Feeds

The Novelist vs The Futurologist

Steel cage match: John Updike mauls Kevin Kelly

Build a business case: developing custom apps

Competition Little has been heard of new economy prophet Kevin Kelly in the more recent era of hedge funds and the Enron trial. The world doesn't seem to be as receptive to futurists as it was in the 1990s, and here's an instructional tale why. Budding futurologists take note: the story contains one very important mistake you must never, ever repeat.

Kelly earned his reputation during the dot.com bubble, when the Whole Earth Catalog and Wired magazine editor was a media fixture - giving businesses advice like "the surest way to smartness is through massive dumbness." And in this task he had much to offer, by assuring us that not only was the web browser dead (1997), but that central banks were now powerless, and the boom would go on forever. Kelly was just one of many writers who mixed junk science and misued biological metaphors in support of this utopian vision - but his propaganda was by far the most stylish and compelling. It may have been foolish and trite, but it was rarely dull. And as one of the few technology commentators who is also an Evangelical Christian, his millennial exuberance makes for a particularly interesting case study. Like Tim O'Reilly, this self-styled "techno transcendalist" is a lapsed Catholic.

But Kelly hasn't been altogether idle. He's returned to his WEC roots, in a way, by blogging about duct tape and preparing his next provocation, a book about how technology has moral agency and purpose.

Ironically, a fortnight ago, the New York Times Magazine published a 7,800-word essay of Kelly's predicting the demise of the book. In its place, he suggested, we'd simply gather from the net what small pieces, partially digested, of information we needed. Books would dissolve into a "liquid fabric".

The idea is wearily familiar to Register readers - you'll recall the "Blooker Prize" last year - where the "Hive Mind" of the internet would complete the task of editing these half finished globbets. And as we recall, you didn't think much of this at the time.

"I was left rather queasy by the ideas in the article. Not so much the replacement of curling up with a book by sitting in an uncomfortable chair in front of a computer. It was the thought of these New-Age salesmen fresh from the car-yards trying to sell us a new social technology that no one wants or needs which causes my bile to overflow," wrote Andrew Punch.

Kevin Kelly in the hot tub

"Liquid fabric": Kevin Kelly in a hot tub

Kelly's piece was largely ignored, and appeared to be have almost completely slipped by the internet's hive mind, until novelist John Updike gave it a shot of publicity at the weekend.

Where Kelly saw the physical medium dissolve into "a liquid fabric" - information devoid of context - Updike drew attention to its value.

"Books traditionally have edges," said Updike, who objects to Kelly's idea that "the book revolution, which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets." "Defend your lonely forts," he urged, the Washington Post reports. "For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity."

It isn't really a row about identity, or even books, but about reading and learning. Kelly is confident that skim-reading gobbets of facts is better. In this, he's simply repeating one of the technology utopians most basic mistakes, which is to confuse information - which we have in abundance, and which clearly isn't making us smarter or more understanding - for knowledge. You've seen this mistake made many times, most recently with Wikipedia.

Kelly has made a far more serious error, however, which was finessed out of him by Nick Carr.

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

Next page: Be gone, wetware!

More from The Register

next story
Boffins attempt to prove the UNIVERSE IS JUST A HOLOGRAM
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Our LOHAN spaceplane ballocket Kickstarter climbs through £8000
Through 25 per cent but more is needed: Get your UNIQUE rewards!
China building SUPERSONIC SUBMARINE that travels in a BUBBLE
Shanghai to San Fran in two hours would be a trick, though
LOHAN tunes into ultra long range radio
And verily, Vultures shall speak status unto distant receivers
SpaceX prototype rocket EXPLODES over Texas. 'Tricky' biz, says Elon Musk
No injuries or near injuries. Flight stayed in designated area
Galileo, Galileo! Galileo, Galileo! Galileo fit to go. Magnifico
I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me. But at least I can find my way with ESA GPS by 2017
EOS, Lockheed to track space junk from Oz
WA facility gets laser-eyes out of the fog
prev story

Whitepapers

Top 10 endpoint backup mistakes
Avoid the ten endpoint backup mistakes to ensure that your critical corporate data is protected and end user productivity is improved.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Backing up distributed data
Eliminating the redundant use of bandwidth and storage capacity and application consolidation in the modern data center.
The essential guide to IT transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIOs automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.