Kevin Kelly — Excellent Advice for Living | The Tim Ferriss Show
Tim Ferriss: Good afternoon, this is Edward Murrow. Ladies and gentlemen. This is Tim Ferriss.
Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, ladies and gentlemen. I have one of my favorite people in front of me, Kevin Kelly. Who's Kevin Kelly? Kevin Kelly helped launch and edit Wired magazine. He has written for The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among many other publications.
He's the author of the new book Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I'd Known Earlier. I have a lot to say about this book. We will get into it. Other books by Kevin Kelly include Out of Control, the 1994 classic book on decentralized emergent systems; The Silver Cord, a graphic novel about robots and angels; What Technology Wants, a robust theory of technology; Vanishing Asia, his 50-year project to photograph the disappearing cultures of Asia, and The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, a New York Times bestseller.
Kevin is currently co-chair of The Long Now Foundation, which is building a clock in a mountain that will tick for 10,000 years, of course. He also has a daily blog, a weekly podcast about cool tools and a weekly newsletter, Recomendo, a free, one-page list of six very brief recommendations of cool stuff. You can find that at recomendo.com. That is R-E-C-O-M-E-N-D-O.com.
I was going to say R-E-C-O-M-E-N-DO.com. You get the idea. So recomendo.com.
Take a look. He is also a senior maverick at Wired and lives in Pacifica, California. You can find him on Twitter @Kevin2Kelly, Kevin, the number two, Kelly, and all things Kevin at kk.org. Kevin, nice to see you again. Kevin Kelly: Tim, it's always a pleasure and just seeing you makes me happy. Tim Ferriss: Likewise.
Kevin Kelly: So glad to be here. Tim Ferriss: Hey, I saw you walk in. I was chatting with Harley of Shopify earlier today, and you walked in, and I saw you across the room with your yellow baseball cap on. Doesn't hide the beard, though. So, I spotted you and also just made me very happy to see you. I was thinking about that and how incredibly valuable that is.
What a gift. Kevin Kelly: It is. And I'm glad to be seen.
And so I'm so glad to be able to share with you another time of exploring some ideas and just see where they go. Tim Ferriss: Now, ideas, you're a man of ideas, and I thought for comic relief, we might start with a list of possible topics to discuss with Kevin Kelly. So, I just want to read these, because people who are perhaps not long-term listeners may not have heard our previous conversations.
And I believe the title I used, you did not choose this, I chose it, for our first conversation, was "Kevin Kelly, the Real-Life Most Interesting Man in the World." Something along those lines. People may say, "What hyperbole.
What is this nonsense?" But wait, allow me to list the possible topics, and I ask every guest to send possible bullets for exploration. So, here we go. And then I will return to a few of these. "The most popular thing I've ever written: 1,000 True Fans." "2008: why we built a clock
that will tick for 10,000 years inside a mountain." "I've had a daily blog for 20 years, for five years a weekly podcast." "At Wired, we invented the click-on advertising banner for the web. Next, I spent 11 years creating a huge graphic novel about angels and robots, released on Kickstarter, The Silver Cord." We're going to come back to that. "My failed campaign to discover all the species of life on Earth."
"In 2003, I made a long bet on the collapse of the global human population by 2060." "My TED Talk on why we should be optimistic in 10 minutes." "The most important article I've ever written." "My case against belief in an AI singularity." "My most recent piece in Wired extolling the glories of generative AI engines of wow."
"I co-founded The Hackers Conference in 1984, still going." "My 50-year passion project," and this goes on, "weighing 30 pounds," about Vanishing Asia. "I rode my bike across America twice, once west to east, once north to south."
"I make a piece of art every day." "My biggest audience, and most of my fans are in China, where I'm known simply as KK." "I have a screen credit for working with Spielberg on the sci-fi concepts for Minority Report."
"With a friend, I built a two-family house from scratch, cutting down the trees." It goes on and on and on, right? "The story of my religious conversion on This American Life in 1997." "I made a music video in 1969, 12 years before MTV." Lest people think I'm exaggerating — Kevin Kelly: It sounds ridiculous now that you mention it.
Tim Ferriss: It does sound ridiculous, and thank God I'm a specialist in the ridiculous. So I thought we would start with this bet. "In 2003, I made a long bet on the collapse of the global human population by 2060." What is a long bet and which direction did you bet? Were you betting on or against? Kevin Kelly: Sure. Tim Ferriss: And why? Kevin Kelly: So Long Bets is a service that we set up at the Long Now Foundation, which I can explain a little bit more about that, which is meant to encourage long-term thinking. So we made a place where we could have a long bet, meaning more than two years, about some socially significant wager.
And the idea would be that there would be a public bet and you'd be accountable for it, and there'd be money involved in the wager. And the idea was to also require people to put the logic of why they were going in a certain direction. And that, over time, if you had enough of this, you could see which kinds of logic and what kinds of thinking would win more often.
And to get around the laws of betting at the time, which basically is illegal to make a bet, that's been kind of slowly changing. But we engineered a kind of a hacker, which you could make a donation to. Well, you would use the money and the money would go to the foundation, the nonprofit of the person who won the bet. So my bet, and by the way, there are a lot of people who bet on, including Warren Buffett, made a million-dollar bet that basically index funds would beat any investment hedge fund.
He won. Well, again, his charity won. My bet about the population was that the population of the world, the global population of the world, by 2060, I think it was — Tim Ferriss: 2060. Kevin Kelly: — would be the same as it was at the time of the bet, which is, I think, 2003. So the idea is that we are coming up to a peak of human population that would then on the other side go down.
