Russ Roberts

Kevin Kelly on the Inevitable

EconTalk Episode with Kevin Kelly
Hosted by Russ Roberts
Curating Our Cultural History... Constructing our Truths...

Inevitable.jpg Futurist, author, and visionary Kevin Kelly talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his latest book, The Inevitable, Kelly's look at what the future might be like and the role of the human experience in a world increasingly filled with information, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and the connecting of the planet's population.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: June 10, 2016.] Russ: The Inevitable--this is a great book. I don't say that very often. It's a book I read every single word of, which I always try to do but don't always succeed at as a host. And this time I not only was able to do it despite the short amount of time I had to read the book, but I savored it. It's a vivid snapshot of the present. It's a beautifully-written speculation about where we're heading. It's provocative and mind-blowing. And might even be true. We're going to try to touch on all 12 trends, but we'll see where we go. And I'm going to start with the first chapter, which is called "Becoming." You argue that looking back on today, in 30 years it will feel like the way we look back at, say, 1985--that, 'Oh, boy, it would have been great to be around then; there was so much low-hanging fruit. It was so easy to come up with stuff.' And yet there's a certain malaise, I feel, in our look at technology today. Some people think, 'You know, it just didn't pan out. We didn't get the flying cars. It's just Twitter. It's just a bunch of social media.' Why are you so optimistic about the present and the potential for the future? Guest: Because I read a lot of history. And it seems to me that if you look at what's really going on, we should be very optimistic about the improvements we have. And that we tend to overcome many of the problems that are introduced. And, by the way, this new technology will introduce a host of new problems that we haven't had before. But in general I think the more you look at history the more optimistic I'm allowed to become, looking into the future. Russ: But, [?] kind of this Internet thing, isn't it overrated? Just so wide, if I can tell people what I had for lunch and what my cat's doing. Where's the big payoff? Guest: Well, I think, if we get to talk to about AI (artificial intelligence), I think that the impact of that is actually being underestimated at the moment. But just in general, I think Internet and all this kind of stuff is a communications medium, and we're amplifying, enhancing, leveraging, in all ways multiplying the power of communications. And communications is the foundation of society. It's not just the [?] sector. This is the, this is the essential thing that makes us human in many ways. So, we're really tweaking the primary core button. And that's why this is a big thing. That's why all this stuff is so important, because this is sort of the essential nature of what civilization is. Russ: Yeah. But you do have to concede, I think--and I find your book--I'm an incredible optimist in general, and your book made me feel like a pessimist, because you are a much bigger optimist than I am. Guest: Yeah. I'm off the chart. Russ: Yeah, you are. But I loved it. And just to play pessimist for a minute: We think about artificial intelligence, for example, today--and you mention both these kind of things in your book--is it really that exciting that our thermostat gets to know us? Is it really that exciting that my car beeps at me when I'm going out of my lane or can parallel park--which is great for my 16-year old worried about is his driver's license test? But these are not transformative applications. Guest: Yeah. This too. It seemed it at first, very invisible. Well, you might not recall, but in the 1920s or something Sears Roebuck, the mail-order catalog company, was selling the Home Motor. And the Home Motor was this immense, 15-pound motor that was going to sit in the center of your home and automate all the appliances and whatnot in your home. That industrial revolution thing worked because it became invisible--we don't have the big motor turning everything; we have like 50 motors in our homes that became invisible. So, to some extent, this stuff is working because we don't see it. Because it's not something that is visible. And it succeeds to the extent that it transforms while we don't see it. So, that's one thing. And the second thing I would say about that is that, we're sitting on this huge wave of the First Industrial Revolution which brought this incredible prosperity to us all, the fact that we see around us that we no longer in the agricultural hunter-gatherer era were--we had to do everything with human muscle or with animal muscle, animal power. We invented something called 'synthetic artificial power.' And we harnessed fossil fuels, and carbon fuels, to give additional power that we couldn't do. And all that we see is basically a result of this artificial power. So when we drive down the road in your car, you have 250 horses working for you at that moment. Just turn a little knob, you've got 250 horses powering you down to do whatever you want to do. And then we distributed that power through a grid to every home and farm in the country; and so farmers could employ that artificial power to do all kinds of things; and factories could use that artificial power. And everything that we had built around us was because of the artificial power that we made. Well, now, we're going to do the same thing with artificial intelligence. So, instead of--in addition to having 250 horses driving you down the road, you are going to have 250 minds--which we are going to get from AI, from artificial intelligence. And that, we're also going to put that onto a grid and distribute it around the country so that like any farmer could just get and purchase as much artificial power and artificial intelligence as they want, to do things. And just as that artificial power, was this incredibly transformative, incredibly progressive, incredibly powerful platform to give us all that we enjoy now, this artificial minds that we are going to get on top of the artificial power is going to transform us in an equal way: it's going to touch everything that we do. And I think actually it will transform us more than that first Industrial Revolution did.
7:22Russ: So, one of the things I loved about the book is that we have a temptation to think--I have a temptation to think: What's transformative about the Internet? 'Oh, I can look up a line of poetry I can't remember the author of. It's really fantastic.' So, Google search is just amazing for just quick answers to things that are nagging at my brain, or help me find ideas, or whatever it is. And similarly, if you'd said to me, 'So, what else is important?' I would say, 'Well, business-to-business computing is phenomenal. The opportunity to shop online and what that does to pricing and the way we've overcome trust issues'--those are all great. But you actually identified something I wouldn't have thought of, which is, I want you to talk about for a minute, which is: In the early days, the Internet, people realized, 'Hey, there's going to be more stuff for entertainment. Instead of having 3 channels, or 4, or 5, we are going to have 5000.' But no one could figure out how that content was going to be generated to fill up 5000 channels, 24/7, or 18/7, or whatever was going to be the broadcast time. But you pointed out that we actually have a lot more than 5000 channels. And the people producing that content are us. Guest: Right. That was the big thing that even we at Wired[?] missed when we were trying to imagine what the Web was going to be in its very early days. And that kind of bottom-up, we now call it--the user-generated content, we call it--this peer-to-peer production, the prosumer revolution that Alvin Toffler talked about and predicted in the 1980s--all that was something that seemed to be unexpected. So we have this harness of this power of everybody sort of making things. Which we didn't really have before. And where we are headed is actually to keep extending the scale of that. So, a lot of these sort of miraculous things--I actually call them miraculous in the sense that they seemed magical[?], like Wikipedia, which cannot really work in theory, I mean, the theory of how this works is really absurd. But it keeps--an encyclopedia that anybody can change and write. But that has come about because we have enabled, with communication, this simple kind of obvious boring communication