Jamie King on Sat, 21 Jun 1997 21:37:19 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Interview w/ Kevin Kelly



[NB. this interview was conducted expressly for Mute magazine, and will
appear in its next issue. At best it will provide an interesting addendum
to the discussion that has already been conducted on this forum. I happily
acknowledge my debt to the postings of Mark Dery, Ken Wark, and Richard
Barbrook (amongst others) in the framing of the interview. Hope it helps to
hear, as it were, the words from the horse's mouth. My apologies for any,
ahem, undue irreverence. ]

The right connections : taking tea with the Infofuehrer. 

 Imagine that  we live on a steel planet, and there's a hippy bus-load of
things that arrive from outer space and they have these big bags of seeds -
life - and they're like, "Do you want it?" and we're like, "File an EPA
report," - we'd reject it. It's too risky, it's out of control, it's full
of diseases.  We would reject life if it was given to us right now. And
that's exactly what we're doing with technology. Technology has all the
same kind of qualities, and we're saying "we can't deal with it." 

This anecdote, related to me in a recent interview with Kevin Kelly, speaks
volumes about the attitude towards technology and culture promulgated by 
Kelly, John Perry Barlow, Nicholas Negroponte et al., whose
self-promotional chutzpah has established them as the 'digerati'. The
unchecked substitution of 'life' for 'technology' is a semantic
sleight-of-hand that gives way, here, to the assertion that the same
sceptics who want to refuse technology today would be the kind to have
wanted to refuse life at its dawn (the implication of the gag, its utter
fatuity notwithstanding, being that since only a dumbass would want to
refuse life, only a dumbass could want to refuse technology); elsewhere
it's a 'switcheroo' (Kelly's word, not mine)  that will lend technology the
 working status of a vital force that, like 'nature', operates outside the
reach of social imperatives. 

That, of course, leaves a nasty taste in the mouth for those comfy with a
'Tommorow's World' technology that is 'put to work'  for us, achieving
palpable results which can be lauded, applauded and then comfortably
consumed. Connectionism, with all its zany, bottom-up, out-of-control-ness
is anathema to the prevailing picture of technology as humankind's servant.
And the digerati, bless 'em, are just bursting to relieve you of such a
paradigm. 

Fair enough, you might think. 

There is a whiff, though, of something rather more pernicious here. For
many  of us, the invocation of the old bogie 'Mother Nature' as a
legitimation for any discourse raises hackles, largely because she's been
made bedfellow to some particularly unscrupulous types in her time, lending
dumb support to (amongst other things) radical racism and gender
discrimination. But it's worse than that, for the connectionists, because
they're not merely attempting to substantiate an ideology upon nature, but
to use nature as that ideology: in the free-market ecology of Kelly,
Negroponte and Barlow, nature, with all its savage vicissitudes, becomes
the law - a naturally occurring phenomenon beyond the dictat of culture.
The middle term is expelled. No longer: 'x is right because it's natural';
just 'x is natural - so talking about its rightness is pointless'.  

Should the network, I ask Kelly, really be viewed as irreproachable? What
happens when its emergent phenomena are violent, acrimonious, undesirable?
'I do think, ' he confirms, 'of technology as a form of life. And in
general, I think, the more life we have the better. Are there specific
powers or disruptions that are caused by specific forms of life? Yes. What
does that mean? Well, that means we have to kind of deal with it. But does
it  mean that we should try to stop life altogether, stop technology
altogether? No.'

Well, no-one was actually offering that as a serious option. We could ask,
in its stead, for simple concessions: is there, for instance, room for a
social conscience in such a paradigm? A social support network?  An anaemic
one, at best. 'I don't think technology solves the ills of society,' Kevin
says bluntly. 'Those are socio-political problems, not technological
problems. Technology's not going to change those things.'

Convenient how it's possible to pull apart economics and technology after
spending 600-odd pages putting them together in his somewhat infamous book.
But how cool is it, I wonder, to study and promote the growth of
distributed, out of control technologies when those technologies are not
being put to work to help people? After all, wasn't technology, at least
nominally, supposed to try to help? Vehicles to move people. Agricultural
machinery to feed people. Medicine and medical technologies to save
people's lives. But this network - because it's part of nature - doesn't
need to help anybody. 

Somehow it feels wrongheaded, or perhaps just deeply incongruous amongst
all this techno-utopian posturing, to pop the question. 'So what about the
people who fall through the network,' I ask nonetheless, 'the homeless
people, the starving, the mentally disturbed? How does the network try to
extend its help to them?' Kevin doesn't falter for a moment.  'The people
you're talking about have very little to do with technology and much more
to do with politics and social skills.  I know of no technology that is
going to help the people you've just mentioned. ' Well. At least we know
where we stand. Nature doesn't help anybody, and why should technology?  