So you very commonly see the chart of the rising population. But it's interesting to me that you never see what happens on the other side. And what happens on the other side as far as we can tell, is that it plummets. And that's because — Tim Ferriss: Resource scarcity? Kevin Kelly: No. Tim Ferriss: Education and falling birth rates? Kevin Kelly: Just falling birth rates because modern people, on average, are not having more than two kids per couple. And this is common.
So fertility is falling all around the planet, including right now, even in the US. And everything that we've tried, we being humans, have tried collectively to counter that, has not worked. So Japan is famously losing the total number of people, not just having a lower birth rate. They actually have a decline in population, but they're actually not the lowest birth rate, which is South Korea.
And China is aging, Mexico is aging faster than the US. So all the people that have been coming from Mexico, Mexico will want to have come back at some point. So it's a really significant change. And again, it's possible that we could use technology to change it, maybe have artificial wombs or who knows what.
But right now, for the average person, they're not inclined to have a lot of children. And the people who do have children don't have enough to cover for those who don't, in terms of the world population. You can have immigration, which is what the US has been doing all along, basically stealing people from other countries. But that doesn't help you globally. So here's where it's the problem.
For a lot of environmentalists, this is good news because there's less people who are — Tim Ferriss: Consuming. Kevin Kelly: Consuming resources. But throughout history, we've always only had rising living standards with rising population. Tim Ferriss: Really? Kevin Kelly: Yes. We have no experience — Tim Ferriss: Do you think those are causal or correlated? Kevin Kelly: That's the question.
I think there's obviously some feedback loop where the more people you have, the more ideas you have, the more wealth you have, and that allows you to have more kids. But we don't know. So, all we can say is we have no experience in having living standards with a smaller population, a smaller audience, smaller market every year. Tim Ferriss: What do you think are the implications of this? And is 2060 just after the apex? Will it have been declining for a period of time? When is the projected apex, if you have a projection? Kevin Kelly: Right. So that's one of the evidences is that this peak is keeps moving closer.
Okay. Because — Tim Ferriss: Right. It's not static. Kevin Kelly: Well, it's not static, but it also means that there's all the projections about the increase in population that people are assuming and built into some of these demographic models are being revised all the time.
So that peak keeps moving closer. And the height of the peak, the numbers of actually how high it is, is changing. I think one of the things that's really important to understand for us in our society right now is that if you ask any question at the global level, the answer is, "We have no idea."
And the one thing we know most about is human population. And I think our number or counting of that is probably off by 10 percent, plus or minus. And that's the thing that we know the most about globally. But if you ask how much fresh water is there? How much electricity is being generated? Globally, the answer is is that we really don't know. We have a very poor view of us globally, partly because there's areas of the world that are so undeveloped, we don't have very good countings — Tim Ferriss: I see poor view meaning we just have very incomplete understanding.
Kevin Kelly: Yes. We don't have a global census, we don't have a global way of viewing. We have now satellites that can help us see, but they can't count everything.
And so I think what we're doing as a species is moving into this era where we'll become a global. We have a global economy, we have a global view, a global machine. All the internets connected together and we'll act more globally and maybe increasingly some global governance, but we're not there yet. And so even something as primal and essential, as foundational, as our population, I think we don't even, don't know. Tim Ferriss: Have you had any exposure to or interaction with the Santa Fe Institute? I have not.
But I've recently had conversations with a number of people, Bill Gurley and others who are involved, complex adaptive systems. And I'd just be curious to know what your exposure has been, what your opinion is. Kevin Kelly: So my first book was written about basically the Santa Fe Institute.
Out Of Control was based from a conference that was initiated by a conference I went to at Los Alamos, and Santa Fe was hosting one of the first conferences. I would go down there and talk to all the scientists. And this is in the late '80s.
And that was the beginning of the sort of complex adaptive system view of the world. And so that's what Out Of Control is about, is looking at that view and saying the way biology works and the way this complex technology works are very similar. They have very similar dynamics because they're complex adaptive systems. What we want to make with the internet, with all its penetrations, that you can think of spam as an invading virus that you have to — you can't eliminate, but you have to treat it like an immune system where you keep it at bay.
And so adopting some of these biological dynamics and applying it to machines and a lot of the work in trying to make robots and early AI, again, we're modeling off of what was being learned and often reported or sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute and that kind of approach to complex adaptive systems. So, yes, I think it's incredibly important. And for me, it was a transformative framing of the complicated things was to think of them in these terms. My whole book was about the fact that the world of the made and the world of the born are basically the same, two faces of the same kind of dynamic. And so you could look at how meadows work in ecosystems, and then you could look at the internet, which was just beginning, and now of course, it's in full bloom. And you can see how social media, they have similar behaviors.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And you can find thing in one that you then find in the other in surprising ways, sort of life imitating art and art imitating life, in the sense that we think we have invented gears. And then we are like, "Oh, wait a second. Actually, there are insects that use gears for types of jumping." How wild is that? Kevin Kelly: Right. So, there's biomimicry, that was the field, which was kind of using those as models for ideas and frameworks for trying to make mechanical things.
And that only takes you so far. I mean that was the, maybe the genius or the breakthrough in the Wright Brothers, which is like, we didn't make flying machines by flapping — Tim Ferriss: Strapping wings to people. Kevin Kelly: But by flapping our wings, it was like you put a big surfboard on it and you fly.
So, there's limits to it, and right now with the AI stuff, there's lots of looking at the neurology and of course we call them neuronets. So there is huge amount of influence. But what I'm saying is even maybe a little stronger, which is that it isn't as if these mechanical systems are imitating biology. I'm saying they actually have the same dynamics.
The dynamics that are powering biology are powering the technium and the technology. It's the same. Tim Ferriss: I think we are quite close on that in the sense that both paths end up in the same places.
And I would tend to agree. Los Alamos, is there any particular reason they chose Los Alamos? Kevin Kelly: So, Los Alamos, there were a lot of physicists left over from the Manhattan Project who liked living there. And Murray Gell-Mann was the prime mover.
