Listen to the technology: Kevin Kelly and the giant copy machine

Technology often has built in biases, certain ways that it wants to be used. So the internet is the largest copy machine in the world by nature. It’s inherent in the thing. Anything that can be copied it that touches it will be copied.

So don’t fight that – work with it. Work with the fact that copies are promiscuous and it’st just going to go everywhere, it’s a superconductor for copies. You can’t battle against that, you have to say “okay, we can see how it is.”

Within the first four or five years it was clear that this was the way it was going to be… can you imagine if the music industry had accepted that from the front? It would have been amazing. They’re just coming around to it now, but [imagine] how far ahead they would have been if they’d just said “okay, this is inevitable, this copy thing. We’re just going to try to work with it. There’s thing to adjust, but let’s accept it.”


Kevin Kellya16z podcast: Not If, But How – When Technology is Inevitable

Further reading: The Technium: Better Than Free – 8 ‘generatives’ to thrive in a world of free copies.

See also:

Learning through use: Kevin Kelly on technology finding its way

I’m a big believer that the way we steer technology is through engagement, by use. I find that most of the inventors don’t even have any idea what the technology will ultimately be used for.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, and we have his journals of… what he thought this new ability to record sound was going to be, and his very first idea was that it would be used to record the last words of the dying, and then his second idea was that we could record sermons and distribute them. And he had a whole list of things, and at the very end he was like, well maybe we could do music – and he was the inventor of it.

So I think it’s only through use that we can find out what these things are…

Kevin Kellya16z podcast: Not If, But How – When Technology is Inevitable

Machine. Ecosystem. (8) – classrooms as complex adaptive systems

Planning is essential in education, but it’s easy to fall into the habit of treating your session plan or presentation as a set of inputs for a machine: “If I do these things, and introduce this content, and prescribe this activity, this learning will result.”

But we know that groups of people, and especially groups of children, don’t work so predictably. The ‘perfect’ lesson plan a classroom is a Russian doll of one set of complex adaptive systems inside another inside another:

  • The rapidly developing minds of children or teenagers…
  • Nested in expectations and the social structures and groups-within-groups of kids-at-school culture…
  • In the classroom culture shaped by a particular teacher – who is themselves a complex adaptive system of body, thoughts and emotions…
  • Interacting with the wider culture of the school…
  • All interacting with cultures local, national and international…
  • And influenced by what’s going on at home, the weather, what they had for lunch…

In the face of this complexity, the first thing to do is recognise that what happens in our classroom is beyond our control, at least in the mechanistic sense of the word. Trying to impose precise control – of learning outcomes, of students’ behaviour – is a recipe for frustration and disappointment, if not damage.

The second thing is to start thinking about teaching and classroom management in terms of disposition and influence (and teachers can have a lot of influence):

  • How can I make it more likely that the people I teach arrive on time and ready to learn?
  • How I can I increase their disposition to be kind to each other, or to love this subject and to work hard?
  • How can I make it more likely that they’ll do X, rather than Y?

Go to work. Take responsibility. Do the hard work of building a classroom culture that gets your students where they want to go (hint: you might have to start by showing them where it’s possible to go).

But don’t beat yourself up the next time it snows, and the lesson plan goes out the window as the kids pile up against the window to watch the world turn white.

A butterfly must have flapped its wings in New York.

Marc Andreesen: Scenius

Here’s another highlight from Brian Koppelman’s interview with Marc Andreessen on The Moment.

This time they’re talking about the importance of ‘scenes’ – groups of people working on similar ideas, sharing inspiration, encouraging each other and pushing boundaries and promoting each other’s work.

This seems to be true in art, technology and politics, and I think it’s true of sciences and other research communities. There’s huge value in a network of colleagues sharing work, building on each other’s ideas and cheering each other on.

See also Where’s the scene?

This extract is from a little after five minutes into the podcast. You can listen to the episode here, download it here or read the transcript here.

Marc: So, Brian Eno has a term, you may have heard, called “scenius”, have you heard this term?

Brian: No, but I love Eno’s work.

Marc: Okay. So Brian Eno has this term called sceners. Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand and others have talked about this at length and I think it’s right, which is, it’s this… Let’s start with it is it’s an amazing coincidence. It’s an amazing coincidence how when there’s a major new artistic movement, it’s an amazing how there’s a scene. There’s quite literally a scene. And so Hemingway was part of a scene… There’s an example —

Brian: Patti Smith’s book talks about this, right? “Just Kids” talks about it in a great way, being in New York at that time.

