Monday, February 18, 2008

Technology is Holy - An Interview with Kevin Kelly

Last October I had the chance to interview Kevin Kelly. For those of you who don't know Kelly's work, he has a very long career as a prophet of technology and technological thought. He has been one of the contributors to the highly influential Whole Earth Catalog magazine, editor of the Whole Earth Review, involved in the founding of the seminal virtual community The WELL, and executive editor of WIRED.

Apart from all these impressing titles, Kelly has issued some of the more interesting writing in the junction which crosses computers, biology, evolution, cybernetics and economy. His book Out of Control is a mind boggling introduction to the ways in which biology and technology intersect in the 21st century and his bestseller book New Rules for the New Economy is one of the most spiritual books I've read about economy, which already in 1998 managed to foresee many of the developments which have shaken net economy in the decade since (Just for example, the book explicitly discusses the long tail [p.103] and web 2.0 [p.121] – just without calling them that way yet). Kelly is also an engaging speaker, and there are some very good podcasts of him on the net which you can freely download. From these I would like here to recommend the inspiring Future of the Webp podcast he did with EconTalk, and his fascinating lecture titled: The next 100 years of science.

Kelly is highly optimistic about technology, its meaning and impacts. For that reason he is often categorized as a technoutopian. While this might be true, he is certainly not your average one dimensional techno-utopist but something more much more interesting than that. Part of that is because he is also a born again Christian, which gives another more theological angle to his writing. Another thing which makes his views even more intricate is that he has spent years of his life back-packing in Asia, writes a lot about biology and even stands as the founder of the All Species Foundation, which means he is committed to life and nature, and is not oblivious, hopefully, to the ecological and spiritual meanings of the natural world.

I originally did this interview with Kelly for the Israeli site Nana, and at the same time also for the Israeli spirituality and alternative culture magazine, Chaim Acherim, So parts of our conversation already appeared in Hebrew both on the nana website, and on the article which I wrote for Chaim Acherim.

The truth is however that most of what we talked about couldn't find its place in both places. Part of the reason was that during the interview I became so involved and interested in what Kelly had to say. His answers were just too meaningful to me on different intellectual and personal levels, so that I did the thing that a professional journalist should never do. I just threw away all my other questions and concentrated on the questions that I had buzzing in my mind in that time, and all through reading Kelly's books – questions that might not always fit journalistic articles, but to my mind held great importance.

So without anymore introductions, here is the Interview:

* One last important comment. English is not my mother tongue. I transcribed the interview to the best of my abilities. However, it is possible that I made some errors in the process. Any grammar mistakes which might be part of the article should be attributed to me and not to Kelly, which, I assure you, speaks perfectly good English

: Fred Turner's book From Counterculture to Cyberculture describes your move from involvement in the countercultural movement in the spirit of the 1960's into the idea of technology as a tool for liberation, or anyway that's how Turner put that. In one of the interviews with you I heard you say that the vision of simple life in nature simply wasn't enough. What made you turn away from that vision? What was unsatisfactory in this kind of new communal project?

Kelly: Personally, I never lived on a commune, so I haven't turned from it because I was never there. The kind of 1960's counterculture was a very broad movement that included many kinds of countercultures, ranging from many that were very political to many that were very apolitical. From people who were experimenting with communal living to those who were like myself kind of nomadic, not really drifting but hitchhiking around the world. I had dropped out, but not necessarily dropped into anything.

Part of that counterculture was also this idea of trying to remake civilization. So there were people who had moved from the cities to the country, who weren't living on communes but who lived solar green style, growing their own fruit and that was close to what I was doing, and the idea there was that you would try to empower individuals rather than organizations, that's the solution. Secondly, there was a sense of trying to make an alternative, to reboot civilization and start from the grind up and see if we could start up with something different. I think that experiment did not work very well.

I think once you started living on a farm growing your own food, digging a well by hand, grinding your wheat into flour - you can do that for a couple of years and then you rediscover electricity and the marvels of modern life and nobody really sustained that because they decided that actually civilization was pretty good.

But some of the other lessons from that counter culture say the drug aspect, the sense of expanding human consciousness, and the idea of empowering individuals. Those two aspects were brought into the emerging computer revolution. I mean, I think the whole counterculture would have completely died off if it hadn't been for personal computers.