And so he liked it. And I think he might have been instrumental in finding the funding for it, and he was on the chair for a very long time. And they had spaces to convene and people, so Santa Fe was close to Los Alamos, and that was the reason why it was in Santa Fe. Tim Ferriss: Got it. I've been revisiting some of Richard Feynman's writing.
Kevin Kelly: And he might have been part of that whole thing too. I mean he loved — Tim Ferriss: He was there, for sure. Kevin Kelly: I mean, in terms of [inaudible] Santa Fe. Tim Ferriss: Oh, I see, that group. That I don't know.
But certainly that is part of the reason I asked about Los Alamos. It's on the brain. So let's take a hard left, which is I think going to be common in this conversation. And we will probably come back, we'll almost certainly come back to AI, but I don't want to open that can of worms just yet. Kevin Kelly: Right, right. Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: All right. You spent 11 years creating a huge graphic novel about angels and robots. Silver Cord. I am, you may or may not know this, but deeply interested in comic books and collected for a very long time, spent all of my allowance, all of my work money, almost all of it, on comics for a very long period of time, wanted to be a penciller.
Why did it take 11 years? And what did the process of translating your thinking and writing to that form look like? What were the steps? Kevin Kelly: I met a friend who actually was actually comic book artist, had published, and wanted to do another one. And I'd kind of always wanted to try my hand at it because I thought that this was a brilliant genre for communicating lots of things. And particularly if you're interested in science fiction, it was sort of like to me a little better than a novel because it had that kind of immersive visualization, which I love. I'm a very visual person, but it wasn't so detailed that you needed to make a movie of it.
But we thought we could do both. And we thought that maybe we could write something that would have some appeal, be making movies. So we would try to write it, the script, as if we were writing a movie. And so some of the other associates that we had, worked for Pixar, some story later.
Tim Ferriss: You say associates, it sounds like a law firm. What do you mean? Kevin Kelly: Well, I mean — Tim Ferriss: Collaborators. Friends.
Kevin Kelly: Actually, here's what it was. My friend and these other friends all went to the same church. So we were all in the same church, and there were people who worked at Pixar and some people who worked at ILM. And so I had this idea of doing this book or this story, and the story was, the premise of it was I was imagining that there would be these interdimensional beings. We're calling them angels.
They're made out of light because they're intangible, and that they would look down on humans and weep when they saw us because we were getting the ride that they craved, that embodiment, and we were squandering it. So that's the basic premise, is that there is this realm and there's these beings and they're waiting their turn to be embodied, and they're looking at us and what we're doing with — it's like, "You have the ultimate…" Tim Ferriss: You're blowing it, guys. Kevin Kelly: And you're blowing it. It's like, what would I do? I would smother my face with mango juice and I would take a dive into the ocean and swim underwater, the whole — so that was the premise of it. And then the added part of it was that some of these angelic beings would try to cheat by becoming embodied into robots. They wouldn't go through the traditional preparation that you require of moral guidance and whoever else you needed to be before you were allowed to be in a human.
But they were going to cheat by coming into robots. Tim Ferriss: Skipping a few steps. Kevin Kelly: Skipping a few steps, and these would be kind of unhinged or rogue because they weren't. So, anyway, that's the premise.
So you had these angels and robots and it was a graphic novel, and we would tell stories. And the issue was I'd never written fiction in my life, although the Pixar people had. They were from the story side, and I couldn't draw to the level necessary. So, we worked on it.
And the reason why it took 11 years was we made it way too big. Instead of doing it like little 20-page things. Tim Ferriss: Decided to do — Kevin Kelly: Decided the whole thing. 300.
Tim Ferriss: Lord of the Rings in one go. Kevin Kelly: Exactly. No, actually, we got a advance from Simon & Schuster to do it, and we were late in delivering, and the guy who bought it left. They wanted it back, blah, blah, blah. Tim Ferriss: Occupational hazard in publishing.
Kevin Kelly: Exactly right. So it took us that long just to finish, and we actually Kickstarted it to print it. Tim Ferriss: When you were generating the story, were you doing it in effectively screenplay form? Kevin Kelly: Yes.
It was written as a screenplay script. Tim Ferriss: And what did you hope? What did you collectively, and maybe it was different person-to-person, hope this story would do, if anything? Kevin Kelly: It's a really good question, and that's the most important question you always want to be asking yourself when you're doing these. What effect do you want to have on people? How do you want them to feel after they're done? Do you want them to change their behavior? And for me, it was this idea of the genesis of it, which was to nudge people a little bit more, to take advantage of this special time that we have to interact with each other. This is what you get by being embodied, is that there's far more influence.
We can influence things through the physical way that we can't when we're intangible beings. And that was the issue that these other dimensional beings had, is that they don't have as much influence. It's really hard for them to influence because having a body means that you can influence things by interacting with them physically.
And that's very powerful. Tim Ferriss: And experience things. Kevin Kelly: And experience things, right.
And so that's what it was. It was an ode or a nudge for people to maybe appreciate their own lives, meaning literally their life, much more than they do. Tim Ferriss: I dig it, Kevin Kelly. You're good at helping friends, myself included, to do that IRL, in real life too, through experiences, and we may come back to that, but first, the iconic “1,000 True Fans.” The most popular thing you've ever written. Why do you think that is the case, and what would you double-down on or revise if you were to take another stab at it today? Kevin Kelly: So, the honest answer, one of the reasons why it's very — we can talk about maybe why it's good and useful and then why it's popular.