technology to allow large-scale numbers of people to collaborate in real time in ways that we couldn't before. And, if you think about what Facebook is doing--you know, 1.5, I don't know, billion people connected together doing something together at the same time, that's just the beginning. We are going to head into the next 20 or 30 years, we are going to enable every person connected with a phone potentially to be collaborating, doing something together in real time. That has never before been possible on this planet. And these kinds of almost-planetary-scale collaborations, planetary scale cooperations, planetary scale synchronization, whatever you want--all these things are going to be explored. That's a new power that we haven't seen before that is driving a lot of this excitement. While we still have the Mom-and-Pop grocery store. It is not going away. While we'll still have the [?] consultant. They are not going away. While we'll still have, you know, the 2000-employee company. They are not going away. We also have in addition to that all these new forms of working and doing and accomplishing things together. And that's really where the excitement is. Russ: Yeah; and I think as you point out, many times, we have no idea where that ability is going to take us. We haven't even tapped into in the most minute way. And although it makes me uneasy as an economist to say something this conclusive, it strikes me that if the only thing we got out of the Internet is Wikipedia, it might be worth it. It's just such an extraordinary thing that now we just sort of take for granted--as you point out; we'll get to this later--but as you point out, of course it was impossible. And we've talked about this on the program before: It can't happen; it won't be any good. But not only did it happen, it's great. And it's free. It's remarkable.
11:50Russ: A lot of people worry about the impact of artificial intelligence on employment. We've talked about this--it's now becoming a recurring theme. And of course it's ironic we're having this theme when unemployment in the United States is 5%. But, put that to the side. I think people are legitimately worried about what might be replaced by what. And you talk about it at length. I just wondered about two points you make. You talk about the fact that there are jobs that we didn't know we wanted done. I'm going to read a little excerpt here.
Before we invented automobiles, air-conditioning, flatscreen video displays, and animated cartoons, no one living in ancient Rome wished they could watch cartoons while riding to Athens in climate-controlled comfort. One hundred years ago not a single citizen of China would have told you that they would rather buy a tiny glass slab that allowed them to talk to faraway friends before they would buy indoor plumbing, but every day peasant farmers in China without plumbing purchase smart phones. Crafty AIs embedded in first-person-shooter games have given millions of teenage boys the urge, the need, to become professional game designers--a dream that no boy in Victorian times ever had. In a very real way our inventions assign us our jobs.
You want to add anything to that? Guest: I think maybe I kind of maybe say it this way: Our jobs into the future will be to invent jobs that we can automate and give to the robots. So, we're on a kind of a path, on an escalator--that we're going to keep inventing new things that that we desire to be wanted to do; we'll figure out how to do them, and once we figure out how to do them we'll automate them--basically giving them to the AIs, and a box. So, in a certain sense our job is to invent jobs that we can automate. And I think that part of inventing jobs may be our job--human job--for a while, because we have better access to our latent desires than AIs do. Although eventually even perhaps that job is--at least assisted by AIs. Russ: I'm going to read another quote which says what you just said, but it's so beautiful. You say,
When robots and automation do our most basic work, making it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, "What are humans for?" Industrialization did more than just extend the average human lifespan. It led a greater percentage of the population to decide that humans were meant to be ballerinas, full-time musicians, mathematicians, athletes, fashion designers, yoga masters, fan-fiction authors, and folks with one-of-a kind titles on their business cards. With the help of our machines, we could take up these roles; but of course, over time, the machines will do these as well. We'll then be empowered to dream up yet more answers to the question "What should we do?" It will be many generations before a robot can answer that.
I want to--I love that. But I do have to raise a question that I thought of occasionally as I read your book, which is: Your book is a little bit San-Francisco-centric. Guest: Yeah. Yeah, I know. Russ: So, people in the Bay area, and I go out there in the summer every year and hang out with some of them, and it's really inspiring about all the creative stuff going on. It's wonderful. But it is a unique collection of talent that comes from all over the world, and it's not representative, for better or for worse, of the general population. Is it really true that most or all of us can do these glorious things, or is it just going to be a small sector? Guest: Yeah, I mean, I travel to China and Asia as much as I can, in part to try and help work off some of my San-Francisco-centric view. Which, it's very hard to not be an American if you are an American. Russ: Yeah, good luck with that. Guest: Exactly. But anyway, I do try. But I think, yes, I am tainted in that sense. But, to answer your question, I do think that there is lots of room[?] for these new occupations--let's call them these new roles, these new vocations--that [?] cerebral and privileged and elite and professional. I think that one of the things that we cherish, and in fact one of the things that's going to be hard for these AIs to do is [?] the human interaction. And so having someone sit--when you are sick, having someone sit with you--I mean, I know that there are going to be bots trying to do some of that. But I think we will prefer to have a human there; and we will in a certain sense pay them more to do that. And so I think there are lots of interpersonal, human-centered, relationship-based things that we as humans value. And if we value them, we'll be willing to pay for them; and therefore there will be an occupation for people. So, later in the book I talk about interaction in the VR (Virtual Reality) and how we are moving from the Internet of Information to the Internet of experience, where experiences are the currency. And I think experiences are often--for us, anyway, as humans--much more elevated and enhanced when real humans are involved. And I think for all the improvements and virtual reality, I think there will always be a difference between that and reality and real humans. We will have teleconferencing, virtual avatars. But we will prefer, and I think therefore we will pay more to be around humans. And so, while VR will continue to boom, I think travel, meeting someone in person, will actually increase in value. At the same time that we spend more time in virtual places. So I think, even for those people who are not as professionally oriented, who don't desire to kind of keep learning a new computer language, etc., I think that there's going to be plenty of room for doing things that we as humans will find preferable than having a bot do. So, I think, yes, I think this is not just San-Francisco centric. I think it's really where we're going to go.
