For our money, there is nobody quite like Kevin Kelly.
Not only is he one of the co-founders of Wired Magazine, but he is also the author of some of our favorite pieces of writing about technology, including What Technology Wants, New Rules for the New Economy, and the brilliant essay 1,000 True Fans, which has been discussed countless times on this show over the years.
This week, Kevin is joining us for a conversation about technology and how it informs our lives and businesses.
On this podcast, Kevin shares his thoughts about why we have to stretch our imaginations more, what we can learn about technology from the Amish, his experience in Vanishing Asia, why you should focus on “Being the only”, and so much more.
See the full transcript below
Listen to this week’s show and learn:
- Why Kevin believes technology represents a moral obligation to forward motion. (11:10)
- What we can learn about technology from the Amish. (22:08)
- Kevin’s thoughts on the digital nomad movement. (28:00)
- The origins of 1,000 True Fans. (43:46)
- Why Kevin isn’t that interested in making money. (48:07)
Mentioned in the episode:
Before the Exit – Our New Book
Partner With Us
The Dynamite Circle
Tropical MBA on YouTube
What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly
New Rules for the New Economy by Kevin Kelly
The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly
68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice by Kevin KellyWired Magazine
AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform – Call it Mirrorworld
1,000 True Fans? Try 100
Enjoyed this podcast? Check out these:
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Dan & Ian
Kevin: I think we have to kind of stretch our imaginations more. And it’s difficult, at times because, in fact, the more we know, the more expert we are on certain things, the harder it is to imagine things to be different.
Dan: I’m kind of having a hard time doing this intro. I really don’t know how to start here. I’ll say this. If you care about the ideas presented on this show that are often practical narratives of things that are happening around us on a week to week, day to day basis – we care about location independence, and financial freedom and figuring out how to use the web and related technologies to build more interesting lifestyles for ourselves and our families. It helps to dig into the sources. And today’s guest is one of those sources, someone whose ideas, theories, histories have motivated so much of what we say, on the pod. And really, for people that are interested in technology more generally.
Kevin: My name is Kevin Kelly and I’m Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine.
Dan: What does that mean?
Kevin: That means then the old guy, and I don’t have any responsibilities. I’m not on salary, not paid by them. So I suggest things which they mostly ignore.
Dan: Why? Why would they ignore them?
Kevin: I am far too optimistic of the current Wired. Much. The current Wired is a little bit more New York ish. The editor in chief lives in New York City, not in San Francisco. And so they have a little bit more kind of a New York reasonableness and I am a wild eyed California optimist.
Dan: I know a lot of you are big fans of Kevin Kelly. And before jumping into today’s conversation, I just wanted to go over some of the bibliography, so to speak, because a lot of his works are going to be referenced in today’s conversation. You can get the full story over at KK dot org slash biography. He has a wonderful, cool website, it’s an awesome place to dig around, click links, and discover all kinds of interesting ideas, tools, and some amazing photography. Some works worth pointing out – in 1999, Kevin published the extremely prescient ‘New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World’. You can get a sense for how an understanding of technology can inform how we predict what’s coming up in the very, very near future. In 2009, Kevin published the first version of ‘1000 True Fans’, which is an article that has become somewhat canonical in the internet business space, certainly something we’ve talked about on this show many, many times. And we’ll talk about today as well. In 2010, Kevin published what I consider to be his most intriguing and thought provoking work called, ‘What Technology Wants’, we will reference that work today. In it he recognises technology as an entity separate from humans to be understood and participated in. And the consequences of that view of technology are enormous, and lead to many of these sort of prescient ideas and theories that Kevin is able to come up with regularly. In 2016, Kevin published his latest popular work called ‘The Inevitable’. So we’ll link to all these things in the show notes along with two recent projects that I really want to point out. One is really to the core and heart of this show, which is some extraordinary photographs that Kevin published from his early and extensive travels in Asia, very close to the TMBA heart. I also invite you to check out a fascinating piece he recently wrote about augmented reality called ‘AR will spark the next big tech platform, call it Mirror World’. And we’ll get into all this in the interview. But first, I had to ask him about his opening comment. Why are others so pessimistic about technology?
Kevin: Because it is actually difficult to imagine a world where there’s ubiquitous technology, like AI and genetic engineering, and augmented reality that is ubiquitous, and it’s a world that we want to live in. And I think Hollywood hasn’t helped, because most of those pictures of the future are very dystopian. It’s hard not to be dystopian at this point.
Dan: Yeah, everybody describes you as an optimist, or it’s a common description of you. What have you seen, that others might not have?