I think what the aging hippies like myself discovered in the personal computer and the communication of the internet revolution - was that it kind of tipped the balance of power back to individuals in a way that was really hard to imagine in the 1950's. and secondly, it gave another opportunity to make another kind of alternative civilization. So you have virtual reality, second life. All these things brought again the sense that we can go back to the primitives, and we can construct some sort of civilization, see if we can do it better.

Then the third thing which didn't come up until recently was this sort of rediscovery of communalism, the web 2.0, the idea of sharing, the gift economy, the what I would call dot.communism, Wikipedia - the whole sense of the collective being very powerful. That by a group exercise you have the highest mind.

All these kinds of things that you had a in the counterculture, like open source, all these things have a new life in this new media and so they are basically being embraced by former hippies and it becomes it's own kind of counterculture although unlike the first counterculture this is being backed by venture capitalists, so it's kind of weird blend of open source revolutionaries getting billions of dollars of ventures capital.

Hartogsohn: Regarding second life and virtual reality which you've mentioned. These are no doubt very exciting technologies, but both are still experiencing some rather troubling difficulties. Virtual reality is a technology that's been promised for a very long time and doesn't seem to ever arrive, and even second life seems to experience a sort of backlash these days, even if only temporary.

There is this feeling that these virtual worlds don't find their place in the fabric of existence yet, that maybe virtual lives are something that fits only certain parts of society, that somehow ubiquitous computing seems to be the more successful trend. Maybe people don't really know what to do inside 3D virtual spaces or even totally immersive virtual spaces that are very interesting to think about, but the question is: are we really built for that? Where do you think this is going? Will virtual reality happen and will virtual worlds become prominent as it is sometimes promised?

Kelly: A virtual reality platform will absolutely, as it continues to be developed, as multiple dimensions of reality continue to be added, as it improves in resolution, at speed, in depth - yes it will certainly be a place that will do things.

There are tons of tons of reasons why now in this current evolution it won't go very far. But to me those arguments have always been there and it's much more impressive to me is how many people are already spending as much time as they are right now [in virtual worlds], because as these ideas was first broached say 1988, let's say 20 years ago, no one believed that people would spend any amount of time in it.

Basically 20 years ago if you showed them second life now people would be dumbfounded, because they were projecting that nobody's going to spend any time [in virtual worlds], it's so flat, it's so artificial, it's a toy. So here we have millions of people spending millions of hours.

So even though it has a long way to go, it has gone much further than a lot of people would have believed to begin with. So there is still a tremendous amount of problems and the reason why we don't spend all our time there, and I don't believe that we'll ever spend all our time there - there is no reason to spend all out time because we have this world which does things very well – is that it's an auxiliary not a substitute, it's a supplement. And all media become supplements. It's another choice, it's another avenue.

And what second life is trying to do right now is trying to figure out the exact talents that kind of world has. What can it do that we can't do in this real life. There is no real reason to replicate the things that we already do, because we can use real life for that.

It's trying to find it's place, trying to figure out really the good things that we can do in there but we can't do anywhere else. And that will take time but it's also a changing destiny, because as technology improves the answer also changes.

Hartogsohn: You write a lot about biology, but does nature still play an important role in your thinking? Do you think that technology and nature can be integrated and if so, then how?

Kelly: My first book, Out of Control, was a book documenting the seemingly opposing faces of one system and those opposing faces were the biological and the technological which many people see as antagonistic: that Technology expands at the price of harming biology, and that biology is everything that technology is not. I suggested that in fact the two are really different facets of the same thing and that as technology increases in sophistication and complexity that it will become virtually indistinguishable from biology and that at the same time, in our efforts to engineer biological things, the biological world will become indistinguishable from technology and naturally I think that the biological world as it is right now has tons and tons of lessons for us as designers of technology.

How biology does things has tremendous importance and can be transferred to the technological world and has to be transferred in order for us to manage these complex systems. Sometimes we will invent ways that nature hasn't, that's fine. But many times we'd find that nature has already discovered things, because it already had 4 billion years of evolution to try almost every possible solution. In the biological world as a whole there is 4 billion years of learning, there is so much that nature has learned. It will take centuries to unravel it.

