kottke.org posts about Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly’s helped me make sense of the internet for as long as I can remember. One of his best blog posts, from 2008, is “Better Than Free.”
The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. IT companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. Every bit of data ever produced on any computer is copied somewhere. The digital economy is thus run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free…
When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.
Well, what can’t be copied?
Kelly suggests eight “generative” values that can’t be easily copied by the internet: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment,
Patronage, and Findability. This list holds up pretty well: digital tech has handled some of these things better than others (we can get our digital files from the cloud almost anywhere; embodiment is still mostly analog). And most of these things we do pay for, if only in the form of being locked in to one company’s ecosystem that manages these things for us. It also ties in clearly to 1000 True Fans and other essays of Kelly’s that have turned out to be prescient and/or influential.
But is the internet really best characterized as a copy machine? This has always bothered me. Unlimited free copies of digital objects proliferating everywhere is a problem because of the internet. But the other things that the internet does pose thorny problems too.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that “the internet is a fax machine.” Most of what we do on the internet is zip digital documents back and forth from one machine to the other. It would be nice to think of that process as simply copying. But we need channels and tubes and signals and protocols to move those docs back and forth, and all of that we pay for. And at a more abstract level, we need distribution channels so the docs reach who they’re supposed to. TCP/IP is a distribution channel, but so are Facebook and Google and Snapchat and Twitter. Somebody ends up paying for all of them.
The other two parts of the all-in-one machine are more complicated. If we’re just copying things backwards and forwards, we never add anything new. And if you look at a lot of internet media, it’s mostly just recycled content from some other part of the internet. A Reddit thread becomes a Twitter meme becomes a web story becomes a TV story, which becomes 20 web stories. Copying is getting pretty tired. We need to do more scanning — literally and figuratively. We need to think harder about how to make the offline and online worlds meet. The internet companies spending real money right now are spending it on this problem.
Printing is just the other side of the same thing. How can we translate online activity to offline action? Or, even if it stays digital, how do we produce a work that people can recognized as a finished object? How can we move a digital thing from one physical experience to another? If we used to print digital documents or photos from our PCs to get a better look at them, maybe now we move videos and games from our smartphones to bigger screens in our offices and living rooms. It’s still the same kind of process, and we need to solve similar kinds of problems to the ones when we were first figuring out how to establish a WYSIWYG relationship between software and a printed page. All of that takes work, and all of that takes money.
In other words, we don’t pay for the copies — we pay for the toner. Same as it ever was.
I used to work at Wired, and later at The Verge, and at both places we had a lot of reverence for “Wired in the 90s.” You’d say it fast like that, too — “wired-in-the-90s” — and it was a universally recognized shorthand for relevance, cool, slick design, smart writers, the “culture of now.” I suspect it probably stands for that for a lot of Kottke readers too.
Yesterday, for reasons unknown, my RSS reader spit up a random Kevin Kelly post from 2012 called “Predicting the Present” that excerpts a bunch of quotes from the early years of Wired. Here are some of them (I tried to pick fun ones):
We as a culture are deeply, hopelessly, insanely in love with gadgetry. And you can’t fight love and win.
— Jaron Lanier, Wired 1.02, May/June 1993, p. 80
The idea of Apple making a $200 anything was ridiculous to me. Apple couldn’t make a $200 blank disk.
— Bill Atkinson, Wired 2.04, Apr 1994, p. 104
Marc Andreessen will tell you with a straight face that he expects Mosaic Communications’s Mosaic to become the world’s standard interface to electronic information.
— Gary Wolf, Wired 2.10, Oct 1994, p. 116
The human spirit is infinitely more complex than anything that we’re going to be able to create in the short run. And if we somehow did create it in the short run, it would mean that we aren’t so complex after all, and that we’ve all been tricking ourselves.
— Douglas Hofstadter, Wired 3.11, Nov 1995, p. 114
Of all the prospects raised by the evolution of digital culture, the most tantalizing is the possibility that technology could fuse with politics to create a more civil society.
— Jon Katz, Wired 5.04, Apr 1997
It is the arrogance of every age to believe that yesterday was calm.
— Tom Peters, Wired 5.12, Dec 1997
Separately, Ingrid Burrington was leafing through a 1996 issue of Wired and found this beauty:
AI-based investment systems will cut a swath through Wall Street, automating thousands of jobs or downgrading their skills.
