In this insightful work, Kelly brings us closer to the future by showing us the twelve “inevitable” forces that will be shaping our future in the decades to come.
Kevin Kelly is known above all for being the founding executive editor of Wired magazine (his current title there is Senior Maverick). He is also an author, publisher, podcast host, YouTube video producer, and an expert on Asia and technology. He seems to enjoy creating content, which, as we will see below, is part of one of the forces shaping the current and future world.
The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future is one of those books with a self-explanatory title. It explains 12 forces or trends that are already shaping our lives and will continue to do so in the decades to come. One of the unusual things about this book is the name given to these forces; they are different from what other authors use to name trends, mega-trends, drivers, and the like.
They are not, as is often the case (I admit I am guilty), nouns defining phenomena, such as technological disruption, automation, blockchain, IoT, or similar. They are all verbs.
I was baffled when I opened the book, and I looked at the index, to find 12 chapters, each with a one-word title, all verbs in their gerund form: Screening, Accessing, Remixing, or Interacting, to name a few.
How could Becoming or Beginning be forces shaping the future? They are rather vague sounding verbs after all. However, once you start reading the content in each chapter, the naming becomes clearer, and everything starts to make more sense.
This is an engaging, informative and fun book to read, full of novel and original ideas, and painted with anecdotes from the author’s eventful life. It is lucid, sharp, and makes the reader reflect and look at things differently, which is usually what I’m looking for in a non-fiction work.
This is a book review, not one of those summaries that some apps offer so you can “read” as many books as a CEO, so I won’t go into the details of each of the forces Kelly treats in his book, but I’ll comment the ones I found most interesting.
In Becoming, Kelly makes the distinction between a utopia, which in theory is what we should be aiming for, but is a stagnant world, without problems to solve and thus no opportunities for growth or surprises either, and a dystopia, which is easier to imagine and relate to for us (there seems to be plenty of dystopian movies and series lately) but isn’t desirable either, and they aren’t as likely to happen as films would make us believe.
Kelly believes we are in a protopia:
“Protopia is a state of becoming, rather than a destination. It is a process. In the protopian mode, things are better today than they were yesterday, although only a little better. It is incremental improvement or mild progress. The “pro” in protopian stems from the notions of process and progress. This subtle progress is not dramatic, not exciting. It is easy to miss because a protopia generates almost as many new problems as new benefits.”
This last part is important. Many of today’s gravest problems (climate change, wealth inequality, political polarization, misinformation, lack of trust in institutions) are caused by our technological solutions to yesterday’s problems. Still, the net effect is slightly positive, so we are always inching towards progress and getting better.
I think it is vital to recognise that we are far from living in an ideal society, but that our lives are better than they ever were in history, and those of our children may be better than ours.
This chapter is about AI and how it is becoming the electricity of the AI century. AI has been heralded as the next big thing for centuries, without ever living to its hyped promise, but this time is different due to three recent breakthroughs: cheap parallel computation, Big Data, and better algorithms. AI is here to stay and get better and better.
As with electricity in the XIX century, entrepreneurs will be applying AI to everything to create new products and services. They are cognifying everything. As Kelly explains:
“There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or more valuable by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 start-ups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. Find something that can be made better by adding online smartness to it.”
Kelly gives some examples of where this trend could get us, from cognified laundry (where clothes tell washing machines how and when they should be washed) to cognified toys (toys that are “alive”, and are a bit like pets) or cognified construction (project management software that takes into consideration weather forecasts, port traffic delays, exchange rates, etc. in real time).
Like many others when discussing AI, Kelly delves on the topic of automation and job displacement. He distinguishes four different situations, based on the nature of jobs:
– Jobs humans can do but robots can do even better
– Jobs humans can’t do but robots can
– Jobs we didn’t know we wanted done
– Jobs only humans can do – at first
His overall assessment is a positive one. He believes that we are not racing against machines, but with them. We need to work better with robots and let them take more and more of our jobs, as this will help us find our own humanity.
“We need to let robots take over. Many of the jobs that politicians are fighting to keep away from robots are jobs that no one wakes up in the morning really wanting to do. Robots will do jobs we have been doing, and do them much better than we can. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we never imagined even needed to be done. And they will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are. They will let us focus on becoming more human than we were.”
