Article, Readers' Picks, Volume 10 Years

Volume #24 — Kevin Kelly: Infinite Faith

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2015 marks Volume’s 10th birthday. The coming weeks we’ll republish our readers’ favorite articles. If you feel tempted to highlight yours with a brief motivation, please send an email to 10years@archis.org.

Ethel Baraona Pohl, co-founder of dpr-barcelona, has picked an interview with Kevin Kelly that was published in Volume #24 Counterculture.

“The first time we crossed paths with Volume was #14, the issue on Unsolicited Architecture. It was so coherent and so fresh compared to other magazines from those years that we couldn’t resist and stole the issue from a multimedia library in Barcelona! (Afterwards, our conscience made us to go back to the library and pay for it, saying that we lost it. Once it was in our bookshelf for a month it was impossible to take it back – but we were too good to completely steal it!) That said, one of the most valuable contents I have always found in Volume throughout the years is the amount of interviews published on every issue. Usually, in informal conversations it’s easier to get to the point in an understandable language than in very theoretical papers. In Volume #24: Counterculture, the interview with Kevin Kelly has that kind of atemporality that is very necessary and appropriate nowadays when we talk about the so-called ‘new technologies’, IoT, ‘smart cities’ and so on.

Kelly demystifies the role of technology as the only solution to today’s problems by pointing to the fact that every techno-based answer we invent to remedy a problem will create a new problem (or more than one). It may seem naive to keep talking about the embodiment of technologies in society now, five years after the interview and with the immanent presence of technologies in our everyday life; but from our daily feeds on social networks, big data events happening simultaneously in almost every city, the uncountable papers researching on the influence of algorithms in the public life, the abundance of films and series like Black Mirror, Her or Ex Machina, we can see that the concern is still there. The notion that there’s no differentiation between the natural and the artificial, and that nature and resources – both from a natural origin or created by human beings – are all the same, is still necessary, as we tend constantly to separate them and put boundaries in between.

The best quote from the interview, still and more relevant than ever: “One of the things I have found is that for any question you want to ask at the global scale, the answer is very simple: we have no idea.”

Ethel Baraona Pohl co-founded dpr-barcelona (with César Reyes Nájera), an architectural research practice focusing on publishing, criticism and curating. She’s also one of the editors of Quaderns and editorial advisor of Volume. She refers to herself as a ‘professional amateur’.

Volume #24: Counterculture

As a firm believer in the agency of technology, Kevin Kelly holds faith in an infinite continuum of life on our planet made possible through technological means. The founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and author of Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World (Addison­Wesley 1994) and the forthcoming What Technology Wants, speaks with Volume about the unfolding destiny of technology and humanity’s role in the evolution of evolution.

Yukiko Bowman In developing your forthcoming book, What Technology Wants, you’ve found a helpful metaphor in James Carse’s idea of ‘the infinite game’. Can you explain how you use that to describe self­ generating technobiological systems?

Kevin Kelly There are two kinds of games in the universe: finite games and infinite games. In finite games, there are winners, there are rules, and there’s an end. Most of the games we play are finite. We’re very clear about the rules; if someone is not abiding by them, we’re very offended – and justly so. But the infinite game is one that you play only to keep the game going. And the way you do that – the way an infinite game works – is you constantly change the rules. It seems unfair, but it would only be unfair if you wanted to have winners. If you just want to keep the game going, it’s the only way. It turns out that this open-ended play is a good explanation for evolution: living long enough to play the game longer is a type of survival over time. But it’s not just the individual who’s surviving, it’s the game that’s surviving; the life of the system.

Evolution is constantly evolving its own rules, changing how things change. It is theoretically possible to keep playing the infinite game of evolution forever. We’ve been at it now for four billion years and it has made the system itself more robust. It gets harder and harder to kill it off because there’s more interaction, more interdependence, more self-sustaining ways to heal injury and perturbations. We think that it’s very easy, but the amount of trauma that you actually have to do to kill a system is enormous. For example, we’re no longer, as humans, concerned about the death of the cell; our concern is elevated to the survival of our body. In a certain sense, it’s similar to evolution: the concern is with the continuation of evolution and not the individuals within it.

Julianne Gola You argue in The Technium that within this infinite game, all matter essentially has agency – and is executing its destiny – culminating in what you term ‘the Seventh Kingdom of Biology: Technology’. Is humanity evolving technology, or is it the other way around?

KK I think, in fact, it is both. That’s where some of the tension that we feel about technology comes from: we are both its parent and its child. We are the inventor of ourselves. We created technology from our own minds, and in doing so, domesticated ourselves. We feel this tension all the time. In one sense, the Technium has its own agenda: it’s very selfish, it has its own wants, things it likes to do. It is forcing us to buy things, to use things, to go along with the increasing amount of technology in our lives. At the same time, the Technium is serving our interest because it’s bringing opportunities and choice, education, and opening our minds. So at all times it’s both selfish and it’s selfless – it has its own agenda and it carries out our agenda – and we feel that duality as a conflict. We think of ourselves as very independent agents. We don’t like to be part of anyone else’s agenda. But we are: we are a slave to technology, just as we are a master of technology.