18:44Russ: So, to some extent what you are talking about there is, I would describe as authenticity. Right? We're still going to have a demand for authenticity. And that's been my feeling over the last 5 years or so, thinking about these issues. But I have to say, reading your book, which opened my mind a great deal about what the next 20 years might look like, say, or 10, maybe 5: one of the things I learned--and you talk about this--is the blurring of authentic and inauthentic. So, when you--or an EconTalk listener recently let me experience VR--Virtual Reality--as I prepared for this interview [?] I was going to be doing, and I'd read your fantastic article--we'll put a link up to--about some of the advances in VR, and so I want to thank that listener. But in doing that, I found myself on a Venice street tossing a stick to a mechanical dog, while I was talking to this guy. And I found myself continuing to throw the stick to the dog, even though I know he's not really getting any exercise out of it. And I have a feeling that as I hang out with avatars, I'm going to have trouble keeping a distinction between the real ones and the not-so-real ones. And similarly, as I start patching together media, which is another one of your themes, our ability to edit and remix, and credible things are coming in music and visuals--it's going to be hard to keep the truth distinct from the not-so-true. Guest: I have not found that myself. And other people who have spent a lot of time with VR, the most advanced versions of it, also report the same thing to me. Which is that, when they take the goggles off, when they come back out, they are constantly kind of refreshed by the power of this version of reality. In other words it's kind of like you--we seem to be really well tuned to kind of sniff out those differences, when we want to. Lots of times when you go to a movie, you are kind of suspending that temporarily. And while you're in it, you are enjoying that false sense of immersion. But if you were kind of questioned, if it mattered, you'd say, 'No, it's obviously--I can tell it's a movie.' So, we kind of willingly give up some of that. But I think that if it becomes critical that we know--it's actually not difficult to tell. And I think for a very, very long time we'll be able to tell the difference when we want to. But I think the thing is--and this is kind of maybe the discovery, is that often we don't want to. Russ: Yeah. It's easier, it's more vivid, and certainly, tragically-- Guest: Well, exactly right. You are entering into a novel, and you are forgetting everything else, all your other obligations; and you're just caught up in the story. You are kind of escaping--we talked about that. So, in that sense, while you are in there, yeah. But I think in the same way that people were very, very worried about romance novels when they first came out--there was a whole slew of people just scolding young kids hiding up in their room reading all day long-- Russ: Sure. Guest: So I think our fear of that is still there. And yes, the young are often obsessed by these things and seem to retreat into that. But that's just a phase. And I think--I'm not as worried about that issue. I think there's lots of things to worry about, but that's the one I'm not really worried too much about.
22:33Russ: You describe the Internet as the world's greatest copying machine. What do you mean by that? Guest: Well, there's something in the physics of how messages are transmitted across it, that where everything is being copying constantly and redistributed in a kind of a super-liquid way. And just in the physics of how information works in computers. But things are copied. So, anything that can be copied like, you know, movies, songs, books--if it touches the Internet, it will be copied, indiscriminately, promiscuously, from which we send across the entire range of the Internet, forever. So, if, you know, if you don't want something to be copied, don't touch it[?] to the Internet. But if is touching, it's going to be copied forever. And so there's what I would say a bias in this technology to copy things. And for many years, some of the big businesses, like music, have really tried to work against that. They've tried copy-protection, copy digital-rights management, laws to outlaw copying. They've sued their most avid customers who were copying. And that has never worked. Because there's a bias in the technology that facilitates this easy copying. And only now after 3 decades have they started to finally accept the fact that you cannot stop it from copying. You have to work with the copying. And, you know--the music industry would have been way ahead in their own interests if they had kind of accepted that 30 years ago and tried to work with it. And this is sort of my message about the internal biases of these technologies that are founding on, in the very physics and the very dynamics of how they work. And I think the same thing is happening today with tracking. I think the Internet is the world's largest tracking machine--that anything that can be tracked, will be tracked. And will be tracked more. And therefore, when we deal with things like privacy, we have to deal with the fact that I don't think we can be able to stop or diminish the tracking of the Internet. In the same way that music companies couldn't stop the copying. We actually have to work with the tracking in some way. Russ: You say, at one point, "When copies are free, you need to sell things that can't be copied." Guest: Right. Russ: Just 10 years ago, people said, this--Napster, and other forms of copying, which haven't stopped despite Napster's death--I think Napster's bounced back a little bit-- Guest: Yeah. Yeah. Russ: There's not going to be any more music. It's just going to be a bunch of amateurs banging away on their guitars; it's going to be lousy because you can't make money at it. Well, they've figured out ways to make money. My favorite example is Hamilton, the show, which I recently saw--which you can listen to all of the songs, I think for free any time you want in all kinds of different ways. You can watch, read the lyrics. And they are making so much money on the show itself that they lose $60 million dollars to scalpers and StubHub and resellers every year. Which is mindblowing. They are making so much money even with that leakage--or their decision to let it leak, whatever you want to call it. Guest: Right. Right. So I always think of it as a taxation for success. Tim O'Reilly's formula of piracy: Piracy is a taxation for success. If your book is so successful that they are pirating it, that's just a little tax for success. Most people, most authors, most musicians are dealing with obscurity. Russ: Yeah, correct. Guest: They would like-- Russ: They would be thrilled-- Guest: They would be thrilled that they would have enough that they would be pirated. Russ: 'Oh, that someone would put my book up as a pdf.' Guest: Exactly right. Exactly. So that yeah, so the idea of what I call generative, meaning that when copies are free, then you have to shift to something that can't be copied very well, so that there's a bunch of things like immediacy or personalization or trust, which cannot be copied or stored. And yes, kind of what you are selling. So, it's possible, like you said, if you wait or look hard enough you can get a copy of the, how it's a musical. But if you want to be present, and, which you can't be copied very well, then you are going to pay a thousand dollars for a ticket. If you want to have the, Mozart's Symphony, you can find it free online. But if you want to have it tailored to the acoustics for your living room, you'll pay for that. You are, in a sense, not paying for the music. You are paying for the personalization. And so that's sort of the message of that one. Russ: For people interested in business, those generatives, as you call, the things you can add to the easily-copied item--that might be worth the price of the book alone. And you are not getting it here on the free EconTalk podcast; you've got to buy the book. So I just want to put in that. Guest: Well, actually it's free on my website. Russ: Shhh. Don't tell 'em.
27:55Russ: Okay. So, you say at one point that we used to be the people of the book--human beings. And now we are people of the screen. Which, of course, it does not mean the death of reading, as you point out. I always like to point that out as well. More people are reading now, probably in human history by an order of magnitude more. They are just not reading full-blown novels and history books. They are reading all kinds of other things, some of which are wonderful and some less so. But, at one point you make an observation about how we differ when we look to solve problems--people, the book, versus people, the screen. Law versus technology. Talk about that. Guest: Yeah. So, the general thesis of people in the book, is that the book, it's this kind of fixed, finished, precise, immutable monumental in some cases, text. The foundation of Western civilization; and to some extent even Eastern civilization. So, we have a thousand documents in our country of, you know, of the Constitution, of the Bible, law books. And also we have these authors, which are same-rooted[?] authority--so whatever authority comes back to the authors. And so that kind of orientation having cheap access to these books and public libraries and literacy and reading and writing and all, has produced this incredible, I don't know, 500-year explosion of civilization. I mean, everything around us has sort of in many ways been derived on the success of that. But, then now, we are moving away from