Kevin: I’m an optimist because of history. And also because I lived, I experienced a world without technology when I was in my 20s living in remote parts of Asia. So I have kind of a first person experience of a world without technology. And that has informed my view of what we’re gaining by what we have, even though there is a very definite price. And so I’m saying the price is worth it.
Dan: It’s one of the shocking things in your book ‘What Technology Wants’. I want to get to that at some point, that you actually make this case that it’s so common for people to feel that technology is just rolling across the globe and ruining new civilizations. And you think quite the opposite.
Kevin: Well, I’ve just completed a book that hasn’t been published yet called ‘Vanishing Asia’, which has 9000 images of these disappearing and cultures that were very rich and very complicated, but are disappearing right now. And we will be completely disappeared shortly. I’m not nostalgic for it, I understand why they’re going away. Because if I was in the same situation as people living there, I would be leaving my village and going into the cities, into living into a waterproof airtight, air conditioned concrete cube that had refrigerators and Wi Fi. I would move there. I want to be clear that there is a cost, that there are things that we do lose. But the net gain makes up for it and the net gain, the reason why people move into the city, the reason why I would move into the city, the reason why I live in this city, is because there are more choices, there’s more possibilities, more of a chance that you could find the things to do that would match your exact set of talents, which you do not have if you are born in a village you’re going to wind up doing whatever your father or mother did. And so they’re not going to be mathematicians or ballerinas or webmasters or, you know, life coaches and all these things. So we gain but we lose something, there’s always a cost. And I think the difference is – if you look at history, if you look at the other places in the world where you can still touch the past, you can see that, in fact, there has been progress, that despite the costs, there’s a net gain. And that net gain is so tiny, that it is often not visible in the present, because it may only be a percent difference, which is really not visible when we look around. That 1% gain is only visible when it’s compounded over time and we look behind us.
Dan: There seems to be this meta narrative where, like, we’re gaining so much specific abilities to express creativity and things but we’re losing happiness as a result. This seems to be something that’s come up in the past decade, an argument, what do you think about that?
Kevin: There are a lot of words that we use, happiness is among them – privacy, consciousness, intelligence – that I think are actually very complicated concepts that aren’t single dimensional. And happiness, as I said, is one of those things that covers a lot of territory. And it’s probably more than one thing, or at least more than one dimension. It’s very clear that it’s hard to kind of be extremely fulfilled if you’re always hungry. So at this certain level there’s just sort of a basic, you know, Maslow’s hierarchy of need to have enough shelter, clothing, food, that you aren’t always worried about it. But then once those are supplied, then how much money you have doesn’t seem to be correlated with some aspects of happiness. And other issues become more important, like, do you have control of your time? Now, sometimes money can buy that, and sometimes it can’t. So I would say, in general, my observation is that development has been really crucial to bringing people up to the point where they have more of a chance to be content or satisfied. And that doesn’t guarantee that they will be because there’s many other things going on. But in general, the people who have had some exposure to the modern world aren’t going back. They could take a bus back to their village, and they sometimes do to visit, but they’re not staying there. They’re coming back. There are some people who claim that migration to the city is forced and that they don’t have a choice in the village. I I don’t think that’s true. And that’s not my observation. They really don’t want to live there. And they want to live in the city where there’s more choices, more variety, more possibilities.
Dan: It does feel like you know, the Greeks use the word ‘flourishing’. They didn’t mess with happiness too much. It seems like that there is this inevitable desire in us that we will take on the challenge of contentment, in other words in order to experience the possibility of flourishing.
Kevin: I think you’re right. I think contentment is not static. It’s not like you’re not no longer striving for things, you’re no longer aiming, are no longer trying to make something happen or change the world. I think the people who are most content are still very active in that sense. They may not be trying to achieve something for them personally, maybe they are, but they don’t necessarily have to, they could be doing it for others. But there is a sense of a true kind of, I don’t know, we want to call it enlightenment, contentment, of forward motion. And if so, then what you’re moving towards, in some ways, is the fulfilment of your potential.
And because we are so different, every one of us born, and those yet to be born, we need to make an environment where more of that potential can be realised. So we want to make up all these environments, tools, things that somebody who has a really peculiar combination of, you know, mathematical ability and dancing can find the environment, which is going to be something we invented technologically to do that. That’s our history, that’s our Arc, we’re making more and more ways that people can. everybody has a chance, more of a chance to realise that. And, you know, in order to find that position of mathematics and dancing, you need to have clean water, and healthcare, and so many other things at the bottom of that. So we still have to work on doing that, that every person born has that. But that’s sort of, to me, what technology is about. It’s not about the latest, consumer good, you know, buying the next iPhone sure, that’s fine but, in fact, even that is part of a larger agenda. So even when you’re making something that might be thrown away, you’re still making something that’s enlarging the space of possibilities. And that’s why making tech is good. That’s why I think we have a moral obligation to make new things.
