In his book The Inevitable, co-founder of Wired Magazine, Kevin Kelly outlines the 12 underlying forces that will shape the future of technology in the coming years. In each chapter, Kelly focuses on one of these forces and illustrates how it has grown in importance over the past 30 years and how it will become even more important in the next 30 years. He classifies each force with a verb to represent that they are all continuous actions that have already begun affecting how we interact with each other, with society as a whole, and with ourselves as individuals. His 12 verbs are: Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Screening, Accessing, Sharing, Filtering, Remixing, Interacting, Tracking, Questioning, and Beginning. Instead of picking one topic to focus on, I’ve picked three that I think give a good overview of Kelly’s vision. Since all 12 of the forces Kelly talks about overlap and connect with each other, I felt it would not make sense to just talk about one of them.
Becoming. Everything in the world requires maintenance, including intangibles such as websites and software products. Software needs continual updates to function properly and with these updates come changes to the user experience. New features are added, other features are removed, and dashboards and UIs change. In the coming decades, these changes will begin happening quicker and quicker and software products will be in a constant state of “becoming” something different. This means that it will become impossible for users to master any given piece of software. We as users will need to become comfortable with being “endless newbies” always trying to keep up with these changes. The effect of this constant change is that it can blind us to the smaller, incremental changes happening and can cause us to look at new things from the frame of the old. This happened in the past when TV networks failed to see the benefit of online broadcasting because they were thinking of the internet through the lens of traditional television. What they could not predict was the explosion of user generated content that would greatly reduce the cost of producing online videos. The same needs to be taken into account when thinking about the next evolution of the internet. The next evolution of the internet won’t just be a better version of what we currently have but could instead be something entirely new and different.
Cognifying. The second chapter is especially applicable to our AI lecture. The main idea is that we can add artificial intelligence to any part of our lives to greatly improve it. According to Kelly, the next 10,000 startups will be some variation of “Take X and add AI”. Kelly equates this to 30 years ago when many entrepreneurs took tools we already had and made electric versions of them. In the same way, entrepreneurs are now taking these electric tools and “cognifying” them. You can improve almost anything by adding “smartness” and making it aware of its surroundings. It’s important to note however, as Kelly does, that this artificial smartness we are developing is not the same thing as artificial consciousness. The path of AI will be focused on creating highly specialized machines that can accomplish a single task extremely effectively but can’t do much else. Creating robots that think like humans is counter-productive, instead we want robots that think differently than we do. Kelly breaks down our relationship with robots into four categories: Jobs humans can do but robots can do better, jobs humans can’t do but robots can, jobs we didn’t know we wanted done, and jobs only humans can do (at first). This last category is where we want to pay close attention. As AI takes more and more jobs previously reserved for humans, Kelly argues that we will need to find new jobs that don’t currently exist, and in a way continually redefine what it means to be human.
Accessing. Already we are seeing the emergence of a new sharing economy and a shift away from ownership. Uber owns no vehicles, Alibaba has no inventory, and Airbnb owns no real estate. Accessing is becoming increasingly more important than owning or possessing. Kelly suggests that this is because of four rising technological trends: dematerialization, real-time on demand, decentralization, and clouds. Dematerialization: as more and more products are digitized and served up online, rivalry in consumption goes away. This means that my renting a movie does not prevent you from renting the same movie. With no rivalry in consumption, it makes more sense for companies to charge customers a subscription for using the service rather than a flat fee for the product. Real-time on Demand: Having products available at the instant you need them also reduces the need for ownership. If you can get access to a car anytime you need to go somewhere, why pay more to own the car yourself. Decentralization: Companies such as Uber would not be able to function without the decentralization enabled by the internet. In order to enable real-time on demand, Uber needs to be able to coordinate a massive network of drivers all over the world. The scale of something like this would be impossible for a centralized traditional taxi service. Clouds: The emergence of The Cloud is the single technological innovation that underpins the entire sharing economy. Dematerialization would not be possible without a large, decentralized place to store all of the required data. Beyond just storage though, The Cloud enables cheap and reliable computation without the need to own a large network of computers yourself. In the coming future, no one will need to own anything since it will all be accessible any time you want it from The Cloud.
I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in the technology industry. This book looks at the underlying reasons why each of the major tech companies have been successful and also how new companies can be successful moving forward. The author, Kevin Kelly, has extensive knowledge of the industry and shares many impressive stories throughout the book about his close relationships with many of the industry leaders. Kelly ends each chapter in the book with an entertaining first person narrative of what life in the future will look like through the lens of each driving force. If you can’t read the whole book, I’d still recommend taking a look at these sections as they give a brief window into the applications of everything he talks about in the chapters and share a piece of what Kelly’s vision of the future is.