Expect to be discomforted, and that is in the present. By reading this book. As for the future, Kevin Kelly is not in the business of comfort, though his new book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, is far less dystopian than you might reasonably expect. Kelly does not predict the future as much as he examines the present, and in doing so with some care, he unearths twelve trends that he argues will shape the future. Reading The Inevitable is the nonfiction equivalent of watching movie trailers for the next thirty years of Life on Earth. A happy ending is not guaranteed.
The structure of the book is quite straightforward. Kelly names, then describes a force, and then carefully explores and intuits the implications of the import of that force. The forces he identifies include Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Accessing, Sharing, Filtering, Remixing, Interacting, Tracking, Questioning, and Beginning. Under each banner, he starts big and gets bigger. In “Becoming” for example, he argues that, “…neither dystopia nor utopia is our destination. Rather, technology is taking us to protopia,” which Kelly considers a state of constant incremental change, some good, some ill, but overall on the plus side. Depending on your perspective, this may sound grand, or it may sound terrifying, but Kelly’s carefully framed explorations always make it sound…inevitable.
The upshot is all the mind-boggling wonder of a science fiction novel, without the personal heroics. Kelly has a compelling story to tell but it is a decidedly non-human story. In The Inevitable, Kelly carefully teases out the narrative arc of technology. He gives us motion, but it is not the sort of motion we are readily able to see, in our lives, at least. That said, he does conclude each chapter with a two or three page vision of his own life thirty years hence, filled with specifics informed by the arguments of the preceding chapter. He admits that there might be mistakes in these specifics, but they’re fun to read.
This is not to say that The Inevitable as a whole is not fun to read. It is gripping as all hell, as gripping as the hellish notions Kelly sometimes intuits. To my mind, some of what is implied is the ultimate triumph of capitalism. While we will have access to everything (assuming we can afford to rent it), we will own nothing. If you think you don’t have to do much more than read the word “Tracking” to know where that trend is headed, or think we’ve already arrived at the more disturbing possibilities, Kelly has some news for you, and it’s not likely to make you happy. The old cliché has it that “information wants to be free.” Your freedom, on the other hand, may not prove to be a natural state.
The real power of The Inevitable is that in every case, Kelly approaches his subjects and draws his conclusions dispassionately, with a very even hand. This is not an alarmist tract, nor is it a glowing prediction. There’s very little predicting going here, really. But by imaginatively, intelligently exploring the past and examining the present, Kelly compellingly, engagingly grooms us for the future. Which way these winds will blow is something we cannot know. Knowing what these winds may be, on the other hand, might just help us understand what we will become – or become of us.
The temptation in talking to Kevin Kelly about The Inevitable is to line up the forces he identifies and then say, “What’s this?” I tried hard to resist that, and Kelly made it easy. When we sat down, one of the first things we talked about, off tape, was his recent purchase of Summa Technologiae, Stanislaw Lem’s attempt to do something similar to The Inevitable – back in the mid 1960’s. It’s just been translated to and published in English. And yes, I did have notes for each bit, but we digressed far and wide as we talked. It was easy. Follow this high-tech “web link” to the MP3 audio of our conversation, or just let your smart chair pull itself up so you can settle down for your course in Tomorrow 101.