The reason why it's popular is actually through you. The fact that you included it in one of your books, and that's sort of lifted it out of my little realm. The reason why maybe it kind of resonates with people is because there is sort of an assumption that the goal is to hit it big, the big-time bestseller, a hit. And most people kind of come to associate those numbers, that kind of large scale, with success. And the idea that success could look differently, that you could have a more modest-size scale and that be successful, sometimes is dismissed as lifestyle businesses or whatever.
And I kind of realized that technology would allow a different version of that. You could have it, that it was possible and that it would be good. It would be good for people. And so that was, I think, people can resonate with that because it's a viable alternative option to things that was not spoken before.
It was not even really on the radar. And when I wrote it, when I first wrote it, before you even saw it, there was no Kickstarter, there was no Patreon. And I was challenged with people like Jaron Lanier to say, "Well, that's a nice theory, but there isn't any evidence that this is actually working." It was actually at that time, I did a follow through and I tried to find evidence, and there was evidence of established artists from publishing, or music, or studios who had already an audience and could move off of that to their own, But there wasn't any evidence of an indigenous organic growth from nothing.
Now there is. Every day people write to me, and meet me, and say, "Yes, I have been able to do that," inspired someone by hearing of that possibility. Tim Ferriss: Is there anything that you would modify in that piece, or emphasize more? Kevin Kelly: I did a modification for you where I talked about the fact that, again, one benefit and one disadvantage. The one benefit is that part of what we're doing is, if all you need is 1,000 true fans, then even if your interests are one in a million, given the population of the Earth of billions of people, that means that there's 1,000 people who potentially, on the planet, who will share your interests. So if your interests are only one in a million people can identify with, that you still have enough. Then, the second thing was that, just to emphasize to people, this is not for everybody, that tending the fans and interacting with them is almost like a halftime job, at least, maybe even more.
Not everybody's suited to do that. An artist might just want to paint, they don't want to deal with fans. We see more of dealing with fans, what it means, is it's not always pretty, and it can burn you out. So I just want to emphasize that this is an option.
Secondly, you don't have to go all the way. You can have your thousand true fans and then you can have lots of other casual fans and other fans which would allow you to have other people help you. So it's not just you. Then, secondly, for some people you want to have intermediaries. It's just not something you want to spend your time doing and that's perfectly fine, but it's a really great place to be able to start from.
Maybe you don't want to land there, but that's one of my pieces of advice, is that where you start is not where you're going to land, and so this is a good place to start. Tim Ferriss: That's exactly what I was going to say, which is even if you want to hypothetically build a huge company and change the world, although I'm very skeptical of people who lead with that, I think most businesses fundamentally are lifestyle businesses. If you really double-click and look at it closely enough, even if someone aims to be a Fortune 500 CEO. In any case, the point I want to make is even if you have these very lofty large scale goals, beginning with the exercise of reading “1,000 True Fans,” and at least considering what your approach would be to accomplish that first, is a great fundamental step. Kevin Kelly: Right? And, partly, that is because you get 1,000 true fans by accumulating them one by one, and if you are focused on today I'm going to get one more additional customer, that is tremendously powerful.
Customer by customer, are they happy, am I giving value to them? If you can focus on that, that is incredibly a superpower. Tim Ferriss: Yeah, for sure, and if you can take those 1,000 true fans and some subset of them become your PR slash marketing forces, then things can multiply very quickly. I promised left turns, we're going to take another left turn. Your failed campaign to discover all the species of life on Earth. So we went, I wanted to hit a highlight, and maybe this is also a highlight, but I would love for you to expand on this. Lessons learned.
What happened? Kevin Kelly: So there was conversation I was part of, and I was sitting next to a billionaire who said, "It's actually hard to give away a billion dollars," and for some reason I thought at that moment, well, actually I know what I would do, and that would be I would hire all the local indigenous people and have them be barefoot taxonomists and go out and discover, and catalog count all the living species on this planet because we've never done that, and by the way, if we found life on another planet, that's the first thing we would do is a systematic survey of all the life on that planet, but we haven't done that on our own home planet, and because you're paying locals, it would distribute that money down really, really fast. Stewart Brand was sitting next to me and he thought it was a cool idea, and then I didn't think anything more of it because I have ideas, I have a lot of ideas, I'm giving it away, and then a week later, Stewart said, "Let's do that idea," and I said, "What idea?" I'd forgotten about it already. He said, "You know, the idea at dinner about accounting all the species," and I said, "Yeah, I don't know.
It's like we're not taxonomists. I'm not a biologist," and Stewart's hunch was that, with new technology, and this is my bias too, we might be able to do that in addition to it. Tim Ferriss: Could you just briefly explain for people who don't know who Stewart Brand is? Kevin Kelly: So Stewart Brand is a close friend and the person who first hired me. He invented The Whole Earth Catalog in 1969, and the best way to describe The Whole Earth Catalog is it was kind of like your information guide to the world before there was the internet.
Steve Jobs famously called it "the internet before there was an internet." It was internet printed on newsprint because it was reader generated. So before YouTube, before anything, if you wanted to find out how to build a house, or repair your VW bug, or start a homeschool, or keep bees, where would you go? There was literally no place to find that information. Libraries didn't have that information. There was no internet to look it up, but The Whole Earth Catalog started to accumulate those, and there was, readers of it would send in their versions like, oh, the best book on gold panning is this thing, and then Stewart would run it, print it, and run it, right away.
And there was no advertising. It was kind of reader supported. So that was Stewart Brand.
He went on to do things. We started The Well together, which was the first online access to the internet and other things. So, he's my hero, and he just had a recent book, a biography written about him by John Markoff, The New York Times' tech writer, and Markoff's theory is — and so anyway, Stewart has been sort of at the center or at the leading edge of almost, first the beatniks, and then the hippies, and then the digital thing — Tim Ferriss: He's like the Forrest Gump of 25 seminal moments in history. Kevin Kelly: Right.
