We’ve all heard the adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In his highly readable book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly argues the adage should be “the more things change, the less you probably noticed and and you ain’t seen nothing yet.” It’s not the catchiest of sayings so maybe we should rely on the book’s subtitle, “Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future.” Articulated in the 12 gerund-based chapter titles of Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Screening, Accessing, Sharing, Filtering, Remixing, Interacting, Tracking, Questioning and Beginning, the forces serve as the basis for Kelly’s decidedly cheery image of the near and not-so-near future. Given Kelly’s background as the founding editor of Wired magazine you might expect a well-written, glowing picture of the future and that’s pretty much what you’ll get from The Inevitable. To his credit, Kelly seems entirely aware of his Silicon-Valley-infused-rose-colored glasses when it comes to his take on the future.
As expected for a futurist sort of book, The Inevitable has a mix of illustrative examples, just-so factoids and personal anecdotes about technology and the role it plays in our lives. Helpfully, it reads like a casual conversation with someone describing a reasonably plausible future. It’s rather clear that Kelly’s take on the technological future is decidedly optimistic. I do not share his belief that future “people of the screen” will be as literate and immune to propaganda as he predicts (see campaign 2016?!) or that the coming realignment of work due to automation will all arrive as seamlessly as he appears to hope.
Our human assignment will be to keep making jobs for robots – and that is a task that will never be finished. So we will always have at least that one “job.”
More convincingly, Kelly’s take on the importance of the sharing economy and how technology will shape our ideas about creativity and problem solving stretch what is already possible just far enough to be plausible without over-promising. Perhaps most captivating, at least to this science teacher, is the future that Kelly lays out for how technology, in the form of technologies like artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation and quantum computing, will help scientists keep up with the growing list of questions.
That gap between questions and answers is our ignorance, and it is growing exponentially. In other words, science is a method that chiefly expands our ignorance rather than our knowledge.
Overall, The Inevitable does what books about technology’s present and future should do. It places today in proper context while offering a plausible account for where tomorrow could take us. Very much recommended, especially if you are looking for a bit of positivity as an exhausting 2016 turns into the open question that is 2017.