YB So we are both the parent and the child of technology. How does that drive technological evolution forward? Where do our own desires and the desires of technology converge?
KK Part of the dual nature of technology is that it satisfies and creates desires. And it’s probably creating desires faster than its satisfying them. This is another reason why we often feel tension with it, because for every desire technology satisfies, it creates two or three new ones that we weren’t even aware of before. If we equate desire with opportunity, what sounds like a negative cycle can become positive. A desire can be a yearn- ing for something missing, but it can also be a yearning for the unknown – to explore.

YB How does media expand our self­consciousness?
KK Alan Watts might say that technology is a way for the universe to become aware of itself, so that the things we create can look back and assess. So in a larger sense, I think that not just media, but technology as a whole, is a way for the system to speak to itself. In the sense that it uses electronic communication, media is the voice of technology – but more than just a voice, it is a channel for awareness. We are creating a system of communication with our own consciousness. That’s what’s happening with things like genetic engineering where we, through technology, are now aware of our own evolution and can then start to direct it.

JG If technology makes us aware of our own evolution, then how does technology become aware of its own evolution? How can technology regulate itself or make corrections on its own?
KK We are ignorant, and often a solution that we invent to remedy one problem will create a new problem – we can almost count on that happening. We’ll have a certain problem – maybe it is a technogenic problem, caused by technology itself – and we’ll make a new technology that will remedy that. That, in turn, will eventually cause another problem, which only means that we’ll have to keep inventing new technologies. As long as that system is going, we can constantly, continually, reduce the amount of harm.

YB But there are finite resources on the planet. Shouldn’t the efficient use of resources be a primary aim of technological evolution, as it continues playing its infinite game?
KK There are actually infinite resources – if by resources you mean the things that we are capable of doing. We are surrounded by far more atoms than we’ll ever need. What’s really crucial is how they’re arranged. We can’t destroy atoms. We can only keep rearranging them and that’s what life is doing: rearranging the atoms. I believe it’s possible to keep playing the infinite game without destroying the Earth. It’s just a matter of having the right arrangements of these atoms involved. So the truest, most awesome infinite game is one where it is not just humans who are liberated, but all species. We’re not doing a very good job right now. Still, the proper response to harmful technology is not no technology, but better technology. The response to a stupid idea is not to stop thinking, but to have a better idea. In fact that’s what the Technium is: it’s a machine that allows us to constantly have new ideas.

YB The Technium allows us to constantly evolve new ideas, but it doesn’t necessarily provide themechanism for evaluating them. How do we establish what the value of technological evolution is? Aren’t there ‘bad’ technologies?
KK My ethical stance is the more, the better: the more options and choices we have, the better. Things that cause death are the ultimate in decreasing options. Things that increase life are opportunities in life for good. Things that would cause future generations to have fewer options, that reduce the choices available to people – those are bad. Things that would cause future generations to have more options and that allow people to choose what they want to be – those are good.

JG You’ve written about technology as being a social liberator, in that it enables people to actualize themselves. If everything is mediated and extended through technology, then what is role of bodily experiences?
KK The mediation of technology will always rest upon the full embodiment that we have. With embodiment, we don’t replace things; we supplement them. I don’t believe in the idea of a disembodied anything. There’s no intelligence without being embodied. Embodiment is an incredible gift.
Right now there’s a weird idea that comes from the Singularitarians that disembodiment is a preferred state, but it’s actually a kind of hell, it’s a kind of death. I believe that angels look down on humans and weep, because we squander our embodiment. They look at us and think, ‘If only I could have a body, I could taste mangoes and walk barefoot on the sand. You don’t realize what you have.’ We see this when people attempt virtual realities – it is so computationally expensive and difficult. We’re really getting a cheap immersion, a cheap VR experience by having bodies. We will continue to retreat to our bodies because it’s the best VR experience that we can have, and we will continue to protect that, no matter what else we may invent. Living at the forefront of the technological changes in the last twenty years, I now know that we have to believe in the impossible because the impossible has happened over and over again. Technology has made me a strong optimist.

YB Would you say that you’re necessarily attached to human existence, or that your optimism and exuberance about evolution is more general?
KK I’m fairly attached to my own humanness; I am a human. I love humans. I like being around humans. But I do take a more cosmic view of our role in the universe as part of something larger. I’m not a human-exceptionalist, but I do think that we are special in that there will be no other beings that have exactly the same combinations. We’re very malleable and we’re changing ourselves. We will confront unknown intelligences of our making. I think there’s something happening that’s very big, but I think the effects of that are not what the Singularitarians are expecting.

JG How can we monitor the effects of whatever it is that is happening, so that we have a chance to intervene before something goes wrong at a global scale?
KK One of the things I have found is that for any question you want to ask at the global scale, the answer is very simple: we have no idea. We have no idea about anything at the scale of the Earth. That’s why the de- bate over what to do about climate change is so difficult. But what I know about life is that it’s far more resilient than we think. I also know that technology is far more powerful than we think. One of the biggest agendas we should have is to get a picture of the whole Earth. We should monitor or probe or measure or survey the Earth at the global scale.