Kevin Kelly was a co-founder and executive editor of Wired and is currently senior maverick for the magazine. He has written several books about how technology shapes our world. We sat down with him for a recent RJI Futures Lab update to discuss some of the key insights contained in his forthcoming book,“The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.” Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Kevin Kelly on the future of media:

When I hear the words media and journalism there are several things I think about. One is the nature of filtering. Part of the landscape is that the number of new songs every year is phenomenal, the number of YouTube videos being uploaded, it’s thousands every minute, the number of books being written — all these things are increasing, so at some point we have to institute algorithmic filters to help us recommend or get things. And that’s true of news, too. We don’t have enough attention span in the world to even pay attention to the great stuff, so what we’re going to be doing is actually making filters and anti-filters. Filters that work to offset the harm the other filters do. So we have this sort of ecosystem of filters, that’s sort of where we’re headed. We’re not going to get rid of the filters; they’re going be part of both how we produce stuff and how we consume it.

On human versus computerized filters:

The scale of everything is so big is that humans will be part of that, but the scale of what we have demands the scaling of algorithms and computers, so humans can no longer deal with it. Even if you had a magical filter that would eliminate everything that was not absolutely perfect for me, that’s still too much stuff for me to see. So we have to have something. And so this personalization is going to be a huge part of it. These agents will know us, and the smartest agents will actually recommend things in a surprise that we don’t know. They’ll have certain algorithmic surprise elements to give us something serendipitous. This is inevitable that we have machine intelligence involved and actually shaping what we see. We see this issue with Facebook and Twitter in terms of curating our timeline; that’s just the beginning.

On competing for limited attention:

It’s long been said that the only scarcity in this new world of abundance is human attention — the 24 hours we have — and nothing we can do can increase it. Therefore, in theory our attention should be very, very valuable. But if you look at how much we collectively, humans, are working for the media companies, the cost per hour of attention on TV is 20 cents an hour. The content companies earn 20 cents an hour from basically the advertising that’s going out, the attention the users are giving it. So you’re kind of working for 20 cents an hour when you are watching TV and the ads, but you’re of course not being paid that 20 cents an hour. So what if there was a system where you were being paid to watch an ad and you were being paid dependent on lots of things: how much they wanted you, how much the demand was, maybe your influence as an influence-setter, the time of day, all kinds of things. But the idea is that people who want to advertise would send the money not to the advertising company but directly to you to watch their ad.

That system would also be true for email. Some people call email a to-do list that was set by other people, right? People email you and you have a list suddenly of all these people with demands. What if you were charging to read an email? So you can set different prices depending on who people were or what their request was. If you were something like a venture capitalist you may charge $5 for someone to read an email. But you could be a teenage girl and you have high influence and you charge a lot, too.

It’s very disruptive. I think the big advertisers and the big Fortune 500s are probably the last people to do this. This is going to happen much more in the bottom where there are people who haven’t thought about advertising before. It’s like Google AdSense. The billions of dollars that Google is making was not coming from people already advertising, it was from people who have never advertised before in their lives. Now you can put up an ad on any website, a little tiny text ad. So there were all kind of people who are all suddenly advertising, and that’s where the money was coming from. It was not being robbed from the big advertising companies, and I think the same thing with this kind of bottom up.

On the proliferation of digital screens:

One of the biggest shifts that we’re seeing right now in our society is a shift away from people of the book, where the book is the center of our society, from the Constitution to the Bible to laws, authors in authority. And we’re becoming people of the screen and everything happens on the screen and it’s very visual. There’s a literacy and now there’s a visuality, where things are visual and the currency is actually around moving images. The thing about that is we haven’t had the same development of tools into visuality. All the kinds of things that we invented for literacy — annotations, index, page numbers, summaries, abstracts — they all work on text. We don’t really have the corresponding set of tools for images. But we are very soon going to have them. For instance, on Google you can search inside any document into the syntax of that, but you couldn’t do that with an image. “Show me all the pictures of a rabbit coming out of a hat that were on YouTube.” That’s impossible. But with AI now you can actually do that, so the AI, the Google AI, will know anywhere on YouTube where a scene like that occurs in any way, and so we can begin to take those things and combine them and structure them into new forms, a kind of Gutenberg revolution for the visual moving images as we had with text. Those tools for making the visual the center of our culture are just starting to happen, but that’s where it’s going: The visual moving and increasingly three-dimensional image is going to become the center of our culture and not text. So we’re moving from being people of the book to screening everything. We don’t watch it, we aren’t reading it, we’re screening it; so that act of screening things, where everything appears on the screen, it changes a lot of things.