I wish I could be as optimistic as he is, but can we all reinvent ourselves and our new jobs?
Flowing is about the third age in computing. The first age borrowed from the industrial age, as “the first version of a medium imitates the medium it replaces”. Computers borrowed from the office metaphor and had desktops, folders, and files. The second age changed to the web metaphor, and there were pages, links, and a browser. We are in a third phase, in which the information is organised in flows and streams, like on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Tik Tok. Everything flows, and we stream, like, tag, share, and comment.
In this third stage, we have passed from daily scales to real time. We expect an answer now, not tomorrow.
“If we spend money, we expect the balance in our account to adjust in real time. (…) For news, we demand to know what is happening this very second, not an hour ago. Unless it occurs in real time, it does not exist.”
Companies that aren’t able to cater to their customers’ needs with this immediacy risk falling behind.
Another important point Kelly raises in this chapter is about the democratization of the arts, thanks to technology. In the flowing economy, we all are artists. We will all become musicians, film-makers, and writers, as technology allows as to do so without playing an instrument or having the technical knowledge or the means required a few years ago.
Objects that were fixed are becoming now fluid. Books are a good example. A printed book is a fixed and finished product. It goes to print as the author intended, it is published, and once you buy it, it can remain in the same state in your library for decades. An e-book, on the other hand, is never finished. It exists in an ethereal medium and can be changed, edited, and continuously updated by the author.
More and more products are becoming fluid, and more are yet to come, so there is another promising business opportunity here for those who know how to make most of it.
“There was never a better time to be a reader, watcher, listener or participant in human expression. (…) Every 12 months we produce 8 million new songs, 2 million new books, 16,000 new films, 30 billion blog posts, 182 billion tweets, 400,000 new products.”
We are being exposed to an avalanche of content, so we need ways to filter it if we don’t want to drown under it. There are many traditional filters (gatekeepers, curators, brands, friends…), but many new ones are also popping out (search and recommendation engines, for example), and many more will have to be created if we want to keep up.
Technology will be enhancing filtering and personalization. AI will know our most profound desires better and faster than ourselves; they will anticipate them before we know we have them. Kelly reckons that we don’t know ourselves very well, but technology will help us find out, as it will hold a mirror in front of us.
“We’ll listen to the suggestions and recommendations that are generated by our own behaviour in order to hear, to see who we are. The hundred million lines of code running on the million servers of the intercloud are filtering, filtering, filtering, helping us to distill ourselves to a unique point, to optimize our personality. The fears that technology makes us more uniform, more commoditized are incorrect. The more we are personalized, the easier it is for the filters because we become distinct.”
As surveillance capitalism proponents argue, “if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product.” I’m afraid all this filtering and personalized free content is coming with a price tag.
Beginning is the final chapter closing the book. It is a very appropriately named last chapter, because the end is only the beginning. This is one of my favourite chapters because of its optimism, hope and call to action. It completely resonates with the aims of this site.
Kelly believes we are in a key moment in history. This is a time that historians of the future will look back at as the moment we took off as a civilization, when we started injecting intelligence into inanimate objects and linking them and us to produce something akin to a gigantic brain. They will envy us because we were alive in this extraordinary moment.
I often have the feeling that everything has been invented already and we are late to the party, that past times were worth living more than the current ones, but Kelly believes that the most wonderful epoch in history is only starting and the next few decades will be full of opportunities and exciting developments.
Old hierarchies and cultural products are falling, new trends and forces, like the ones in this book – cognifying, mixing, tracking, filtering – will shape our societies and economies. They are and will be shaping our lives.
Is Kelly right, or are we entering our worse moment in history? Looking at the news today, reading about our nuclear annihilation capacity or the grim prospects of an inhospitable earth due to climate change, you would be forgiven for thinking that we have left our best times behind us, but there are also hopeful signs to be optimistic. Time will tell, and what we do with it, of course.
If we study the forces explained by Kelly well, we can benefit from them and make the most of what the future can offer us. This is the central message of this informative, original, and exciting book, and this is also our main message in the Humane Future of Work. It is by knowing and understanding the future and the forces shaping it that we will be able to conquer it.
If you want to know what the future will be like, Kelly’s The Inevitable is a great place to start. Enjoy it.