The Jay Kim Show #63: Kevin Kelly (Transcript)
We have another special episode for you. Today’s show guest is somewhat of a celebrity in the tech world. His name is Kevin Kelly, and he is one of the cofounders and editors of Wired magazine. Wired magazine is the premiere magazine that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and politics. Kevin is also the author of several bestselling books, his most recent being a New York Times bestseller called The Inevitable, where he discusses the 12 technological forces that will shape our future.
We go over a lot in this episode, from his views on education — he didn’t go to high school or college — the value of travel, the next biggest thing in China, and what it means to have 1000 True Fans. And of course, we talk about what we can expect to happen with technology in the future. This is such a good episode. It touches on a lot of big topics, but I know you guys will get a lot of value out on it. Let’s get on to the show.
Jay: Kevin, thank you so much for joining the show today. We’re very excited to have you on, and we appreciate your time.
Kevin: It’s my pleasure. I’m so glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Jay: This is kind of interesting because I feel like a lot of the listeners out here might have actually heard of you because you have a very unique relationship with Asia, but perhaps for those who are listening and that don’t know who Kevin Kelly is, you could give us a little quick introduction. Who is Kevin Kelly? What do you do for a living?
Kevin: I package ideas. I mostly view myself as an editor. I was editor and publishers of the Whole Earth Review, which was the Whole Earth Catalog, so ongoing publication. I’m one of the co-founders of Wired magazine, which is still going, although I don’t edit it any longer. And I write books and run a website. And the books are about technology and what they mean, and the websites are about tools — cool tools.
My current project that I’m working on this year is called Vanishing Asia, which is documenting the disappearing traditions, customs, festivals of Asia between Turkey and Japan.
Jay: That’s fascinating. I think that being Asian myself and living in Asia currently, I think that’s often overlooked. We’re all so focused on the future and where that’s going, and we forget what is disappearing, I guess, behind us.
Kevin: I go to China a lot, and I do a lot of speaking in Asia, and I’m there to learn what Asians have in mind for us in the future, because I think they’re going to decide. At the same time, I’m documenting what’s lost in it. I’m not really nostalgic about it. I understand why it’s being left behind. But I just find a beauty in it that I’m trying to capture.
Jay: Right. So let’s dig way back. You used to be a photographer. Is that right? And through that occupation, so to speak, you did extensive traveling in Asia when you were younger. Was that sort of the reason that you have this connection with Asia?
Kevin: Yes. It’s kind of the first place I went to outside of my little parochial area in New England. And in the early ’70s, I first went to Taiwan and then Japan and Korea, Philippines, went later on to Southeast Asia, Central or Central South Asia, and west. I went westward eventually around in Turkey. It was my college, my graduate degree, my awakening. Those first journeys were just so mind-blowing, particularly at that era in Asia itself, which was in transformation.
And so I gave myself a self-assignment to photograph in Asia, and I had almost no money, but I had a lot of time. And I traveled everywhere. And it was a very, very moment in the world when someone like me with almost no money could journey pretty easily to places that were still living in the Medieval 15th century and hadn’t really changed. Before that time, you needed kind of an expedition and permits and stuff to get there. And then after that time, of course, anybody could get there, but things had already changed. But there was this moment when things were unchanged, poised in the past. And then I could take a bus or a Jeep or somehow and get there and see this before it just kind of vanished. That was really special.
Jay: Yeah. It’s like you were a digital nomad before that term really existed.
Kevin: Yeah. And that was very un-digital. I mean, I was carrying 500 rolls of analog film in my backpack.
Jay: Analog nomad.
Kevin: Exactly. I would have died for a digital camera, to do what they did. But it was strictly analog, and I literally had a backpack that had almost nothing in it except for film and taking care of that and minding it, because it couldn’t get too hot. It was just this incredible headache getting it back. Not losing them was a minor chore in itself. So it was a very analog world. Nothing digital about it.
I was traveling — I was a young kid, early 20s — and my parents had no idea even what country I was in. There was very little ways to communicate with them. I would write a letter every now and then. There was no phones. There was no telegraph. Or course, there was not messaging. And so it was as un-digital as you could imagine.
