Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/05/23/updike_kelly/

The Novelist vs The Futurologist

Steel cage match: John Updike mauls Kevin Kelly

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Science, 23rd May 2006 21:36 GMT

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.

Be gone, wetware!

Futurologists can be extremely silly, but must cleave to two styles. The predictions can be utopian, or apocalyptic, and preferably both - but the futurologist must never let his underlying misanthropy poke through.

Replying to Carr, Kelly begins graciously enough. But it only takes one more exchange, and he gets very grouchy and haughty.

"I am one of those people who believe in progress," he harrumphs, implying that anyone who disagrees with him wants to make us worse off, unhappier, and more miserable. In fact, any kind of disagreement with Kelly is unwelcome. "There are other - and you seem to claim to be one of them - who read the same evidence and see decline and degradation (on average)."

There's even a new word for you to enjoy.

"That's fine. But declinists often mistake progressism as uptopiasm [sic] because where else can increasing and everlasting improvement point to except utopia? Sadly that confuses a direction with a destination."

Kelly's world view confirms the notion that if you scratch a New Economy maven hard enough, underneath you'll find a teleological argument.

"As far as I can see, there is a one-way movement throughout history and the world toward more possibilities." So you can see how far the vision thing goes. But more interestingly, Kelly gives us an idea of what he means when he insists that technology has a moral purpose.

"The internet and the web will better our lives overall and on average", he stresses. An average of what? He then tells us: "A tally of the advances and problems generated by each invention would on average balance out to a wash."

So, say, while gas ovens may be used for the purpose of genocidal slaughter, they can cook a chicken beautifully - and it all "averages" out in the end! What Kelly really means is that he doesn't want to make moral choices about technology, because it can take care of itself. This is invaluable stuff - and 7,400 words shorter than his New York Times feature.

A quick encapsulation of the real Kelly position is: only one of us is permitted to write about the future, and that's me, and there's only one outcome to history, and that's mine. And in doing so he breaks the Golden Rule of Futurology: never show how much you hate humanity. When a technology "transcendentalist" talks in raptures of fusing flesh and machine, you know they're pretty uncomfortable with the idea of being human. When they talk about machine as the fulcrum of artistic creation, you know they're uncomfortable with the idea of human creativity. And as Register readers so often point out, the confusion between information and knowledge shows a contempt for human understanding and intelligence.

Beardless, and vulnerable to Out Of Control machinery: Kevin Kelly

Be gone, wetware.

Which inspires us to in turn, inspire you. Here's a competition for all Reg readers.

In a homage to Kelly's own twelve New Rules for the New Economy ("twelve dependable principles for thriving in a turbulent world"), we invite you to suggest as many New Rules for the New Misanthropy as you can. The first, "Anti Social Software - technology that helps you zone out awkward intrusions from "declinists" - has already been coined. T-shirt prizes go to the best.

Give us your best. ®