those monumental, enduring mode of books, and we're people of the screen. And we screen--it's not reading, not quite reading, not watching--it's something in between. We screen the screens. And the screens are everywhere. And on the screen, things are not fixed. You have the Wikipedia, which is a process. It is constantly being changed. We have the flows of data that come across. We have the streams of movies and we're streaming music and we're streaming our Instagram accounts and the Facebook walls. It's all flowing past us in a never-ending ocean of stuff that's been very liquid. There are different versions that are constantly being updated. Things aren't there for very long; they just pass through. So, all that makes it very hard to have authorities and authors. And we have to kind of--instead of going to an authority for truth, we actually kind of have to assemble it ourselves, from many different sources. And the interesting thing is that for every source out there, for expert, there is a counter-expert. For every fact, we can kind of dig around, there's an anti-fact. And for every thing that we think, it's true someone else is denying it or suggesting an alternative. And this makes it very, very difficult to know what is true. And so we need a new skill, a whole new skillset, for ascertaining, for constructing our truths in that sense. And there are other implementations, or excuse me, other consequences of this shift to these pixels which are just flowing across and these very liquid sensibility, that the life on the screen is giving us: not the book skill way, because books are kind of a long narrative or a long argument. Those can still be made. But there'll be versions; they'll have multiple versions. They'll be unfinished. They will be amendable. They'll be personalizable. Whatever. And so these--this era that we're into is going to be marked by I think a culture that revolves around this liquidity.
32:22Russ: Yeah, I'm reminded of a Robert Klein comedy routine. I don't know if you know him-- Guest: I remember [?]--I'm old enough to remember Robert [?]-- Russ: I know you are. I just want to test your cultural knowledge. But he used to have a comedy routine: it was a parody of a late-night advertising infomercial, where they would say, you know, there would be these records you could by over the TV--there would be a number you could call and order a set of music or whatever. And this was the parody of it: "You can get every record ever recorded. A truck pulls up to your house." And it was supposed to be funny--you know, Polish music, bagpipes, classical opera--everything. And we actually live in that world. And I'm going to read, if I may, another glorious passage. You say--and we can argue about the knowledge that we have access to--you say, you are talking about the knowledge we have access to, you say,
This is a very big library. From the days of Sumerian clay tablets until now, humans have published at least 310 million books, 1.4 billion articles and essays, 180 million songs, 3.5 trillion images, 330,000 movies, a billion hours of video, TV shows and short films, and 60 trillion public Web pages. All this material is currently contained in all the libraries and archives of the world. When fully digitized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Ten years ago you need a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. Today, the universal library would fill your bedroom. With tomorrow's technology, it will all fit onto your phone. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet-- if it doesn't plug directly into your brain with thin white cords. Some people alive today are surely hoping that they die before such things happen, and others, mostly the young, want to know what's taking so long.
And that passage gives me goose bumps. I've loved that. It literally moves me. And what I want to know is: What's stopping that--two questions. The technology might be slowing down. Does that worry you? And secondly: What regulatory barriers, intellectual property barriers, are keeping me from carrying the sum of human creativity and knowledge in my pocket? Guest: There are some regulatory hurdles that actually I think the only thing stopping it is, there's another chapter in the book called "Accessing." I think that there's no reason for you to carry it around when you can have access to it. Russ: It's true. Guest: I don't want to carry it around. Russ: But I already have access to it, to almost all of it, as you say, through my pocket [?], through my phone. What's going to keep the size of it from being what it could be? Guest: Because most people don't--it's sort of like, yeah, you could put it all into one thing and carry it around, but you don't need to do that. Russ: No, but I can't get at all of it right now because of intellectual property. It's not just that I don't want to physically carry it around: I can't stream it, either. Guest: Right, right. Russ: I can't get at all of it. Guest: Yeah. To your point, basically, all the books have not been digitized yet, and that's maybe what you're talking about. Russ: Yeah. Guest: There's a whole set of orphaned books, they call them orphaned books, in the sense that they are out of copyright but who--well, it's unclear whether they are in copyright or not. And so they--they being the powers that had been scanning the books, including libraries--are reluctant to scan them because their ownership is uncertain. And so therefore they haven't been scanned. And that's a significant portion of the library. And then there's a bunch of things like journals, scientific journals, where they want people to pay to access them; so they are in the library but they are not accessible to you. What will it take? It may be another, many years before people understand slowly that they get more value out of things when they are shared than when they are hoarded. And this has been a kind of a slow dawning for a lot of publishers. I think there also might be some legislation where people, where agencies, countries decide that the public good demands a certain level of easy access to, say, scientific literature. And that that's just kind of like, that's a civilized duty, in a certain sense. So we make take that. But you are right that there is a lot of that universal library that's not really accessible right now. And that--I think Fair Use, which is often used, I think, was for a while kind of cramped: so we had these famous things--the Mickey Mouse Extension Act, which is that Mickey Mouse, copyright keeps being extended so Disney doesn't have to put it in its public domain, even though Walt Disney died--a hundred years ago, whatever it was-- Russ: And even though he took, his first Mickey Mouse cartoon was an adaptation of a Buster Keaton movie. Guest: Well, not only that, but most all the Disney greats are all rip-offs of public domain fairy tales. Russ: Yeah. Exactly. Guest: In fact, for a long time, until Disney bought Pixar, they had complete flops doing their own stories. And their entire wealth and greatness came from public domain stories that they re-did, and public domain work. And it was just ironic that they were trying to extend the one thing, Mickey Mouse, that they had come up with. And so, I think that changing the copyright law would certainly be part of it. Russ: Yeah. We'll see. There are some vested interests there that make it a little bit-- Guest: Yeah. We could have a whole conversation about that. The ideas are--I believe actually the natural home for inventions is actually in the public domain, and that we give them temporary monopolies to try to incent the creators, and that those should be very, very short; and it should then return to its natural home of the public domain. So, that's a little different idea, that the natural domain of an idea is in the inventors, first; and then we kind of open up. I think that the natural domain of all inventions and everything we create is in the public domain first. Because, there is almost new idea. Because that's where most ideas are coming from. And so, I think they naturally reside in the public domain; and we only give them a temporary individual monopoly that has to be very, very short. Russ: Well, I'm afraid you are going to have to pay a royalty to the author of Ecclesiastes, who said that there's nothing new under the sun. You've obviously just stolen that line.