— Clive Davidson, freely quoting Ron Liesching, Wired 4.12, Dec 1996
From an excerpt of Kevin Kelly’s recent book, The Inevitable, a list of the Seven Stages of Robot Replacement:
1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.
2. [Later.] OK, it can do a lot of those tasks, but it can’t do everything I do.
3. [Later.] OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.
4. [Later.] OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.
5. [Later.] OK, OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.
6. [Later.] Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more interesting and pays more!
7. [Later.] I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.
I predict that getting to #6 will be challenging for many people.
Kevin Kelly and Mark Frauenfelder polled 1600 people to find a list of the 50 best non-fiction podcasts. The list skews nerdy, science, and tech. The top 5 is unsurprising:
1. This American Life
4. 99% Invisible
5. WTF with Marc Maron
Kevin Kelly has travelled in every sort of way, from five-star hotels to penniless hitchhiking. And he says that when traveling, more time is better than more money.
When you have abundant time you can get closer to core of a place. You can hang around and see what really happens. You can meet a wider variety of people. You can slow down until the hour that the secret vault is opened. You have enough time to learn some new words, to understand what the real prices are, to wait out the weather, to get to that place that takes a week in a jeep.
Money is an attempt to buy time, but it rarely is able to buy any of the above. When we don’t have time we use money to try to get us to the secret door on time, or we use it avoid needing to know the real prices, or we use money to have someone explain to us what is really going on. Money can get us close, but not all the way.
From Kevin Kelly, a collection of photos he took of Katmandu, Nepal in 1976.
Nepal was recently affected by a 7.8 earthquake, which resulted in the deaths of more than 6000 people and much property damage.
Katmandu was an intensely ornate city that is easily damaged. The carvings, details, public spaces were glorious. My heart goes out to its citizens who suffer with their city. As you can see from these images I took in 1976, the medieval town has been delicate for decades. Loosely stacked bricks are everywhere. One can also see what splendid art has been lost. Not all has been destroyed, and I am sure the Nepalis will rebuild as they have in the past. Still, the earthquake shook more than just buildings.
If you look carefully you may notice something unusual about these photos. They show no cars, pedicabs, or even bicycles. At the time I took these images, Katmandu was an entirely pedestrian city. Everyone walked everywhere. Part of why I loved it. That has not been true for decades, so this is something else that was lost long ago. Also missing back then was signage. There are few signs for stores, or the typical wordage you would see in any urban landscape today. Katmandu today is much more modern, much more livable, or at least it was.
Ran across one of my favorite little pieces of writing the other day: Sixty Men from Ur by Mark Sumner. It’s about how short recorded human history really is. The piece starts out by asking you to imagine if you view the history of life as the Empire State Building, all of human history is a dime on top.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one the United States’ great historians, is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the United States did not exist. Through Mr. Schlesinger, you’re no more than three away yourself. That’s how short the history of our nation really is.
Not impressed? It’s only two more life spans to William Shakespeare. Two more beyond that, and the only Europeans to see America are those who sailed from Greenland. You’re ten lifetimes from the occupation of Damietta during the fifth crusade. Twenty from the founding of Great Zimbabwe and the Visigoth sack of Rome. Make it forty, and Theseus, king of Athens, is held captive on Crete by King Minos, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.
Sixty life times ago, a man named Abram left Ur of the Chaldees and took his family into Canaan. Abram is claimed as the founder of three great religions. A few lifetimes before that, and you’ve come out the bottom of that dime. You’re that close to it.
See also human wormholes and the Great Span, unlikely simultaneous historical events, and timeline twins.
Update: From Wired last year, Sam Arbesman writes about Kevin Kelly’s concept of touch generations.
I was recently listening to a lecture by Kevin Kelly where he introduces the concept of touch generations, the idea of a list of people based on when one person died and when the next was born: one person is in the next touch generation of someone else if they were born when the other person died. So Galileo and Newton, while unrelated, are in successive touch generations because Newton was born the year that Galileo died. Essentially, it’s a way of connecting lifetimes across the years.
David Carr writes about the surprising success of Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools book, which is based on his long-running website of the same name.
But last year, he had what sounded to me like a dumb idea. Mr. Kelly edits and owns Cool Tools, a website that writes about neat stuff and makes small money off referral revenue from Amazon when people proceed to buy some of those things. He decided to edit the thousands of reviews that had accrued over the last 10 years into a self-published print catalog — also called “Cool Tools” — which he would then sell for $39.99.
