Tea with Kevin Kelly

By JJ King, 10 September 1997

JJKing interviews Kevin Kelly

"Imagine that we live on a steel planet, and there's a whole bus-load of things that arrive from outer space and they have these big bags of seeds - life - and they're like, 'Do you want it?' and we're like, 'File an EPA report,' - we'd reject it. It's too risky, it's out of control, it's full of diseases. We would reject life if it was given to us right now. And that's exactly what we're doing with technology. Technology has all the same kind of qualities, and we're saying 'we can't deal with it.'"

This anecdote, related to me in a recent interview with Kevin Kelly, speaks volumes about the attitude towards technology and culture promulgated by Kelly, John Perry Barlow, Nicholas Negroponte et al, whose self-promotional chutzpah has established them as the 'digerati'. The unchecked substitution of 'life' for 'technology' is a semantic sleight-of-hand that gives way, here, to the assertion that the same sceptics who want to refuse technology today would be the kind to have wanted to refuse life at its dawn (the implication of the gag, its utter fatuity notwithstanding, being that since only a dumbass would want to refuse life, only a dumbass could want to refuse technology); elsewhere it's a 'switcheroo' (Kelly's word, not mine) that will lend technology the working status of a vital force that, like 'nature', operates outside the reach of social imperatives.

That, of course, leaves a nasty taste in the mouth for those comfy with a 'Tomorrow's World' technology that is 'put to work' for us, achieving palpable results which can be lauded, applauded and then comfortably consumed. Connectionism, with all its zany, bottom-up, out-of-control-ness is anathema to the prevailing picture of technology as humankind's servant. And the digerati, bless 'em, are just bursting to relieve you of such a paradigm.Fair enough, you might think.

There is a whiff, though, of something rather more pernicious here. For many of us, the invocation of the old bogie 'Mother Nature' as a legitimation for any discourse raises hackles, largely because she's been made bedfellow to some particularly unscrupulous types in her time, lending dumb support to (amongst other things) radical racism and gender discrimination. But it's worse than that, for the connectionists, because they're not merely attempting to substantiate an ideology upon nature, but to use nature as that ideology: in the free-market ecology of Kelly, Negroponte and Barlow, nature, with all its savage vicissitudes, becomes the law - a naturally occurring phenomenon beyond the dictat of culture. The middle term is expelled. No longer: 'x is right because it's natural'; just 'x is natural - so talking about its rightness is pointless'.

Should the network, I ask Kelly, really be viewed as irreproachable? What happens when its emergent phenomena are violent, acrimonious, undesirable?

"I do think," he confirms, "of technology as a form of life. And in general, I think, the more life we have the better. Are there specific powers or disruptions that are caused by specific forms of life? Yes. What does that mean? Well, that means we have to kind of deal with it. But does it mean that we should try to stop life altogether, stop technology altogether? No."

Well, no-one was actually offering that as a serious option. We could ask, in its stead, for simple concessions: is there, for instance, room for a social conscience in such a paradigm? A social support network? An anaemic one, at best. "I don't think technology solves the ills of society," Kevin says bluntly. "Those are socio-political problems, not technological problems. Technology's not going to change those things."

Convenient how it's possible to pull apart economics and technology after spending 600-odd pages putting them together in his somewhat infamous book. But how cool is it, I wonder, to study and promote the growth of distributed, out of control technologies when those technologies are not being put to work to help people? After all, wasn't technology, at least nominally, supposed to try to help? Vehicles to move people. Agricultural machinery to feed people. Medicine and medical technologies to save people's lives. But this network - because it's part of nature - doesn't need to help anybody.

Somehow it feels wrongheaded, or perhaps just deeply unfashionable, to pop the question. "So what about the people who fall through the network," I ask nonetheless, "the homeless people, the starving, the mentally disturbed? How does the network try to extend its help to them?" Kevin doesn't falter for a moment. "The people you're talking about have very little to do with technology and much more to do with politics and social skills. I know of no technology that is going to help the people you've just mentioned." Well. At least we know where we stand. Nature doesn't help anybody, and why should technology?

Except that the digerati don't go this far. They don't want to be accused of cruelty, and they've developed a little fantasy that helps them to feel they're helping you. It goes like this: there's no have-nots, just 'have lates'. Everybody will get the Network in the end, even those who don't even have food right now; everybody will benefit wonderfully from it, and "in about ten years this question [of have-nots] is going to be perceived with great amusement. The problem is not going to be all those people who are not connected, 'cause they're just have lates. Everybody's going to have the stuff sooner than they think, and then we're all going to be worrying about what happens when they're connected."