Jay: And how did you… Were your parents supportive of you just taking off? You’ve spoken before, extensively, advocating travel and this sort of thing. I follow your work. I’ve followed it for a while. But there’s always the conversation that you have to have with your parents. Obviously, people still value the institution of education. Especially in Asian culture, it’s seen as sort of a must-do. What was that conversation like with your parents? Were they supporting, or was there any sort of fallout? How did you make that decision?
Kevin: I went to a school where 95%, 98% of the kids would go on to college. And we moved to this one town, a suburb of New York City, with that idea — I mean, my parents’ idea. They were both college graduates at a time when not that many people were. And they totally expected that. My dad worked for what we would now call a media firm in New York. But I decided I would give it a try. I didn’t really want to go, but I’d try it for a year, and it didn’t work out. I was doing so many things.
What I needed at that time was something we would call a gap year or an internship. That did not exist at that time. Had it existed, I would have done that and probably gone back. But that was not an option. And so when I dropped out, they actually weren’t either surprised or concerned. Their major concern was I was the oldest of five kids only five years apart — one year apart each. They were concerned about the influence that I would have on the other kids, on my brothers and sisters. As it turned out, they all went on to college. They didn’t really have much concern with me because I was doing so many things and pretty self-motivated that they knew…
I think their concerns were more like going in the Afghanistan or into the Himalayas, just in terms of my safety because news from back then was pretty scarce. And my second brother, who did go to college, did wind up traveling later on after college, even more than I did. And there was a moment when my parents got a postcard for me in India and my brother in, I think, Bolivia, saying we had hepatitis. And so I think that’s the kind of thing they were concerned about. And at that time, there were even harsher things than hepatitis about.
Jay: Slightly more concerning than finishing a college degree.
Kevin: Exactly. Right. Yeah. Getting malaria or whatever, which were distinct possibilities. So in general, just to answer your question, I think if we were hanging around doing nothing, but what Asia was for me was like a graduate degree in how the world works. And Asian studies — I basically gave myself a doctorate in Asian studies because there was just so much. We were learning so much. And they were very happy, I think, that I was doing these things. And they were, in some senses, proud because, again, in the early ’60s and ’70s, it was very, very rare for people to get to these kind of places, even people with money. It wasn’t like today where people fly off to Bali.
And so they were kind of proud I that was doing these things and getting to see these things and recording them on film. And so I think they kind of intuitively understood the larger benefits that you’d get from that, from not just being there but having accomplished that. It took a little bit of extra gumption and go-how to arrive there and survive there, and come back. And they didn’t give me any money. I did this all on my own and earned my own money and paid for my way and paid for everything. So I think they were proud. And I think even today when it’s a lot easier, you should definitely give points to people for traveling in places that they’re not familiar with because it does require a certain amount of ambition to go and do that.
Jay: Absolutely. I think that the life skills are just invaluable. And even… I think you’ve talked about this before. I have three very young kids. My oldest is only three and a half. But even for her, when we go traveling somewhere outside of her comfort zone, even to Singapore or somewhere close, you can see the changes. She matures. It’s like a level that she steps up, each trip that we take. And it’s very noticeable. I guess it’s because you’re being pushed out of your comfort zone and having to adapt.
How did that translate into your children? Were they able to… This is a large conversation. It could spiral into a large conversation. My concern is the future of education. Living in Hong Kong, education is one of these things where it’s kind of like New York City, I guess, or any major city where all the kids want to go to the most prestigious, best schools. And there’s only a handful of slots. So it creates a very strange dynamic. What are your thoughts on the value of even going to a traditional educational institution, such as high or college even?
Kevin: When it came to our own kids — we have three — my wife and I have been married for 30-some years. We agree on almost everything. The one place we have a little disagreement is on education. She’s Chinese, and so she has a very traditional must-do attitude about it. And she has multiple degrees, and she’s a scientist and picked her way very early on.
But we kind of compromised. What I told the kids is you don’t need to go to college, but you do need, after you graduate from high school, to be doing something where you’re learning. And that could be traveling around the world. It could interning somewhere, working on a project. But you have to have something structured, some form of what you’re doing and come back and tell us, and we’ll support you. And then come back and tell us about what you’re doing. If you can’t think of something like that, then you have to go to college. So for them, I posed it as kind of like a second choice. And they all did eventually. They did not go out on their own. They actually just preferred to go to college, and that was the deal.
