On April 23, Kevin Kelly touched down in Beijing to have a conversation regarding the future of technology with Pony Ma, the man running Internet giant Tencent. The clash of a titan from the intellectual sphere and another from business forefront predictably produced interesting results, and in the end there were much food for thought in regard to the disruptive nature of technology, technology’s influence on human nature, and the future of platform, just to name a few.
Kevin Kelly is a true believer of technology. How can he help himself? As the former executive editor of Wired magazine, Kelly has spend his entire life proselytizing to anyone who would listen that technology would change our way of life. To a large degree, he has succeeded, as we cannot imagine a world without iPads. Technology has become essential to productivity and entertainment as an integral part of human existence.
So Kevin Kelly is a true prophet, isn’t he? Well, to quote the immortal Bill Clinton, that depends on how you define the word “prophet”. Is a prophet someone who gets everything right all the time or something right some of the time? If we submit everyone to the former, then pretty much no one can qualify as a prophet. Therefore, it is out of necessity that we must lower the barrier.
As such, we could forgive some of Kelly’s past errors. For example, predicting that “an America in 2020 where the average household income was $150,000, middle-class families had their own personal chefs, and the Dow was north of 50,000 and heading for 100,000”. The absurdity is so evident, there is no need to spell it out.
Yes, Kelly really did write those words back in September, 1999. That was right before the tech bubble’s burst, so it was no surprise Kelly was a bit euphoric, so was everyone else.
Furthermore, Kelly’s reasoning for his wild predictions remains sound: “how many times in the history of mankind have we wired the planet to create a signal marketplace? How often have entirely new channels of commerce been created by digital technology? When has money itself been transformed into thousands instruments of investment?”
While not taking anything away from Kelly’s achievements, Kelly’s words do show a fatal fault in all believers, not just believers in technology but believers in every other silver bullet.
True believers do not hedge their bet. Unlike the great Nostradamus, Kelly doesn’t write ambiguous poems, but writes in clear prose, which makes his problems even more glaring. Kelly believes in what he believes, and there is no room for doubt or alternative paths. Technology is disruptive and beneficial, and it will change people’s life for the better, and that’s that.
But evidence has shown Kelly’s vision to be faulty, at least in certain cases. The New York Times reported that a study has shown “computerized patient records are unlikely to cut health care costs and may actually encourage doctors to order expensive tests more often”.
So obviously, technology is not changing healthcare that much, at least so far. In fact, healthcare is where Kelly’s beliefs run into most trouble. One reason is that healthcare is stacked with entrenched interest groups who do not believe in technology’s healing power, but more importantly, healthcare, by its nature, is a complex system.
In complex systems, things never work out as they are supposed to. Edmund Burke, in observing the French Revolution, points out that actions often have unintended consequences, so things often move in a zigzag manner instead of a straightforward fashion. More recently, George Soros has written that the world works according to the theory of reflexivity, which means that reality and our perception of it works in a circular relationship of cause and effect. Therefore, we could never foresee the future, for by doing so we are affecting it and altering its course.
Writers like Nassim Taleb have demonstrated the importance of randomness in everyday life. If Gavrilo Princip didn’t get his shot off against Archduke Ferdinand in a fluke, World War I probably wouldn’t have started in 1914, shattering a host of predictions made in books such as The Great Illusion, which claimed in 1909 that wars between industrial countries were unlikely to happen because their devastating economic consequences.
So, what’s the conclusion in the end? Kevin Kelly is a prophet who gets some things right some of the time, but take his advices with grains of salt is a must. Technology is moving forward but its path is hardly deterministic. As with everything else, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, so the only way to see into the future is just to wait and see. The greatest illusion is a man’s belief in his ability to see into the future.