Kevin Kelly’s latest book got a lot of buzz in Fast Company – Wired – TechCrunch circles (no surprise, as he was a co-founder of Wired and is one of the emineces grise of the Internet), which made me want to avoid it. Too Utopian, I expected. Eventually, though, I heard a podcast interview with Kelly that was so compelling I had to pick it up. I’m glad I did.
Kelly has been paying attention to the world of the Internet, in all its iterations, for 30 years. During that time he arguably has been the most consistently accurate public intellectual in terms of predicting what’s coming technologically. In The Inevitable he sets himself on the exercise of imagining that we are, in 2016, at a midpoint. That is, we can look back 30 years and see from whence we’ve come. Now, Janus-like, let us look forward an equal span of time and imagine where we may be going.
Wisely, Kelly for the most part does not try to predict specifics. The exception is when, in several chapters, he goes through the thought exercise of what his day would be like in, say, a world encompassing widely-integrated virtual reality. These exercises are the least credible part of the book—they have a Jetsons-like aspect to them, making them easy to wave off—and could lead a reader to dismiss his larger effort.
That would be a mistake. Where Kelly excels is in picking out the threads of cultural behavior trends that are facilitated and accelerated by technology—what he calls flowing, screening, accessing, filtering and so on—and then teasing out what he expects to be the logical, inevitable effects of those trends. He makes compelling arguments.
Certainly, I put the book down with a newfound respect for Kelly as a thinker. But I was left as well thinking about what sci-fi author Iain M. Banks called “excession events.” These are developments no one can predict, but which might change everything. (The appearance of aliens hovering overhead one morning, for example.) It may be too much to ask Kelly to foresee the unforeseeable, but it is cautionary to remember that what we consider inevitable (ponder, for a moment, the presidency of Hilary Clinton) may not be.