So I think still it’s up to the individual. I think if you are a self-motivated person and can arrange your day so that you are optimizing your learning and whatever it is, then you don’t really need college. If you are not that kind of person, where you need an incentive and motivation to complete things, then having an institution and teachers on the side are a good idea, or some combination of the two.
The one thing I do kind of get a little worked up by is the focus on what I call “elite branded” colleges. I find that they’re completely, vastly over-rated. If you do decide to go, if you can get into an elite branded, why not? But it’s really misguided in many ways, and if you’re really concerned about optimizing your learning, you probably would do better in one that doesn’t have such a coveted brand. You’ll get a lot more personal attention and probably come out the better for it. It’s like brands of anything else.
Jay: There’s a lot of hype.
Kevin: Yeah, branded jeans. It’s like, it depends what the brand is, but I think if you’re showing off just for status, then that’s really not the best way to do an education, although I understand why people might want to get in. And if you do get in, fine. But understand that it’s almost a lottery at this point. Talk to any admission person in those highly sought-after colleges, and they will tell that, basically, it was… 95% of the people who are applying would be qualified, and they could make a class out of that, but they’re doing all this very esoteric balancing and whatnot, and it’s really kind of a meaningless game at this point.
Jay: Yeah. It sounds like a lot of shenanigans. I like that you college as the backup to the children if they didn’t have a better option. I may have to use that one in 10 or 15 years’ time.
Kevin: I would have preferred if they didn’t, but if they did, they really did need to have a program where they were doing things. And I think it really does depend. Some kids need the incentive and the guidance, I guess I would say, of others. They’re not going to be able to do a year of their own independent work and really stick to it. So you kind of have to be ready for this. Maybe some homeschoolers might be able to do that. But then the problem with homeschoolers is they don’t even have… They usually want the experience of having organized education after eight, twelve years of being at home. So they usually go the other direction.
But I do recommend, actually, homeschooling. We did homeschool our son for a year, and that was a blast, and it really helped him later on. He needed it at that moment. And if that’s something you can swing, it’s very rewarding for everybody involved.
Jay: My wife’s closest friend has three kids, and she actually homeschools her kids and also travels extensively with the kids, which I think is fantastic because she’s not tied down to any sort of school schedule. My only concern with the homeschooling — and I told my wife this — is I’d feel insecure that I’d be able to provide them the instruction or curriculum. And I don’t know how these things work. I’m sure there’s courses that you follow.
Kevin: There’s so many stuff. Khan Academy, which we used, a lot of homeschool textbooks, and there are textbooks that were engineered with the homeschooler in mind. There is no end of curricula stuff. And the other things you would do, actually, in the interim were important.
I think there’s really only one meta skill that you want to impart to kids by the time they graduate. And that is the skill, the ability to learn how to learn. Because we’re all going to newbies forever. They’re going to be having to learn new things. It doesn’t matter what computer language you teach them, whatever it is is going to be obsolete very quickly. The facts they can look up. They can google. You can ask a machine for answers. But that skill of learning how to learn and have that love of learning and how to ask questions and all those kinds of things, that is really the only important thing that they need to have. And I think these other kinds of activities that you’re doing are much stronger accelerants in learning those skills.
The teaching, the calculus, whatever it is, that is just such a minor thing compared to these other things. We actually, in our son’s 8th grade, we actually hired a professor, a mathematics professor at the local university, to come to the house to tutor him in math. That a completely affordable— and if you have more than one kid, those kinds of deals are actually far cheaper than a private school. And so that kind of stuff, you can hire out as part of your homeschooling mix.
Jay: That’s interesting to me. I guess at some point, I imagine it’s because of your work at wired magazine. But you have become this authority on technology and the future, a futurist, if you well. I believe one of the books that you wrote earlier on was translated into Chinese and has a sort of viral following. Maybe you could talk about that and that experience.
Kevin: I’ve written, depending on how you want to count them, at least four books but more that I have written parts of or I have written all of.
