A Feverish Mind

Web pioneer Kevin Kelly wowed a group of Northern California science writers last night with his life story, with his vision of an ever-more-intelligent and ever-present network, and with his prediction that what he called “mess media” — the upsurge of user-generated content that is morphing mass media from a gate keeper into an attention-focuser — would deliver both knowledge to all and a living wage to those who manufacture information. That’s a mouthful, I know, but to listen to Kelly — especially in such an intimate setting, in a tiny restaurant basement with thick beams overhead — is to receive the maximum allowable dose of his charm. wisdom and optimism. I scribbled notes as best I could in the dim light and drove home wondering what misguided pessimism had afflicted me, that I could simultaneously agree with his vision of where the web is heading and yet not share his glowing anticipation of the future.

How do I do justice to his more than 60-minute talk interspersed with questions? Well, of course, I can’t so let me instead extract some thoughts that I consider a fair sampling of his remarks and that support my opening thesis.

Kelly spoke from notes on a scrap of paper and when someone joked that he wasn’t using some handheld electronic gizmo, he replied that his desire “as a highly evolved digital being is to carry nothing” and to be connected to an information web that is part of his surrounding environment. I was struck by the thought of the Star Trek characters of the Jean Luc Picard era, who spoke into a badge into badges on their chest to access the rarely-stumped ship’s computer. No flipping open communicators like the primitive Kirk characters. “I don’t want to carry anything,” Kelly said. “I think that is a sign of lower (digital) evolution.”

The back end of Kelly’s dream of an immersive network is a web that is rapidly evolving into a global machine of incredible reliability, reach and usefulness, and which is approaching the complexity the human brain. In one of the lighter moments of the talk, Kelly was asked whether the web, like our noggins, might get so complex as to suffer breakdowns, prompting him to reply that it might in fact develop “fevers” that would come and go inexplicably. But that thrust of his remarks were to marvel at how far the web has come already, in such a short time — a set of thoughts captured in a Wired article on the 10th anniversary of the Netscape IPO — and, by extension, how far it was likely to evolve in the next 10 years. As Kelly sees it the whole planet is being wired through this web of electronic connections, to the point that each time we click on some choice link we are programming the web to suggest what we want, and that through the cumulative actions of hundreds of millions and ultimately billions of human clicks, we’ll sync this electronic environment to our way of thinking and, I guess, make it our ever-present, all-delivering friend.

Of course now I’m trying to encapsulate ideas that Kelly has jammed into several books and presumably explores from time to time on his blog, so ket me refer you there for his own words, skip ahead to a couple of other points and then scoot off to work.

Mindful that he was speaking to a group of writers, Kelly noted that there seemed indeed to be livings to be made in this new web world where anyone can publish. Last year, he said, he got a million visitors a month to his blog, “a larger audience … than I ever had at Wired Magazine” and for the casual investment of five minutes time, to set up a Google Adsense account, earned over $30,000 last year on pay-per-click advertising. He touched on the notion of the attention economy, and the prospect that the mass media would become the agency that looked down into the wide-world of self-published content to focus attention on certain ideas or thoughts, but would lose its gate-keeper role of the Lippman era because even those ideas not selected would still be able to percolate to mini audiences throughout the world.

Kelly also gave us a few details of his life, such as his decision to bypass college and instead spend eight years (in the pre-1980 period) taking pictures Asia, taking pictures as that region emerged into modernity. Said Kelly, “I was infected with an optimism in Asia which has never left me.”

And that, as I noted at the outset, is a spirit I do not always share, because while I nod in agreement with much of what Kelly says about the evolution of the web, in terms of its reach and complexity, I fear that the negatives could outweigh the positives of life in this electronic environment, that the Big Brother potential of tracking our every click could outweigh the ability of anyone to make a comment that could reach around the world. In this yin-yang struggle between these rival tendencies, I fear human nature will tip the balance in favor of the repressive aspects, that we will favor our ease over our ethics, and that an ever-present web will breed a dependancy and that, if our link is severed, we’ll simply demand that it be reconnected and not be too concerned about the how. Isn’t there precedent? Wasn’t there some pompous Italian who built a dictatorship on making the trains run on time?

But who can predict what is to come and I’m reminded of the saying that the optimist and pessimist arrive at the same future — only one has more fun getting there.