Dan: I also think it’s a little naive to look back and say hunter gatherer societies, which is very in vogue right now and to suggest that they weren’t doing essentially the same thing, which is creating technologies within themselves to achieve a kind of group flourishing.
Kevin: Yes, they were and whenever they had a chance, they grabbed whatever technology they can find on others. So, you know, and when we were starting out, it was hard, very hard to invent new things. News didn’t travel very fast around the world, someone could invent something in Indonesia, and nobody in Africa would ever hear about it. Now we have YouTube. Somebody invents something, and the next day everyone has seen it, and is making variations on it. And so yes, the hunter gatherers, the romantic myth is that they only worked a couple of hours a day, which is totally wrong. That conclusion has been disproved, for many reasons why that was, Why came about that myth. But they, they were always at the edge of starving, they were always hungry. And they didn’t live very long, and it was very constrained in what they could do. I’m sure there were plenty of people who found some measure of contentment, in a sense of ease and they were happy in that sense, but they could have been happier is the way I would say it.
Dan: About the ‘Vanishing Asia’ project there’s a particularly striking photo that jumped out to me I wanted it it’s sort of a ridiculous question if you remember taking this photo, but it’s the photo of the procession in Kullu, India They’re walking on a street and they have parasol red parasols underneath idols. It’s shocking.
Kevin: I remember that, yes. Kullu is a valley in the Indian Himalayas. And it was known because it kind of a Shangri La. It’s kind of a temperate Valley in the Himalayas. Each Valley or each village area would have their own idol, their own God. And these are gold statues. And they brought them once a year into this festival. And they would have like a dance off. And I was there a day or so early photographing them as it came in to town. And the parasols are the Hindu symbol for keeping things pure, for purity. So this is protection of the gods and the other devices and stuff, anything that touches the gods. And so that’s what the parasols are about.
Dan: I imagine this photo sitting in your mother’s freezer, you mentioned that you were taking these photos, and you really had no idea what would become of them.
Kevin: Yeah, the way of doing photography in the old days with film. I do not recommend it that way. It’s a horrible way. There’s a kind of weird fashion among some people of going back to film, which I think is insane. There’s nothing good about it and everything about film I can fake with Photoshop. So it’s why would I ever use film? Because you can’t see what you’ve shot. You don’t know if you’ve got it. It’s expensive, easily disrupted, you know. I mean, I lost photographs because they got too hot in or too damp. It’s terrible. And the main thing, of course is you don’t see what you get right away. So I was shooting blind, for years. So I would shoot the things. ‘And did I get that picture or not?’ I don’t know, the exposure key could have been asked if I didn’t have auto exposure, I’d have to guess, or figure out what the exposure was very quickly. Did I get it? I don’t know.
Dan: There’s one idea that you shared that, it just looms in my head, and it’s this idea and I’m paraphrasing ‘That to find something it can be the same as making it’ and you once said that if you have an environment that’s sufficiently rich, like a workshop, that you can essentially make inventions just by discovering things around you.
Kevin: Do I relate that to photography, which is interesting, because sometimes a lot of photographers told me, ‘I’m making photographs versus taking photographs’. There really isn’t a difference. Maybe the refined statement would be that in any highly complicated, high dimensional, complex environment, the act, the process of making something and finding something are identical. Meaning that you are usually iterative, where you’re kind of going step by step, with lots of detours. And it’s a very similar process. And, in a certain conceptual sense, you could say, well, you know, did Benjamin Franklin invent electricity, or discover electricity? Are mathematical formulas invented or discovered? Was calculus invented or discovered?
And, you know, even at that level, there really isn’t much difference, because the process of finding or discovering things is – you make a probe, you find, you adjust, you come back, you’re kind of hunting for it. When you’re making something brand new you’re hunting for in that space of the possible, which is a kind of a discovery, which is kind of an invention. Am I finding those photographs? Or am I making those photographs, it’s the same thing. I’m going through the possibilities. So the image that comes to people who are programmers is this idea of hill climbing, of searching in the possibility space and climbing a hill. And the height of the hill, in this metaphor, is success. And if you reached the peak, you’ve found what you wanted. There’s this idea of, you know, climbing the hill and optimization, which is used in biology to describe the evolution of a species as it becomes more fitted to an environment. It’s sort of, metaphorically, the species is climbing the hill in time, evolutionary time. And that search, this is the idea of an algorithmic search from computer scientists, that process is a process of discovery and it’s the process of invention. And so it may be helpful for people who are making things, inventing things to use the language of discovery. And they may be interesting for people who are discovering things to use the language of making, I think they’re pretty interchangeable.