The first book that I wrote, which was published in the US in 1994, was called Out of Control, and it was an early roundup of all of the ways in which technological systems were becoming very, very complex and were mirroring the complexity of biological systems. So it was a book that talked about bee hives and the internet and how evolution worked in the natural world and how artificial evolution could work on machines and computers. It was the very beginnings of the internet, and I talked about decentralized systems and how they would work.
So in many ways, it was kind of an attempt to talk about this organic, internet-like thing that was beginning to be born. In the US, the book was published a little too early. People didn’t really get what I was talking about. But in China, it was translated late. It was translated just five years ago, I think. And it came out at the right time as the Chinese internet founders were founding their own companies like Alibaba and Tencent, and they read the book in translation, and they were very influenced. It laid out the power of how you have social networks and network effects and all this kind of stuff. And so they were very influenced by it, and they’re fans of it, and so it spread in that way.
I wrote a follow-up book called The New Rules, The New Economy, which came out, unfortunately, in the US, right at the dot com bust. People thought I was talking about the dot com companies, but I was talking about the new internet economy, which later came, and it was this online world. And I was talking about the new principles like follow the freemium pricing and stuff like that. So that was also a little too early.
My second to last book was called What Technology Wants, which was a theory of how technology happens and my theory was that it was an extension of the forces of evolution that operated very much like natural evolution did. It was kind of a broad, cosmic view. The latest book, The Inevitable, which has also been translated into Chinese and became a bestseller there just this year, is about the next 20 to 30 years of technological evolution and it’s general trends or trajectory, the direction in a broadest sense, not in the particulars of like whether Apple is going to work or not.
So most my fans are in China. And I have a lot more fans in China than in the US, and that’s just a quirk of the timing because being too early can be as bad as being too late.
Jay: Right. I love that. That’s so interesting. What are some of the broad strokes that you maybe could share with us from The Inevitable, which obviously was a New York Times bestseller last year and having great success in the global markets. What are some of the things that we can look out for on a broad basis in the future?
Kevin: There are 12 trends or directions that I talk about in the book, and they’re all labeled as verbs. I think they’re called present participles. They’re movements. What I’m saying is, all things being equal, they’re going to move in this direction. There’s no end points, but there’s going to be more and more filtering. Our lives with have more and more tracking. No matter what else happens, more of our lives will be tracked. There will be more and more flows of data, and they tend to flow rather than be… Things are moving from being solid to liquid verbs, to things that move, to processes. So instead of having a product, you’re going to have a service. Instead of having a noun, you’re going to have a verb. So there is this movement away from the tangible to the intangible.
And there is this movement from owning things to accessing things. If you can grab or demand or get something anywhere, any time, and leave it behind, why would you want to own it? So the virtues and benefits of ownership diminish, and the virtues and benefits of accessing something you don’t own increases. So there are these trends.
And then behind all of it is this larger trend of this cognifying, of making these smarter, particularly artificial intelligence making things very, very smart, making everything a little bit smarter, and some things very smart. And that cognification is, in some ways, the enabling technology, the technology that enables all these other things to happen and is, in my opinion, the foremost greatest change, force, that is going to be at work in the 20, 30, and beyond period. On the longer term of 50 to 100 years, it’s going to be the equivalent of the industrial revolution and artificial power which transform our lives so that electricity and coal and gasoline — all that artificial power, which we added to our own power, natural muscle power — transformed where you live, everything you see surrounding you, whatever the listener sees, it’s all been generated by having access to this artificial power which became cheap and ubiquitous.
And as you make artificial intelligence in many, many varieties, many types, many kinds — none of it really like human intelligence, all look very different — but that artificial intelligences, that artificial smartness is going to impact all aspects of our lives from sports to religion, food, clothing, education, military, business. And it’s going to have a huge impact through billions of people. And that’s already beginning right now. We see this first wave of it of many to come. So I’m trying to describe a little bit about some of the ways that the initial, the second and third…some of the things that will change our lives in the second and third waves of these.
Jay: Fascinating. How about China specifically? China is one of these things that… I’m sitting right next door here in Hong Kong, and the speed in which things are changing across the border…I can’t even keep up with it. And I think when you say China, if you’re from the West, you have this strange notion that it’s like this far-off land, but you can’t ignore it because it’s obviously on the trajectory to taking over the US, if not already, by some metrics or standards. And it’s just exciting what’s happening over there. I’m a US citizen, but I just got my 10-year Visa. I didn’t even know they had them, but they do.