Marc: I mean, one great example, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time with our friend Michael Ovitz over the years understanding kind of how this has worked and how creativity works in entertainment, and he says, basically, he says 100% of the time it’s a scene. So for example, he cites the great scene in comedy, when he was coming up was “Saturday Night Live”, you know, The Second City/ Saturday Night Live phenomenon in the mid 70s. And it was it was this, you know, Saturday Night Live shows up on TV in, you know, 1975 and people are like, Oh my… you know, this is like a brand new thing. Like, where did this come from? And it turns out, it was all these people. It was, you know, Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray, and, you know, John Belushi, and all these… Lorne Michaels —

Brian: And the Canadians, the SCTV scene —

Marc: Yes, the Canadians, the SCTV scene, exactly right. And like, they all knew each other; they all knew each other coming up. And basically you find this — like, comedy is actually a great example of this, you just see this — inevitably, like, there was the Judd Apatow scene, like, there was a set of those people; there’s like the Seth Rogen, you know, kind of they’re at the center of these networks. And then these people then spin off and they do their own work and they became become very successful. Um you know, most recently like the Tina Fey, Amy Poehler kind of thing was a scene. <Brian: Sure. Absolutely.> Upright Citizens Brigade [Theater] and Second City. And so, it’s this… these are clearly creative geniuses on their own, but like, they weren’t out in the wilderness somewhere.

Brian: Well, what I took from the article — I didn’t read the study but I saw the Times article about it — was that artists will recognize other… Part of what happens, this amplifying effect is that, if you’re good… if you’re really good at this stuff, don’t necessarily think about people, always think about the buyer. People are always like, “How can I get an agent? How can I get a buyer?” As opposed to, “How can I show my work to other artists who can help platform it?”

And that’s what I took from that article was that, there are, that in fact, … The best way to get an agent is to have some artist who thinks you’re great, who’s represented by that agent, tell that agent, right? Do you think systems thinking — because like, if you look at Dylan as an example, just to try to put it in my world a bit, right — he did come here, come to New York and then enter and take over this scene that existed. Do you think someone has to calculate that stuff… or do you think there are people who just naturally do it?

Marc: So I think it’s a complex adaptive system. It has feedback loops, what are called feedback loops. You know, and some people get in the position of the feedback loop starts to hit. It’s almost a little bit… feedback loops are funny things… There’s this concept in economics actually derived from something out of the Christian Bible called the Matthew Effect, right? It’s sort of like, in a lot of these fields, recognition begets recognition, success begets success, reputation begets reputation, right? So it’s a positive feedback loop. And you see this when kind of people are on the rise in their careers, right?

Brian: I was with people from Twitter the other day and they were talking about this too, about one of the challenges at Twitter in terms of growing it, right, is that the people who are verified and have a good following are able to very quickly make their following bigger. <Marc: Yah> But for someone who’s just starting, it’s really hard now to amass an audience.

Marc: Just like, by the way, it’s very hard to become a new recognized painter, it’s very hard to write a screenplay that gets made, right? It’s a… these are so-called nonlinear dynamical systems, technically, and they have these feedback loops.

And a lot of this goes back to kind of the human attitude of the people involved in doing the work, it’s like, there’s two ways to look at that. One is, oh my god, life isn’t fair. And like, this is just fundamentally, you know, horrible. And we should figure out a way to, like, reform these systems so there’s a much more equal distribution of, you know, returns and results. Another way to look at it is, it os the human system, it is humanity, it is how… we are social animals, we do care what other people think. To your point, we care what the other experts think. We do care what our friends think. And we respond to those things. And part of what makes a creative project valuable is the fact that people appreciate it. And, just the nature of it is people are gonna tend to appreciate the things that other people are appreciating.

And so it is what it is, and therefore, if you’re going to be a creative professional, you should lean into that you should. You should take that seriously and you should consider that part of the challenge. Because I think that… the alternate path is bitterness. And we see this in the Valley, one of these billion programmers. They’ve been working for 10 years on some project and like they’ve got the code running. It’s all working and like nobody — you know, it’s not out there, nobody appreciates it, it’s sitting on a shelf in a lab somewhere — and they’re just furious, right?

And it’s like, “Well, what have you done to try to inject this into the world?” “Well, nothing.” “Why not?” “Well, because my work is genius and people should appreciate it. And it’s their fault if they don’t.” As an individual, that will poison you, right?, <Yes!> that will destroy you.

And so that’s… why you have to be really careful in these things whether you’re talking about society or whether you’re talking about the individual. Because from a societal standpoint, you can level all kinds of accusations about unfairness. From an individual level, you really want, in my view… individually, you wanna think, “I can do this. I can go change the world. I can go affect things.” It’s going it be real —

Brian: And you’re saying, you shouldn’t just rely on the fact that your work alone privately will do it, you should be proactive in trying to get it out there.

