The haves and the have-laters

Kevin Kelly’s take on how technological development plays into the future of poverty and inequality – and why he’s not worried about unequal access to tech:

Inequality won’t be eradicated in fifty years. So I tend to think of the structure of these things as the haves and the have-laters. The haves basically pay for technology when it’s really crummy and early and expensive, so they overpay for it. And that overpayment and use of it brings down the cost until it’s affordable by the have-laters. And then the have-laters get great technology for very cheap. That’s sort of what happened with cell phones. So you have all the early cell phone business guys who were paying [multiple] thousands of dollars for this brick that didn’t work very well, and because they were all overpaying for it, it enabled the cycles of innovation and commerce to generate cell phones that cost, say, $30. And everybody had one and they were really great. So the haves in some senses, like, say, of the early VR, will overpay for technology that doesn’t work very well, enabling the have-laters to get really great stuff that works fantastic. So in a certain sense the have-laters have the best deal, because they get cheap technology that works fantastic. But of course they get it later. And they may get it a decade later.

And I think fifty years from now, the have-laters, they’ll be living like the super-rich today in a certain sense. You’ll have not the whole lifestyle, but you’ll have all the kind of stuff that everybody on Earth will have access to—smartphones, and they’ll have access to the bandwidth that we have now, and they’ll have access to VR greatly exceeding what the rich have today. But of course there won’t be anything like what’s available to the rich.

So there’s a slow rise of all boats, but there definitely is going to be a gap, and the question people really want to know is, is that gap widening or not? I think technologically the gap is narrowing over time. In other words the difference in the technology that a billionaire can buy versus somebody in India in another fifty years will be even less; there won’t be as much of a difference in fifty years as there is today. So technologically I think the gap is going to decrease slowly. But there are social, cultural differences. The historical evidence is that on a global average—not America, not the West, but all the countries of the world on a global average—that differential is actually closing and has been for the last two-hundred years. Whether it will continue, that’s a question we don’t know. At least I don’t know whether the global average between the super rich and the super poor—or even the average rich and the average poor—whether that’s going to close. We’ll see. There is certainly a power imbalance in what the rich can do.

But I also have to make one other final observation, which is if you look at the lifestyles of billionaires, they’re not a thousand times richer in their lifestyle than millionaires—because a billionaire is a thousand times richer in dollars, right? So in that sense, there is some threshold beyond which more money doesn’t make any difference. They have more power and other kinds of stuff, but in terms of their lifestyle and the cars that they drive and the clothes that they wear, the standard of living—the standard of living of a billionaire is not a thousand times more than a millionaire. So there are limits to how different your living standards can be, just practical limits, and I think some of those limits continue to shrink over time.

Kevin Kelly talking about The Inevitableinterview at

Technology marches towards the poorest

I recently listened to a talk given by Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameenphone, at the Long Now Foundation in 2008:

In the early nineties I had a budding investment career, that’s where I discovered a decentralising force – namely Moore’s law. Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, observed in the mid sixties that every eighteen months microchips, the brain of the computers, go down in price by fifty percent. That means every thee years, namely twice the time of eighteen months, every three years prices fall by 75% to one quarter. Which means every six years it becomes one-sixteenth. And every twelve years, it becomes 1/256th. And you add another three years, let’s say every fifteen years, it becomes about 1/1000 to one.

So microchips are actually marching towards poor people.

And it’s also potentially a decentralising force, but I didn’t know how to make use of computers in a country where there’s a lot of illiteracy and so therefore people couldn’t quite use computers even if they’re becoming cheaper … perhaps they could be utilised, but I didn’t know how to use them because computers are mostly made for literate people

Iqbal Quadir at the Long Now Foundation

The march towards the poorest

In the decade since Quadir gave this talk, we’ve seen this happen – and in the development of new interfaces (and particularly smartphones) we’ve seen computers marching towards the less-educated too. This is good news.

Overall, we’ve seen this happen with basics like clean water and sanitation and clothing, with education and information, and with healthcare and entertainment. More on this tomorrow.

