1.4 Kevin Kelly: inevitability, data tracking, and artificial Intelligence

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Kevin Kelly, a longtime commentator on cyberculture, offers a deterministic view of the future of networked technologies in his New York Times best selling book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape our Future. As a popular press book, The Inevitable is more concerned with propounding the author’s personal views than grounding its many bold assertions about coming technological change in scholarly research. However, this view is of interest due to Kelly’s early and influential role in helping develop the culture of Silicon Valley, and his continued embeddedness within this culture. In the early 1980s, Kelly began working as an editor for Whole Earth Catalog, a publication started by Stewart Brand in the late 1960s that provided information and consumer access to technologies conducive to the counterculture, “back-to-the-land” lifestyle. As Fred Turner tells us, Brand and the counterculture movement his publications played a highly-influential role in shaping the philosophy and social networks of Silicon Valley. Kelly, thus, experienced these developments from the center, often playing a leading role in pivotal events such as the first hackers conference in 1984 and the launch of the WELL, one of the earliest virtual communities. In 1992, Kelly helped co-found Wired magazine, one of the most influential publications on technology and culture, and served as executive editor until 1999. He has authored several books on technology, served as a futurist advisor on Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report, and co-pioneered the “quantified self” movement.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 As reviewers of his previous books have observed, The Inevitable pays virtually no attention to social and economic factors driving technological change, manifesting in what Jerry A. Coyne has described as Kelly’s “bizarre neo-mystical progressivism.” As Coyne notes, Kelly is a self-described devout Christian, and his technological and religious views are complexly intertwined. In an interview he declared that technology is “not some lesser evil that we just have to put up with, nor is it a neutral tool that can be used for good or bad,” but rather “a divine phenomenon that is a reflection of God.” In a 2002 article for Wired, he outlines the “mystical doctrine of universal computation” and explored arguments about whether God should be viewed as the source code or the programmer of the universe.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Clearly, Kelly is not writing from the same scholarly perspective as Benkler and Jenkins. However, his book nonetheless provides and important perspective on technological change. Written ten years after The Wealth of Networks and Convergence Culture, and from an author who is intimately situated within the communities that are driving technological change, The Inevitable includes in its analysis a range of important technological trends that were not considered by Benkler or Jenkins. In particular, it describes the centrality of artificial intelligence and tracking in our current information landscape. Given the professional and social status of the author, it also offers a snapshot of one strain of Silicon Valley’s technological imagination, which is important for comprehending the ideology underlying its technological innovation.  And finally, though in many respects it is a book that greatly differs from the other two texts considered, there are some subtle parallels that are worth examining more closely.


4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As the title declares, The Inevitable is about twelve technological forces that are driving technological change and are thoroughly immune to human resistance, or even large scale disasters such as “crime, war, or our own excesses” (2). The forces are inevitable, “because they are rooted in the nature of technology rather than the nature of society” (7).  Kelly describes their inevitability as a “bias in the nature of technology that tilts it in certain directions and not others” or as stemming from “their basic physics” (4).  He clarifies, however, that this does not mean the full scope of our response to these technologies are fully determined: “All things being equal, the physics and mathematics that rule the dynamics of technology tend to favor certain behaviors. These tendencies exist primarily in the aggregate forces that shape the general contours of technological forms and do not govern specifics or instances” (3). As an example, he asserts that the Internet as a form of global networks was inevitable, but that humans choose whether the Internet is public or secret, commercial or nonprofit, national or international. The degree of influence Kelly believes human choice has however remains unclear, given that he argues that digital technologies will “hatch similar results again and again,” regardless of the geographical, political, or business contexts in which they’re deployed (4).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Thus, the goal of his book is to “uncover” the underlying forces of technology “so that we can embrace them”:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Once seen, we can work with their nature, rather than struggle against it. Massive copying is here to stay. Massive tracking and total surveillance is here to stay. Ownership is shifting away. Virtual reality is becoming real. We can’t stop artificial intelligences and robots from improving, creating new businesses, and taking our current jobs. It may be against our initial impulse, but we should embrace the perpetual remixing of these technologies. Only by working with these technologies, rather than trying to thwart them, can we gain the best of what they have to offer. I don’t mean to keep our hands off. We need to manage these emerging inventions to prevent actual (versus hypothetical) harms, both by legal and technological means. (5)  

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The twelve inevitable forces Kelly focuses on are “becoming,” “cognifying,” “flowing,” “screening,” “accessing,” “sharing,” “filtering,” “remixing,” “interacting,” “tracking,” “questioning,” and “beginning,” each of which he spends a chapter theorizing. These forces, he argues, are shaping the ways in which digital technology is used and developed. Many of them affirm the key observations of Benkler and Jenkins. The ability to access, share, filter, remix, and interact through networked digital technology is a core condition of Benkler’s networked information economy and Jenkins’ convergence culture. Some of Kelly’s forces however highlight trends in the use and development of networked digital technology that are not considered by Benkler in Jenkins. In particular, his observations regarding “cognifying,” and “tracking” begins to shine light on a critical dimension of networked digital technology that goes entirely unconsidered in the analyses of Benkler and Jenkins.