Hartogsohn: There is also a different aspect about the relations between biology and technology which I wish you could address, though. Mankind has evolved through millions of years in nature, we are built into the fabric of nature. We view nature as something beautiful and relaxing. Just being in nature can have positive impacts on us as biological beings. On the other side, this sort of technological living has its costs and living apart from nature can result in stress or alienation. Do you see what I mean, and if you do, do you see any kind of solution or integration to those two factors of nature and technology?

Kelly: I understand what your are saying that as animals, as mammals with a couple of billion years of recent evolution, that our migration towards being more technological beings is stressful and I acknowledge that. I think that's the way things are. I think technology, in the sense of cultural technologies, things that we build around us: tools and remedies, medicines, all these things are one way that we compensate for that.

And eventually in the long term we will begin to genetically program, genetically engineer our own species, our own selves, in different ways to again deal with the fact that we humans are not just only biological animals, but we also have a mind. Our mind will play a greater and greater role in determining our future so that we will actually modify our bodies to facilitate the extension of our minds.

And the human nature has changed over time. Human nature has always changed and it always will continue to change, so it not a fixed entity, it's something that we are making up that we are checking and they may be more than one human nature, there may be human natures in plural. Certain people may decide that they actually do not believe that we should change our selves from this point on and they may have their own past, and other people are very eager to change themselves as much as possible.

Hartogsohn: I'm researching the idea of de Chardin's Omega Point on an academic basis and I think I've identified 3 key thinkers in the development of this idea. These 3 thinkers are for me Teilhard de Chardin, Marshall Mcluhan and yourself, which is also very interesting because Teilhard de Chardin and Marshall Mcluhan were both devout Christians, which I understand you are too. So I'm very interested in knowing what do you think about the idea of the Omega Point, and about those 2 thinkers, and how does this all relate to Christianity?

Kelly: What's interesting about de Chardin and Mcluhan is that I find both of them are really hard to read. I have trouble getting through any of their books. I was the one that made Marshall Mcluhan the patron saint of wired. I think that's how Marshall Mcluhan is best used. I think you don't want to read it in full length. Just as quotes. Just to read his little quotes. I think if you're reading him this really is a long media for him. He needs to be on TV. Marshall Mcluhan is made for YouTube.

Also when I read de Chardin I kind of plow and trouble and stumble through some of his writings. There's a lot of powerful signals that I'm just not understanding. My understanding of what they mean by these things is very corrupted or in some ways polluted. It's almost secondary, in the sense of what I know about them is really things that I read other people say about them. So I just really wanted to let you know that I don't really feel as if I have a very good first hand knowledge of what they mean.

So that being said, I would add a third person to that trinity. It's de Chardin and Marshall Mcluhan and then the third one is Freeman Dyson. And Freeman Dyson, although he personally claims to be a some sort of Christian, also claims to be a Christian without theology.

What he has is this idea that Omega Point is basically a mind infinite in all directions, that we have an escalating movement, a manifestation of the mind and that basically through his astrophysics calculations, that we have an extension of the mind. And he asks, can a mind or all minds extend into the universe, and he believes that as theoretically possible and sees that as an omega point.

And in the vein of Dyson there is Frank Tipler. His book is called The Physics of Christianity. He goes even further as an astrophysicist and talks about an omega point which is where the mind takes over the entire universe and collapses or converges in the sense of de Chardin convergence into a smaller and smaller space and that in this movement towards a compressed universal computer, that all previous mind is basically simulated so he imagines this as a sort of resurrection.

Basically the whole thing becomes a simulation on the other side which he equates with the heaven and other people would say is kind of like an ultimate second life. So I think that vision colors mine although I don't think I go as far as Frank Tipler imagining that our world is like second life on the other side but I'm closer to Freeman Dyson's in that I think my expectation of an omega point is an information based, its couched in information vocabulary, in the grammar of computation and information and so I don't think I have an articulation but I don't think Mcluhan did either, it's just more of a hunch.

Hartogsohn: So how does your technological thinking relate to your Christianity?