So, to review, his idea was to manufacture a floppy 472-page catalog that would weigh 4.5 pounds, full of buying advice that had already appeared free on the web, essentially turning weightless pixels into bulky bundles of atoms. To make it happen, he crowdsourced designs from all over the world, found a printer in China and then arranged for shipping and distribution. It all seemed a little quixotic and, well, beside the point.
Except the first printing of 10,000 copies, just in time for Christmas, sold out immediately, a second printing of 12,000 will go on sale at Amazon next week and a third printing of 20,000 copies is underway. So, not so dumb after all.
I haven’t had a chance to dig too deeply into my copy yet, but my six-year-old sat down with it a few weeks ago and had about a million questions per page for me. Which seems a like a positive sign.
Kevin Kelly writes about the challenges of creating a civilization from scratch, say after an apocalypse or interplanetary journey.
Let’s take a very sophisticated item: one web page. A web page relies on perhaps a hundred thousand other inventions, all needed for its birth and continued existence. There is no web page anywhere without the inventions of HTML code, without computer programming, without LEDs or cathode ray tubes, without solid state computer chips, without telephone lines, without long-distance signal repeaters, without electrical generators, without high-speed turbines, without stainless steel, iron smelters, and control of fire. None of these concrete inventions would exist without the elemental inventions of writing, of an alphabet, of hypertext links, of indexes, catalogs, archives, libraries and the scientific method itself. To recapitulate a web page you have to recreate all these other functions. You might as well remake modern society.
Kevin Kelly on the realism of the 48 frames/second version of The Hobbit.
What’s going on here? I really struggled to figure out what was happening to my own eyes and my perception that something as simple as changing a frame rate would trigger such drastic re-evaluations of cinema?
I researched on the web without much satisfaction, since few people had actually seen 48HFR. I asked a few friends in the advance cinema industry and got unsatisfactory answers. Then I was at a party with a friend from Pixar and asked him my question: why does HFR change the appearance of the lighting? He also could not tell me, but the man next to him could. He was John Knoll, the co-creator of Photoshop and the Oscar-winning Visual Effects Director for a string of technically innovative Hollywood blockbusters as long as my arm. He knew.
I saw The Hobbit at 48fps and it was a unique experience. At times, it was amazing, like you were in the movie, tromping around Middle Earth. At other times, the effect was laughably bad, like having a bunch of cosplaying dwarves in bad makeup standing around in your fluorescently lit living room. Dwalin, son of Fundin, I can see your skin cap.
Kevin Kelly notes that the internet — and in particular, YouTube — is exposing us to massive quantities of things that are impossible and amazing and muses about how that might be affecting our culture.
Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we’ll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens which focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everyday-ness. As long as we are online - which is almost all day many days — we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.
That light of super-ness changes us. We no longer want mere presentations, we want the best, greatest, the most extraordinary presenters alive, as in TED. We don’t want to watch people playing games, we want to watch the highlights of the highlights, the most amazing moves, catches, runs, shots, and kicks, each one more remarkable and improbable than the other.
We are also exposed to the greatest range of human experience, the heaviest person, shortest midgets, longest mustache — the entire universe of superlatives! Superlatives were once rare — by definition — but now we see multiple videos of superlatives all day long, and they seem normal. Humans have always treasured drawings and photos of the weird extremes of humanity (early National Geographics), but there is an intimacy about watching these extremities on video on our phones while we wait at the dentist. They are now much realer, and they fill our heads.
I was reminded earlier today of True Films, Kevin Kelly’s collection of must-see documentaries, educational films, etc.
As dogged as I have been in tracking down great true films, I have seen only a fraction of the estimated 40,000 that have been made. So I am ready for more. However I will only list true films and documentaries that are available as VHS tape or DVDs at consumer prices. In other words, films that are easy for most people to see upon request. I won’t include films that are only shown in theaters, or available via high-priced rentals, or simply out of print.
The site hasn’t been updated in over a year but the content is evergreen. True Films is also available in book and ebook formats.
Kevin Kelly argues that Spielberg’s Tintin movie passes beyond the uncanny valley into the “plains of hyperreality”.