8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Kelly describes how the ability to track aspects of human behavior and physiology has radically advanced. He writes, “in the last few years extremely tiny digital sensors that cost just a few pennies have made recording parameters so easy (just click a button), and the varieties of parameters so vast, that almost anyone can now measure a thousand different aspects of themselves” (237).  Kelly, who helped found the Quantified Self movement, points to ways individuals are using this technology to track physiological aspects of themselves such as “diet, fitness, sleep patterns, mood, blood factors, genes.” He also points to the ways individuals use a variety of digital technologies to track their different professional and social behaviors, or their “lifestream.” Stephen Wolfram, for example, created 1.7 million files about his life:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 He processed all his outgoing and incoming mail for 25 years. He captured every keystroke for 13 years, logged all his phone calls, his steps, his room-to-room motion in his home/office, and his GPS locations outside his house. He tracked how many edits he made while writing his books and papers. Using his own Mathematica program, he turned his self-tracking into a “personal analytics” engine, which illuminated patterns in his routines over several decades. (239)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Kelly calls the process of automatic, mechanical tracking of one’s life “lifelogging.” Though forms of lifelogging has been experimented with since at least the mid-1980s, the increasing cheapness and availability of tiny sensors and computing power has significantly expanded the potential and practicality of lifelogging. Kelly argues that we will soon be able to continuously track a vast range of every individual’s physiological state, communicative activities, and geographical location. This lifelog would provide:

  • 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
  • “a constant 24/7/365 monitoring of vital body measurements”
  • “an interactive, extended memory of people you met, conversations you had, places you visited, and events you participated in”
  • “A complete passive archive of everything you have ever produced, wrote, or said”
  • “A way of organizing, shaping, and “reading” your own life” (249)

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In addition, continuous tracking will extend (and indeed already does) to traffic, public spaces, smart homes, grocery shopping, purchase patterns, media usage, web browsing, and so forth. “Ubiquitous surveillance is inevitable,” he declares (260). “The internet is the world’s largest, fastest, tracking machine, and anything that touches it that can be tracked will be tracked….We will constantly self-track, track our friends, be tracked by friends, companies, and governments” (256). “This bias to track is technological rather than merely social or cultural. It would be true in a different nation, even in a command economy, even with a different origin story, even on another planet” (257).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 For Kelly, the coming of ubiquitous surveillance has several implications. Individuals will benefit by having powerful new modes of understanding and modifying their physiological, intellectual, social, and psychological tendencies. He also acknowledges that ubiquitous surveillance grants companies and governments too much access to a population’s data, and that measures need to be taken where populations, governments, and companies all have equal access to data. “Since we cannot stop the system from tacking, we can only make the relationship more symmetrical” (260). It is a brief aside, however, and seems not to concern him too much. What is most noteworthy about Kelly’s observations is the way in which he connects ubiquitous tracking to what may seem like an entirely different technological trend: artificial intelligence.

Cognifying/Artificial Intelligence

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 As Kelly notes, artificial intelligence (AI) has become an increasingly important focus for digital technology companies. This has become only more the case after his book’s publication in 2016. Statista reports that in 2017, the global AI market is expected to be worth approximately 1.25 billion U.S. dollars, and expected to rise to 36.8 billion by 2025. While AI might have once seen the stuff of science fiction, it is now used in a variety of everyday tasks such as image recognition, object identification, detection, and classification, as well as automated geophysical feature detection (Statista). Tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, AirBnb, and Uber are all investing heavily in developing AI methods and applications. As Kelly notes, no human activity is too complex or too trite for AI application. He names music, laundry, marketing, real estate, nursing, construction, toys, sports, and even knitting as examples of quotidian activities that might soon be transformed by AI implementation. He describes this increasing distribution of AI into all aspects of our world as “cognifying,” and like “tracking,” sees it as another inevitable force.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Kelly makes a number of speculative assertions about the the future of AI and its social and economic effects. For instance, he describes how these new types of intelligence will be necessary for solving problems that the human mind cannot, such as “the current grand mysteries of quantum gravity, dark energy, and dark matter” (47). He also assures us that the jobs that they will take will allow for humans to have better, more interesting jobs. However,  I am most interested in highlighting the way Kelly connects the development of artificial intelligence to the phenomenon of tracking. Current approaches in AI are based on “teaching” machines certain forms of intelligence by feeding them massive amounts of data. Much of this data is generated through the multiple modes of tracking employed by digital technologies. As Kelly notes, “Part of the AI breakthrough lies in the incredible avalanche of collected data about our world, through which provides the schooling that AIs need. Massive databases, self-tracking, web cookies, online footprints, terabytes of storage, decades of search results, Wikipedia, and the entire digital universe became the teachers making AI smart” (39). Seen in this light, data gleaned from ubiquitous tracking isn’t only valuable for companies in their pursuit of selling user focused advertising. Instead, data becomes a raw asset for creating tomorrow’s most valuable product.  

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Kelly relates a personal anecdote that suggests technology companies have been preparing for this longer game for quite some time. In 2002, Kelly asked Google’s co-founder Larry Page why Google was invested in building free search engines. Page replied: “Oh, we’re really making an AI” (37). Kelly expounds upon Page’s reply:

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Rather than use AI to make its search better, Google is using search to make its AI better. Every time you type a query, click on a search-generated link, or create a link on the page you are training the Google AI. When you type “Easter Bunny” into the image search bar and then click on the most Easter Bunny-looking image, you are teaching the AI what an Easter Bunny looks like. Each of the 3 billion queries that Google conducts each day tutors the deep-learning AI over and over again. With another 10 years of steady improvements to its AI algorithms, pus a thousandfold more data and a hundred times more computing resources, Google will have an unrivaled AI. (37)

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