Kelly: I think a traditional question or issue for theologians in the past was wrestling with the relationship between biological life and God. Initially it was trying to understand humans and god. And then Darwin came along and sort of set man and humans apart. So they had this whole other thing: the rest of the world. What is the relationship of all other biology and humans in god. And then we had in the 60's this whole issue of where does the environment, where does ecology fit in terms of the sacred. I am much more interested now in the relationship between technology and God. What is the meaning of technology in the cosmos? what is the relation between God and the cosmos?

My conclusion has been that in order for us to answer the question does the universe have a purpose, the only way to answer that question is through technology. And that technology actually will turn out to be the way that we come to understand ourselves and our identity and our purpose in the universe. And that of course at the same time technology will constantly shift what that purpose is. So it's sort of co-evolutionary in that sense. But it's necessary for us to make technology in order for us to understand our role in the universe.

As an example of that, to go back to Freeman Dyson talking about the mind, I don't think that it's possible for us as humans to have any kind of grasp of the infinite and what God might be, when we have only one type of thinking and that in fact what our assignment so to speak is, is to create as many varieties of minds as possible, that it will take an infinite number of different kinds of thinking and kinds of minds, artificial and alien to begin to grasp what the universe is and how that works.

What that means it that through technology which is either through the creation of artificial minds, or the discovery of other intelligences, or the creation of biological intelligences through breeding, what we're trying to do is to increase the ways of understanding that collectively. Millions and millions of different ways of thinking and viewing the world. Only through that way can we grasp the nature of our purpose.

Hartogsohn: In that vein, I heard you mention a new book you are working on with the title 'What does Technology Want'.

Kelly: Yeah and what's interesting is that the alternative working title of the book is called 'Holy Technology'. And my belief is that the roots of technology actually begin in the big bang, that it's an extropic system. Extropy, the opposite of entropy, is where you have increasing order over time, and so life is an extropic system. The mind and some of our technological systems also often exhibit extrophic properties.

If you go back to the beginning of the big bang, the origins of extropy and extropic systems begin even in the very beginning, as the expansion of the universe allowed galaxies, some of these self sustaining non-equilibrium states which are also necessary for extropic systems.

So the roots of technology reach all the way to the big bang. And what technology brings in the greater sense is increasing opportunities, increasing freedom, increasing possibility space and increasing ways to explore and inhabit and evolve basically through the evolution of evolution. And so those things I'm defining as divine. As not just neutral, As good, as a reflection of the divine spirit. And so I'm saying the meaning of technology is that it increases good overall in the world.

Hartogsohn: When should we expect the book.

Kelly: I haven't written it yet. What I just told you is very poetic but I'm trying to have it grounded it in some way numerically quantifiable. I'm trying to make it as falsifiable as possible which is much harder.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Notes from the Underground: Iranians and Israelis connect online

About a month ago, I published this article in Hebrew about the links between the Israeli and the Iranian blogospheres. The Canadian-Israeli blogger Lisa Goldman who was interviewed for the article translated the piece into English and put it on her blog today. Meanwhile Arash Kamanajir, the Iranian Blogger which I interviewed for my piece has issued his own Persian version of the piece and published it in his blog, and the German Daniel Rotters have posted his German version of the article in ex oriente, So this has become a sort of multinational joint peace-blogging operation.

I post Lisa's English Version of the article here.


On 25 December 2007, at the University of Tel Aviv, the Netvision Institute held its third conference on the struggle to maintain freedom of information on the Internet. The main topic was Iran: the attitude toward the Internet in Iran, Iranian hackers and also our Persian neighbour’s rapidly expanding blogosphere.

The conference did not go unnoticed in Iran. Five days later, on December 30, the Iranian news site Khedmat, which is considered close to former president Khatami, published an item under the headline, “Zionists Express Interest in the Subject of the Internet in Iran.”

“‘The Internet in Iran and its various facets’ was the subject of a conference that took place at Tel Aviv University in Occupied Palestine,” reported Khedmat. “The conference participants discussed the role of the Internet in contemporary society, and Internet struggles. Iranian blogs, rap music and the role of the Internet in creating other types of music that imitate Western culture were amongst the subjects that interested the Zionists.”

The article further reported that a committee of “Zionist experts” criticized Iran’s limited access to some internet sites.