He's kind of always there. His background was biology. He was a biologist for a study with Paul Ehrlich, who was The Population Bomb guy on the other side of this argument about population. So, Stewart was sitting there, Stewart started along now with me, and Danny Hillis, and Peter Schwartz to think about, to encourage long-term thinking, to be a good ancestor. How do we be good ancestors? And, at that dinner, Stewart said, later on, he said, we should really try and do this.
It would be kind of a great thing. So, we actually started a foundation called All Species. I named it All Species Inventory, All Species Foundation, and we were going to try and raise money, not from the usual sources that funded taxonomy.
We didn't want to take any money from there because it was really pitiful, the amount of money, but to find it from the Silicon Valley and get money for developing the technology that would be able to do that, and it was just too early. It was just too early. Tim Ferriss: Too early in what respects? Kevin Kelly: Well, right now, on my phone, I have Merlin, which will identify a bird song.
I have [Seek], which will identify almost any plant or mushroom. That's what we needed. Tim Ferriss: I see, technologically speaking. Kevin Kelly: Yes, and you needed it because even those aren't going to identify a new one, if you have an app that can identify the known ones, then you're only going to bother the taxonomists with one that isn't identified, so right now, otherwise, people are just sending the about, oh, this is a — Tim Ferriss: Too much replication. Kevin Kelly: — brand new species and they're saying, no, this is not a new one, don't bother me with that one.
So that's what we needed, and we were just 25 years too early in terms of technology being available to be able to assist this, and so it became kind of a catalog of existing species, and that was the thing that shocked us, was, okay, well first we need is a list of all the existing species. This is whatever this is, 2008 or something. There isn't one.
It was like, what? Well, there's all these taxonomic publications that they're all buried in these obscure publications that haven't been digitized yet. It was like, so I was like, oh, my gosh, this is even further behind than we thought, so that is sort of what it became. It became kind of a program just to digitize the existing known species, and then the other thing is that, as they started to do that, they realized that there was this huge duplication of species having more than one name because there being, you know, somebody in Germany and somebody in Japan, and not even knowing that they're talking about the same thing. So it was failed in the sense that we still don't know all the species on this planet. We don't even know how many we don't know, and we're still only beginning to have a central, integrated, comprehensive, complete catalog of what we do know, and it's called the Encyclopedia of Life, and E.O.
Wilson, before he died, was involved in that, Tim Ferriss: The legendary E.O. Wilson. Kevin Kelly: Right.
Tim Ferriss: Mr. Consilience. Kevin Kelly: Yes. Tim Ferriss: Stewart Brand. Let's spend a little more time on Stewart Brand.
Kevin Kelly: Who has been a guest on your show. Tim Ferriss: He has been a guest. He's spectacular. He is, what would you say his age is now? Kevin Kelly: He's 86, maybe. Tim Ferriss: Something like that, and I interviewed him not that long ago, and he was doing CrossFit two or three times a week.
Kevin Kelly: Yes, right. Exactly. Tim Ferriss: Also, military background, you just have to read his bio to even begin to try to believe it. He would be, also, maybe on your short list for real-world most interesting men in the world. Kevin Kelly: Yes, exactly. Tim Ferriss: Now, I recall chatting with Stewart, I believe, about resurrection of species.
So the potential of Jurassic Park style, resurrecting, say, woolly mammoths and reintroducing some of these large, terrestrial, herbivores for any host of reasons. What do you think the future holds for those types of plans? Kevin Kelly: Yeah, so Stewart, Ryan Phelan, and I, who did All Species, and Stewart and Ryan went on to do the Revive and Restore is the name of their program, and it is to originally, the totem animal was the mammoth, the woolly mammoth, was to bring that back, and there are a lot of very interesting reasons why to do that, and the way that they do, is basically to take existing Asian elephants and winterizing them through breeding. Tim Ferriss: I got it. Kevin Kelly: Accelerated breeding. So you're not just going to hatch out of a test tube, a brand new woolly mammoth.
There would be a sense in which you would kind of reuse the line of existing elephants to try and reverse engineer that. Tim Ferriss: You take a Mendelian approach to — Kevin Kelly: But that's a little bit longer term, and actually, Stewart and I went to, and George Church, went to Siberia to go get samples of the mammoths that were being exposed by the thawing permafrost. Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Kevin Kelly: So to get the DNA from the right, through the trunk — Tim Ferriss: Jurassic Park Seven, scene one. Kevin Kelly: Right, right. Tim Ferriss: Opening. Kevin Kelly: Exactly, so that was quite an experience, but there are other animals that are closer to being able to, they're going to be a little bit easier to do it. Tim Ferriss: Wow. All right, well, optimism.
You're one of the most optimistic people I know, I think, that is a great influence on me and the world, and I sometimes push back on some of it. Kevin Kelly: Of course. You should. Tim Ferriss: So what would be your, doesn't have to be an elevator pitch, could just be a very long elevator ride because we have infinite time — Kevin Kelly: 30 floors. Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly.
That's right. Moving as slowly as you would like — what is the argument for why we should be optimistic? Kevin Kelly: Generally, people see optimism as kind of a temperament, it's a sunny view, and I think there is some of that, and I have a natural amount of it, but over time, I've actually become even more optimistic than my general tendency, deliberately. It's kind of like a learned optimism, and I think the reason we should be as optimistic as we can is because it is how we make really good things, good, complicated things. It's hard enough. Well, I mean, it's very hard to make good complicated things work because generally there's more way things can fail than they can succeed, and it's very unlikely that we're going to make something really good that's complicated, inadvertently.
They're hard to do. So we have to see it and believe that it can be done, and that is where the optimism comes in, is envisioning something and then believing that you could make it real. Because, when we look back on history, and that's where a lot of my optimism comes, we realize that most of the things that we have now have been made by people who are optimistic. Reviewing that it was possible to make them, and believe that they were going to make them, and could imagine them.
