Jul 25, 2016
New York Times bestselling author and co-founder of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, stopped by the show to chat with me about his journey from travel journalist to famed futurist.
Mr. Kelly’s storied and winding career has taken him around the world in search of visions of the new digital frontier.
Kevin is a renowned TED speaker and author of multiple bestsellers including his latest, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, a title that offers an optimistic roadmap of how new technologies will shape humanity.
Dubbed “the Most Interesting Man in the World” by Tim Ferris, Mr. Kelly began writing on the internet near its inception and never looked back. He has taken gigs including Editor for the Whole Earth Review, and presently Senior Maverick at Wired magazine, a magazine he co-founded in 1993, and where he served as Executive Editor until 1999.
Join us for this two-part interview, and if you’re a fan of the show, please click “subscribe” to automatically see new interviews, and help other writers find us.
In Part One of the file Kevin Kelly and I discuss:
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Kelton Reid: These are the Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, then beyond. I’m your host, Kelton Reid. Writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week we’ll discover how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.
New York Times best-selling author and co-founder of Wired Magazine, Kevin Kelly, stopped by the show to chat with me this week about his journey from travel journalist to famed futurist. Mr. Kelly’s storied and winding career has taken him around the world in search of visions of the new digital frontier.
Kevin’s a renowned TED speaker and author of multiple bestsellers, including his latest, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. It’s a title that offers an optimistic roadmap of how new technologies will shape humanity.
Dubbed “The Most Interesting Man of the World” by Tim Ferriss, Mr. Kelly began writing on the Internet near its inception and never looked back, taking gigs including editor for the Whole Earth Review, and presently senior maverick at Wired Magazine, a magazine that he co-founded in 1993 and where he served as its executive editor until 1999.
Join us for this two-part interview. If you’re a fan of the show, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews and to help other writers find us. In part one of this file, Kevin and I discuss how an amateur photographer became a best-selling author and digital visionary, the future of artificial intelligence, how a technologist keeps his finger on the pulse of the future, why you should write to understand your ideas, and the importance of the incubation phase for writers.
All right. We are rolling with a very special guest on the podcast today, Mr. Kevin Kelly. Thank you so much for dropping by to talk to us about your process as a writer.
Kevin Kelly: It’s my pleasure and privilege. Thanks for having me.
Kelton Reid: I understand you’re doing the rounds. You’re just out there and talking about this fantastic new book, The Inevitable.
Kevin Kelly: Actually, I’m more like the sun in the center, because the way we’re doing podcasts is I’m here sitting at my studio and everyone’s coming to me.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, it’s got to be nice to not have to travel — at least for this part of the journey.
Kevin Kelly: Yeah. It’s the future, man.
Kelton Reid: Let’s talk a little bit about that. I want to just mention that you are having quite a bit of success so far with the new one. It is titled The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our World. It’s good stuff. It’s heady, but it’s already hitting New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-sellers lists.
Kelton Reid: You’ve written a lot of other stuff — you’re an author — many, many books. You’ve been a travel journalist, I understand. An editor of a handful of important publications including The Whole Earth Review way back and Co-Founder and now Senior Maverick of Wired Magazine. That’s pretty cool. Lots of other stuff in between. I want to talk a little bit about your origins and how you went from those early days of maybe not knowing you were going to be a writer, to today being a best-selling author.
Kevin Kelly: Yeah, I definitely did not identify or even dream of being a writer. That was not something that I was aiming for. I actually started off as a photographer. I still think very visually in those terms. I came to writing, actually, online. I’d learned to write online on the very early bulletin boards in the early ’80s.
I discovered that I had a telegraphic style that was very suited for online discourse. I was not attempting to write. I was just attempting to communicate — just email or postings. We would now think of them as comments, blog postings, that kind of stuff. That’s where I started. I wasn’t even thinking of it as writing then. It was just communicating.
My natural instincts are not actually in writing, but more in editing. Not the line editing and copyediting, but more editing in terms of packaging ideas. Particularly packaging ideas that had a visual component — a diagram, picture, charts — graphic design of the whole thing. That led me to magazines where I am now. I was magazine junkie growing up as a kid, in part because my dad actually worked for Time Life company.