40:04Russ: So, anyway, while I was reading your book and thinking about these ideas about the extraordinary access we are going to have, I couldn't help but think about what I sometimes think about--I watch my kids and think about how different their spare time is from my spare time when I was a teenager. And I worry about contemplation. I worry about introspection. We're so bombarded; and we choose to be bombarded by stuff. And it's so much fun; and it's so interesting; and as you point out, the extraordinariness of human capabilities is on display in a way we didn't have access to before. And so I'm thinking that. And of course later on in the book, you not only say that we are losing the art of contemplation, but it's a good thing. So, talk about that. Guest: Well, there is a certainly sense of an interior reading space that literature and words and things can bring us to, and I think we get less of that when we even reading on a--or maybe a Kindle to some extent--but when we are reading online, whether it's tons and tons of distractions. But the thing is that we often kind of dismiss those distractions as just distractions. But I think to some extent that flitting around, that kind of surfing the web, that kind of quick skipping from one idea to another entails a certain amount of engagement. And in some ways is a proper response to this flood of information that surrounds us; and you kind of have to in some ways you have to be paddling faster than the river is going in order to steer. And what I've observed in my own reaction to this kind of stuff is that I feel that when I encounter something new, I now have a tendency to kind of do something to it. I have a tendency to kind of engage it, to look it up, to respond to it, to form an opinion quickly to search for things, to in some ways react and discuss it, conjure with it. And I think that's a very different thing than kind of going deep and contemplating and sitting with something. But this response is a valid--I think it's a valid and proper response to the environment. Now, I think--there is a loss; and there is a need for contemplation. And my hunch is that this is part of techno-literacy: this is what we have to learn how to do. And we may need technological assistance to actually help us do that. And I think a lot of people attempt to try to limit where they can go while they are reading or other things are just a beginning of that. I promote something called techno-literacy, which is this idea that just as it took you and I four years or so to learn how to read, with very deliberate practice--we didn't learn it by osmosis; we had to be taught it and we had to spend time learning it--I think there are going to be certain skills in the future that we actually have to learn rather than just sort of hang out online and assume that people will get those things. We may have to be taught them. They may be things like: Here's how we do contemplation in this kind of environment; here are the technological things we need to assist us to go deep when it's necessary to go deep. So, I think while there is a diminishment of that kind of contemplation, I don't think it's lost forever. And I do think that the alternative that we have now is a proper response to this incredibly fluid environment that we're in. Russ: For me, personally, I think my attention span has gone down, with the Internet. But I actually feel, and I'm probably fooling myself, but maybe not--I think my brain goes faster. I feel like I see connections between things that I didn't see before, because I've got more stuff in there from exposure to all these ideas and thoughts. And its, as you point out and we all know, our brain works when we are not thinking about things. So, there is some, definitely, compensations.
44:46Russ: You mention twice in the book a shocking thing, I think it gets a sentence or two each time: Maybe there will be some power outages and we'll, some enormous part of the Internet will go dark. Do you worry about losing the Library of Libraries as things go digital? I talked about this recently with Abby Smith Rumsey. What's going to protect us? Is it just the distribution? Do you worry about this? You didn't seem to, much. But you're an optimist, so maybe you should be. Guest: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I'm one of the founders of the Long Now Foundation. And one of the very first projects that we looked at was the perseverance of digital information. We're so bound to these platforms which go obsolete very fast--who even--if you get a CD-ROM (Compact Disc, Read-only Memory) today, what would you even do with it? [?] A CD-ROM may last forever, but the readers don't. Okay? So this was an issue; we were trying to say how do you do digital bits over the long term. And it is, it's kind of a horrifying scenario based on what we've done so far. And I think that long-term transmission of digital information is a challenge; and there is a worry in that you--there are a couple of people who are doing interesting things as an alternative. There is one person, basically--I like to say it's one person--there's one person backing up the Internet. I mean, it's a guy, Brewster Kahle. He is backing up the Internet. He personally started doing it--and I worked in his little office where he had these tape machines, and now it's a big--you know, he has sort of like an institute, a whole non-profit doing it. But it's him. Basically he's still financing it. And the same-- Russ: Does he have a bodyguard? We've got to protect this guy. Guest: Yeah. Russ: Who is monitoring his health? Guest: Exactly. This same guy actually has a warehouse in Richmond, California, and then this huge warehouse off a freeway is rows and rows of containers; and inside the containers are stacks and stacks of books in pallets wrapped in plastic. And what these are is, these are the original copies of the books that are scanned digitally--they are an archive. So there is like--and you can find it. So if you want to find the book that--Tom Sawyer--his book, there'll be a copy of it in Container 5, Pallet 3, this high up. And so we do have the means to do a backup. The Library of Congress kind of a thing. And so I'm not so worried about losing it. We're more likely to lose track of something than to lose it. But I think it's the access to it, is something that we have to work a little harder to make sure that we always have up. So, let's just say, I'm concerned but not worried.
48:26Russ: In the filtering chapter, you talk about experiences. What are they and why are they increasingly important? Guest: We just inherently, full-bodied--we use our full bodies for things. We don't realize how much we depend on these other sense to both learn and to enjoy. And that's one of the lessons that Virtual Reality has been teaching us very quickly--is that more than half of that power that we get from being places is actually not in our eyes. It's all these other bodily presences, feeling, touch, smell, hearing. And so what we are doing with our technology is actually right now we have a very limited interaction with them: we type with our fingers, and we read. And we're going to kind of explode that and put much more of our gestures and our whole body and our tactile sense as we interact with things. Because that's what we like to do in the real world; that's how we evolved. And that's a huge step for us. And so I think we'll come to see the idea of kind of, you know, interacting, being on your computer, people sitting and typing, as being very archaic and very dated, when we're going to be conversing with our computers and using our hand gestures and our body and our body language. And that's--much like we would talk to each other. And that's very liberating, and also very exciting; and there's lots of huge opportunities going back to the very first thing that we say, that we're at the beginning, because we're just at the beginning of being able to do that and knowing how to do that. Russ: What is 'rewindability'? Why is it important? And how might it change how we live? Guest: Yeah. So, the short version is that for our very long and our own evolutionary history and even the very beginning of civilization, it was an oral culture. Somebody said something, and it was gone. And you developed, people developed a very good memory for recalling that. And they could do--they could recite, recite long ballads and poems. And they had other--the memory [?] and other kinds of devices to try and recall what had been said. Well, print--the Gutenberg Revolution--easy, well, writing was beginning but then having ubiquitous copies made it kind of easier to offload that; and so we could write something down and you could re-read it. Well, now we've sort of extended that re-reading, that re-windability, going back and growing back to, of course, things that our voices [?] record; but now with video, almost everything's being videoed. And