Kevin: It’s a secret.
Jay: Yeah, it’s a secret. What do you think, Kevin? What’s the future of China? Obviously, it’s growing, and it’s going to change the world, so to speak, with all of the innovation that’s happening. Any talking points off the top of your head that you can clearly define?
Kevin: So the first thing I’d say about China is that anything you want to say about China is going to be true. It was so vast that even the Chinese don’t really understand what’s going on. That’s the thing. It’s vast, and it’s fast. So while Americans feel like, “I have no idea what’s going on,” well, the Chinese have the same thing. Here you are in Hong Kong, and you don’t feel like you can really understand the extent of everything, and you can’t. It’s beyond a person. It’s beyond institutions. And not just the speed but the distance, because you have parts of China that are still medieval. And next door or the next town, there’s this futuristic town. So the distance that’s because traveled is also vast, the distance in time.
So while there’s the most amazing and futuristic stuff, on the other side of the country is stuff that hasn’t changed in a long time, and that’s all happening at once. So anything you want to say about China is probably true, and I go there to see what’s in store for us because the arithmetic is just in the favor of China and, say, India. Together there are three billion people compared to 300 million in the US. I mean, it’s 10 times.
And so I think my own estimation, China’s maybe five to ten years till they reach a threshold where they actually produce a truly global product that everybody in the world wants — not just for internal consumption, but they actually are able to make a brand, make a something that everybody wants. Maybe it’s an electric car, maybe it’s a self-driving car, maybe it’s a robot. I don’t know what it is. It’s something that everybody in the world wants, and it’s considered the best there is.
Right now they’re still in a copy culture, as Japan was for a very long time. And then Japan broke out, and they started to make the Sony Walkman or the cameras and things that everybody wanted. And then they made the best. I think China is nearing that moment.
Jay: There are a couple of things, actually, that might actually be there. Something like the DJI drone. I think that’s pretty world-class now.
Kevin: Drone. Right.
Jay: That’s over in Shenzhen.
Kevin: Especially the little one, the Maverick and now the new Spark. Actually my son interned at DJI.
Jay: Oh, really. Wow.
Kevin: Yeah. They set up an annex in San Mateo, and he was involved in starting up their place in the US. But not everybody in the world wants… I mean, it is state-of-the-art. It was the best, but it’s not quite consumer-level at this point. But that’s a good indication of how close they are. There’s the guys at Ehang doing the personal passenger drone, which parallels the people at Kitty Hawk, the Google folks doing theirs, and there’s 10 others.
But the thing I’m trying to say is I think they, the country as a whole, is getting close to the point where they can have an ongoing consistent delivery of goods. And I think there’s a couple of cultural improvements, cultural changes that are working on. One is a little wider acceptance of failure as a means of learning — failing forward rather than being penalized for failure — which is still, a little bit here, present. And then the questioning authority, questioning assumptions and authority, which is still a little difficult to do, both in terms of the education patterns and also the political pattern.
So I think those will take a long time but we know, just from Chinese expats and the number of Chinese working over in the US and Silicon Valley, that there is nothing really deeply impossible about those things because Chinese scientists and engineers over in the US are fantastically creative and innovative.
So there is not a huge barrier to do that. It’s just a very deep and widespread cultural thing that will take a generation or so to overcome. But anyway, so once that happens, my gosh, I think it will be kind of a new world when there’s a lot of innovation coming out of China and maybe eventually India. And that will accelerate the way things go but also change the dynamics, I think, of the economies and the political structure. So there’s going to be a lot of shifting.
I think Americans… I think Trump is an exhibit of the last gasp of an America that’s no longer, and part of it is this industrial model that’s gone and the identity of a lot of older workers, of who they were, and the image of the new Americans as much multi-racial, and a lot of them are minorities. And the US is not the only superpower in the world. That is psychologically a very difficult thing to accept. And so I think we’re seeing some of the pain of that right now, but I think it’s going to take a whole generation to overcome.