Marc: And part of it is you should get into a scene. So this is part of it. By the way, this also goes to another kind of view of unfairness right now which is like, okay, why do all the great movies and TV shows get made… why do the vast majority get made in LA.? Like, that’s so unfair to people. There are people who, like, try to make movies in San Francisco, and they’ll tell you like, “It’s so unfair. Like, it’s just so much easier to do this in LA. Like, it should be easy to do this…” We get this in the startup world, like, why are a disproportionate number of startups built in Silicon Valley? Isn’t it unfair that you don’t have equal odds of doing this if you’re in Topeka?

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is, if I’m the indiv– you know, I grew up in rural Wisconsin — like, if the job is to get enmeshed into the system, right, into the network, then basically, what you wanna do as an individual is you wanna get yourself into the scene.

Brian: Yah Tony Hsieh calls them “collision spaces”.

Marc: Yeah. You gotta get in the mix, right. And if you’re not willing to get in the mix, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault, right?

Machine. Ecosystem. (7) – Style is content (text as system)

Style is content.

Poet Marvin Bell reminds us that the content of a poem is not the same as a poem’s contents, reminding us that when we paraphrase what a poem is about (its contents) we are not talking about the poem itself (its content or meaning), losing sight of what it does to us as we read it. The same is true of sentences.

Or, to put this another way, the informational or propositional content of a sentence is not the same as the sentence’s meaning, since sentences don’t just carry information, like putting objects in a canister, but do things with it and to it, shaping it to particular purposes and effects. In this important sense, sentences work like verbs, doing things, taking action, rather than like nouns that only name.

Most of us have been taught to think of style and meaning or form and content as two different things. We think of content as the ideas or information our writing conveys. We think of style as the way in which we present those ideas. Many aphorisms and metaphors have been used to describe style, ranging from “Style is the man himself” to “Style is the dress of thought.”

If we have to use a metaphor to explain style, we might think of an onion, which consists of numerous layers of onion we can peel away until there is nothing left—the onion is its layers, and those layers don’t contain a core of onionness but are themselves the onion.

Brooks Landon – Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft (amazon)

He’s right, of course. I’m not ready to dismiss propositional content just yet, but the danger more often comes in the opposite direction, as we try to reduce the irreducible, rather than living with complexity.

Texts are complex adaptive systems: the whole is more than – and different from – the sum of the parts. They change, too, as the meanings, ideas, feelings that we bring to them change. They change even as we read them, because we’re changed by the very act of reading.

If it’s nonsense to speak of the meaning of words outside of text, or of sentences in isolation, then it’s nonsense to speak of trees apart from forests, or people in isolation from their contexts, or cars in isolation from the ecosystem that they’re part of.

And yet… we do, and frequently find it useful or necessary to do so. The important thing is to see that the lines we draw are arbitrary (although some work better than others). The best we can do is try to hold the whole in mind even as we think about the parts, avoiding both the trap of mechanistic, reductive thinking, and the equal-and-opposite trap of of using complexity as an excuse to avoid the hard work of paying attention to detail.

Kicking cans: job descriptions versus culture

A few days ago I watched a schoolboy kicking a can down the road. He kicked it a couple of times and then miskicked, sending the can flying into the road, where it landed at the feet of an off-duty city cleaning worker, still in his orange uniform. These guys are fantastic: they put in the hard yards of sweeping the streets, cleaning out ratty drains and fetid canals doing a whole load of other stuff to keep Jakarta clean. This guy – in his uniform – trapped the can with his foot, bent down, picked it up, and looked at the kids with a grin that said “Don’t worry guys, I’ve got this.” Then he leaned back and tossed the can stylishly over his shoulder and straight into the… flowerbed.

This is a man who spends several hours a day sweating to keep Jakarta clean. He works in the dirt and grime, puts up with rats, cockroaches, heat and traffic fumes to clean the city up and to keep it clean. He’s part of the Orange Army transforming Jakarta – but he throws a piece of rubbish that lands at his feet into the flowerbed instead of the bin. Why?

Because that’s his culture. It’s what he saw his parents do, it what his neighbours do, and despite the best efforts of the school curriculum to teach another way, it’s probably what his kids do.

Job descriptions alone won’t solve this problem: you can hire all the street-sweepers you want, but you’ll never have clean streets until a large majority of people put their rubbish in the bin rather than throwing it on the ground. In other words, until keeping the city clean becomes the culture: “people like us, do things like this.”

Changing the culture is harder work than giving some people the job of cleaning up everyone else’s mess. Harder and slower, but in the long run more effective, cheaper and more sustainable. Changing the complex system of culture takes conversations, campaigns, and curriculum changes. It takes leadership: politicians, celebrities and parents who care enough to do what they say. And it does need street sweepers – people can’t see that the streets are dirty until they’ve seen clean ones.