that allows us to kind of scroll back, to rewind, see it again. And seeing things again, which was sort of things, something we did in the Gutenberg world of text, allows you to study things. And they transform it. If you've ever seen a .gif or 'gif' loop, where someone will gesture, it's just circled and repeated and it kind of, the more you see it, it starts to elevate into something big: this is amazing; that that loop creates an intense focus that moves it up into something else. Russ: It's a punctuation mark. Guest: And so that ability--yeah. That ability to kind of, yeah, go back to whatever politicians have said and hear what they have said earlier; that ability to take that 30-second commercial and study it, or see it again and again whenever you want; that ability to take a very complicated plot line from a long ongoing series and dissect it--all of this ability to kind of retrieve things, not just the text but this other visuality, not just literacy, this other world of images and experiences, we'll be able to rewind our virtual reality experiences and replay them in slow mode, so to speak--I think that is this huge--this is a kind of huge benefit we had with text, now we're going to have with the rest of what we create. Russ: Yeah, it's amazing. I've discovered reading your book that you were consultant with a group of people on Minority Report, one of my favorite movies of all time. And we could spend at least an hour talking about that. We will not. But one of the things, of course, that visually makes that movie just so interesting is the way that Tom Cruise physically interacts with his computer. The way that screens spread out through the world, are customized for youth, the traveller. And I always thought that was so clever, and probably true; and now I understand why. Because a bunch of smart people were working on these things. Guest: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Russ: It was directed by Steven Spielberg. Guest: Right. Russ: But your theme in this chapter is interacting. And I think most people think that virtual reality is just a thing that's going to make games better. But having had that small sample of the experience myself--and you've been in other more, even more immersive experiences than I have--it's going to change everything. Talk about that. Guest: Yeah. Um. I think--I spent 5 months trying all those--the VR experiments and commercial modes and contents and hardware. And I came away with this idea that, as I said before, that, there are several things. One of the--VR works on your brain or your body at a different level than your conscious intellect. In the same way that there's something deep in our perception system that allows us to see something moving across the screen when actually nothing is moving. We're just looking at a bunch of still images in sequence. That happens very deep. And the same kind of, there's a sense of presence, of another person being present, of this world being real. And it's all happening deep in our brains. The more doing the work--we, our brains, doing that magic, so to speak. And so there is kind of a [?] symbiosis between the human brain and the technology together producing these experiences. And they are experiences that we truly really feel. And that's the thing that surprised me--if we know things, which is Internet oriented[?], this place that we know stuff--now we are going to feel things. So it's a way of doing kind of artificial feeling, maybe I want to say, or something? Virtual feelings? And that, the fact that--these are working kind of at a lower level--lower meaning a more primitive and more basic level than just intellect--that it's, I think is extremely powerful. Because we are so human. And so I think a lot of the social stuff that we are doing online will move to these kind of VR because we'll have a level of experience in that social interaction that will be very, very powerful. And then the virtualness can again be applied to education, training, work, um, the military, sports. It's really, really big. And I think in conjunction with the AI, because AI is going to be an essential part of this, to be able to actually track people and understand what they are doing--in conjunction with cheap AI, this is the platform that follows smartphones. This is where we are going to go after smartphones or even with our smartphones. And so, I think this is--I find it hard to think of something that isn't going to be affected by being able to, you know, have this version of reality, that's easily accessible, and I think is going to be very, very powerful. There'll be a lot of social problems caused by it. But the overall benefits will be huge. Russ: Yeah--I just--I think it's so hard for us to adapt to it, as creators. And I think we obviously will. I am struck by how poorly we have adapted to the Internet, still; and we still have a temptation to write books and put them on the Internet. But with pictures! And we haven't really captured that. But when I think about, say, I don't know, trying to understand what my daughter understands about art, my daughter understands a lot of things about art that I don't. So she can write me an essay. She can write a book about it that has illustrations about art. She can put a web page up about art. But the idea that I can go to the Louvre or the National Gallery and hang out with her there and look at the paintings and turn my head and see and get closer, move back--that's just mind-boggling. Mind-boggling is not the right word for it. We don't have a word for it. It's going to change everything. Guest: It's awesome. That's the word. [?]
58:26Russ: Your book ends with a gorgeous, powerful vision of how much we are going to know and how we are all going to be connected and how that's going to transform our lives. And I couldn't help but get the feeling as I read it that it's a religious vision. It's a vision--it's a human religious vision--of an all-knowing, all watching thing. It's not God. But it's--you call it the Holos--this web of our connections, the knowledge that we have. And there's a certain Messianic feeling. Some people call this the Rapture of the Nerds. It's a different version of the Singularity that some people have. But, do you ever think about, do you ever contemplate, this idea that we humans are creating something larger than ourselves, that sounds something like God? Guest: Yeah. Well, I have a pretty big, um, I mean, my God's pretty big. My God is much bigger than [?]. I don't think--in my mind, not much confusion. But I do-- Russ: Good for you. Guest: But I do agree that there is sort of a spiritual element of this when we, we, collectively humans, connect all 7 billion of us, 9 billion of us in the future together, with our 9 billion phones, with our 9 trillion, you know, machines, 9 gazillion other internet of things together. And we make this very large thing. And I don't know--I call it Holos, but it's not a machine; it's not a super-organism. It's something large. And it will behave. There will be emergent things out of that, that will be very difficult for us to access. And so there is a sense in which we, in which that might be spiritual in a sense that is bigger than us. Much, much bigger than us. I don't think it's as big as God. But I think it's in that direction of kind of like, yeah--it's spiritual in the sense that it's touching something beyond that we, beyond our normal day-to-day lives. It's outside of that level. And it may be mysterious. And some people may turn it into a religion. That's also possible, too. In fact, that's probably very likely. But I do think, is that, this is the really big news that we are going that is actually kind of unseen right now, which is that we are connecting ourselves together in a way that has never been before possible. That will allow all kinds of amazing and difficult and horrible things to happen. And most of it, many of it, will be things that we'll never probably really understand. Like, you know, there was a couple of years ago the Flash Crash that was all around the world, all the stock markets together kind of made a dip and came back. And nobody knows why they did that. There was this huge, kind of globally syncopated beat, a pulse. And that's the kind of thing that I think we are going to see more and more of, because we are going to be operating--we've made something that will operate at a different level. And that's scary to some. It's out of control; we don't know what's happening. And it could be--you know, [?] to others. Russ: The ultimate emergent order. Guest: Yep.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Ian F writes:

The argument that the global workforce will survive by virtue of its "authenticity" seems kind of flimsy to me. While we may not willfully replace hospice care workers with robots at the first opportunity, let's just be clear that those who work in easily automated industries such as fast food and retail will be not bailed out by tech Utopianism. OK, apocalyptic rant concluded.

Dmitry writes:

I don't think I am as optimistic as Kevin with regard to the problem of adaptation to constant distraction by flashy technology.

You raise a great point, Russ, about contemplation and introspection.

First of all, I don't think this superficial internet surfing really makes you think faster or draw more connections - Cal Newport in his blog covers it pretty nicely. In particular, he gives the following quote of Jim Clark:

I just don’t appreciate social networking, which has blown up in recent years. In part, because [I recently attended a panel on social media where a panelist was] just raving about people spending twelve hours a day on Facebook…so I asked a question to the guy who was raving: the guy whose spending twelve hours a day on Facebook, do you every think he’ll be able to do what you’ve done? That’s the fundamental problem…people waste too much time on that.

Among my peers in the PhD program I see a very tight connection between productivity of research and spending as little time as you can on the Internet. Of course access to arXiv and StackExchange community helps, but it is about all that is useful for research on there.

Second, even if people eventually figure out proper ways to productively use the Web and develop appropriate habits for not drowning in this vast sea of information, I think the transition to that state might be very painful and by no means quick.

Historically, the printing press was invented in the XV century, but it took people another five centuries to reach mass literacy. And actually governments played here a crucial role (for better or for worse) developing mass school education.

I don't see why this historical phase should be any different.

David McGrogan writes:

I think it is quite easy to be blithe about the contemplation and introspection problem if you are over the age of, say, 30-35, and developed as an adult before there was such a thing as social media.

I teach at a university and am greatly concerned that kids who arrive in their first year find it very difficult to sit still for even a minute or two without checking their phones, and seem incapable of remembering what was discussed in class the week before. That's all anecdotal, of course, and everybody always thinks young people have a short attention span, but still, the idea that social media and internet addiction is having a detrimental effect on developing minds is very plausible to me.

Mike Brady writes:

This is perhaps 4th podcast where I've heard Kelly talk about this new book. It's the first interview that makes me want to read it now. Like Oprah, Russ makes it seem easy, but there are some really mediocre (yet popular) interviewers out there.