But this connectionist riff about 'haves and have-lates' is another wholly unacceptable bit of semantic manoeuvring that, looked at from ground level, seems flimsy, insubstantial, and more than a little crass. The question of access to knowledge is critical, especially as such access is becoming increasingly an issue of economics, and attempting to close it with so flippant a soundbyte is unforgivable. The world outside the virtual class has big problems that preclude large sections of the population from access, or even thinking about access. "We're in an era," Kevin Kelly said to me, "where we have tremendous stuff to gain by looking at the bottom." Unfortunately he wasn't talking about the rock-bottom, and the very limited gains the people who reside there have to make from the connectionist project.

How many of us are going to be 'having' this pan-capitalist global Network, anyway? Is the process towards one really that clear, that inexorable? In Europe, despite isolated moves towards non-government organisations and quangos, the general political swing is manifestly towards a centralised system - which seems utterly polarised to the digerati's connnectionist pronouncements about the world. How does Kelly reconcile this with his picture of a global shift to decentralisation, deregulation, and bottom-up governance? By ignoring it, as far as I can tell. "Despite backsliding in various parts of the globe, there's a very clear trend towards the decentralisation of governments. Very few would dispute that there's a general trend in that direction," he asserts in response to my questions. I'm sorry? Backsliding? Various parts of the globe? Aren't we talking about the whole of Europe here, Kevin? He leaps over the continent in one gigantic visionary stride, hardly even taking in the point. This is typical of the quite deliberate and obstinate myopia that characterises the Californian ideology of the digerati, the same myopia that has led Negroponte to make wild assertions about the redundancy of issues of race and gender in a recent letter to Wired US.

I suppose I've given the game away: there's something about connectionism that I can't quite connect with. Its ideology, for reasons I hope I've pointed at, is fundamentally unsound. "But the ideological part of it is irrelevant," Kelly protests. "The pervasive, ubiquitous spread of this technology will continue because it's practical." Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm not even convinced that any of it is going to happen, but were it to I'd be deeply suspicious of any process funded on a purely 'natural' and 'practical' rationale, the trajectory of which sweeps straight over a whole gaggle of nasty, sticky little objections.

What happens, for instance, to privacy in a world where every dumb little thing is talking to every other dumb little thing? Isn't it all queasily resonant of some disgustingly bloated global Neighbourhood Watch scheme? "Well, in America, the idea of privacy is a very loaded word that is actually not very clear and which means a lot of different things. A person who had true privacy was the Unabomber." My worst fears confirmed: a network this ubiquitous, this voracious, would never tolerate absence: every silence, every unknown, would be regarded as the stirring of dissent. Mad bombers in huts in the forest; pinkos, revolutionaries, and freaks hiding behind encryption codes and firewalls. It all adds up to a situation in which silence will need to be justified. "But who wants to have no relationships?" Kevin demands incredulously. "Who wants to have no-one know anything about you? That's inhuman, that's sick." Who are you calling sick? I'm not saying that I necessarily want to be cut off from society, just that I'd like it to be a possibility. "Well, if you make it easy to rebel, then there's no value in doing it," says Kevin blithely. Great to know he has our best interests at heart.

Privacy, that's one issue. Another: protection. Have the digerati failed to notice the violent and unpalatable emergent phenomena at football matches and mob rallies? Have they ever considered that from 'natural' flux, society has doggedly organised itself into top-down and often totalitarian systems? That if you strengthen the ability of humans to communicate ideas without tempering them, you invite the spontaneous emergence of systems which may not reflect your own political intentions? A distributed system, I point out to Kevin, need not stay in motion, but can reach a resting point in any one of a plethora of constellations.

For a while we skirt around each other, me arguing that his Network will speed the process of tyranny and revolution into a kind of continuous repression and revolt, him arguing that it will make such tyranny "more difficult. I'm not saying it can't be done, just that it becomes more difficult." We manage to agree that the Network, already generating conspiracy theories like Billy-o through its younger sibling, the internet, might in future give them an environment in which they can proliferate with even greater efficacy.

