books, or will be very visual photobooks, or will be bookish videos, or full bore virtual realities. At some point these processes may throw off a printed book, but that will only be a derivative of the more native digital form.

In addition to providing a blueprint of what to expect over the next 30 years, you provide “fly through” subjective glimpses of what our lives might be like that read like science fiction. What role do science and speculative fiction play in our culture? What are some of your favorite science fiction novels that you think “get it right”?

I think the Speilberg film Minority Report got it right, but I am very biased because I was part of the group of futurists hired by Speilberg to create believable world of 2050. He got it right because he kept asking the right questions. In general science fiction is under-appreciated for its vast influence on science itself, and even on culture. Hundreds of thousands of engineers are working on projects today because they saw some product in a science fiction story that they want to make real. With the advent of computer-generated science fiction films, we can witness sci-fi’s power. I would expect sci-fi worlds, a la Star Wars and Star Trek, to continue to grow in popularity, particularly as these worlds enter VR. VR may indeed become the greatest platform for science fiction, where the audience can experience the future rather than just watch it.

Complement with why business leaders need to read more science fiction, how technology shapes our lives in hidden ways, and how to make sense of the future. If you want to stay in touch, the best way to follow my writing is to subscribe to my newsletter.