So, I think of it as a work of imagination where you kind of imagine a good scenario, which is harder to do than imagining a scenario where it fails or collapses. It is much easier to imagine how things break than it is to see how they work, and that's why entrepreneurs and all the others are rightly lauded because they're going against that grain. It is hard to imagine how we could have this thing that seems like it is improbable, and most things that work are improbable. That's the definition from the Santa Fe complexity theory, is that things breaking down is the probable. Complicated things working are improbable by definition.
And, so you're against the improbable. And that work of imagining the improbable and having the improbable succeed, and believing it can, is optimism, which means that the optimists are the ones who shape our future. So I'd like to give a little story of a car, and you need to have brakes on the car to steer the car — Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I'm with you so far. Kevin Kelly: — but the engine is actually the more important element, and so there are people and there are organizations, and there are methods that are going to be doing the braking, and I think they're essential. I want brakes in the car, but I just feel that the brake can overwhelm and cause stagnation, and that we also wanted to remember to focus on making the engine even stronger, and so I emphasized the engine.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to take a closer look at the engine. So if things breaking down are the probable, and there are many more ways things can go wrong than they can go, if I'm hearing you correctly, and maybe also bringing in some of my own position, it would be that you can have, that active optimism is probably more valuable than passive optimism in the sense that — Kevin Kelly: Yes, yes. Tim Ferriss: — the belief that you can make things turn out all right, as opposed to the belief that things will turn out all right, and therefore, I can go about my day and not concern myself with worries about A, B, C, D, E, all the way through Z, and I'm curious if you suddenly had The Kevin Kelly Institute for Active Optimists, how you would cultivate this, or maybe encourage it in more people because I do see optimists who are, not panicked, not necessarily paranoid, but they are very interested and excited and feel some moral obligation to focus on really high leverage, solving really high leverage problems, or creating new technologies. I also see techno optimists that are like, well, if A, B, and C gets bad enough, if the temperature of the Earth gets to X, Y, and Z, then we'll have these technologies, it will all be fine, and if this happens, then that'll all be fine, and people thought oil was going to run out by this year, but they didn't factor in that as the number of barrels per year produced went down, the price would go up, and then all these other technologies, like fracking, became viable, and voila, no problem. I view those caps as somewhat different, and I'm just wondering if you have any perspectives on that.
Kevin Kelly: I love your distinction between passive optimism and active. I think that's brilliant and right on, but I guess the reality is that you can't be active about everything. You have to select — Tim Ferriss: Totally. Kevin Kelly: — and choose, and so there is a sense in which, okay, there is a greater than zero chance that the Earth could be impacted by an asteroid, and it would be really devastating, and one of the most devastating things that could ever happen to this planet, far beyond, even with climate change.
And — Tim Ferriss: It would definitely change the climate. Kevin Kelly: Exactly, and very fast, so it's really good that there is now a group of people who are thinking about that, and there's the B1612 Foundation, which is just tracking all the asteroids, what was it called? B1612, after The Little Prince. Tim Ferriss: Okay, got it. Kevin Kelly: It's a viable thing that they've been behind all the tracking of all the asteroids and upping that, and then, recently, we just sent something that hit the asteroid and deflected, so that's the first cosmic impact we really had in the cosmos. Tim Ferriss: Pretty wild to think, like the monkeys on a spinning rock — Kevin Kelly: Exactly.
Right. Tim Ferriss: — figured out to deflect asteroids. Kevin Kelly: So it's good that there is a small group of people, but we don't need to have that be our concern for making national policy every year. Really, that probability is so low, that it shouldn't really be a factor in us making our decisions about what we're going to do this year. So that's passive, in that sense, but it is, I can be passive about it because there is another group of people that is active about it. Tim Ferriss: And you know that a group is active.
Kevin Kelly: Right, so what might help other people? I think for me, one of the major things for me was the more I thought about the future, the more I became interested in history, and the more I read history, the more reality of progress became. I think just acknowledging the reality of progress would go a large, huge step in helping our optimism. Tim Ferriss: Now, I'm interrupting, not to push back, but just for definition of terms. What do you mean by "progress," because that word can be used to mean in a lot of different things. In what sense? Kevin Kelly: That's right.
It's a very loaded word, and I'm using it to mean, simply, that — Tim Ferriss: Angels of our better nature type stuff? Kevin Kelly: Yes. How would I say it? It means that, overall, on average, this is a better place to live than at any time in the past, and this is the kind of Obama test. I don't know if you've heard about that, but it's like if you were to be born randomly in any time period, it could be male, female, poor, rich, you're totally at random, on some average thing. What time do you want to live in? What time period? And there's no way you want to be anything before, at least, 50 years ago, and maybe not even within 50 years. So, because we intuitively understand that this is actually the best time to be alive, but there is a recognition of, so what are the currents that made that? What has allowed that? What's operating? Is it still going? And from my view of history, and I had the chance to live in the past, and on a time machine, we'll talk about that in a minute — Tim Ferriss: Okay. Wow, I didn't see that coming.
Yes, I got time. I'm taking note. Time machine, question mark. Kevin Kelly: I've been in the time machine and it's very, very clear that we've been on a momentum in a trajectory of progress, and it's possible that could stop tomorrow.
It's highly unlikely that it's going to stop tomorrow, so there is just, all the conditions that make that, suggest that it will continue, and so part of our optimism can come from that. Tim Ferriss: Okay. Time machine's coming up. Kevin Kelly: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I want people to stick around. Right after this commercial break, folks. No, I'm not going to take a commercial break, but I do want to ask you, given the bet on collapse of global human population, do you think that by 2060, if we've peaked out at the top of the roller coaster, do you think this progress is inextricably linked to population growth and population density, and if that's the case, do you think we might be looking at regression? Kevin Kelly: Yeah. Yeah. Tim Ferriss: I'm not trying to turn you to the dark side. Kevin Kelly: No, no, no, no.