Dan: I think it’s a superpower. It makes me feel great to know that because it’s empowering. Because I don’t think I’m that smart. So this idea that I could simply discover things in a rich environment that might lead to invention. Even if I can just turn one knob one degree, that opens up a world of possibility for me,
Kevin: Right. And this has further implications when we have AI assisted systems of discovery and invention, and which is where we’re headed. So the AI for a very, very long time, it’s not going to be doing this by itself. It’s going to be an assistant to us, we are going to be using it. So we’re going to have AI assisted discovery, AI assisted invention. And again, it’s going to be using the same kind of algorithms, the same approach will be working for both and the advantage of the AI is that it can .. well the current AIs are very good at pattern recognition. That’s basically the only thing they can do. And so, we can use them for looking for these patterns to help us do that algorithmic search of the space, looking for new things or whatever looking for, optimising something. We will be using AI as an assistant as a partner
Dan: Like your camera.
Kevin: Like your camera, right, which autofocuses now, which is kind of a smartness. But it could also, if you were videoing something, it might even direct you in a certain direction or direct the camera, or it could suggest redoing something or pointing in a different direction. Because it’s recognising some kind of pattern that you were, gave it to seek or whatever. So the idea is that it’s another mind that we are using. But the important thing is that it doesn’t think exactly like us, it thinks a little differently. So that’s why it’s a team, this Cyborgian centred team, where you have two different kinds of minds working together. That is very powerful. Of course, we may have three or four different kinds of minds, working together with us. That’s the image that we’re going to move towards is – I’m sitting here, and I’ve got three or four other really, really smart kinds of minds. They’re not human like, and we’re all working on a problem together.
Dan: Merely finding something might not be discovering something. So one of the things that shocked me about your writing is that I grew up in Lititz, Pennsylvania. I almost fell out of my chair, when you started talking about my backyard as relevant to something I care so much about. And I’m curious, what did you find in the Amish that led to important discoveries about technology?
Kevin: Well, I had lots of attractions to the Amish in the older order and the baptists. Because when I started off, I was more of a hippie. My hero in high school was Henry David Thoreau and Walden. And that kind of simplified life of keeping it very close to the ground and doing it yourself. I had the impression at the time that the Amish were like that. And so when I was riding my bicycle across the US, I actually went through Lititz on my bike coming from California. And I was like, ‘Wow, there this is like, this is within a couple hours of where I grew up’, I was like, ‘This is another world’. And so I became a little bit more interested in them but more from afar. And it wasn’t until I began to think about technology, that I really became interested and started reading about them and their society, because I was really concerned about how they arrived at this different view of technology. Was it a really different view? How did they maintain that given the fact that they were in this, you know, modern world and what was the process? And it turned out that those were all very difficult questions and not easily answered by reading about them. So, I began the process of actually trying to have more contact with them and with the people who knew about them. And as I did my interest or my understanding of Amish changed. So, I understood that it was no longer kind of like, you know, advanced hippies in terms of their attitude. There were so many things different and unexpected about it, but I landed, becoming interested in their process of their attitude about technology, which is I have to say only a part of their entire worldview and their own motivation. So while we on the outside kind of dwell on their relationship to technology that’s actually not their own central point. That’s not how they kind of define themselves. But I think their views on technology would help even those who don’t adhere to their larger view. And that’s what the chapter in the book was about, was trying to say, what can we learn from the Amish? Even though we aren’t going to be a religious society. And so ..
Dan: It seems like in some important ways, that informed your career in the sense that making good decisions about technology is sort of an important project.
Kevin: Yeah, and making good – the question is, what are you trying to optimise? And I think a lot of people say, say, Silicon Valley in terms of what they’re making technology for, we get a very different answer than what the Amish are trying to optimise with technology. And that’s sort of my point. The typical VC venture person who asked if this is a good technology would be using different criteria than the Amish would. So they’re both working for good, but they have different ideas about what is good, just in the general realm. One of the reasons why there’s such a contrast with the Amish in America is because the Amish are very communal, very communitarian. Their identity is social. I mean, whenever, as you might know, whenever you meet an Amish person, the first questions that they are asking is, Who are you? Who are you related to? What’s your family? Because they’re trying to find who they have in common with you. That relationship is the primary thing in their worldview. But the typical American, modern American, is incredibly individualistic, and libertarian, in the broadest sense of seeing themselves as a self as an individual self – freedom, liberty, all of these kinds of things. So the technology that’s made for the ‘personal’ computer and the ‘personal’ this and that is very much what would be recognised as good in the normal Silicon Valley, whereas the Amish is much more of a communitarian, social good. Does this work for our community as a whole?