Jay: I find it fascinating when you talk about what seems to me a very characteristic of Asian culture, which is those two points that you said — the fear of failure. Asians particularly, they have this whole I-have-to-save-my-face-I-can’t-look-vulnerable mentality which really, really impedes innovation, absolutely. Because we all know that you have to fail to succeed eventually. So I think you’re right, Kevin. In a generation’s time, when that has become accepted as part of the rite of passage, then we could see quite an explosion of innovation thereafter.
Last topic I want to talk about with you, since I have you on, is actually about an article, a viral, famous article that you wrote called “1000 True Fans.” For listeners listening in, if you haven’t read it, it’s probably worth reading over at Kevin’s website. Can you give us five minutes, the quick and dirty of your idea behind 1000 True Fans?
Kevin: The premise is kind of a sleight of hand with the numbers. It says basically that in the new environment, in the new economy, if you can have a direct relationship with your customers, with your fans, with your audience, and they can pay you directly for whatever it is that you provide them… Say you’re a creator, a filmmaker, a musician, photographer, sculptor, game maker, whatever, and then you could have your audience pay you directly, that you need a whole lot less of a fan base to make a living than you would if, in the old world of media where you had book publishers and music labels and music studios in between you and them.
The numbers work out. If you could sell to these true fans… And I define a true fan as somebody who would buy whatever you produced. If you could sell them a hundred dollars’ worth of stuff a year, when you’d only need a thousand of them to make a living. Or if it was only $50, then you’d need 2,000. But the order of magnitude is roughly in the thousands instead of thinking that you need millions to survive, to make a living as an artist or as a creator. In the past, you did need to make millions because there was all these other people and intermediaries involved that were consuming what people were giving you. But if you have direct connection with them with social media or with email or a mailing list — and, of course, these days with crowd-source funding where you actually have people connecting and paying you directly for something — then that reduces the numbers to much more manageable, in the thousands. Thousands is a lot more achievable, even thinking about it, than, “I need to have a million-hit bestseller to make a living doing this.”
So I emphasized that this is making a living, not making a fortune, and the numbers are a little…depending on where you live, and if you have a partner, you have to divide by two or multiply by two. Also, it’s at least a half-time job for the creator to maintain this kind of audience. And so some people, some artists, some creators, inventors, just aren’t really made and don’t really want to do that stuff with the fans. And so they need to have someone else. And so you have to change your numbers there, because it does require a lot of nurturing and feeding.
But if you’re willing to — and it’s a good way to start — to feed your fans, then you only need a thousand-ish true fans. And then there’s all these kind of regular fans who will buy some of your things. But if you could have a thousand… And finally, the thing about the thousand is that, the other thing that the internet, that technology does is it connects basically on this planet. That’s several billion people headed toward multi-billion people, which means that even if you are interested in something that only one in a million people are also going to be interested in, you still have, with a couple of billion people, thousands of potential fans. So the most esoteric, the most obscure, the more niche passion that you have, you, today, have the potential of finding at least a thousand other people who share that. So that’s really good news for everybody because it means that your passion can probably make you a living if you wanted it to.
Jay: It’s a great article for anyone listening, and I highly recommend it, especially if you’re kind of an entrepreneur or a small business owner. I think it’s very valuable. Kevin, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for your time. What are you working on this year? You mentioned that Asia is kind of your focus now. What are you working on, and where can people find you, follow you, and connect with you?
Kevin: Let’s me answer the last because that’s really all I have time for. I can found at my initials KK.org. I’m working on a book about vanishing Asia, and my latest thing is a newsletter that I do with Mark Frauenfelder and Claudia. Cool Tools is we send out six brief, really brief, recommendations every week, every Sunday, on a one-page email called Recomendo.com. Sign up, and you’ll get six recommendations from us every week.
Jay: Those are a Cool Tools type recommendations?
Kevin: They’re tips, stuff that we listen to, watch, read, eat. It’s other things and tools, although occasionally there are some tools. But it’s things that we recommend and we use ourselves.
So I want to thank you for having me. This has really been great, Jay, that you had me on. And I’m really glad to share some of my stories on Asia. I would love talking about it more. But I hope it was useful, and I appreciate being asked.
Jay: Definitely. Thanks so much for your time. We appreciate it. And guys, go sign up for Kevin’s newsletter, his new newsletter Recomendo. That’s right?
Jay: That does it. Thanks, Kevin. Bye.
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