The question that occurred to me as I listened to this talk, though, was “what’s marching away from the poorest?”

My guesses are… land and space? An unspoilt natural environment? Community?

Or are these moving away from all of us? Would love your thoughts – I’ll update this post with links and references below.

Computers marching towards us

Computers have been on a steady march toward us. At first, computers were housed in distant air-conditioned basements, then they moved to nearby small rooms, then they crept closer to us perched on our desks, then they hopped onto our laps, and recently they snuck into our pockets. The next obvious step for computers is to lay against our skin. We call those wearables. … You may have seen this coming, but the only way to get closer than wearables over our skin is to go under our skin.

In the coming decades we’ll keep expanding what we interact with. The expansion follows three thrusts:

1. More Senses

… Of course, everything will get eyes (vision is almost free), and hearing, but one by one we can add superhuman senses such as GPS location sensing, heat detection, X-ray vision, diverse molecule sensitivity, or smell. These permit our creations to respond do us, to interact with us, and to adapt themselves to our uses. Interactivity, by definition, is two way, so this sensing elevates our interactions with technology.

2. More intimacy

The zone of interaction will continue to march closer to us. Technology will get closer to us than a watch and pocket phone. … Intimate technology is a wide-open frontier. We think technology has saturated our private space, but we will look back in 20 years and realize it was still far away in 2016.

3. More immersion

Maximum interaction demands that we leap into the technology itself. That’s what VR allows us to do. Computation so close that we are inside it.** From within a technologically created world, we interact with each other in new ways (virtual reality) or interact with the physical world in a new way (augmented reality). Technology becomes a second skin.**

Kevin KellyThe Inevitable

** Think about this – computers outside and a long way away from us, then closer and closer, then inside us – and then we’re inside it. Does this in fact happen with more technologies – and is it true of our environment as a whole?
*** Of course, technology has been a second skin for millennia – that’s what clothes are.****
**** Starting with animal hide – literally, a second skin.

A chip in everything: build me, share me

Or what about a chip in every Lego brick, or every nail?

Build me

You tell your AI what you’re building later, and it crawls your child’s Lego collection or your toolbox to collect the relevant pieces… and tells you what’s missing, and orders the missing piece.

Or you’re struggling to find a piece, or the right size screw, so you ask the Lego box / tool box where it is – and it tells you. Or you scan the heap of tiny pieces through augmented glass and see the ones you need outlined red in the display.

Share me

You finish your creation, photograph it, and share it with a friend – not just the photo, but an automatically generated instruction set that they can use to build it themselves (or it could self assemble), modifying it and sending it back to you.

And now you’re playing co-op Minecraft in the real world.


Self-finding, self-assembling Lego seems like the worst kind of dumbing down – but what new types of play does it make possible? Which of the purest parts of playing Lego does it sully – and what does it emphasise and augment?

This is a small example of how technology acts as a lens that forces us to identify and and appraise our values. What we do with it is never neutral, rarely unambiguous, and always a choice – like most interesting problems.

A chip in everything: find me

Here are the sorts of things that might happen when there’s a chip in everything, and all the things we own can talk to each other.

Find Me

You’ll never have to hunt for a lost item of clothing or a piece of paper again. The annoying questions that you used to ask your parents / housemates / spouse will be addressed to the AI that runs your house instead:

“Where’s my orange running shirt?”

Will be answered with something like:

“It’s in your clothes cupboard, but on the wrong shelf, under the green towels**.”
“It’s in the washing machine finishing the rinse cycle, and can be dry in 15 minutes.”
“I last saw it in your gym bag last Thursday… checking your locker at the gym now… I’m sorry to tell you that your orange shirt is lost***. Sending out a Lost and Found notice to your contact list now… It appears that your brother has ‘borrowed’ the shirt again. His AI is arranging for it to be returned later today.”****


Who might this be good news for? School children? The Elderly? You?
How could it change the work that you do?
How could this go wrong, and what could you do about it?

