When it comes to visions of the future, and the technology that will dominate our lives, there’s often an undertone of fear lurking beneath predictions. There’s the dystopian concept of the government tracking and controlling us, or the idea that robots will rise up and rule. Fear is an accepted response to the inscrutable technology that could dictate our existence in the future. But WIRED Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly (who helped start the landmark magazine in 1993) rebels against that fear. Optimism is perhaps the most important theme in his newest book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.
“Technology is the primary agent of change in our lives,” Kelly says. “I hope to convince people these trends and forces are inevitable. They’re already here but they’re going to increase in their presence and shift in their power. You can’t outlaw them or turn them back. We have to work with these trends. In 20 years, artificial intelligence will be here, we’ll have virtual reality in the home, we’ll have total tracking, and we’ll own less and access more. By understanding and embracing these trends, we can learn how to steer and manage them.”
He draws on over 30 of years of experience thinking and writing about the rise of technologies that already define our lives today. He believes our tendency to fear the future actually stems from a growing maturity. We now know inventions come with a price tag, and have lost that exuberant welcome for contraptions present, for example, in old science fiction novels.
“People used to imagine inventions would be wholly good and without cost; that they’d get a flying jet pack and fly around. They didn’t think about the environmental consequences. But we’ve been trained over the past couple of decades to think every single new invention comes with a cost. We’ll get the flying jet pack but we think, ‘What is the price? How will it bite back?’” he says. “Also, our vision of the future is almost entirely informed by movies. In the previous generation, we had Star Trek, which was pretty positive, and people worked to make the technology in those stories. But now we’ve honed dystopia to perfection. I can’t think of a single science fiction movie describing a future on Earth you want to live in.”
But optimism shouldn’t be lost in dystopian visions and price tags. Kelly places our current technological boom in the context of history as the basis for his optimism.
“If you take a cold hard look at the evidence of the last 20 or even 200 years, it’s clear things are getting better,” he says. “My optimism is based on history. For the past couple hundred years, every year on average – not for every person – but on average things got better in any way humans want to measure. Progress is real. It may not be much but it’s a slow creep to betterment. Things have improved a very tiny bit every year. Statistically, that will continue. It’s possible it could stop but it’s more likely to continue; that’s just math. My optimism about the future resides in the history of the past.”
Technology has helped guide progress; it’s the “primary creator of the prosperity we enjoy now,” according to Kelly. Of course, that technology continually changes our world, and Kelly says looking to the future is an essential task for everyone.
“Thinking of the future is a recent phenomenon. 200 years ago, the world a person was born in was the same they died in. Our interest in the future only came at the moment we realized the world we’re born into is not the world we’ll die in. It became imperative that we think about how the world will be different later in our lives so we can prepare. Now, faster changes are occurring and the future’s different in ten years,” he says. “It’s like we were put into this weird ecosystem where every day the trees move around and rearrange themselves. We would start to say, ‘I wonder how it will change tomorrow; I wonder if there’s a pattern.’ Part of intelligence is anticipation; we are built to anticipate what will happen next, but we’re not built to anticipate all the time. We need to figure out how to manage our marathon mode of anticipation; maybe we take breaks, maybe we do sprints every now and again. I think that’s where we are as a society: how do we anticipate the future well and how do we see further?”
One technological trend that has surprised him is data collection, or tracking. For example, Netflix tracks which movies you watch, Fitbit tracks the steps you take, and social media lets you track what you posted a year ago.
“20 years ago it seemed as if surveillance and tracking were marginal side events, not something that was going to become ubiquitous. Then I got involved with the quantified self movement, and self-tracking. Anything we could measure we would start tracking. The Internet wants us to track stuff; so many things we want out of it are dependent on things being tracked. I was surprised by my own conclusion – which I did not want to get to – that in 50 or 100 years our lives will be totally tracked,” Kelly says.
Ultimately, he emphasizes we are just on the cusp of what’s possible with technology.
“We haven’t invented anything compared to what we will in the next 25 to 30 years. The products and services that will run our lives in 30 years have not been invented yet. In many ways it’s the best time in the world to make things. People in 20 to 30 years will look back at 2016 and say, ‘I wish I was alive at that point; possibilities were ripe and ready to be grabbed. You could just take things and add AI.’ This is the beginning of the beginning,” he says. “Yes, all the change can be tiring but there’s a huge opportunity to participate in creating it. There’s so much ahead of us, and you have to understand that this is the best time ever to be alive.”
You can order The Inevitable here.