Tim Ferriss: I'm just curious. Kevin Kelly: You're doing, you're asking the exact right question. I think there's a movement called Degrowth, the degrowth movement. Tim Ferriss: I'm not familiar. Kevin Kelly: So these are people who basically see the troubles of the world, in particular the climate one, coming from our addiction to growth.
That growth, this is kind of the consumer, capitalistic kind of idea that grow, grow, grow, grow, and they're saying, it's finite. We can't continue to grow, and we have to degrowth, stop growing, and there's a little bit of a confusion in English because there's two meanings of the word growth. There's growth to add more pounds, to add more and more stuff, to get bigger, wider, heavier, to have more things, to sell more refrigerators, to sell more bottles of wine, but there's another meaning of the word growth, which is probably closer to what you're interested in.
Personal growth, developing, maturing — Tim Ferriss: Or knowledge growth. Kevin Kelly: Knowledge growth. Tim Ferriss: I guess, in a sense, it's the same as the first, but it's — Kevin Kelly: No, it's increasing its complexity.
Tim Ferriss: Infinite in capacity. Kevin Kelly: It's taking the same number of atoms and having a more complex arrangement. It's going from a jellyfish to a chimpanzee or something, and so that complex, adaptive system, where you have increasing levels of complexity and more exotropy in it, that is a different kind of growth. Tim Ferriss: What is exotropy? Now, I know what entropy is. Kevin Kelly: It's the opposite.
Tim Ferriss: Exo, like exoskeleton — Kevin Kelly: Right, so it's the definition of entropy, right, is increasing disorder, and then there's something called negative entropy, which is what I'm talking about. But that's a double negative. I don't like double negatives. So exotropy is basically an increase in order.
So exotropy is this idea of this increasing order that comes at the cost of increasing entropy. So that's the thing. So you get your system like a living cell is actually increasing the generation of entropy as it increases its order.
It's like the magnifying glass with the sun. You ever seen that? Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Kevin Kelly: There's a little bright spot in the middle of a lens in the sun, but all around it is a shadow. Because it's taken all the light — Tim Ferriss: Right, and concentrated it. Kevin Kelly: From around and concentrated in.
So there it generates a shadow. Tim Ferriss: Right, so they go together. Kevin Kelly: So they go together. So what type of growth is an increase in complexity? So you have an economy where instead of trying to sell more bottles of wine, you try to sell the same number of wines, but better wine. Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Kevin Kelly: That's a different kind of growth. That's the kind of growth that we can shift into. So we're just increasing the quality of things. Tim Ferriss: Do you think there are incentives that will drive that? Kevin Kelly: Well, the decreasing population.
Tim Ferriss: How are we going to keep our revenue numbers the same? Well, everybody's leaving. Kevin Kelly: Right. You have a smaller market every year, a smaller audience.
So one way is to make things better. To make better stuff. Okay.
And we have, so refrigerators, if you just count how many refrigerators are being sold, you can have increasing numbers, but you could sell refrigerators and make them better every year, which is what we've been doing. And that's actually not often caught into the accounted for in economics. It's just like it's GDP is how many refrigerators per unit are you making, but they're not saying, "Well, actually these new refrigerators are better because they use less energy.
They make ice as well as refrigerate, they do all these other things." That's not really accounted for. And so we can change how we account for things and we start to measure something different just other than expansion, the more stuff.
So we need some new metrics. So yes, I am optimistic that we can change our understanding and what we aim for. It's not inevitable though.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, time will tell and makes me want to be a better student of history. Also, as you pointed out. Kevin Kelly: So the time machine. I know that you're going to — Tim Ferriss: Time machine. Kevin Kelly: I know you're going to ask about the time machine.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it's there. It's right there at the top right. Time machine question mark. For those who think I'm lying. It's right there.
Okay. Kevin Kelly: Time machine. I took a $20 bus ride in northern Afghanistan in 1975 somewhere. And I arrived in a different century, literally in a different century. I had no map.
I had not met anybody, heard of anybody who ever went there. I mean, there was obviously lots of Afghans, but I mean no tourists. I had no idea if I could get there.
It was literally a name on a very poor map. Tim Ferriss: How did you choose it? Kevin Kelly: It was so remote and I wanted to see what was at the end of the line. Tim Ferriss: All right.
Kevin Kelly: And here was a town, and I don't know, maybe there's a hundred thousand people in this town. Tim Ferriss: That was a good size. Kevin Kelly: A good size town.
There was no electricity in the town. They didn't have street lights. They would have a guy at night go and light kerosene lamps, the street lighter. They would throw their shit into the strait, I mean out the window kind of stuff.
And of course, there was a futile structure. I mean, they had basically slaves and child brides and the whole thing. It was just medieval in every way. Very little metal.
There was no signage on the town. There was no signs. Didn't need signs. So it was like, I'm in a different century. I'm in a different century. And that experience of seeing what you get when you had development and technology, and of course you could see all the challenges and the problems.
But the main thing that I learned from that experience is the thing that we get is we get choices and options. That's ultimately what we get from the technology. So the people growing up there had — their occupations were fated, they were destined. If you're going to to be male, you're going to be a farmer, maybe a blacksmith. If you're a woman, you're going to be a wife and a mother. And that was it.
If you took the bus all the way into the city and went somewhere else, you'd be in a grimy, gritty slum. But you had a choice for the first time of what you could do. And maybe, not then, but now, if you took that bus ride, you might be a web manager, web designer, a yoga teacher, a mortgage broker, whatever. You have choices.