Israel is a concept that does not exist

The Israeli media has been paying attention to the lively Iranian blogosphere for several years now. Amongst other things, the visit to Israel of Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan (Hebrew link) was mentioned in several international media outlets. From the perspective of the Israeli reader, Iranian bloggers are a comforting alternative source of information about another Iran - one that is friendlier and less aggressive to Israel. Over the years, articles about the Iranian blogosphere portrayed it as a different voice from a society that was usually shown in the Israeli media as closed and extremist.

Recently, the Iranian blogosphere has been the subject of academic studies in Israel. In the talk she gave at the Netvision conference, for example, Dr. Liora Handelman-Bavor said that, eight years after the launch of the first Persian language blog, “The [Iranian] regime’s attempts to suppress the blogosphere have largely failed.” Dr. Handelman-Bavor claimed that the Iranian blogosphere was intimately connected with alternative culture, the graffiti phenomenon and street art.

And now, based on the item in Khedmat, it seems that the Iranian media is aware of Israel’s interest in the Persian blogosphere.

But according to Arash Kamangir, an Iranian blogger who lives in Canada, few Iranian bloggers are aware of the interest they have aroused in Israel. “You probably know that the term ‘Israel’ does not exist in the official language of the regime of Iran. Even in my passport I am banned from traveling to ‘Occupied Palestine,’” he wrote in response to the questions I sent by email. “The average Iranian blogger is very anxious about being known as a person ‘who has connections with Israeli guys.’ A very interesting example happened a short while ago, and I believe it describes the whole situation.”

When Ahmadinejad moved to WordPress

As a means of illustrating the extent to which Iranian bloggers must be careful to avoid contact with Israelis, Kamangir offered an amusing-yet-sad anecdote about an incident that occurred last summer. This incident also shows how ordinary people who are citizens of enemy states find themselves making contact - albeit of a hesitant, groping kind.

“A friend of mine writes a blog about technology,” recounts Kamangir. “And a very helpful plugin for this system is called FireStats and is designed by an Israeli blogger. When my friend started using FireStats he was so fascinated by the functionalities that he wrote a post about it, in Persian of course. The next day he found out that he is getting hits from a Hebrew page. It turns out that the Israeli guys are also amazed that an Iranian person is using their code. So, they write a Hebrew post which reads, in English, ‘The formula to peace with Iran.’”

Omri, the Israeli blogger who discovered the post by Kamangir’s friend with the technology blog, wrote an amusing post that describes an imaginary conversation between Ahmadinejad and the leaders of Iran, in which the latter warn the president against attacking Israel because, “FireStats is developed in Givatayim, so if we destroy Gush Dan [Greater Tel Aviv] there won’t be any more versions!”

One of the Israeli readers surfed over to the Iranian’s blog and left a comment - in Hebrew. This apparently freaked the Iranian blogger out a bit. He deleted the comment and went over to the Israeli blog, where he left a comment asking for an explanation of what had been written about him. And that is how a discussion in awkward English was initiated between Iranian and Israeli bloggers. But a Utopian dialogue that unites “enemy” bloggers in an amusing exchange about politics and WordPress can be taken only so far.

“I wrote a piece titled ‘Iran-Israel Peace through a Wordpress Plugin,” recounts Arash. “Because of the sensitivity of the issue I sent an email to my friend asking for his permission before I would publish the post. The answer was very short: ‘Arash, you know this can be dangerous.’”"

So Iranian bloggers cannot write openly about Israeli bloggers?

“When Iranian bloggers have to censor themselves when it comes to sharing the mutual passion for scripts and other nerdy stuff with Israeli fellows, I guess showing any attention to ‘the Israeli interest in the Iranian blogosphere’ is out of context.”

So why are you not more cautious about entering into contact with Israeli bloggers?

“I live outside Iran, in Canada. There is a saying in Persian, “When you are drowning it does not matter if it’s one meter or 100 meters.”

Posts from the Underground

Estimates of the number of blogs in Iran range from 170,000 to 700,000. These are certainly impressive numbers, but Kamangir says that they are not an accurate reflection of Iranian society - particularly in the sense that the people who live in the less developed areas are unrepresented. “Most Iranian bloggers are middle class university students,” he writes. According to Kamangir, Iranian bloggers tend to be more liberal than the rest of the population.