Kelton Reid: Cool.
Kevin Kelly: Every week he brought home — every Monday he brought home this stack of magazines. I have been reading Time and Fortune Magazine since I was the age of 10. All the others at that time — the suite included Sports Illustrated, Money Magazine, Life Magazine — I read them all. I loved them. I thought in those terms, and later started working on magazines. Not so much in the writing department, but more in the editing or what we might call these days curation. I was curating articles.
I wrote out of desperation, basically. The short answer is I would try and make assignments. Try to get other people to write. Have ideas and have other people try to write them. I would go through and ideas that I tried to get other people to write for years and then kept coming back as something that no one wanted to do. I would try to kill off the idea in my own mind, but it’d come back. I couldn’t get someone to write it. Those are the ideas that I couldn’t give away that I would eventually end up writing myself.
There are two lessons in that. One was I realized that I could write if I had to. Secondly, the pieces that I did write that way were the best ones because no one else could write them. There was this discovery that what I really want to do was to do things that only I could do. Part of that process — which I still adhere to today — is to talk about what I’m thinking about doing. To talk about what I am doing in the hopes of someone else either stealing the idea and doing it before me or else tell me that they’re already working on it or that it has already been done, which is always a great relief. I don’t really want to have to do it. I only want to do stuff that no one else can do.
Kelton Reid: Cool, yeah. I like that a lot. You just had this very interesting circuitous route to where you are today. You’re a world traveler and a TED speaker and a digital visionary, I guess would be one term to use. Where can listeners find the bulk of your writing out there? I know there’s a lot.
Kevin Kelly: Yeah, I have a website and a early domain name. It’s my initials, kk.org. I post most of the stuff there. For instance, a lot of this book and a lot of my previous book was first written as blog posts and then rewritten for the book. There’s a lot of stuff there on the website that has not been published elsewhere, like “1,000 True Fans,” which people still enjoy.
There’s that. There’s a link to the other site that I’m still active with with Mark Frauenfelder, the founder of Boing Boing, who has actually worked with me at Wired. We run Cool Tools, which is a site that recommends and reviews one cool tool — in the broader sense of something handy — every weekday for the past 13, no 16 years, something crazy.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, I love that site.
Kevin Kelly: There’s other stuff there. I did a graphic novel with a bunch of people from Pixar and ILN. We spent 11 years on it. It’s this massive, immense 500-page, oversize book that’s about angels and robots and trying to say what would happen if robots had souls. I have a site that reviews the best documentaries. I have my photography site, which is probably closest to my heart because it’s a total compulsion. There’s no reason why I should be spending so much time still, today, in Asia photographing the disappearing traditions. I do it because I have to.
All those kinds of things are there. Books, my translations of the various editions are also available, probably other stuff I’m forgetting about right now. Oh yes, Street Use was another blog I ran. I haven’t updated it forever. I was collecting the ways in which people would make homegrown adaptations or modifications to technology, like weird vehicles in China — just odd things. How they made technology in prison. There was really cool stuff that I just neglected because of doing other stuff.
That’s actually pertinent to this book, The Inevitable. Part of what I look at in trying to see where our technology is going, is looking at where it is evolving unsupervised. If you want to see the true behavior of something, look at it where they’re not being supervised. You can see what’s really happening. Technology being misused, abused, or unsupervised — like with outlaws, or the kids, or the street — is one way that I use to see where it wants to go to. Where it’s tending to go to beyond what the inventors think it should do. The street use, the street technology — as Bill Gibson says, “The street has its own use.” I think that’s, to me, a very valuable place to look to see what technology wants.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, I’ve heard you talk about slang as being a marker for that as well. I think you’re kind of a word nerd as well. I know in the opening of What Technology Wants you talk about the origins of the word, technology, which I thought was cool — dating back to Aristotle’s rhetoric.
Kevin Kelly: It actually was a word, by the way, that was not really used and re-made in the 1820’s, or something. It had been neglected for all that time. It took us a long time to even recognize technology in our lives, which seems strange to us now. That’s how things happen.
