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.


James Redford said...

For much more on Prof. Frank J. Tipler's work, see his below paper, which among other things demonstrates that the known laws of physics (i.e., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics) require that the universe end in the Omega Point (the final cosmological singularity and state of infinite informational capacity identified as being God):

F. J. Tipler, "The structure of the world from pure numbers," Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964. Also released as "Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything," arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007.

Out of 50 articles, Prof. Tipler's above paper was selected as one of 12 for the "Highlights of 2005" accolade as "the very best articles published in Reports on Progress in Physics in 2005 [Vol. 68]. Articles were selected by the Editorial Board for their outstanding reviews of the field. They all received the highest praise from our international referees and a high number of downloads from the journal Website." (See Richard Palmer, Publisher, "Highlights of 2005," Reports on Progress in Physics. ) Reports on Progress in Physics is the leading journal of the Institute of Physics, Britain's main professional body for physicists.

See also the below resources for further information on the Omega Point Theory:


"Omega Point (Tipler)," Wikipedia, April 16, 2008

"Frank J. Tipler," Wikipedia, April 16, 2008

Tipler is Professor of Mathematics and Physics (joint appointment) at Tulane University. His Ph.D. is in the field of global general relativity (the same rarefied field that Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking developed), and he is also an expert in particle physics and computer science. His Omega Point Theory has been published in a number of prestigious peer-reviewed physics and science journals in addition to Reports on Progress in Physics, such as Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (one of the world's leading astrophysics journals), Physics Letters B, the International Journal of Theoretical Physics, etc.

Prof. John A. Wheeler (the father of most relativity research in the U.S.) wrote that "Frank Tipler is widely known for important concepts and theorems in general relativity and gravitation physics" on pg. viii in the "Foreword" to The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986) by cosmologist Prof. John D. Barrow and Tipler, which was the first book wherein Tipler's Omega Point Theory was described.

The leading quantum physicist in the world, Prof. David Deutsch (inventor of the quantum computer, being the first person to mathematically describe the workings of such a device, and winner of the Institute of Physics' 1998 Paul Dirac Medal and Prize for his work), endorses the physics of the Omega Point Theory in his book The Fabric of Reality (1997). For that, see

David Deutsch, extracts from Chapter 14: "The Ends of the Universe" of The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes--and Its Implications (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1997), ISBN: 0713990619; with additional comments by Frank J. Tipler.

The only way to avoid the Omega Point cosmology is to invent tenuous physical theories which have no experimental support and which violate the known laws of physics, such as with Prof. Stephen Hawking's paper on the black hole information issue which is dependant on the conjectured string theory-based anti-de Sitter space/conformal field theory correspondence (AdS/CFT correspondence). See S. W. Hawking, "Information loss in black holes," Physical Review D, Vol. 72, No. 8, 084013 (October 2005); also at arXiv:hep-th/0507171, July 18, 2005.

That is, Hawking's paper is based upon proposed, unconfirmed physics. It's an impressive testament to the Omega Point Theory's correctness, as Hawking implicitly confirms that the known laws of physics require the universe to collapse in finite time. Hawking realizes that the black hole information issue must be resolved without violating unitarity, yet he's forced to abandon the known laws of physics in order to avoid unitarity violation without the universe collapsing.

Some have suggested that the universe's current acceleration of its expansion obviates the universe collapsing (and therefore obviates the Omega Point). But as Profs. Lawrence M. Krauss and Michael S. Turner point out in "Geometry and Destiny" (General Relativity and Gravitation, Vol. 31, No. 10 [October 1999], pp. 1453-1459; also at arXiv:astro-ph/9904020, April 1, 1999 ), there is no set of cosmological observations which can tell us whether the universe will expand forever or eventually collapse.

There's a very good reason for that, because that is dependant on the actions of intelligent life. The known laws of physics provide the mechanism for the universe's collapse. As required by the Standard Model, the net baryon number was created in the early universe by baryogenesis via electroweak quantum tunneling. This necessarily forces the Higgs field to be in a vacuum state that is not its absolute vacuum, which is the cause of the positive cosmological constant. But if the baryons in the universe were to be annihilated by the inverse of baryogenesis, again via electroweak quantum tunneling (which is allowed in the Standard Model, as B - L is conserved), then this would force the Higgs field toward its absolute vacuum, cancelling the positive cosmological constant and thereby forcing the universe to collapse. Moreover, this process would provide the ideal form of energy resource and rocket propulsion during the colonization phase of the universe.

Prof. Tipler's above Reports on Progress in Physics paper also demonstrates that the correct quantum gravity theory has existed since 1962, first discovered by Richard Feynman in that year, and independently discovered by Steven Weinberg and Bryce DeWitt, among others. But because these physicists were looking for equations with a finite number of terms (i.e., derivatives no higher than second order), they abandoned this qualitatively unique quantum gravity theory since in order for it to be consistent it requires an arbitrarily higher number of terms. Further, they didn't realize that this proper theory of quantum gravity is consistent only with a certain set of boundary conditions imposed (which includes the initial Big Bang, and the final Omega Point, cosmological singularities). The equations for this theory of quantum gravity are term-by-term finite, but the same mechanism that forces each term in the series to be finite also forces the entire series to be infinite (i.e., infinities that would otherwise occur in spacetime, consequently destabilizing it, are transferred to the cosmological singularities, thereby preventing the universe from immediately collapsing into nonexistence). As Tipler notes in his 2007 book The Physics of Christianity (pp. 49 and 279), "It is a fundamental mathematical fact that this [infinite series] is the best that we can do. ... This is somewhat analogous to Liouville's theorem in complex analysis, which says that all analytic functions other than constants have singularities either a finite distance from the origin of coordinates or at infinity."

When combined with the Standard Model, the result is a Theory of Everything (TOE) correctly describing and unifying all the forces in physics.

Anonymous said...

Good for people to know.