Except that the digerati don't go this far. They don't want to be accused
of cruelty, and they've developed a little fantasy that helps them to feel
they're helping you. It goes like this: there's no have-nots, just 'have
lates'. Everybody will get the Network in the end, even those who don't
even have food right now; everybody will benefit wonderfully from it, and
'in about ten years this question [of have-nots] is going to be perceived
with great amusement. The problem is not going to be all those people who
are not connected, 'cause they're just have lates. Everybody's going to
have the stuff sooner than they think, and then we're all going to be
worrying about what happens when they're connected.'

But this connectionist riff about 'haves and have-lates' is another wholely
unacceptable bit of semantic manoeuvring that, looked at from ground level,
seems flimsy, insubstantial, and more than a little crass. The question of
access to knowledge is critical, especially as such access is becoming
increasingly an issue of economics, and attempting to close it with so
flippant a soundbyte is unforgiveable. The world outside the virtual class
has big problems that preclude large sections of the population from
access, or even thinking about access. 'We're in an era,' Kevin Kelly said
to me, 'where we have tremendous stuff to gain by looking at the bottom.'
Unfortunately he wasn't talking about the rock-bottom, and the very limited
gains the people who reside there have to make from the connectionist
project. 

How many of us are going to be 'having' this pan-capitalist global Network,
anyway? Is the process towards one really that clear, that inexorable? In
Europe, despite isolated moves towards non-government organisations and
quangos, the general political swing is manifestly towards a centralised
system - which seems utterly polarised to the digerati's connnectionist
pronouncements about the world. How does Kelly reconcile this with his
picture of a global shift to decentralisation, derregulation, and bottom-up
governance? By ignoring it, as far as I can tell.  'Despite backsliding in
various parts of the globe, there's a very clear trend towards the
decentralisation of governments. Very few would dispute that there's a
general trend in that direction,' he asserts in response to my questions. 
I'm sorry? Backsliding? Various parts of the globe? Aren't we're talking
about the whole of Europe here,  Kevin?  He leaps over the continent in one
gigantic visionary stride, hardly even taking in the point. This is typical
of the quite deliberate and obstinate myopia that characterises the
Californian ideology of the digerati, the same myopia that has led
Negroponte to make wild assertions about the redundance of issues of race
and gender in an recent letter to Wired US. 

I suppose I've given the game away: there's something about connectionism
that I can't quite connect with. Its ideology, for reasons I hope I've
pointed out, is fundamentally unsound. 'But the ideological part of it is
irrelevant,' Kelly protests. 'The pervasive, ubiquitous spread of this
technology will continue because it's practical.' Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm not
even convinced that any of it is going to happen, but were it to I'd be
deeply suspicious of any process  funded on a purely 'natural' and
'practical' rationale, the trajectory of which seems to sweep blindly over
a whole gaggle of nasty, sticky objections.   

What happens, for instance, to privacy in a world where every dumb little
thing is talking to every other dumb little thing? Isn't it  all queasily
redolent of some disgustingly bloated global Neighbourhood Watch scheme?
'Well, in America, the idea of privacy is a very loaded word that is
actually not very clear and which means a lot of different things. A person
who had true privacy was the Unabomber.' My worst fears confirmed: a
network this ubiquitous, this voracious, would never tolerate absence:
every silence, every unknown, would be regarded as the stirring of dissent.
Mad bombers in huts in the woods; pinkos, revolutionaries, and freaks
hiding behind encryption codes and firewalls. It all adds up to a situation
in which silence will need to be justified. 'But who wants to have no
relationships?' Kevin demands incredulously. 'Who wants to have no-one know
anything about you? That's inhuman, that's sick.' Who are you calling sick?
I'm not saying that I necessarily want to be cut off from society, just
that I'd like it to be a possibility. 'Well, if you make it easy to rebel,
then there's no value in doing it,' says Kevin blithely. Great to know he
has our best interests at heart.  

Privacy, that's one issue. Another: protection. Have the digerati failed to
notice the violent and unpalatable emergent phenomena at football matches
and mob rallies? Have they ever considered that from 'natural' flux,
society has doggedly organised itself into top-down and often totalitarian
systems? That if you strengthen the ability of humans to communicate ideas
without tempering them, you invite the spontaneous emergence of systems
which may not reflect your own political intentions? A distributed system,
I point out to Kevin, need not stay in motion, but can reach a resting
point in any one of a plethora of constellations. 

For a while we skirt around each other, me arguing that his network will
speed the process of tyranny and revolution into a kind of continuous
repression and revolt, him arguing that it will make such tyranny 'more
difficult. I'm not saying it can't be done, just that It becomes more
difficult.' We manage to agree that the network, already generating
conspiracy theories like Billy-O through its younger sibling, the Internet,
might in future give them an environment in which they can proliferate with
even greater efficacy. 