Job descriptions are necessary, but they’re never sufficient.

*See also: Singapore, tree planting and the new normal

Kevin Kelly – what is technology?

Not just shiny new stuff

It was clear (at least to me) that technology was an extension of natural life, but in what ways was it different from nature? (Computers and DNA share something essential, but a Mac-Book is not the same as a sunflower.) It was also clear that technology springs from human minds, but it what way are the products of our minds (even cognitive products like artificial intelligences) different from our minds themselves? Is technology human or nonhuman?

We tend to think of technology as shiny tools and gadgets. Even if we acknowledge that technology can exist in disembodied form, such as software, we tend not to include in this category paintings, literature, music, dance, poetry and the arts in general. But we should. If a thousand lines of letters in UNIX qualifies as technology (the computer code for a web page), then a thousand lines of letters in English (Hamlet) must qualify as well. They both can change our behavior, alter the course of events, or enable future inventions.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

We can’t separate out the multiple overlapping technologies responsible for a Lord of the Rings movie. The literary rendering of the original novel is as much an invention as the digital rendering of its fantastical creatures. Both are useful works of the human imagination. Both influence audiences powerfully. Both are technological.

Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants (amazon)

If you haven’t read any of Kevin Kelly’s writing, check out New Rules for the New Economy (where in 1998 – the year Google was founded and seven years before Facebook) he set out most of the trends of the new ‘connection’ economy. Or read the opening chapter of What Technology Wants on Kindle and see if it tempts you.

W. Brian Arthur on combinatorial innovation

The idea … that we have is that there’s some genius in an attic… cooking up technology and coming up with inventions.

But it started to become clear to me having looked in detail at some inventions is that technologies in a way come out of other technologies. If you take any individual technology, say like a computer in the 1940s, it was made possible by having vacuum tubes, by having relay systems, by having very primitive memory systems… All of those things existed already.

So it seemed to me that technology’s evolved by people not so much discovering something new or discovering, but by putting together different Lego blocks so to speak in a new way. Once something’s been put together, like say a radio circuit for transmitting radio waves, it can be thrown back in the Lego set. And occasionally then some of the new combinations would get a name and be tossed back in.

Things like gene sequencing were put together from existing molecular biology technologies and then that becomes a component in yet other technologies…


W. Brian Arthur – a16z podcast

What’s already out there that you could combine to do something in a new way?

How do you keep an eye out for new Lego?

What do you make that you could throw into the Lego set for others?

Machine. Ecosystem. (6) – Kevin Kelly on the techium

Okay, so machines are simple, largely linear, and predictable, and systems are complex, adaptive and ‘dispositional’… but look a bit closer and the distinction gets blurry.

Most systems (individual people, markets, forests to name three) are combinations of sub-systems that are, at the end of the day, made up of simple units. And our machines – especially digital ones – are increasingly complex and interconnected. Even our simplest machines don’t really stand alone – they’re outgrowths of human activity, the product of networks of ideas, activities and resources that allow them to develop, grow, and – if they’re not maintained – fall into obsolescence and decay.

Kevin Kelly calls this the techium*, and describes it brilliantly in What Technology Wants:

Once [19th century economist Johann] Beckmann lowered the mask [of technology, by uniting various arts and sciences under the term technologie], our art and artifacts could be seen as an interdependent components woven into a coherent impersonal unity.

Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels. There is no metabolism of factories without the circulation of vehicles. No hammers without saws to cut the handles; no blades without hammers to pound the saw blades. This global-scale, circular interconnected network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, codes, calculators, sensors, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators – this whole grand contraption of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a single system.

When scientists began to investigate how this system functioned, they soon noticed something unusual: large systems of technology often behave like a very primitive organism. Networks, especially electronic networks, exhibit near-biological behaviour.

Kevin KellyWhat Technology Wants (amazon)

In our organisations, this way of seeing helps us to think about the machines we buy buy of the networks of activity and supply that are necessary to maintain them and run them well – a way of thinking that’s probably automatic in the manufacturing and computer industries, but comes far less naturally in the social sector.

Something as simple as buying a new computer or printer isn’t just that simple. It’s introducing a new organism into an ecosystem, and will require our teams to do the work of acclimatising and adapting to make it really useful. The more complicated or relational a technology is – social media being a prime example – the further the adaptation and unintended consequences go.

*as distinct from specific technologies

No breakthroughs

The water breaks through because upstream – far enough up that there isn’t any stream – there’s a drip, drip, drip.

Enough drips to puddle, to pool and start to trickle and then to run: a rivulet, a stream to cool your feet in.

Further on* lakes, rivers, waterfalls, floods, torrents to burst banks and blow your socks off.

All it takes is gravity, time, and enough drips.

*in no particular hydrological order