On the other hand, Kamangir stresses the importance of differentiating between the opinions expressed by the Iranian regime and those of the ordinary people. “A friend of mine who came from Iran a few days ago was telling me that it is quite common to see Iranians criticize the regime, even using offensive words, in the public transit.”

“At the same time,” continues Kamangir, “A big portion of the Iranians have been exposed to the propaganda of the regime for decades and thus have unintentionally become ambassadors of the Islamic entity in many aspects…there is a big difference between an Iranian who is living inside Iran and the one who has had the experience of living in a free society, such as Canada.” According to Kamangir, when Iranian leave Iran they “start to question what they have been fed by the regime for a long time and start to think independently.”

“Blogs written by Iranian students abroad play a major role for these ‘new-born’ Iranians,” he writes. “Fortunately, this trend of free thinking is not limited to the Iranians who live outside the motherland. There is a huge number of blogs written by Iranians who live inside Iran and these blogs substantially question the official opinions of the regime. Interestingly, the questioning covers issues ranging from the official narration of Islam to human rights and sex.”

A different image of Israel

Although the circumstances are not yet ripe for an Iranian-Israeli blogger connection that could be a contra to the enmity of the Iranian and Israeli regimes, Kamangir writes that “…very strong links have been formed between the Iranian and the Israeli blogospheres. The strongest one, which I am aware of, is our communications with Lisa Goldman and her blog, On the Face. From time to time I translate her posts to Persian and the statistics of my blog, which I too get from FireStats, shows that a lot of my visitors follow her posts passionately. There are of course other Israeli bloggers whose blogs the Iranian bloggers follow, but Lisa has become almost an icon* for many Iranian bloggers I have talked to.”

“The Israeli blogosphere in English is a window into Israeli society for Iranians,” said Lisa Goldman in an interview for Nana10. “That is why I often translate items from Israeli blogs [in Hebrew], in order to expose a different view. Because the most interesting things written about Israel are written only in Hebrew.”

Goldman, a Canadian-born freelance journalist, spoke about some of the fascinating encounters created by the connection between the Iranian and Israeli blogospheres.

“I do receive emails from Iranians. It is as if they want us to know that they are not all as they are made to seem in the media, and I’ve had some fascinating encounters. There was someone in Tehran who used to chat with me via Messenger. He was a really intelligent, knowledgeable guy who knew excellent English. We used to chat about the situation in Iran, the elections, democracy and Israel, about which he was remarkably well informed. He even spoke a little Hebrew. But he refused to tell me his real name, and he was pretty paranoid. Each time he logged on, he was at a different computer and using a different online identity. I felt as though I were receiving messages from the Resistance. It was an amazing experience, but one day he disappeared and I haven’t heard from him since.”

How do Iranian bloggers find your blog?

“Look, I try to show a more human, complex and nuanced picture of Israeli life. They’re sort of stuck behind the Middle Eastern version of the Iron Curtain, but they’re very curious about us. They want to find out more, and it’s as if they’re extending their hands out through the Iron Curtain. The fact that I don’t write only about politics, but also about my day-to-day life in Tel Aviv, shows them a lively, modern, Levantine city that they would never see in the mainstream media.”

Fewer reasons to kill one another

So are blogs the way to create unmediated contact between Iranians and Israelis who, it sometimes seems, are led by politicians whose careers were built on a mutual agreement to issue bellicose threats against one another? When the media on one side serves the interests of the regime, and the media on the other side sells newspapers with lurid headlines about existential threats caused by Iranian nuclear warheads, perhaps the blogosphere could be an alternative source of information.

Eli Cohen, a senior research manager at Netvision, says, “The internet facilitates connections between individuals and bridges between cultures. Once you neutralize the political landmine it is possible, with the help of the internet, to create wonderful interpersonal relationships between human beings and to see that both your sorrows and your joys are very similar.”

Goldman, too, sees blogs as a tool for creating understanding between peoples. “We must find a way to get past the pre-conceived notions and one-dimensional portraits presented by the mainstream media,” she says. “They just perpetuate conflicts. I think that if you hear a human voice from the other side, that’s the beginning of the way.”

“I am not a sociologist. Neither am I a philosopher. However, I do know that when people talk they find less reasons to kill each other,” agrees Kamangir. “And this is what blogging is so generously providing us with.”