Kevin Kelly: I know that, to me, one of the big things coming — I mean big on the level like the invention of printing, industrial revolution big — is the artificial intelligence stuff that’s coming. We’re going to look back and realize that we were so ignorant about intelligence.
Intelligence is not a single thing. We’ll realize that there’s all these different varieties, nodes, styles, species of thinking. Right now we use one word when we talk about intelligence. We’re actually meaning probably 5, or 6, or 10, or 1,000 different things. We lack the conceptual tools, the data, the vocabulary to talk about it in any other level of precision right now. I would expect in 20 years from now that we’ll be much better informed. We’ll have a whole new lingo for talking about the varieties of smartness.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. You get into that in your book. You talk about cognifying. In layman’s terms, that’s the AI piece. Is that right?
Kevin Kelly: Correct. It’s my coinage. Cognifying is making things smarter. It’s because we don’t have other good English words for that. We don’t call it smartifying, or smarting, or something. I use cognifying to make smarter.
Kelton Reid: I wish we did use smartifying.
Kevin Kelly: Yeah, exactly.
Kelton Reid: I think that would be a good domain. Someone needs to pick that up now. What are you working on now? Are you working on a book about AI — it sounds like that’s where most of your interest lies at the moment — or are you working on something different?
Kevin Kelly: I’m not on AI. That’s a full-time beat for somebody. There are increasing numbers of people … I’ll answer the question, but there is a nice aside — I make the analogy in the book of the way that artificial energy was distributed on a grid of electricity to everybody, all their homes, factories, farmsteads. Anybody could purchase electricity, artificial power, and you’d have this industrial revolution where you take X and add electricity and you’d have an electric pump. So you’d take a manual pump and make electric. You’d have a electric pump. You’d multiply that by thousands of times. You’d have the industrial revolution.
Now we’re going to we’re going to do the same thing with AI, artificial smartness, which will be sold over a grid called a cloud. Anybody who wanted to buy AI will buy it like they would buy electricity off of the grid as a commodity utility. You would apply the AI that you buy to anything, any X. You would take the electric pump and then you would cognify it. Everything that we electrified, we would cognify.
What was interesting — it was hundreds of years ago when electricity was coming onto the grid. It was so complicated and dangerous and mysterious, that they had Vice Presidents of Electricity in companies, the person in charge of electrifying things. I think we’re going to have VPs of AI, VPs of machine learning, whatever it is, for the foreseeable future until it becomes boring and standard and then we’ll drop it. There will this period where there’ll be specialists in bringing AI to it, just like we had VPs of electricity. Now I’ve forgotten what your question was.
Kelton Reid: What’s your most recent project?
Kevin Kelly: The next thing I’m working on with my assistant researcher, Camille, we are putting together, collecting — she’s mostly doing the collecting of all the existing long-term forecasts in all the different domains, from energy, transportation, food, sports, furnishings, whatever it is. We’re looking at anybody who’s producing a long-term forecast. My intention is to integrate those into cohesive, plausible future for, say, 2050 or something about then. To build a world based on these official forecasts, which are generally always wrong.
The idea is that, like a lot of complex systems, you can take a lot of unreliable parts and you make something reliable. The magic of complex systems is that you can make things more reliable than the parts. Literally, the old saw about the sum being greater that the parts is actually true. Neurons and brains are that way. They’re much more, as a whole, reliable than the individual parts are. Bee hives and other kinds of things exhibit the same kind of a phenomena.
The idea is if we took these forecasts — which independently are not very reliable — but can somehow integrate them into a system so that they’re informing each other, that there might be a way to make it more reliable and useful. The idea is to try to make a comprehensive scenario of the future that might prove useful to people in some capacity. It’s an experiment. It could fail. That’s the beauty of it. That’s what we’re working on right now.
Kelton Reid: Sounds really cool. It sounds like a lot data. You have a researcher it sounds like. I would like to dig into your productivity a little bit and the writing process itself. It sounds like you revealed that you’re getting a lot of the number crunching and the research done. You have someone helping you do that. There’s still probably quite a bit that you have to crunch down yourself, or turn over in your mind and remix, etc. Are you spending a certain amount of time just reading every day?