As I mentioned, the center of the book was authors and from authors we had authority. Screen does not have authority. For every expert there’s an anti-expert, for every fact there’s an anti-fact, so you have to assemble the truth yourself, which is a very different way from getting it from authority. So the culture of the screen is very different, and that’s what we’re moving into and that’s one of the challenges for journalism is that the role of the author and authority is not as high in this new screen world as it was in the text world.

On remixing:

There’s very little actually new produced each year. Most of the value that we get is by remixing what already exists, and of course the more you remix the more possibilities you create for a future remixing. So it’s kind of an exponentially growing value, and in media I think remixing is the fundamental source of wealth. It’s very easy to do what authors like me do. We don’t invent very many words, we take a dictionary, they’re all found words, and we rearrange them, we remix them. Very few words are invented new. That’s been very difficult to do with images cause they’re kind of embedded, you can’t really find things. But now as we move into VR, as we move into these wired worlds, as we move into new tools of extracting and unbundling images into the components, we’ll be able to do that. We’ll be able to find an existing model of the Golden Gate Bridge to use in a movie that we want to make or to something. So rather than having to curate these things or to go out and film them ourselves, we’ll go into a dictionary, a database of component parts and, like an author, assemble them and make things. That’s happening in VR, that’s happening in the cinema right now. And that is the remixing that is going to be fundamental to the new media.

Right now when you film something it’s kind of a flat plain but very soon with AI and other techniques like field capture, we’ll be able to unbundle those things. So you can isolate the “me” from the background automatically, take me out, do something or isolate other parts of me; and so all those parts will be unbundled in the same way that we can unbundle a text into the words and the letters and so we combine them in different ways, quote from them, sample them, whatever. It’s as if you had access to all the tracks in a song, or if you had all the layers in a Hollywood movie and you could take out certain things. That’s where we’re going. Those new tools will allow us to remix these things in a way that can’t even imagine right now, and that will be a part of media landscape and that’s where journalism will work in.

On virtual reality:

We’re moving from the internet of information, where anybody in the world can have access to the encyclopedia, Wikipedia, any information, anywhere that they want at any time, to an internet of experiences, which is what we’re getting from VR. The sense of presence, of being there, of having a 3-D, volumetric experience. And I think we’re going to be trading more and more on those experiences, and I think a lot of what journalism will be doing is actually curating, leading, analyzing experiences. So someone right now they go and they set up a correspondent in Tahrir Square and they’re there hearing about it, but it’s a little remote; but if you could bring the camera in and plant it in the middle and you can actually be there — I mean really feel like you were right there — it’s a very different experience. I mean it is an experience, it’s no longer as remote, it’s visceral. You don’t remember watching it, you remember being there. And that is going to be a lot of where this journalistic input can also go to in terms of curating, analyzing, understanding, directing — all those verbs we would want to do with journalism can be brought to this new internet of experiences.

On ubiquitous tracking:

Everything we do will be tracked by us, by others, by the government, by companies; and more and more of our lives will be tracked by something or other. We’re not going to stop it, but we can civilize it, meaning we can domesticate it. We can make it appropriate. I think the main way we do that is we make it symmetrical, meaning I know what you’re looking at and I know what you’re going to do with it and I get some benefit from it. That’s not the way things go right now. “They” are tracking us — we don’t know who they are, we don’t know what they’re doing with it, we get no benefit. But when we bring it a little more symmetrical, it feels a little bit more comfortable.

On sharing:

I think on the sharing meter we’re still at 10. I mean I don’t think we’ve even begun the degree of sharing that we’re going to do. So even though it sounds crazy — it’s like, Everybody is just oversharing — no, I don’t think anyone is oversharing yet. We haven’t even come close to oversharing and that is going back to this tracking of everything being tracked. There’s even more sharing that we’re going to do all the time, and I think VR is going to be one of the most social of all of the social medias.

On artificial intelligence:

AI is coming very fast. The news as we speak was the AI which was built beat the grand master, a Go player in Korea, something they thought would take 10 years more to do. The Google AI beat this, and the response of the losing champion to the AI moves was that they were beautiful, they were so insanely brilliant. So already AI is here, and you can buy it on Google. And that’s my suggestion: that AI is going to become a commodity like electricity that anywhere electricity flows now AI will flow. And if you want to do a new startup, the formula is very easy: You take X whatever it is and you add AI to it. There are people already doing it with narrative science stuff, where they’re trying to make AI to help write little stories that we don’t need any human involved. And that’s fine. We’ll have more of that, but there’s also ways to use AI to augment what we’re doing. It’s like hiring a thousand people for 60 cents. OK, let’s do that, we’ll apply them there, and we’ll do something incredible.


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