But what's the difference between conspiracy theory and religious and political movements, I ask? Kevin cuts through the question with a prophetic assertion: "We're not going to see tyrannies, but things that are like conspiracies to the extreme." He then comes over a bit vague and seer-ish, in an Ides of March kind of way. "Very, very toxic, conspiratorial and rumour based things. We haven't, probably, seen that kind of thing yet." I decide to leave it at that, and we move on swiftly to the subject of mob rule.

Suddenly we hit pay-dirt. "I think it's impossible to have any kind of sophisticated civilisation that's run entirely from the bottom. Sure, that's a mob, and you get mob rule. So you absolutely need to have top-down control." In a flash, I get it: even Kelly doesn't really believe any of this gab about distributed rule. "That," he admits, "is just one part of the equation. You need points of control within the system. Leverage points, I'd call them."

This, of course, is the crux of what many sceptics are trying to get across to the digerati: that the architecture of a system defines the movements of those who traverse it, and that those who design and influence that architecture should therefore pay close attention to their motivations and mind-sets. Whilst the claim was for a system that had an entirely open architecture, similar somehow to those found in 'nature', we merely wanted to point out that that didn't sound like the way 'nature' worked - or that open systems, in human society, have often led to abusive, coercive movements. Now our position, as critics of this emergent Californian Ideology, changes, for here is a far more dangerous admission: that the digerati, or at least some of them, are fully aware that 'leverage points' have to be hardwired into their network, and that those points will define control within that network. Now we want to know - and we have to ask - what ideology informs the placement of those points of control, what strategies govern their operation?

"Yeah," muses Kelly, "can we agree on a set of moral heuristics that we want to wire in?"

Oh, oh. And then,

"How do we engineer consensus?"

This has all started to sound very, very worrying indeed, and I find myself considering the opinion of a couple of notable Nettime writers - to whit, that the digerati are the new Mussolinis and Hitlers of our time - in a new light. Could Kelly really be an embryonic InfofŸhrer, exhorting the virtual class to sneak leverage points and fulcrums of control into the systems they are helping to fashion? Somehow it doesn't ring true. I have to add a new criticism to the list of those he is already surrounded by: that Kelly is an intellectual naif. By his own admission, he relies on other people to provide ideologies. "I am very eager," he says to me, "to hear someone else map something out that make sense to me."

You really get the feeling, talking to him, that he honestly doesn't feel equipped to talk about certain issues. He's a bright guy, but I start to realise that he just isn't comfortable discussing the implications of his work when that discussion starts to touch on philosophical and socio-political theoretics. It may be that Kelly feels on safe ground in his book, therefore, with nature on his side. It's hard to go wrong with nature. It doesn't answer back, and if you describe it convincingly enough, most of your readers won't either.

Sceptics would of course point out to me that I bought into his disingenuity, and that I'm the naive one; they'd probably be right. But, before I finish, let me point out that this charge of naivetŽ should not be taken as an attempt to mitigate Kelly's, or the digerati's, astonishing intellectual irresponsibility. "What are your ideas?" Kelly asks me as the interview is closing. "I'm an editor at Wired, I have many times asked people to prepare something that I can believe in. Give me something that makes sense in terms of what I know, and I'll try to disseminate it." Not good enough, I'm afraid: the way to respond to the fact of your own misguided, malnourished and half-assed ideology is not to ask me, or anyone else, to come up with one, it's to start doing some thinking yourself.

"Well," Kevin says meekly, "I'm not much of a preacher. I'm a devout Christian, I have my own faith, my own beliefs, that very few people share and very few people are actually interested in hearing about. I'm not a preacher." Now that, I think, is interesting. But I'm going to resist giving a Christian reading of the notions of Gaia and hive mind - and I'm going to resist setting Christianity alongside the 'natural law' argument and saying "Look!"; both of those actions would be somewhat below the belt. I will also resist going into any detail about the incompatibility of Jesus' teachings with a system that promotes pan-Capitalism and which is all but blind to those at the bottom. All this is part of a different article.

What I will say is that I, for one, would be very interested in hearing a technological discourse based not on nature, but on the Bible. Kevin Kelly, if you're truly committed to pointedly unfunny speculations about the future, you might as well jettison all this prosaic, 'natural' claptrap, put your money where your mouth is and head for the heavens. "I am the Common Gateway Interface, the truth, and the light". Cor, now wouldn't that be something?

Jamie King <jamie AT> is currently researching the impact of information technology on contemporary culture and editing a collection of Net criticism, Thinking Online.

Proud to be Flesh