Dan: You recently wrote about another community, you were talking about nomads in Mongolia. I thought it really striking that the key technologies you identified that they sort of drilled down to were the motorcycle, the mobile phone and clean source of power, or battery, and it reminded me a little bit of the life that I’ve been living for the last 15 years and you gestured towards that connection, I’m wondering if you could open up it a little bit more.
Kevin: Tell me a little bit about how you’re living so I can answer that intelligently.
Dan: The environment of technology has allowed me to essentially live out of a backpack for a decade.
Kevin: A digital nomad you mean?
Dan: Essentially, yes.
Kevin: Okay. Where are you in the world physically at this moment?
Dan: Austin, Texas.
Kevin: Okay. So my daughter is a digital nomad. So I’m kind of familiar with that. She happens to, at this moment, be in the room next to me here, but this is just temporarily our visit here. So the part of what I write about the digital nomad lifestyle is the fact that, in the ancient days, hunter gatherers, they carried no tools at all. They found whatever they needed, in the vicinity when they needed it, like on demand. Maybe they had a blade, hammer, but they would just construct their shelter from found things, make it and then abandon it, they weren’t going to carry with it, they would make another shelter that night, so they weren’t dragging a tent behind them. They were just finding what they needed in the environment and the environment was sufficiently rich for them that they could get what they needed from the environment and think we’re moving to a time when we want to have a really smart, abundant environment, so that a person can kind of go through and not have to, like carry things. So the question of how many things you want to carry in your pocket? To me, the answer is none.
You want to be able to go around and have the environment recognise you and give you whatever it is that you need. I should be able to hijack any screen I see and have it turned into a screen for me. I don’t want to carry the screen with me, I want to be whatever screen I want to. And so in the same way that if I wanted a shirt, instead of carrying a shirt or having to care for the shirt and store the shirt, why not just get a shirt when I need it and haven’t been taken away when I don’t. That kind of environment where it’s supplying you with what you need on demand. And then removing it when you don’t is part of this vision of the digital nomad where access to things is more important than ownership. And that’s what the hunter gatherers had, they had access to things. And the idea of ownership was very strange to them. And they didn’t even recognise ownership. If you had something in a tribe, the whole tribe owned it, there wasn’t really one person who owned it, it was this, the tribes and of course, most things were just out there, you had access to them. And I think this shift away from owning things to accessing things is really crucial in kind of understanding the environment that we’re moving into. And the digital nomads kind of play into that where you want access to music and access to files and access to this and access to tools, without necessarily having to have the burden of owning them and caring for them, cleaning them. Somebody will of course, but that’s a business service. And that’s fine. But individuals don’t really need to do that. So that lifestyle, that smart environment and making the environment ever more abundant is where we’re headed. I think.
Dan: Maybe then it’s not surprising that there’s been this reemergence of looking back to tribe, this tribal kind of influencing culture seems maybe really strong in internet culture. And I remember travelling in Asia before, like pre social media and having this intense urge to like upload everything to the web so others could understand and know the space. And there’s a whole slew of us like trying to make guides, we wanted to guide others around these magical spaces. And there’s a modern application that is a piece of magic for me. It’s called Strava. And I’ve been dreaming about ‘The Mirror World’. I read your piece. And it really struck me because Strava is now able to sort of understand what happens on the roads, if you’re a cyclist. It’s strange, because you can see a road that’s so important to cyclists yet, by just merely standing there, you wouldn’t know it because the cycle goes by and it’s gone. But there could have been 100 bikes that went by and they’d loved that space. And they thought it was great, but you wouldn’t know that if you happened upon it.
Dan: I had this experience where a gentleman who was visiting my city died on one of my favourite roads, and we were analysing his Strava file together as a group. And had he known what we knew about that road, he wouldn’t have died.
Kevin: Wait, he died in a bike accident is what you’re saying?
Dan: He did. There was a hairpin turn where it’s not intuitive that it would be a hairpin, and there’s not appropriate signage. And so I’ve long thought like, spaces have so much relevant history to us that, had we known, the possibilities would be enormous. And this is how I interpret the mirror world.
Kevin: Sure. And for listeners, the mirror world is, the way I would describe it is a full size, actual size, digital twin, that’s superimposed on to the real world. So you have these smart glasses, which are clear glasses that you can look through and you see the actual world but you would also see an overlay of a digital version of it that could be annotated, among other things. And so you would see the real world but there would be this embedded virtual layer. And you can see as much as you want to, turn it off or add other things or alter the view. But there would be a full scale version of the entire outside world, the built world primarily, that you can have access to. So like, it could include things like, as you’re saying the traces of previous bike riders could be shown or displayed in some manner, or annotations or warning signs that may only pertain to people when you’re on a bike. All those kinds of things are all possible with these smart glasses.
