It was a fascinating experience to read Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable right after tackling Nicholas Carr’s Utopia is Creepy, an experience that teaches a lot about why so many other tech writers come and go with the same blazingly fast trendiness of teenage pop singers, while Kelly has been around since literally the 1970s and continues to be one of the most thought-provoking writers of that entire industry. For while Carr’s book is a disappointing series of blog-sized old-man rants about basically any name-brand technology that’s crossed his eyes over the last few years (“What’s the deal with Wikipedia!? What’s the deal with Twitter!? What’s the deal with Second Life!?”), The Inevitable takes a holistic and big-picture look at all the larger trends that have been happening in all of human culture over the last twenty years, to deliver a series of predictions not about what specific technologies or webapps will be the next big trendy ones, but the ways that general human behavior and human society is changing based on whatever the newest trendy apps are.
And indeed, Kelly is in a particularly suitable position to do such a thing — a former editor of the proto-cyberpunk hippie publication The Whole Earth Catalog, a founding member of proto-web online community The WELL, and one of the founders of Wired magazine, he’s made a nearly half-century career now out of taking sweeping looks at the way technology has been changing the very nature of human existence and consciousness since the end of World War Two, delivering in this case a book of 12 chapters that each focus not on a specific technology but a general verb like “cognifying,” “accessing” and “filtering.” Within each of these intriguingly titled chapters, then, Kelly delves into the recent history of these kinds of activities (for example, the history of chess-playing computers in the “cognifying” chapter), which then inevitably leads to a look at the most cutting-edge current research on the subject (an extended examination of IBM’s Watson), a discussion of what surprising things we can learn from this latest research (in this case, that artificial intelligence is likely never going to come in a monolithic, human-aping form like HAL from 2001, but rather an endless series of “dumbly focused” intelligent apps that each do only one thing, but do them better than literally any human could even imagine that subject being done), then ending by speculating a bit on what this trend might foretell in a science-fictional near future (here, for example, that perhaps computers will one day soon figure out how quantum mechanics work, a subject that is quite literally too difficult for human brain comprehension but that might not be for a “silicon brain”).
As usual with Kelly’s writing, it all adds up to some pretty heady stuff, an admirable hallmark from the optimistic, psychedelia-influenced era of cutting-edge technology in the 1970s he comes from, that we are sadly losing more and more in our current age of technology as capitalist commodity. One of the last grand thinkers from that era of the industry, Kelly’s writing is still worth gobbling up with both hands whenever you can get ahold of it, with The Inevitable coming wildly more recommended than any of the other “What’s the deal with…?” old-man rants of the moment that litter the tech bookshelves these days.
Out of 10: 9.8