Russ Roberts

Kevin Kelly on the Future of the Web and Everything Else

EconTalk Episode with Kevin Kelly
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Author Kevin Kelly talks about the role of technology in our lives, the future of the web, how to time travel, the wisdom of the hive, the economics of reputation, the convergence of the biological and the mechanical, and his impact on the movies The Matrix and Minority Report.

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Readings and Links related to this podcast

Podcast Readings
HIDE READINGS
  • Kevin Kelly's Home page
  • Books and essays by Kevin Kelly:
  • "Computer Made from DNA and Enzymes", by Steve Lovgren. National Geographic News, Feb. 24, 2003
  • "Rinkonomics: A Window on Spontaneous Order", by Daniel B. Klein. Econlib, May 1, 2006. How order emerges spontaneously without control.
  • Highlights

    Time
    Podcast Highlights
    HIDE HIGHLIGHTS
    0:39Intro. Out of Control (1995) quote:
    The realm of the born--all that is nature--and the realm of the made--all that is humanly constructed are becoming one. Machines are becoming biological and the biological is becoming engineered.
    What's the trend? That insight has become conventional. At the time it was a metaphor, fantasy; now it is almost an assumption. DNA computers: bits of DNA work in parallel by making small variations to narrow solutions to a short list of approximate, closest-fitting solutions. Traveling salesman problem--efficient travel route gets computationally intensive as more cities are added. Current computers work linearly; goal of DNA computing is to make computers work more like DNA, at least for very complex problems. Fuzzy logic. Encryption. Biological way is this parallel way.
    10:30Economics in last 60 years has been dominated by the physics model, equations modeling the economy. But those solutions are not completely satisfying. The biological model is more appealing. The fuzzy logic, more holistic model won't replace the equations--it's a supplement. We now have tools. The usefulness to economics is more because of the complexity than because we are biological beings. Goes both ways: economics also brings insights to ecology. Being aware that things are "out of control" is relevant to both economics and biology.
    16:11Standard focus is on cause and effect; Hayek pointed out that language itself deals more with intention. You want managed hair, so why would you want unmanaged trade?! Why the cultural change? Communism's demise. People have actually tried alternatives like communal living and found them lacking. Computational metaphor and the Internet continues to inform that view. Wikipedia. Decentralized marketplace may not solve everything but it gets you somewhere. We are learning how far you can go with an out-of-control system. Spam example: like an arms race. The web is very uncontrolled, very emergent. Open-source software.
    23:47Hive Mind: the wisdom of the crowd, nobody is as smart as everybody. If you aggregate the ideas of a lot of people you can do things no one individual can do. Lots of little dumb things, like ants, together with communication, can turn into one larger smart thing. Up-communication. The invisible hand is like the hive mind. Google search. "Computers really didn't change the world till they were all hooked up together." This is just the beginning. Downside to the hive mind: The stupidity of the mob. Following the herd. Received, conventional wisdom isn't always wisdom; gossip, conspiracy theories, base interests, spam. Missed opportunities? Intellectual property (IP) law--fair use, copyright--may need to be revised in the face of the new technology.
    32:39What's coming next? Semantic web, Web3-0. Web is not just pages but databases. Machines can sort out some of what is on pages, replacing some human reading of pages. Web now is flat, not aware of itself. With more structure, tags--assigning categories--as well as links can make the web more intelligent. Improved navigation; communication between machines will happen in the background instead of having to navigate.
    39:01Out of Control's role in the movie The Matrix. Larry and Andy Wachowski were influenced by it enough to require cast to read the book (and two other books). Hard book: Most people read the first couple of chapters and then their gaskets are blown! Kelly's input into Spielberg's Minority Report: scenario-building group. Give specific detail to a scenario of the year 2050. Some ideas made it into the movie. Inhalable drugs, Tom Cruise's standup virtual reality interface.
    45:28Edge.org asked: What are you optimistic about? From Kelly's answer:
    Right now if we want to live in "tomorrow"—that place which is just a little better than today—the best we can do is to live in the most forward-looking city on earth. Cities are where the future happens. It is where there are increased choices and possibilities. Everyday one million people move from the countryside into cities. This journey is less a trip in space as in time. These migrants are really moving hundreds of years forward in time; relocating from medieval villages into 21st century sprawling urban areas....

    Moving back into the past has never been easier. Citizens in developing countries can merely walk back to their villages, where they can live with age-old traditions, and limited choices.... We have the incredible opportunity to head into the past, but it is amazing how few people really want to live there.
    We talk romantically about the past but we don't act that way. You can be spiritually happy with very little, but when we went into the cities what we got was choices. New technology brings more problems than solutions; but most problems bring yet-unrealized opportunities and bring choices. Challenge is to find a good home for each new technology. Nuclear technology, television cable/DVD, examples.
    54:36New Rules for the New Economy, 1998. Which of your predictions are you most and least proud of? Maybe substitute word "new economy" for "network economy". Anticipated examples: Google has since developed. The long view should be of both the future and the past, thinking in terms of generations, not just next few years. "Any futurist worth their salt is a good historian." Accountability for predictions: Long Bets, people in public office, reputation. People who once said Japan will destroy us in terms of jobs took a hit, but mostly the public has forgotten the association of the names of those who promoted that wrong prediction with its failure to come to pass. Search and permanence does introduce accountability.
    1:03:09Kelly's Jan. 2002, essay for WSJ, quote on commercial vs. noncommercial parts of the web:
    Will we ever appreciate this web woven out of love and greed for the fabulous miracle it is? Perhaps as more of the world wins access to it, and more of our books, and movies, and history are added, we will come to see it as a dream come true, a collective dream created by people like you and me, sharing what they love. Who would have guessed that at the end of a harrowing year, the heart of this gift and miracle already beats?
    Sharing part has gotten even better. Ten years ago you would have been laughed at to say that everything now on our desktop would be for free. Many things possible; miracle agents need to be incorporated into our thinking. We are willing to sacrifice for choices; and we do a lot to connect with others.

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    COMMENTS (3 to date)
    Mike Bergman writes:

    Absolutely fantastic interview, that had the delicious serendipity of being published on the day I was also doing a write-up on Kelly's TED talk (http://www.mkbergman.com/?p=350). (BTW, your podcast did NOT touch on Kelly's interesting idea as technology as the '7th kingdom of life'.)

    This serendipity caused me to learn of your fantastic EconTalk series; I will be listening to these with interest over the coming days.

    Finally, I'd like to suggest you consider an interview with the economic historian Joel Mokyr for your series. I think his 'Gifts of Athena' book (http://www.mkbergman.com/?p=249) continues on the theme that the best futurists are also good historians.

    Thanks, Mike

    Reza writes:

    I am a fan of EconTalk. keep up the good work. I have a sugesstion for an interview with David Colander. He has written on many aspects of research and teaching and work in economics. It can be interesting to hear him as well.

    Econ Student writes:

    This was a great interview and I really enjoyed it. The idea that economics should have a more biological foundation intrigued me, it wasn't one of the main points and was only touched upon but I think it would be interesting to listen to more information about this in an upcomming podcast.

    Since I am studying The Prinicples of Economics at the moment it had an immediate impact on me seeing how my teacher reverts back to equations if the class doesn't understand a concept. Most of the time it doesn't help that much and many ideas our left untouched. It seems to me he is only lighlty stepping on the complexities of these concepts and hindering my study of economics by reverting back to these formulas. When listening to your podcast I can see how complex these concepts are, talking about things I would not even think of. My teacher makes economics more boring than it should be and it is saddening.

    Anyways thanks for the superb podcast program, keep up the good work.

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