One of the great charms of the Tin Tin movie (besides its solid story, and uplifting sensibility) is the incredible degree of detail, texture, lighting, and drama that infuses every scene. Because the whole movie is synthetic, every scene can be composed perfectly, lit perfectly, arranged perfectly, and captured perfectly. There is a painterly perfection that the original Tin Tin comics had that this movie captures. This means that the stupendous detail found in say TinTin’s room, or in a back alley, or on the ship’s deck can be highlighted beyond what it could in reality. You SEE EVERYTHING. When TinTin’s motorcycle is chasing the bad guy and begins to fall apart, nothing is obscured. Every realistic mechanical part is illuminated realistically. This technique gives a heightened sense of reality because every corner of the entire scene is heightened realistically, which cannot happen in real life, yet you only see real-looking things. This trick lends the movie a hyperreality. Its artificial world looks realer than real.
The uncanny valley issue has been less noticeable lately, but what really snaps me out of being immersed in movies lately is the Impossible Camera™. In 100% CGI shots, when cameras move quickly with sharp changes in direction over long distances, something that actual cameras can’t do, it snaps me right out of the action because it’s so obviously fake. For instance, any scene in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies where Spidey is flying through Manhattan. Fay, fay, fake.
Kevin Kelly forecasts that Amazon will soon be handing out free Kindles…perhaps to Amazon Prime members.
In October 2009 John Walkenbach noticed that the price of the Kindle was falling at a consistent rate, lowering almost on a schedule. By June 2010, the rate was so unwavering that he could easily forecast the date at which the Kindle would be free: November 2011.
Since then I’ve mentioned this forecast to all kinds of folks. In August, 2010 I had the chance to point it out to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. He merely smiled and said, “Oh, you noticed that!” And then smiled again.
The Kindle has never been knock-it-out-of-the-park great…it looks like Amazon’s strategy is not to build a great e-reader but to build a pretty good free e-reader.
Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson talk about their new books, What Technology Wants (Kelly) and Where Good Ideas Come From (Johnson).
Kelly: The musician Brian Eno invented a wonderful word to describe this phenomenon: scenius. We normally think of innovators as independent geniuses, but Eno’s point is that innovation comes from social scenes,from passionate and connected groups of people.
Johnson: At the end of my book, I try to look at that phenomenon systematically. I took roughly 200 crucial innovations from the post-Gutenberg era and figured out how many of them came from individual entrepreneurs or private companies and how many from collaborative networks working outside the market. It turns out that the lone genius entrepreneur has always been a rarity-there’s far more innovation coming out of open, nonmarket networks than we tend to assume.
Kelly: Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.
Johnson and Kelly will be conversing with each other further at the New York Public Library in mid-October.
Kevin Kelly is compiling a list of really good magazine articles. Lots of good Instapaper chum there already.
There are a ridiculous number of microbes in the Earth’s oceans.
During an 11 month study in 2007, scientists sequenced the genes of more than 180,000 specimens from the Western English Channel. Although this level of sampling “far from exhausted the total diversity present,” they wrote, one in every 25 readings yielded a new genus of bacteria (7,000 genera in all).
That’s genus, not species. Kevin Kelly translates:
This suggests there is a long tail of life in bacteria, with a few species super-abundant, but many many species with very thin populations. At the far end of the tail there may be a billion species with only a few individuals. […] And like other kinds of long tails, the sum of all these small bits total up to exceed the sum of individuals in the most popular species. As the microbiologists involved in the Census of Marine Life like to say, this survey reveals life’s “hidden majority.”
Kevin Kelly on defining ourselves by technology we don’t use:
I’m interested in how people personally decide to refuse a technology. I’m interested in that process, because I think that will happen more and more as the number of technologies keep increasing. The only way we can sort our identity is by not using technology. We’re used to be that you define yourself by what you use now. You define yourself by what you don’t use.
“Tis not polite to say, English, but we told thee so.” See also. (via lined and unlined)
Kevin Kelly has written a really interesting piece about Moore’s Law, which is the tendency for the number of transistors on an integrated circuit to increase exponentially. In it, Kelly explores what drives Moore’s Law and what it means for the future.
Since the rate of these explosions of innovation can be varied to some degree by applying money or laws, their trend lines cannot be fully inherent in the material itself. At the same time, since these curves begin and advance independent of our awareness, and do not waver from a straight line under enormous competition and investment pressures, their course must in some way be bound to the materials.
The only slightly disappointing aspect of the article is that he stops short of speculating about what it is about these materials that generates Moore’s Law-like growth…the geometry, chemistry, and physics involved.
