The Inevitable — A Book Review (part 1)

The Inevitable

When thinking of possibilities, it helps to try and discern the inevitabilities. Kevin Kelly, one of the leading thinkers in business and technology for the last few decades, does just that in his appropriately titled The Inevitable.

He identifies 12 continuous actions of technology that he believes are inevitable over the next 30 years. These aren’t specific technologies, though some chapters have fictionalized tales of the future in them, but of the underlying tenets of technology use and capability that will continue over the next 3 decades.

One of the initial ideas he posits is that the computer age didn’t begin until the telephone was connected to it. Without the capabilities of the internet, computers weren’t much more than storage devices. With those capabilities, we’ve been set on a course of technological progression that we can’t keep up with:

We are morphing so fast that our ability to invent new things outpaces the rate we can civilize them…while culture can advance or retard the expression, the underlying forces are universal. (pp. 3–4)

This, Kelly states, leads us to a new approach to how we value things:

In our new era, processes trump products. (p. 6)

He argues that there may not be such a things as a finished product. Everything will be in a state of constant change. In fact, the first action in his list of 12 is the constant state of Becoming.

Becoming

Everything we use is in a constant state of becoming a new version of itself, leaving us in a perpetual state of being a newbie. Kelly goes so far as to say that Endless Newbie is the new default (p. 11). His argument is bolstered by the fact that the average lifespan of a phone app is 30 days. Becoming is inevitable.

The experience will continue to transform, becoming less and less like the computers that began infiltrating our lives just a few short decades ago.

Protopia is a state of becoming, rather than a destination. It is a process. (p. 13)
The web will more and more resemble a presence that you relate to rather than a place…It will be a low-level constant presence like electricity: always around us, always on, and subterranean (p. 25).
We need to believe in improbable things more often. (p. 15)

Kelly points out that TV executives couldn’t believe that anyone would want to make their own content instead of consuming it, and now we’re at a point where YouTube and Facebook are enormous and there are even Amish websites.

What was improbable, and likely impossible to those who didn’t see the internet for what it was, was where we have ended up. If everything is constantly evolving, and everyone is participating, then the next step is the continued growth of smart things. Kelly refers to this as Cognifying.

Cognifying

This is where things really picked up in the book. What was interesting became truly intriguing as Artificial Intelligence was discussed as being part of the inevitable progress. Kelly is honest about the effects of cognifying everything. Cognifying is inevitable.

The advantages gained from cognifying inert things would be hundreds of times more disruptive to our lives than the transformations gained by industrialization. (p. 29)

He goes so far as to say that the arrival of AI accelerates everything else he talks about. Without it, the rest may not happen for the next 30 years and parts of them may not happen at all. He assures us that it’s here with a comment about DeepMind:

They did not teach it how to play the games, but how to learn to play the games — a profound difference. (p. 32)

The AI was taught to teach itself. AI is already strong enough that it can serve as a TA answering questions on a message board for a class at Georgia Tech, and nobody would notice. Jill Watson is already here.

Kelly goes deeper by giving us lists of already cognitively enhanced areas, of new “minds” that AI might allow, of new types of jobs, and of the stages of robot replacement. You can either be afraid of it or encouraged at the freedom it will bring, but you cannot avoid it.

With everything being smart, and communicating with everything else, it allows us to develop a better Flow of information which is the next continuous action described.

Flowing

We are currently entering the third phase of computing, the Flows. (p. 63)

The author describes the first two stages as 1) computing borrowed from the industrial age that was filled with files and folders and 2) computing that overturned the office metaphor and moved the emphasis to browsers and pages. What we are entering now is about flow, like Twitter streams and Facebook walls, with newer items like Snapchat having no real sense of past or future but a constant present. Flowing is inevitable.

Kelly goes so far as to say he no longer buys ebooks ahead of time. There’s no need with the level of flow available. He’ll put it on a wishlist, but not purchase it until he’s actually ready to read.

With all the free information flowing by, we get a short discussion of eight “generative” qualities that make something worth buying more than getting something for free:

  1. Immediacy
  2. Personalization
  3. Interpretation
  4. Authenticity
  5. Accessibility
  6. Embodiment
  7. Patronage
  8. Discoverability

He furthers this idea by saying that:

Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. What counts is how well the work flows. (p. 74)

We are moving from fixed things to flow. Even the fixed things we have are becoming part of the flow of information. Everything from your toaster to the car your drive, and likely the roads you drive on, will be part of the flow.

How we access that flow is simple, Screening is going to go to another level.

Screening

As a reader and writer myself, I initially bought into the idea of there being book people or screen people and thinking I had to be one or the other. Screening is inevitable. Kevin Kelly quickly dispels this false conflict before taking us through some astounding ideas of what screens may be capable of in the near future on page 89:

But to everyone’s surprise, the cool, interconnected, ultra thin screens on monitors, the new TVs, and tablets at the beginning of the 21st century launched and epidemic of writing that continues to swell. The amount of time people spend reading has almost tripled since 1980.
Right now ordinary citizens compose 80 million blog posts per day. Using their thumbs instead of pens, young people around the world collectively write 500 million quips per day from their phones.
The literacy rate in the US has remained unchanged in the last 20 years, but those who can read are reading and writing more.

Kelly goes into a discussion about the technology to create inexpensive flexible sheets like paper that are actually screens and how it already exists. He points out that the thing keeping ebook of that nature from existing, and keeping people from easily cutting and pasting from them to add to the increasing flow of information, is the publishers who don’t understand how their market is changing much like the music industry before them.

Furthermore, there’s no reason for highlights to be hyperlinked between books, where quotes can be immediately followed from an e-reader, tablet, or app to another book where the quote or idea has been linked. The possibilities of being able to go through everything, in a manner akin to crowdsourcing, to find answers we want should be appealing to everyone.

This access allows people more opportunity to discover lesser known works of high quality. It helps us to make every part of the library of human history produced to this point accessible to all.

By fully employing the power of the screens we have, and by creating the screens we need, our world becomes one where screening leads to Accessing.

(continued in part 2, next week)

What are you going to do about it?

How are you dealing with the constant state of change in technology? What kind of plan do you have in place to learn necessary new technologies and leverage them for your own good?

Sign up for my newsletter and receive my free e-book, The Learner’s Manifesto.


Originally published at thepossibilityof.com on June 28, 2017.