When I was a teenager, I read books by Alvin Toffler and John Nasbitt. What else was a geek going to do? With the web and so much fun stuff to do online, I have to wonder if any teenagers today are going to come across Kelly's books.

don rudolph writes:

After the interview I looked at the book cover where it says 'understanding the twelve technological forces that will shape our future'. I was hard pressed to come up with what they were.
Maybe my brain is used to lists that are numbered. The ten most affordable vacation spots. Ten things you must see when you go to Paris. Maybe my mind is not able to process non delineated information due to web surfing.

jw writes:
  • Having the world's knowledge in the palm of your hand is useful for reference. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot read/learn/grok all of the world's knowledge in one lifetime. The process of understanding is much slower than the process of searching and reading. Even if you spent all of your life trying to read it (or some portion that you are interested in), when do you live? Or, with regards to VR, the "Good Will Hunting" Sistine Chapel discussion.

    It also reminds me of a commonly heard meme in medical schools - "Half of what you will learn here is incorrect, unfortunately, we don't now know which half". For most college liberal arts programs now, the percentage is closer to 90% that college grads have to unlearn.

  • The breakthroughs discussed seem like uber-ccol things for San Francisco techno-ites to dream about, and some may actually happen. But how do they help generate a job for a rural poor person in WV?
  • I still don't understand why Google and Facebook get to monetize my life by tracking me and in return provide a "free" service that obviously (from their earnings reports) is no where near as valuable as my data.
  • Finally, where the heck is my jetpack?
Timothy Davis writes:

Dr. Roberts,

I must say that this episode is one of the greatest episodes of EconTalk I have heard in, well, ever! Even moreso as it was bookended with your brilliant discussion the previous week with Abby Smith Rumsey on preserving our past; this discussion seems to be about embracing our future. I don't know if you intended that, but it was poetically synchronistic nevertheless. Kudos well deserved!

Are we approaching the Singularity? If so, I for one welcome our new robot overlords. I suppose I am a part of the cohort of younger people asking why it isn't happening sooner.

But since I work with technology on a practical basis (servicing automated semiconductor test equipment,) I know the limitations of what technology can do, particularly when it is not functioning as intended. This is my biggest concern regarding entrusting more and more of our lives to technology.

Has the trend gotten better over time? Undoubtedly yes. But as technology (and any one individual's broad comprehension of how it works) becomes more and more advanced, it will be important to make sure it is as robust and reliable as possible. If not, when something breaks, it will be increasingly difficult for the problem to be fixed. If not, the odd "flash crash" referenced in this episode may seem tame and quaint by comparison to the issues we could face.

Here's an amazing article on what AI could actually look like:

[broken html fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Robert Swan writes:

The guest was a bit too besotted with technology for my taste, but I'll not let that stop me commenting.

On software piracy being "a taxation for success", I take it another step and say that it was an important part of Microsoft's success. In the mid '80s Microsoft complained loudly and bitterly about piracy, but for years they did nothing to prevent it. I believe this was because they knew thousands of businesses around the country were reliably paying for upgrades for the sole reason that their staff wanted a "free" upgrade for their pirated copies at home. It was only when they had complete lock-in that Microsoft tightened the screws on licence enforcement.

The pendulum swings though, and now they are having difficulty even giving away Windows 10.

I liked Russ's comment that he thinks is "brain goes faster" since coming under the influence of the Internet. It's a fun statement because it depends on which of those three words you stress. Russ stressed "faster":

My brain goes faster -- my mind has been supercharged

I suspect many people might stress it as:

My brain goes faster -- my body, not so much

But for me, the truth is:

My brain goes faster -- and where it goes, who knows?

Steve Wood writes:

After listening to this episode, I tracked down the Kevin Kelly “What Technology Wants” episode from the way back in 2010! Also a good listen. Interesting to hear the term “inevitable” surface in that session as well.

AND, to hear parallels with Matt Ridley's book/interview around The Evolution of Everything, which also included recognition of simultaneous inventions.

Nice to see/hear connections or triangulation of ideas across interviews in time, authorship, subject matter.

Then you have Nassim Taleb who's interviews seem to color the way I hear every other interview.

Stimulating. Challenging. Inviting.
Thank You Russ Roberts!

Kevin writes:

Steve Wood just helped me realize that I have been listening to econtalk since 2010, because I heard the "What Technology Wants" podcast the first go around.

Technology is great. We are clever and solve many problems. I once read a sci-fi short story about humans in the future who had amazing technology. The story was about how they could recreate historical figures so that they could talk with them and celebrate them in the present and share in our generational adoration in a more intimate way. The technology was incredible and the people had all their wants and needs met so they had eventually found very unusual applications for technology to spend their free time. The story ends abruptly with aliens attacking the earth and easily enslaving the people - in a short story of 10 pages this part was one paragraph.

It was an odd epilogue when I read it as a teenager, but over time I have realized it was a clever juxtaposition about how we fawn over technology and can tell each other amazing stories about how facebook is changing the world but sometimes things happen that make the absolute decadence of our technology apparent.

Without sounding like an complete curmudgeon and as a person that has ipads and iphones aplenty and will likely buy VR, there are some very real changes in our society with this level of immersion and technological dependence that might cause us problems. Far smarter people than I have worried about it.

People so jittery from checking their devices will struggle learning difficult subjects. For every von Neumann that can do a power series in his head there are 10 million engineers that will need to sit quietly struggling with differential equations to go forward. The AI will replace them but what if the power goes out and no one knows how to think?

Our dependence on superficial and even advanced technology makes us increasingly fragile to political and natural catastrophes.

I agree with dmitri that the internet is an amazing marvel (I found a paper just this morning from 2005 I needed to reread) but for 95% of people most the time it is just a more addictive, personalized form of TV where we are ever learning but never coming to knowledge. Facebook is no different than binge watching Friends or playing World of Warcraft for 12 hours a day. Its leisure and generally a sap on productivity you can access from anywhere at anytime. We live in interesting times, and I expect our bright future will arrive, but the naysayers are not without precedent.

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