Dan: And we already do a lot of this, it sounds far fetched, but it’s not really at all.
Kevin: No, no, it’s not. I note with interest that the recent iPhone 12 Apple has a LIDAR in it. LIDAR is a scanning device. So it’s part of the way you make a Mirror World, part of the glasses not just project a visual, they’re also scanning the environment. So the act of perceiving is active scanning. So those glasses are scanning what’s in front of you making a model of it. And that’s done with things like LIDAR. So this is just to say that we’re kind of moving in this direction, even before we get the glasses, the scanning function is now being built into even our phones. So their phones are kind of like proto versions of this.
Dan: The original example, I think you used a while back was Flicka. And now like, if I search for like, you know, ‘egg roll near me’, yeah, like, click all these photos of like, literally egg rolls, this egg roll is near you, here’s the price you can buy, it would have been sort of unimaginable 15 years ago.
Kevin: Sure, yeah. And part of the way I suggest people get used to is trying to imagine the impossible more often, not that it will often happen. But I think we have to, kind of going back to your original question about the optimistic future, I think we have to kind of stretch our imaginations more into trying to imagine things that are not common today. And it’s difficult at times, because, in fact, the more we know, the more expert we are, on certain things, the harder it is to imagine things to be different. This is something we learned at Wired is that if you really want a really good picture of what’s coming, don’t rely too much on the experts in that field to have the imagination to imagine. Because they know how hard it is. They know too much. They know too many reasons why it won’t happen. Whereas someone else outside is not constrained by all the difficulties.
Dan: Might one to do this by sort of discovering the concept of ‘The technium’. Like participating in this. Could you describe what that means?
Kevin: The technium?
Kevin: So the theme is a systems view of technology. So it says that technology is not just a bunch, a parade of one device or one kind of thing after another, you know, there’s, oh, we made a radio that we made TVs, we made refrigerators, we made this kind of parade of different things. It says that no, the whole thing is a system. You can’t make a radio unless you have a factory and you need factories, you have to have an electrical system. And that requires these other kinds of tools. And so you need a hammer to make the saw handle and you need the saw to make the hammer handle so that there is an interdependency that you have to have all of them together. And that you keep adding more to it, but we add them in a kind of like an ecosystem.
There’s an ecosystem of technology and that ecosystem itself has an agenda, has an agency, is something. It’s more than just the sum of its parts, actually like rain forest, it acts as a whole system so the rain forest has certain behaviours as a whole, or certain tendencies, certain biases, certain strange attractors. And technology as a whole, which I call ‘the technium’ also exhibits the same kind of things that all systems exhibit which is – it has certain tendencies as a whole. It keeps coming back to the same things called ‘strange attractors’. It has certain complex adaptive behaviours that any large system will have. And the technium is a system. When we talk about technology, we’re often talking about the technium as a system, and I’m saying that it has, I use the word ‘wants’ meaning that it has leanings or tendencies as a system.
Dan: That was a scary part.
Kevin: Right, right. So in that sense, the technical logical critics are correct. Where I differ is, I think there are a lot of tendencies that technology wants are in the positive direction, that wants basically what life and evolution wants. It’s headed in that same kind of general direction, which is why we can always make technology greener than we can, whatever green technology, we can make it greener, because it actually is in alignment with life; it’s not against life. And so understanding the technology, the technium is a system, I think, is the first step, because we have to treat it and understand it, like a system.
Dan: The enduring image for the technium for me is the solid rocket fuel for the space shuttle was basically the size of the train tracks. And the systemic way of thinking can be empowering, because if you can simply be responsible for taking a look at things and moving things one degree forward, you can make a contribution or you can discover your possibilities. You don’t have to be so smart. In other words,
Kevin: I think smartness is overrated. I have something, a disease I call ‘think ism’. Think ism is the idea that we can solve problems primarily and only by thinking about them, I think ism is very common among middle aged men, who are very smart. And they think that ‘Well, the way you solve problems is by thinking about them therefore, if we have artificial intelligence it is going to solve all our problems’. And think ism is wrong on many levels. Because you have to have more than just intelligence to solve a problem, we often need time, we have to do experiments, we have to find data, we have to uncover new evidence. All those take time, they’re not just a matter of thinking, they’re actually matter doing, we have to interact, we have to try stuff, have to have failures. All that takes time it’s not just about the mind thinking about things.
