“The best technology is invisible”

Kevin Kelly OMR Podcast
Kevin Kelly OMR Podcast

Founding executive editor at Wired, perennial tech first-mover, digital prognosticator, best-selling author, China expert: Kevin Kelly is a man of many talents and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, Time, Harper’s, GQ among many other outlets. In this edition of the OMR Podcast, Kelly sits down with OMR’s Heidi Stamer to discuss the invisibility of functional technology, offering up predictions on the future of tech and why he hopes the West and the US is wrong and China is right.

“Teenage boys in their basement”

By 1993 when he began as an editor at Wired—then dubbed the “Rolling Stone of digital technology—, Kevin Kelly had already amassed nearly a decade of experience online. It was this ahead-of-his-time expertise that would come to characterize his writing and career. But like most things ahead of their time, it took a while to breakthrough to the mainstream. “Technology was not cool then,” Kelly says, “This Internet stuff was particularly seen as this realm of teenage boys in their basement. Experts and owners of media never believed that it would ever become mainstream.” Kelly, Wired and the Internet eventually left the basement for the penthouse and achieved their vision of driving tech to “the center of culture and to make technology cool.”

One of the reasons Wired helped spearhead the acceptance of tech topics in the mainstream was Kelly’s ability with his writing to express complex topics simply. He called it “abstraction through experience.” As a visionary and an early mover, he was tasked with creating public access via the Internet for Wired and trying out VR for the first time in 1989. And through those experiences, Kelly could “abstract, then make generalizations and then circle back to the specifics in people’s lives.”

“Once technology works, it becomes invisible”

That last part is, of course, essential in determining whether or not a technology will escape its niche or nerdy label. But a technology’s long-term viability is more than just breeching the mainstream and being incorporated into our everyday lives, it’s invisible. “The real successful tech is the stuff we don’t even know it’s there.”

One thing that’s plain to see is Kelly’s keen eye for making accurate predications. In 2007, around the time when the Internet was 5000 days old, Kelly offered up a host of predictions that turned out to be true, including the importance of photo and video, as well as a “global mind documenting everything.” Some 4000 days into the age of social, Kelly is back at hypothesizing what the future holds. One area is, of course, the further advance of AR and VR. After digitizing our connections, “we’re going to make a mirror of the physical world that we can experience in many ways.

A dent in the culture of the rest of the world

Kelly sees AR as a place that will not only inspire us to explore but to impact business by helping us “find new products and derive new benefits from this world that is machine readable. To extract out new understandings, new relationships, new businesses, new services.” At the forefront of next-gen platforms is China. According to Kelly, there are several factors for why China is at the vanguard. One is of course sheer scale. “Its home market is big enough on its own, Kelly feels it will become not only a technological, economic powerhouse, but also a cultural influence on the world.” They could be a player in AI, AR and VR in a big way that would make a dent in the culture of the rest of the world.”

The other plus China has going for it, is its openness to new tech and laissez-faire attitude towards information and surveillance. “China has a very different and alien attitude about the world and information.” That is especially true of the degree at which the Chinese are ok with governmental monitoring, while in the West we are seeking greater privacy safeguards. “I am trying to imagine a world in which we (the Americans) are wrong and that China figures out a way to monitor everyone in a way that’s not only productive, but also makes people comfortable.”

OMR Podcast with Kevin Kelly at a glance:

  • On the early days at Wired: (0:50)
  • On the factors that compel him to write and what he hopes to achieve with his writing: (1:48)
  • On the motivation for highlighting unknown tech breakthroughs in his “cool tools” book: (5:51)
  • On his early days and how his parents enabled him to develop his curiosity: (8:52)
  • After making a host of accurate predictions in 2007 on “the next 5000 days of the web, where KK sees the future after the web heading: (9:55)
  • On his advice to young persons just starting out: (12:46)
  • As a source of inspiration for others, where does he draw his own inspiration? (15:16)
  • On why he has always been drawn to Asia: (17:18)
  • On why he primarily focusses on China when discussing Asia: (19:52)
  • As his vision of the future is predicted on the openness on the web, does KK feel that China is more open? (21:14)
  • On where he sees change in China coming from: (24:22)
  • On his thoughts regarding the balance between transparency and privacy: (25:42)
  • On why he is against possible anti-trust proceedings against the Big Four in tech: (28:23)
  • On where he derives his status of eternal optimism: (29:31)

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