And that's what they do not have. They had very strong family, good identity, tremendous support, maybe organic food, but no choices. Tim Ferriss: AI.
Kevin Kelly: From the 15th century to today. Tim Ferriss: Even as I understand it, some, let's call them AI researchers, computer scientists with familiarity with AI, couldn't have even predicted several years ago, us having today. Many choices, maybe some difficult choices, maybe some difficult outcomes, I might go so far to say.
And I wanted to read something. This is from your Wired piece, November, 2022. And this is after spending months creating thousands of images using AI, excellent piece. I think it's limitless creativity. And there's one line that stuck out to me and I was like man, that's a strong statement.
I kind of wish Kevin hadn't included this because I think it's going to be hard to defend and I would like to talk about it. And this also pairs with an article I only started recently reading from Marc Andreessen. And as I understand it, the basic premise is that AI will not cause an increase in unemployment. Which is a bit broader than the line that we have here. So let me read it.
"I have spent the past six months using AIs to create thousands of striking images, often losing a night’s sleep in the unending quest to find just one more beauty hidden in the code. And after interviewing the creators, power users, and other early adopters of these generators, I can make a very clear prediction: Generative AI will alter how we design just about everything." Period.
Side note, I completely agree with this. "Oh, and not a single human artist will lose their job because of this new technology." So maybe I should ask you to clarify this, because I work with tons and tons and tons of contractors.
And there are artists right now I've worked with who are going to be replaced. At least some of their functions will be replaced by AI. So I would predict they will lose that specific job. Not necessarily with me, but at some point in the next few years, they will probably lose that job.
If they have adapted to using the technologies, I think, or carved a niche for themselves, they will find another job. But they will lose jobs. Kevin Kelly: Yeah. Tim Ferriss: So how would you expand on this statement? Kevin Kelly: There might be a little bit of semantics here because I would say that it will replace many tasks, but not their job. Tim Ferriss: Okay. Kevin Kelly: So this is what AI does, we replace tasks.
There are tasks that we do. Most jobs are complex with different tasks. And a lot of these tasks will go to the AI, but not necessarily the job. Tim Ferriss: Okay. Kevin Kelly: Because the job will shift and you'll have different tasks. Part of that strength is that I would actually maybe even expand this even broader.
And people, and I welcome feedback on this, my claim would be that I don't think there's anybody in any field that's lost their job because of AI. So far. There's tasks that have gone away, but not jobs. And a lot of the worry about this AI is what I call third-person worry.
They're saying, "My job/hobby, I'm not going to be replaced." But I can imagine somebody else, or maybe I can imagine my friend losing it, but I'm still waiting for someone to say, "I lost my job." A real person with a real name who'd lost their job because of AI. And so far, I haven't.
I maybe even offer like a $200 bounty if you could tell me the name, specific person who lost their job because of AI of any sort. And it's because — Tim Ferriss: Yeah, why take such a binary bet? I know you like these bets. I would take the opposite side of that bet. But please continue. Kevin Kelly: Well, you can take it by giving a name. So it's partly — Tim Ferriss: I just have to fire somebody and then I can take the $200.
Kevin Kelly: Well, no. But you're at the AI. That's what I'm saying, because of AI. Tim Ferriss: Well, I would've to replace him with AI. Kevin Kelly: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: And then I can blame it on AI. Kevin Kelly: Right. Okay.
And we won't be able to do that right now. Tim Ferriss: Okay. Let's take an example, if I may. Kevin Kelly: Yes. Tim Ferriss: Logo design.
Kevin Kelly: Yes. Tim Ferriss: That is what somebody does day in, day out. Kevin Kelly: Right.
Tim Ferriss: They design logos. Kevin Kelly: Right. And I've gone to some of the logo designers, AI logo. There are logo AI designers right now and they're amazing.
But here's the position, and this is my position is what we get from these AIs currently right now, are universal personal interns. They're intern, they're doing the work of interns. Tim Ferriss: UPIs. Kevin Kelly: UPIs. Okay.
And they're really amazing, but you have to check their work. It's embarrassing to release their work without improvement. The intern work. So I've used these logo AI generators and I'll work with them over and over again.
And this is what the artist will be doing. The artist is going to be working with their interns, generating all these possibilities, tweaking them. They're kind of like a director or a conductor.
They're managing the interns and they're not releasing the intern work unedited, unpolished, uncurated. And that's what their new tasks become. The artists. Tim Ferriss: I'm not totally convinced, however, I think that will happen. But I do think some rank and file will perhaps need to find new jobs.
At the very least, if someone has AI as the UPI, I would imagine if you have a brand design studio that focuses on logos with 30 employees, some of which are junior, there might be some shuffle. But we can — go ahead. Kevin Kelly: So, I mean there's going to be a lot of art generated from these entities, these AIs, and I always want to say plural, always plural. There's not one AI.
There's AIs, all different species. But most of that work is being used for areas that are blank now, where there is no pictures, where there isn't anything. So I have, my assistant actually has for years woken up in the middle of the night to write her dreams down. And now she feeds those dreams into the AI and she illustrates them.
And they're just amazing. There were no illustrations before. Now they're illustrations. Tim Ferriss: Yup. Kevin Kelly: I used them to generate images for my slides. There were no pictures before.
Now there are pictures. So it's not like I'm replacing somebody — Tim Ferriss: It's not a zero sum. Kevin Kelly: I'm filling it in. Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Kevin Kelly: So the major, and by the way, there's about 30 million brand new, never-seen-before images generated every day with these image generators. 30 million.
And I would say about maybe 95 percent or maybe 98 percent of them, there's an audience of one. It's for the pure pleasure of seeing this. It's like you would take a walk out into nature and just see a beautiful scene. It's like, "I'm just enjoying this."
This is why they're mostly