So I would say that if you had even the smartest supercomputer in the world and you gave it all the current knowledge we have about quantum mechanics, it’s not going to be able to figure out how quantum gravity works. And that’s because we don’t have enough data yet. We haven’t done enough experiments, there’s other things besides thinking about things that we need to do. Same thing about, say cancer is that you can have the biggest AI but we have lots of experiments that we still need to do to uncover knowledge and to respond to what we find. So intelligence is one of those words, I mentioned in the beginning, that it’s not just a single dimension, it’s actually a complicated, complex, sweet symphony of many different kinds of cognition. And they vary not only person to person but species to species. There are certain aspects of cognition in which some animals like a chimp, or gorilla far exceeds humans. You can watch these YouTube guys, videos of gorillas remembering numbers on a keyboard, or matrix, way beyond it’s astounding, way beyond what a human could ever do. But their mix of different cognitions are different than humans. They are superior and inferior and others. And we’re going to make machines that have different mixes of different kinds of cognition, there may be 100 different types, we don’t even know yet. And we’re going to engineer them to think differently than us. Not the same of us, but differently. Because we want the different kinds of intelligences, plural, to just solve things. Sometimes we want something that is kind of constant, crude, low level kind of smartness. And that’s all that we want from it. And it’s kind of smartness, and it’s relentless smartness that we can’t even do as a human, even though we may say it’s not very sophisticated, that’s fine. We want all different varieties of it. So I think, in general, we don’t even know what intelligence is, we really don’t know. It’s not a single dimension like loudness or decibels, it’s very complicated. Our own intelligence is not general purpose, we have a very peculiar, a human is a very peculiar mix of intelligences that, in that space of all possible intelligences is way out in the corner. We’re just like out on the edge of the galaxy. We’re not the centre of anything, including our own intelligence. And so yeah, I think intelligence generally is overrated as a solution to things.
Dan: So the community of listeners of this podcast are tinkerers in the space of ‘1000 True Fans’. In fact, we’ve even tinkered with the theory itself, we have 100 true customers, 10 ture clients, we have all these frameworks that we’ve sort of borrowed from you and found ways to make livings from our laptops, build things of value and sell them. I’m curious, that article, it was just such a phenomenon. It’s had such an enormous impact on the world. What have you seen and learned since the publishing of that article, or the genesis of that story, something interesting about that piece, that our audience might be able to learn from?
Kevin: The original original version of it was a theory. I was writing it before Kickstarter. And there were a couple prototype crowdfunding sites set up, but they really hadn’t kicked in. It was more of a theory I was saying, according to mathematics, this is what should happen. And I had trouble even finding an example of one person who had arrived not from the established media but had grown up organically through a thousand true fans. And so what’s changed over time is it now there’s, you know, plenty of examples of people like yourself who’ve done this. So I’ve gone from thinking that theoretically this is possible to knowing, without a doubt, that this was a viable,
Dan: What was the discovery that led to the theory?
Kevin: You know, I remember talking to, it was like a house party or something, I was talking to someone in the music business. We were probably talking about copyright, because I’ve long been this radical in my belief that ownership is a totally wrong thing to apply to ideas. And, you know, the music industry for a very long time was the major resistor, you know, they shut down Napster, they were a resistor to this idea of sharing your music. And I was making some kind of argument about why this wasn’t a real problem and how, you know, with today’s audiences, and going directly to be able to have customers, you didn’t need that many. And I began to kind of do the calculation I think at that very moment, I was trying to think, ‘Wwell, how many would you need?’ And then, and so I think that’s, you know, was that was the first time I was doing that calculation to myself of ‘Well, okay, if you don’t need that many, how many do you need’? And so that was the genesis of it. And then, by the way, I talked about it for a couple of years before I decided I should write it down. I don’t actually write a lot of stuff down.
So that was the genesis and I wrote it for Tim Ferriss’ book, and then I rewrote it recently, again, I believe, did another version. And there was the gal at A16 or did the hundred true fan version, as you said, there’s all these alternative versions of it, which I think is fantastic. But the thing that I also want to always make a caveat about this is that – it’s not for everybody. To me, it’s just another option because even I am not that inclined to have to interact with my fans all the time to do that. To do that requires that you actually do interact with your thousand true fans in a meaningful way. Some people don’t want to do that, they’d rather just keep creating, I’m gonna keep painting or I’m gonna make music. And yes, I may need more fans, but I don’t want to deal with the fans and they shouldn’t, if they don’t want to. So I don’t see it as a kind of panacea or solution for everybody. I think it’s just an option. And of course, you can also use it part way, you can still reach out and have true fans without necessarily depending solely on them, you can have other kinds of fans as well. So I’m not really dogmatic about it in that sense.