But what's  the difference between conspiracy theory and religious and
political movements, I ask? Kevin cuts through the question with a
prophetic assertion: 'We're not going to see tyrannies, but things that are
like conspiracies to the extreme.' He then comes over a bit vague and
seer-ish, in an Ides of March kind of way. 'Very, very toxic,
conspiratorial and rumour based things. We haven't, probably, seen that
kind of thing yet.' I decide to leave it at that, and we move on swiftly to
the subject of mob rule. 

Suddenly we hit pay-dirt. 'I think it's impossible to have any kind of
sophisticated civilisation that's run entirely from the bottom. Sure,
that's a mob, and you get mob rule. So you absolutely need to have top-down
control.' In a flash, I get it: even Kelly doesn't really believe any of
this gab about distributed rule. 'That,' he admits, 'is just one part of
the equation. You need points of control within the system. Leverage
points, I'd call them.' 

This, of course, is the crux of what many sceptics are trying to get across
to the digerati: that the architecture of a system defines the movements of
those who traverse it, and that those who design and influence that
architecture should therefore pay close attention their motivations and
mind-sets. Whilst the claim was for a system that had an entirely open
architecture, similar somehow to those found in 'nature', we merely wanted
to point out that that didn't sound like the way 'nature' worked - or that
open systems, in human society, have often led to abusive, coercive
movements.   Now our position, as critics of this emergent Californian
ideology, changes, for here is a far more dangerous admission: that the
digerati, or at least some of them, are fully aware that 'leverage points'
have to be hardwired into their network, and that those points will define
control within that network. Now we want to know - and we have to ask -
what ideology informs the placement of those points of control, what
strategies govern their operation? 

'Yeah,' muses Kelly, 'can we agree on a set of moral heuristics that we
want to wire in?'  

Oh, oh. And then, 

'How do we engineer consensus?'

This has all started to sound very, very worrying indeed, and I find myself
considering the opinion of a couple of notable Nettime writers - to whit,
that the digerati are the new Mussolinis and Hitlers of our time - in a new
light. Could Kelly really be an embryonic Infofuehrer, exhorting the
virtual class to sneak leverage points and fulcrums of control into the
systems they are helping to fashion? Somehow it doesn't ring true. I have
to add a new criticism to the list of those he is already surrounded by:
that Kelly is an intellectual naif. By his own admission, he relies on
other people to provide ideologies. 'I am very eager,' he says to me, 'to
hear someone else map something out that make sense to me.' 

You really get the feeling, talking to him, that he honestly doesn't feel
equipped to talk about certain issues. He's a bright guy, but when he
mentions to me that he didn't go to college, I start to realise that he
just isn't comfortable discussing the implications of his work when that
discussion starts to touch philosophical and sociopolitcal theoretics. It
may be that Kelly feels on safe ground in his book, therefore, with nature
on his side. It's hard to go wrong with nature. It doesn't answer back, and
if you describe it convincingly enough, most of your readers won't either. 

Sceptics would of course point out to me that I bought into his
disingenuity, and that I'm the nave one; they'd probably be right. But,
before I finish, let me point out that this charge of naivete should not be
taken as an attempt to mitigate Kelly's, or the digerati's, astonishing
intellectual irresponsibility. 'What are your ideas?' Kelly asks me as the
interview is closing. 'I'm an editor at Wired, I have many times asked
people to prepare something that I can believe in. Give me something that
makes sense in terms of what I know, and I'll try to disseminate it.' Not
good enough, I'm afraid: the way to respond to the fact of your own
misguided, malnourished and half-assed ideology is not to ask me, or anyone
else, to come up with one - it's to start doing some thinking yourself.  

'Well,' Kevin says meekly, 'I'm not much of a preacher. I'm a devout
Christian, I have my own faith, my own beliefs, that very few people share
and very few people are actually interested in hearing about. I'm not a
preacher.'  Now that, I think, is interesting. But I'm going to resist
giving a Christian reading of the notions of Gaia and hive mind - and I'm
going to resist setting Christianity alongside the 'natural law' argument
and saying 'look!'; both of those actions would be somewhat below the belt.
I will also resist going into any detail about the incompatibility of
Jesus' teachings with system that promotes pan-Capitalism and which is all
but blind to those at the bottom. All this is part of a different article. 

What I will say is that I, for one, would be very interested in hearing a
technological discourse based not on nature, but on the Bible. Kevin Kelly,
if you're truly committed to pointedly unfunny speculations about the
future, you might as well jettison all this prosaic, 'natural' claptrap,
put your money where your mouth is and head for the heavens. 'I am the
Common Gateway Interface, the truth, and the light'. Cor, now wouldn't that
be something? 

 j.j. king June 21st 1997

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