The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly


  1. Banning the inevitable usually backfires. Prohibition is at best temporary, and in the long run counterproductive. A vigilant, eyes-wide-open embrace works much better. My intent in this book is to uncover the roots of digital change so that we can embrace them. Once seen, we can work with their nature, rather than struggle against it. The 12 forces are Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Screening, Accessing, Sharing, Filtering, Remixing, Interacting, Tracking, Questioning, and then Beginning.

Key Takeaways

  1. Our greatest invention in the past 200 years was not a particular gadget or tool but the invention of the scientific process itself. Once we invented the scientific method, we could immediately create thousands of other amazing things we could have never discovered any other way. This methodical process of constant change and improvement was a million times better than inventing any particular product, because the process generated a million new products over the centuries since we invented it. Get the ongoing process right and it will keep generating ongoing benefits. In our new era, processes trump products.
  2. That bears repeating. All of us—every one of us—will be endless newbies in the future simply trying to keep up. Here’s why: First, most of the important technologies that will dominate life 30 years from now have not yet been invented, so naturally you’ll be a newbie to them. Second, because the new technology requires endless upgrades, you will remain in the newbie state. Third, because the cycle of obsolescence is accelerating (the average lifespan of a phone app is a mere 30 days!), you won’t have time to master anything before it is displaced, so you will remain in the newbie mode forever.
    1. Red Queen Effect
  3. However, neither dystopia nor utopia is our destination. Rather, technology is taking us to protopia. More accurately, we have already arrived in protopia. Protopia is a state of becoming, rather than a destination. It is a process. In the protopian mode, things are better today than they were yesterday, although only a little better.
  4. Although Nelson was polite, charming, and smooth, I was too slow for his fast talk. But I got an aha! from his marvelous notion of hypertext. He was certain that every document in the world should be a footnote to some other document, and computers could make the links between them visible and permanent. This was a new idea at the time. But that was just the beginning. Scribbling on index cards, he sketched out complicated notions of transferring authorship back to creators and tracking payments as readers hopped along networks of documents, in what he called the “docuverse.”
  5. We don’t know what the full taxonomy of intelligence is right now. Some traits of human thinking will be common (as common as bilateral symmetry, segmentation, and tubular guts are in biology), but the possibility space of viable minds will likely contain traits far outside what we have evolved. It is not necessary that this type of thinking be faster than humans’, greater, or deeper. In some cases it will be simpler.
  6. Our most important mechanical inventions are not machines that do what humans do better, but machines that can do things we can’t do at all. Our most important thinking machines will not be machines that can think what we think faster, better, but those that think what we can’t think.
  7. What are humans for? I believe our first answer will be: Humans are for inventing new kinds of intelligences that biology could not evolve. Our job is to make machines that think different—to create alien intelligences.
  8. “Right now we think of manufacturing as happening in China. But as manufacturing costs sink because of robots, the costs of transportation become a far greater factor than the cost of production. Nearby will be cheap. So we’ll get this network of locally franchised factories, where most things will be made within five miles of where they are needed.”
  9. Now we are transitioning into the third age of computation. Pages and browsers are far less important. Today the prime units are flows and streams. We constantly monitor Twitter streams and the flows of posts on our Facebook wall. We stream photos, movies, and music. News banners stream across the bottom of TVs. We subscribe to YouTube streams, called channels. And RSS feeds from blogs. We are bathed in streams of notifications and updates. Our apps improve in a flow of upgrades. Tags have replaced links. We tag and “like” and “favorite” moments in the streams. The foundational units of this third digital regime, then, are flows, tags, and clouds.
  10. A universal law of economics says the moment something becomes free and ubiquitous, its position in the economic equation suddenly inverts. When nighttime electrical lighting was new and scarce, it was the poor who burned common candles. Later, when electricity became easily accessible and practically free, our preference flipped and candles at dinner became a sign of luxury. In the industrial age, exact copies became more valuable than a handmade original. No one wants the inventor’s clunky “original” prototype refrigerator. Most people want a perfect working clone. The more common the clone, the more desirable it is, since it comes with a network of service and repair outlets. Now the axis of value has flipped again. Rivers of free copies have undermined the established order. In this new supersaturated digital universe of infinite free digital duplication, copies are so ubiquitous, so cheap—free, in fact—that the only things truly valuable are those that cannot be copied. The technology is telling us that copies don’t count anymore. To put it simply: When copies are superabundant, they become worthless. Instead, stuff that can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable. When copies are free, you need to sell things that cannot be copied. Well, what can’t be copied? Trust, for instance. Trust cannot be reproduced in bulk. You can’t purchase trust wholesale. You can’t download trust and store it in a database or warehouse it. You can’t simply duplicate someone’s else’s trust. Trust must be earned, over time. It cannot be faked. Or counterfeited (at least for long). There are a number of other qualities similar to trust that are difficult to copy and thus become valuable in this cloud economy. The best way to see them is to start with a simple question: Why would anyone ever pay for something they could get for free? And when they pay for something they could get for free, what are they purchasing? In a real sense, these uncopyable values are things that are “better than free.” Free is good, but these are better since you’ll pay for them. I call these qualities “generatives.” A generative value is a quality or attribute that must be generated at the time of the transaction. A generative thing cannot be copied, cloned, stored, and warehoused. A generative cannot be faked or replicated. It is generated uniquely, for that particular exchange, in real time. Generative qualities add value to free copies and therefore are something that can be sold. Here are eight generatives that are “better than free.”
    1. Immediacy
    2. Personalization – Personalization requires an ongoing conversation between the creator and consumer, artist and fan, producer and user. It is deeply generative because it is iterative and time-consuming. Marketers call that “stickiness” because it means both sides of the relationship are stuck (invested) in this generative asset and will be reluctant to switch and start over. You can’t cut and paste this kind of depth.
    3. Interpretation
    4. Authenticity
    5. Accessibility
    6. Embodiment – In this accounting, the music is free, the bodily performance expensive. Indeed, many bands today earn their living through concerts, not music sales. This formula is quickly becoming a common one for not only musicians, but even authors. The book is free; the bodily talk is expensive. Live concert tours, live TED talks, live radio shows, pop-up food tours all speak to the power and value of a paid ephemeral embodiment of something you could download for free.
    7. Patronage – Deep down, avid audiences and fans want to pay creators. Fans love to reward artists, musicians, authors, actors, and other creators with the tokens of their appreciation, because it allows them to connect with people they admire. But they will pay only under four conditions that are not often met: 1) It must be extremely easy to do; 2) The amount must be reasonable; 3) There’s clear benefit to them for paying; and 4) It’s clear the money will directly benefit the creators.
    8. Discoverability
    9. These eight qualities require a new skill set for creators. Success no longer derives from mastering distribution. Distribution is nearly automatic; it’s all streams. The Great Copy Machine in the Sky takes care of that. The technical skills of copy protection are no longer useful because you can’t stop copying. Trying to prohibit copying, either by legal threats or technical tricks, just doesn’t work. Nor do the skills of hoarding and scarcity. Rather, these eight new generatives demand nurturing qualities that can’t be replicated with a click of the mouse. Success in this new realm requires mastering the new liquidity.
  11. What counts are not the number of copies but the number of ways a copy can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, and enlivened by other media. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. What counts is how well the work flows.
    1. Removing friction increases the pie
  12. Fluidity of growth—The book’s material can be corrected or improved incrementally. The never-done-ness of an ebook (at least in the ideal) resembles an animated creature more than a dead stone, and this living fluidity animates us as creators and readers.
    1. Latticework
  13. We currently see these two sets of traits—fixity versus fluidity—as opposites, driven by the dominant technology of the era. Paper favors fixity; electrons favor fluidity. But there is nothing to prevent us from inventing a third way—electrons embedded into paper or any other material. Imagine a book of 100 pages, each page a thin flexible digital screen, bound into a spine—that is an ebook too. Almost anything that is solid can be made a little bit fluid, and anything fluid can be embedded into solidness. What has happened to music, books, and movies is now happening to games, newspapers, and education. The pattern will spread to transportation, agriculture, health care. Fixities such as vehicles, land, and medicines will become flows.
  14. These are the Four Stages of Flowing:
    1. Fixed. Rare.
    2. Free. Ubiquitous.
    3. Flowing. Sharing.
    4. Opening. Becoming.
    5. The third disruption is enabled by the previous two. Streams of powerful services and ready pieces, conveniently grabbed at little cost, enable amateurs with little expertise to create new products and brand-new categories of products. The status of creation is inverted, so that the audience is now the artist. Output, selection, and quality skyrocket.
  15. Each video posted demands a reply with another video based upon it. The natural response to receiving a clip, a song, a text—either from a friend or from a professional—is not just to consume it, but to act upon it. To add, subtract, reply, alter, bend, merge, translate, elevate to another level.
  16. eBooks and networked books
    1. Ebooks today lack the fungibility of the ur-text of screening: Wikipedia. But eventually the text of ebooks will be liberated in the near future, and the true nature of books will blossom. We will find out that books never really wanted to be printed telephone directories, or hardware catalogs on paper, or paperback how-to books. These are jobs that screens and bits are much superior at—all that updating and searching—tasks that neither paper nor narratives are suited for. What those kinds of books have always wanted was to be annotated, marked up, underlined, bookmarked, summarized, cross-referenced, hyperlinked, shared, and talked to. Being digital allows them to do all that and more. We can see the very first glimpses of books’ newfound freedom in the Kindles and Fires. As I read a book I can (with some trouble) highlight a passage I would like to remember. I can extract those highlights (with some effort today) and reread my selection of the most important or memorable parts. More important, with my permission, my highlights can be shared with other readers, and I can read the highlights of a particular friend, scholar, or critic. We can even filter the most popular highlights of all readers, and in this manner begin to read a book in a new way. This gives a larger audience access to the precious marginalia of another author’s close reading of a book (with their permission), a boon that previously only rare-book collectors witnessed. Reading becomes social. With screens we can share not just the titles of books we are reading, but our reactions and notes as we read them. Today, we can highlight a passage. Tomorrow, we will be able to link passages. We can add a link from a phrase in the book we are reading to a contrasting phrase in another book we’ve read, from a word in a passage to an obscure dictionary, from a scene in a book to a similar scene in a movie. (All these tricks will require tools for finding relevant passages.) We might subscribe to the marginalia feed from someone we respect, so we get not only their reading list but their marginalia—highlights, notes, questions, musings. The kind of intelligent book club discussion as now happens on the book sharing site Goodreads might follow the book itself and become more deeply embedded into the book via hyperlinks. So when a person cites a particular passage, a two-way link connects the comment to the passage and the passage to the comment. Even a minor good work could accumulate a wiki-like set of critical comments tightly bound to the actual text. Indeed, dense hyperlinking among books would make every book a networked event. The conventional vision of the book’s future assumes that books will remain isolated items, independent from one another, just as they are on the shelves in your public library. There, each book is pretty much unaware of the ones next to it. When an author completes a work, it is fixed and finished. Its only movement comes when a reader picks it up to enliven it.
    2. Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of ebooks and etexts, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages. Right now the best we can do in terms of interconnection is to link some text to its source’s title in a bibliography or in a footnote. Much better would be a link to a specific passage in another passage in a work, a technical feat not yet possible. But when we can link deeply into documents at the resolution of a sentence, and have those links go two ways, we’ll have networked books. You can get a sense of what this might be like by visiting Wikipedia. Think of Wikipedia as one very large book—a single encyclopedia—which of course it is. Most of its 34 million pages are crammed with words underlined in blue, indicating those words are hyperlinked to concepts elsewhere in the encyclopedia. This tangle of relationships is precisely what gives Wikipedia—and the web—its immense force. Wikipedia is the first networked book. In the goodness of time, each Wikipedia page will become saturated with blue links as every statement is cross-referenced. In the goodness of time, as all books become fully digital, every one of them will accumulate the equivalent of blue underlined passages as each literary reference is networked within that book out to all other books. Each page in a book will discover other pages and other books. Thus books will seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together into one large metabook, the universal library. The resulting collective intelligence of this synaptically connected library allows us to see things we can’t see in a single isolated book. Over the next three decades, scholars and fans, aided by computational algorithms, will knit together the books of the world into a single networked literature. A reader will be able to generate a social graph of an idea, or a timeline of a concept, or a networked map of influence for any notion in the library. We’ll come to understand that no work, no idea stands alone, but that all good, true, and beautiful things are ecosystems of intertwined parts and related entities, past and present. 
    3. Once snippets, articles, and pages of books become ubiquitous, shuffleable, and transferable, users will earn prestige and perhaps income for curating an excellent collection.
    4. The universal networked library of all books will cultivate a new sense of authority. If you can truly incorporate all texts—past and present in all languages—on a particular subject, then you can have a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do and don’t know. The empty white spaces of our collective ignorance are highlighted, while the golden peaks of our knowledge are drawn with completeness. This degree of authority is only rarely achieved in scholarship today, but it will become routine. 
    5. Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact uncovered while screening will provoke our reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills, encouraging us to pursue an observation all the way down to the footnote. Screening encourages rapid pattern making, associating one idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. Screening nurtures thinking in real time.
    6. On networked screens everything is linked to everything else. The status of a new creation is determined not by the rating given to it by critics but by the degree to which it is linked to the rest of the world.
  17. Possession is not as important as it once was. Accessing is more important than ever.
  18. Products encourage ownership, but services discourage ownership because the kind of exclusivity, control, and responsibility that comes with ownership privileges are missing from services.
  19. The switch from “ownership that you purchase” to “access that you subscribe to” overturns many conventions. Ownership is casual, fickle. If something better comes along, grab it. A subscription, on the other hand, gushes a never-ending stream of updates, issues, and versions that force a constant interaction between the producer and the consumer. It is not a onetime event; it’s an ongoing relationship. To access a service, a customer is often committing to it in a far stronger way than when he or she purchases an item.
  20. Naturally, the producer cherishes this kind of loyalty, but the customer gets (or should get) many advantages for continuing as well: uninterrupted quality, continuous improvements, attentive personalization—assuming it’s a good service.
  21. As more items are invented and manufactured—while the total number of hours in a day to enjoy them remains fixed—we spend less and less time per item. In other words, the long-term trend in our modern lives is that most goods and services will be short-term use. Therefore most goods and services are candidates for rental and sharing.
  22. For a long time there were two basic ways to organize human work: a firm and a marketplace. A firm, such as a company, had definite boundaries, was permission based, and enabled people to increase their efficiency via collaboration more than if they worked outside the firm. A marketplace had more permeable borders, required no permission to participate, and used the “invisible hand” to allot resources most efficiently. Recently a third way to organize work has emerged: the platform. A platform is a foundation created by a firm that lets other firms build products and services upon it. It is neither market nor firm, but something new. A platform, like a department store, offers stuff it did not create. Levels of highly interdependent products and services form an “ecosystem” that rests upon the platform. “Ecosystem” is a good description because, just as in a forest, the success of one species (product) depends on the success of others. It is the deep ecological interdependence of a platform that discourages ownership and promotes access instead. The platform’s job is to make sure it makes money (and adds value!) whether the parts cooperate or compete. Which Amazon does well. At almost every level of a platform, sharing is the default—even if it is just the rules of competition. Your success hinges on the success of others.
  23. Dematerialization and decentralization and massive communication all lead to more platforms. Platforms are factories for services; services favor access over ownership.
  24. The web is hyperlinked documents; the cloud is hyperlinked data. Ultimately the chief reason to put things onto the cloud is to share their data deeply. Woven together, the bits are made much smarter and more powerful than they could possibly be alone. There are practical limits to how gigantic one company’s cloud can get, so the next step in the rise of clouds over the coming decades will be toward merging the clouds into one intercloud.
  25. As we increase dematerialization, decentralization, simultaneity, platforms, and the cloud—as we increase all those at once, access will continue to displace ownership.
  26. In his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, media theorist Clay Shirky suggests a useful hierarchy for sorting through these new social arrangements, ranked by the increasing degree of coordination employed. Groups of people start off simply sharing with a minimum of coordination, and then progress to cooperation, then to collaboration, and finally to collectivism. At each step of this socialism, the amount of additional coordination required enlarges.
  27. Instead of money, the peer producers who create these products and services gain credit, status, reputation, enjoyment, satisfaction, and experience.
  28. What happens if we turn the old model inside out and have the audience/customers in charge? They would be Toffler’s prosumers—consumers who were producers. As innovation expert Larry Keeley once observed: “No one is as smart as everyone.”
  29. This is true for other types of editors as well. Editors are the middle people—or what are called “curators” today—the professionals between a creator and the audience. These middle folk work at publishers, music labels, galleries, or film studios. While their roles would have to change drastically, the demand for the middle would not go away. Intermediates of some type are needed to shape the cloud of creativity that boils up from the crowd. This hybrid of user-generated and editor-enhanced is quite common.
  30. The dream of many companies is to graduate from making products to creating a platform. But when they do succeed (like Facebook), they are often not ready for the required transformation in their role; they have to act more like governments than companies in keeping opportunities “flat” and equitable, and hierarchy to a minimum.
  31. Each of these tiny niches is micro-small, but there are tens of millions of niches. And even though each of those myriad niche interests might attract only a couple of hundred fans, a potential new fan merely has to google to find them. In other words, it becomes as easy to find a particular niche interest as to find a bestseller.
  32. The largest, fastest growing, most profitable companies in 2050 will be companies that will have figured out how to harness aspects of sharing that are invisible and unappreciated today. Anything that can be shared—thoughts, emotions, money, health, time—will be shared in the right conditions, with the right benefits. Anything that can be shared can be shared better, faster, easier, longer, and in a million more ways than we currently realize. At this point in our history, sharing something that has not been shared before, or in a new way, is the surest way to increase its value.  
    1. Many of these filters are traditional and still serve well: We filter by gatekeepers, intermediates, curators, brands, government, cultural environment, friends, ourselves
  33. The danger of being rewarded with only what you already like, however, is that you can spin into an egotistical spiral, becoming blind to anything slightly different, even if you’d love it. This is called a filter bubble. The technical term is “overfitting.” You get stuck at a lower than optimal peak because you behave as if you have arrived at the top, ignoring the adjacent environment. The more effective the “more good stuff like this” filter is, the more important it becomes to alloy it with other types of filters. A filter dedicated to probing one’s dislikes would have to be delicate, but could also build on the powers of large collaborative databases in the spirit of “people who disliked those, learned to like this one.” In somewhat the same vein I also, occasionally, want a bit of stuff I dislike but should learn to like.
  34. Way back in 1971 Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize–winning social scientist, observed, “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” The maximum potential attention is therefore fixed. Its production is inherently limited while everything else is becoming abundant. Since it is the last scarcity, wherever attention flows, money will follow.
  35. Paul Romer, an economist at New York University who specializes in the theory of economic growth, says real sustainable economic growth does not stem from new resources but from existing resources that are rearranged to make them more valuable. Growth comes from remixing. Brian Arthur, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute who specializes in the dynamics of technological growth, says that all new technologies derive from a combination of existing technologies. Modern technologies are combinations of earlier primitive technologies that have been rearranged and remixed. Since one can combine hundreds of simpler technologies with hundreds of thousands of more complex technologies, there is an unlimited number of possible new technologies—but they are all remixes. What is true for economic and technological growth is also true for digital growth. We are in a period of productive remixing.
  36. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one. Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. What is the equivalent in video? Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film. Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. That would be useful in video as well. And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of course, we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorize using a selected word or phrase for later sorting. For example, if I wanted to visually compare recent bank failures with similar historical events by referring you to the bank run in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, there is no easy way to point to that scene with precision. (Which of several sequences did I mean, and which part of them?) I can do what I just did and mention the movie title. I might be able to point to the minute mark for that scene (a new YouTube feature). But I cannot link from this sentence to only those exact “passages” inside an online movie. We don’t have the equivalent of a hyperlink for film yet. With true screen fluency, I’d be able to cite specific frames of a film or specific items in a frame. Academic research has produced a few interesting prototypes of video summaries, but nothing that works for entire movies. Some popular websites with huge selections of movies (like porn sites) have devised a way for users to scan through the content of full movies quickly in a few seconds. When a user clicks the title frame of a movie, the window skips from one key frame to the next, making a rapid slide show, like a flip book of the movie. The abbreviated slide show visually summarizes a few-hour film in a few seconds. Expert software can be used to identify the key frames in a film in order to maximize the effectiveness of the summary.
  37. The holy grail of visuality is findability—the ability to search the library of all movies the same way Google can search the web, and find a particular focus deep within. You want to be able to type key terms, or simply say, “bicycle plus dog,” and then retrieve scenes in any film featuring a dog and a bicycle. In an instant you could locate the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the witchy Miss Gulch rides off with Toto. Even better, you want to be able to ask Google to find all the other scenes in all movies similar to that scene. That ability is almost here.
  38. However, in every system that I have experienced where anonymity becomes common, the system fails. Communities saturated with anonymity will either self-destruct or shift from the purely anonymous to the pseudo-anonymous, as in eBay, where you have a traceable identity behind a persistent invented nickname. For the civilized world, anonymity is like a rare earth metal. In larger doses these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. Yet these elements are also a necessary ingredient in keeping a cell alive. But the amount needed for health is a mere hard-to-measure trace. Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishingly small doses, it’s good, even essential for the system. Anonymity enables the occasional whistle-blower and can protect the persecuted fringe and political outcasts. But if anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system.
  39. Large quantities of something can transform the nature of those somethings. More is different. Computer scientist J. Storrs Hall writes: “If there is enough of something, it is possible, indeed not unusual, for it to have properties not exhibited at all in small, isolated examples.
  40. With the right tools, it turns out the collaborative community can outpace the same number of ambitious individuals competing.
  41. A good question is not concerned with a correct answer. A good question cannot be answered immediately. A good question challenges existing answers. A good question is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you cared before it was asked. A good question creates new territory of thinking.
  42. The Beginning is a century-long process, and its muddling forward is mundane. Its big databases and extensive communications are boring. Aspects of this dawning real-time global mind are either dismissed as nonsense or feared. There is indeed a lot to be legitimately worried about because there is not a single aspect of human culture—or nature—that is left untouched by this syncopated pulse. Yet because we are the parts of something that has begun operating at a level above us, the outline of this emerging very large thing is obscured. All we know is that from its very beginning, it is upsetting the old order. Fierce pushback is to be expected.

What I got out of it

  1. Inspiring and exciting to think about how these trends will come to play out and impact nearly every aspect of our lives