Dan: Can I ask you a final question, it’s gonna be a terrible question? You started writing more things down, you mentioned to your son, you would and you did this piece that went viral called ‘68 pieces of advice’ I’ve dropped it to my team multiple times. This is one quote that says ‘if you desperately need a job, you’re just another problem for a boss. If you can solve many of the problems your boss has right now, you’re hired, to be hired, think like your boss’. You seem to have effortlessly, at least when you when I engage with your content, like you’ve effortlessly sort of built wealth and freedom and time and you’ve had this career that seems to be really admirable, yet you don’t speak about money very often. And I’m wondering how our audience might pursue wealth and freedom and time in today’s age?
Kevin: Well, there was a quote from Brian Eno recently, and let’s see if I can dig it up in conversation with me, yeah, I’ve never really been interested in money. I don’t talk about it, because it bores me to death, I have never sought it out. And I think that’s actually, this is the quote I’m looking for. I think that may be part of the solution. Here, Brian, you know, says, ‘if all I ever wanted to do was to make money, I’d probably be really poor by now’.
Dan: That seems to be true to me. Why is that the case?
Kevin: Because for me, it’s and this is an analogy that Tim Riley says, you know, money is like the gasoline you use for the trip, you’re not on the trip, to get gasoline, you’re using gasoline to make the trip. And this is what Walt Disney says is, ‘We make money to make movies, we don’t make movies to make money’. So you want to focus on doing. I was resigned, as a hippie, you know, I dropped out of college, I was resigned very early on that I would be forever poor, kind of, without a lot of money, just doing the things I wanted to do. I’d rather do those things rather than kind of work for a job. And I think by focusing on trying to do things that are of use to others, and that I really feel good about that is the best way to wealth is focusing on the, you know, ‘making the movie’,
Dan: I think there’s a structural element to that, because we’re talking about value. And the more people that sort of agree upon value, and then can trade the value around for money, you’re putting yourself lower down on the value chain. It’s commodified at that point. If everybody understands, instantly, it’s worth five bucks. And if they can trade five bucks for it, then what you have isn’t that valuable?
Kevin: The other quote on your list that is pertinent ,on my list that you are mentioning, the 68 one, that’s pertinent is the idea that is attributed to other people. I’ve heard it attributed to Jerry Garcia, I don’t know who made it, which is, ‘Don’t be the best, be the only’. Here’s a bit of advice I learned at Wired, I’m lucky at this point, but this is kind of how I feel about my life – there are many things I could be doing, which I could earn a lot of money for. And I would like doing and I would be good at it but the question I always ask myself, and have for a long time, is, ‘Can anybody else do that?’ If someone else can do it, I don’t want to do it. Even though I would make money, I’d have fun doing it, I’d be good at it. If someone else is going to do it, no, no, I want to seek out and I want to do the things that only I can do.
Now, that’s a very high bar, because you have to spend most of your life figuring out what those things are. But if you can arrive there, the world is going to come to you because you’re ‘the only’ at that point. I think that kind of a path of trying to get to your ‘only’ is a much sounder path to wealth. I just think that if you focus on making things that are interesting, valuable, that is your ‘only’, that are of service and useful to others. And you have and you really try to make it excellent. Over time, you will get there. I think it was Dave Perara was saying, you know, ‘How do you become, kind of have an audience?’ Well you make something every week for two years, release something every week for two years, and you have an audience. That’s the slow way to riches. And that’s what I’m interested in. I think that’s what you can do. But I really appreciated your questions. Thank you for having me on your show. And I wish everybody great success and keep moving forward.
Dan: A big shout out to Kevin Kelly, for coming by the show. Obviously he has been enormously influential to myself personally and to so many of you out there in the audience. His website is really a place where you can discover so many interesting and inspiring ideas. And certainly his works have done that for me over the years, that there is a practical element to understanding so many of the theories and conjectures and histories that Kevin offers in his works that, you know, not only very practical things like thousand true fans, but extending that theory thinking about things like 100 true customers, or 10 true clients or one true job are really just pushing the practical application of how the internet is affecting our ability to build businesses. But also then just sort of ruminating on this idea that technology does have a momentum that’s separate from us. And part of our job in leveraging it as entrepreneurs is understanding the direction it wants to go. And, even if that’s just one next step, that could be enough for us to discover a new way to live and a new way to build businesses. So I hope you enjoyed this one. I certainly did. That’s it for this week. We’ll be back next week with an old school episode. Ian and I are going to fire up the mics and talk about some lessons we’ve learned over the past few months running our new software business. So tune in for that one. Also shout out to our sponsor, Service Provider Pro. If you run an agency, check out their software over at Service Provider Pro dot co. That’s it. We’ll be back next Thursday morning, Eastern Time.