Kevin Kelly: I try to. As I said, I’m a magazine junkie. My tendency is to read magazines, and journals, and some papers. I would like to read more books. I’m surrounded by a two-story library right now. I would like to dedicate more of my time to reading books. What happens is that there’s so many magazine articles to read. They seem to be a little bit more current and faster paced so they tend to push out my book reading time.
I listen to a lot of books on tape, but most of that — or at least half of that — is fiction. That’s how I get my fiction done. That even has been somewhat eroded by my interest in podcasts. A lot of the audible book time is now going to podcasts, which I also am a big fan of. I do spend a lot of time reading. That’s one of my privileges and blessings, that I do have the ability to make time for that. That’s an extremely important part of my day. The input is reading papers and articles.
The other thing is trying to talk to people on the phone, which is, to me, the second most important way I get what I get, which is actually in conversation. People just tell you things. It’s a very high signal to noise ratio of input. It’s high quality. Generally, people can be more direct in what they tell you. The conversation can guide to the kind of information I’m looking for very fast. It’s a very effective way to learn something.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s cool. It sounds like you’ve got a system down that’s helping you keep your finger on the pulse. Before you launch into a bigger project, do you have to psych yourself up to sit down to write? Are you going through periods of where you’re just putting input and then you spit out a big chunk of a book? How do you crack your knuckles and get going then?
Kevin Kelly: I have had different phases. As I said, I don’t think of myself as a writer. I don’t feel like I have to write every day, on a normal day I do the email thing. I write to figure out what I’m thinking. When I have that problem of trying to do that, then I will start writing and I’ll commit to a writing period until I’m done. Then, I’m writing a lot.
I try to do whatever it is — 500 words or something — just to get stuff down. For me, the killer thing is that first draft. That’s the hardest thing for me to do. When I was doing the last two books, I basically was trying to write and post something every day as a incentive. I didn’t always make it, but I did a lot in that period. Both of the last two books came from that writing — the early parts of it.
When I’m doing a big piece for Wired — which I do about one a year — there it’s a lot of research and a lot of interviews. A lot of reading, calling, trying to talk to people. I’m making notes and I’m writing up notes, which I will then go through to extract out stuff. That’s the several-step process where I’m heavily, intensively doing the research.
Camille’s doing other research. I’m like, “Find me this. What about that? There must be some paper on this. How about this question?” That’s all coming together and I’m trying to process it. I’m writing there — mostly notes, things I don’t want to forget. The hard part of trying to have an idea generally comes out where I try to write down stuff in order to have an idea. I don’t have an idea and then try and write it. I write it to have an idea.
Kevin Kelly: That means writing stuff that’s not going to be used, but I have to go through that process. That’s painful. I call it painful because when I’m writing it usually isn’t very good. I know that I’m not saying anything new. It’s painful in the sense that it feels like I’m inadequate. It feels like I’m not doing anything. It’s the usual kinds of fears that artists have, which is, “I’m not very good at this.”
It takes persevering through that where you begin to — for me anyway — pick out the stuff that does work. You isolate it and try to recombine it. You’re going through. That’s just to make an article. If you’re making another book, you have to go through that whole thing again at a different level. You have to have bigger ideas to connect all those little ideas together. It takes several cycles.
During that period of writing — I’m a slow writer and I’m a slow typer — I won’t get very far. But I will spend a lot of time just staring at the screen, staring out the window. For me, it’s a type of thinking. Or I’ll pace, where I’m trying to think, “What do I think? I don’t know.” It’s a type of thinking. It’s not literary in that sense.
I work with people who are real writers, like Neal Stephenson. He writes every day. He loves to write. He lives to write. He just writes like you would speak. It just comes out of him. That’s not me. I write out of desperation as a way of thinking. It’s very slow. I don’t generate very many words. I do it reluctantly.
Kelton Reid: That’s funny that you say that. I know that a lot of writers and best-selling authors say the same thing. They don’t like to write. They would rather be reading. Yet they have these storied publishing pasts. You get the words down there. What you’re talking about is that classic creative process where you’re doing the research, getting all this stuff together. You need that incubation phase to get that “Ah-ha” moment of an idea.
Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show. Leave us a rating, or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us.