On the long list of books I would read if I had the time for such a thing, reading, is Art & Fear. Ted Orland, one of the authors and a working artist himself, describes the book thusly:
This is a book about the way art gets made, the reasons it often doesn’t get made, and about the difficulties that cause so many artists to give up along the way.
Kevin Kelly called the book “astoundingly brilliant” and pulled this excellent excerpt from it.
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
Special heads-up to Merlin Mann: the first book in the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought list for Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit that you’ve been going on and on about is, bum bum bum, Art & Fear. You should maybe 1-click that sucker right into your book-hole. (via modcult)
Kevin Kelly has written a great post called Amish Hackers, which addresses the myth that the Amish don’t use technology. As Kelly illustrates, the Amish use electricity, cell phones, cars and even the internet but their adoption of technology is not quick, they rent rather than buy (e.g. taking taxis rather than owning cars), and their default stance with any new gadget is to test first to see if it fits with their views.
One Amish-man told me that the problem with phones, pagers, and PDAs (yes he knew about them) was that “you got messages rather than conversations.” That’s about as an accurate summation of our times as any. Henry, his long white beard contrasting with his young bright eyes told me, “If I had a TV, I’d watch it.” What could be simpler?
Last month, indie game developer Cliff Harris asked on his blog: why do people pirate the games I make? That question made its way onto some popular web sites and he got hundreds of thoughtful responses. Kevin Kelly summed up the responses that Harris received.
He found patterns in the replies that surprised him. Chief among them was the common feeling that his games (and games in general) were overpriced for what buyers got — even at $20. Secondly, anything that made purchasing and starting to play difficult — like copy protection, DRM, two-step online purchasing routines — anything at all standing between the impulse to play and playing in the game itself was seen as a legitimate signal to take the free route. Harris also noted that ideological reasons (rants against capitalism, intellectual property, the man, or wanting to be outlaw) were a decided minority.
The gaming, music, and movie industry would do well to take note of the key sentence here: “Anything that made purchasing and starting to play difficult — like copy protection, DRM, two-step online purchasing routines — anything at all standing between the impulse to play and playing in the game itself was seen as a legitimate signal to take the free route.”
Last week, I tried to buy an episode of a TV show from the iTunes Store. It didn’t work and there was no error message. Thinking the download had corrupted something, I tried again and the same problem occurred. (I learned later that I needed to upgrade Quicktime.) Because I just wanted to watch the show and not deal with Apple’s issues, I spend two minutes online, found it somewhere for free, and watched the stolen version instead. I felt OK about it because I’d already paid for the real thing *twice*, but in the future, I’ll be a little wary purchasing TV shows from iTunes and maybe go the easier route first.
A list of predictions about the unthinkable future by Kevin Kelly and Brian Eno, made in 1993. This one by Eno isn’t half bad:
A new type of artist arises: someone whose task is to gather together existing but overlooked pieces of amateur art, and, by directing attention onto them, to make them important. (This is part of a much larger theory of mine about the new role of curatorship, the big job of the next century.)
Kevin Kelly on a fascinating concept called scenius. As defined by Brian Eno:
Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.
Kelly lists four factors that are important in nuturing scenius:
1. Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
2. Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
3. Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
4. Local tolerance for the novelties — The local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.
Kevin Kelly says that people whose fields have been Turing’d — outsourced in some way to computers — are in general more receptive to then adopting other potentially disruptive technologies.
We have this long list of tasks and occupations that we humans believe only humans can do. Used to be things like using tools, language, painting, playing chess. Now, one by one they get Turing’d. A computer beats them. Does it better.
So far we’ve can check off arithmetic, spelling, flying planes, playing chess, wiring chips, scheduling tasks, welding, etc. All have been Turing’d.
Computer scientists are great to work with, because in general they are completely fearless. They were Turing’d long ago. They grok that many of the tasks they used to do can be done much better by computers. On the other hand, doctors as a rule are loathed to accept new technology because what they do is hard to delegate to computers. Ditto for a lot of biologists.
Kevin Kelly has written a thoughtful post about how to make money in a world where the rules are:
When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
He then lists eight reasons why people pay money for things that could be free, one of which is immediacy:
Sooner or later you can find a free copy of whatever you want, but getting a copy delivered to your inbox the moment it is released — or even better, produced — by its creators is a generative asset. Many people go to movie theaters to see films on the opening night, where they will pay a hefty price to see a film that later will be available for free, or almost free, via rental or download. Hardcover books command a premium for their immediacy, disguised as a harder cover. First in line often commands an extra price for the same good.