** Of course, it’s likely that you’ll have a service that will always put your clothes back in the right places.

*** And it’s unlikely that you’ll leave a shirt behind at the gym – your bag will see that it’s been left behind, and ask you if this is deliberate before you leave.

**** Assuming that your brother doesn’t actually want to steal your shirt, in which case his AI might deny knowledge, while arranging to remove the incriminating chip…

Peter Morville on Category and Taxonomy (1)

While findability comes first, we must also remember that categories are about more than retrieval. Classification helps our users to understand.

Through splitting, lumping and labeling, we reveal choices and invite questions.

Of course, all taxonomies are imperfect, as is the language they’re built on… like maps and myths, taxonomies hide more than they reveal. They bury complexity to tell a story, and they always miss someone out. Some things, like luggage, get lost by accident, while others – people, places, ideas – are buried by design.

Either way, each glitch in the matrix subtly changes understanding and behaviour, which is why this work has moral weight. Classification has consequences, as Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star argue in Sorting Things Out:

“Each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing – indeed, it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous – not bad, but dangerous.”

Peter MorvilleIntertwingled (Amazon link here)

The new possible

My sister (let’s call her Sharky) bought me a book for Christmas.

Sharky lives in Argentina.

She bought the book from a shop in the UK.

I’m on holiday in a remote part of Indonesia.

She bought the book, told me about it, and I was reading it, in less than ten minutes.

This is the new reality – actually, not even that new anymore. Any information product (book, film, music, software, design) can go anywhere, in effectively no time.

The new possible consists of the things that this reality enables – not just instant access to information products, but information to go into products (3d printing designs, specifications) or for the delivery of products and services (your exact requirements or preferences, your real-time location, your purchase history, your credit rating).

What becomes possible in your field when the information is so relevant and so available, when the transaction becomes so fast, so frictionless?

AirBnB, and Uber are cannonical examples of the new possible, to which I’d add the fact that this year, Sharky bought me a Christmas present.

Deep literacy: Kevin Kelly on more than reading

… producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Real literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permitted ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that made it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one.

Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. Where is the equivalent in video?

Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film.

Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And that would be useful in video as well.

And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of courses we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorise using a selected word or phrase for later viewing.

All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists.

These tools, more than reading, are the foundations of literacy.

Kevin KellyThe Inevitable

Scrapbook: Clay Shirky, Niall Ferguson – a spot of network theory

Speaking of networks, here’s a way into network theory – a few videos from Clay Shirky that make a good introduction:

Ten Truths About Social Media

And a couple of TED talks…

Shirky on Econtalk

And finally, go here interview on Econtalk from 2008.

The blurb says…

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, talks about the economics of organizations with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. The conversation centers on Shirky’s book. Topics include Coase on the theory of the firm, the power of sharing information on the internet, the economics of altruism, and the creation of Wikipedia.

And Niall Ferguson on the Long Now

Video and audio here.

“This time is different.”

Historians: “Ha.”

“The Net is net beneficial.”

Historian Niall Ferguson: “Globalization is in crisis. Populism is on the march. Authoritarian states are ascendant. Technology meanwhile marches inexorably ahead, threatening to render most human beings redundant or immortal or both. How do we make sense of all this?”

Ferguson analyzes the structure and prospects of “Cyberia” as yet another round in the endless battle between hierarchy and networks that has wrought spasms of innovation and chaos throughout history. He examines those previous rounds (including all that was set in motion by the printing press) in light of the current paradoxes of radical networking enabled by digital technology being the engine of massive hierarchical companies (Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and their equivalents in China) and exploited by populists and authoritarians around the world.

He puts the fundamental question this way: “Is our age likely to repeat the experience of the period after 1500, when the printing revolution unleashed wave after wave of revolution? Will the new networks liberate us from the shackles of the administrative state as the revolutionary networks of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries freed our ancestors from the shackles of spiritual and temporal hierarchy? Or will the established hierarchies of our time succeed more quickly than their imperial predecessors in co-opting the networks, and enlist them in their ancient vice of waging war?”

See also: