Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control Techno-
Utopic Program for a WIRED World
This essay is based on a paper presented
to the Theology and Science Working Group
of the American Academy of Religion in
New Orleans, on November 24, 1996. A shortened version of this essay
was published in Terra Nova: Nature and Culture in Fall 1997.
Foreword: Explorations of the interface between religion and science, and therefore also between culture and nature, are ancient intellectual disciplines. However one construes this interface, we are compelled to take into account sciences’ ever new descriptions and manipulations of natural processes. These descriptions of nature explicitly and implicitly evolve into prescriptions for human thought and behavior. Contrary to the positivist tradition, our scientific understandings of nature necessarily become symbolic values in our reconfigurations of human culture. In the late twentieth century, at the end of the Cenozoic era, our techno- cultural unfolding has also become a significant factor in the present evolutionary trajectory of our planet. The question is not whether we are going to commit the Naturalistic Fallacy, but how. Human creativity is a Lamarckian wild card in the epic of evolution. Metaphysics becomes politics by other means.
“The Nine Laws of God” are Kevin Kelly’s attempt to metatheorize natural and cybernetic creativity in his shape-shifting book Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. Kelly is the executive editor of WIRED Magazine and the former editor of theWhole Earth Review, so he is well positioned to engage in these journalistic readings of the new sciences of complexity. In his book and in the pages of WIRED magazine, we are presented with a kind of postmodern natural theology that is conversant with the cutting edge and uncharted boundaries of many new research projects. Among other topics, we read about artificial ecologies, the telephone system, human consciousness, computer virus incubation, robotics, virtual reality simulations, electronic cash, computer animation, ecological restoration, Postdarwinian evolutionary theory, economic markets, social insects, and the computer modeling of the whole planet.
The problem and opportunity Kelly sees is in the breakdown of the boundaries between the natural and the artifactual. “The realm of the born — all that is nature — and the realm of the made — all that is humanly constructed — are becoming one,” writes Kelly. “Machines are becoming biological and the biological is becoming engineered” (1).
The problem is that science and engineering are dominated by top-down, linear, hierarchical, reductionistic, control paradigms, while the complex creativity of natural processes, and increasingly also the complex creativity of economies and technologies, require decentralized, networked, nonlinear modes of design and formation. In order to understand an ecosystem or a complex business enterprise, we have to jettison hierarchical and mechanistic models and adopt biological models. Kelly celebrates the advent of a “neo-biological civilization,” but the price will be giving up control, hence the strange and provocative title of his book.
“This, then, is the dilemma all gods must accept: that they can no longer be completely sovereign over their finest creations.
… The world of the made will soon be like the world of the born: autonomous, adaptable, and creative but, consequently, out of our control. I think that’s a great bargain” (4).
In this essay I will explore Kelly’s thesis to which I will then pose an antithesis. Kelly’s concern is with god-like creativity; my queries will be about god-like moral constraints on creativity. Kelly celebrates being “out of control;” I will problematize this as a dangerous addiction. Kelly offers “nine laws” for would-be gods; I will invert his guidelines to serve as ethical constraints that might limit his techno-utopic program for a WIRED world. In true dialectical fashion, however, we must look beyond this thesis and antithesis to a creative synthesis. That possibility is being played out in our life time in an epochal moment in our cultural evolution and natural history.
First, let me introduce my conversant and the publishing phenomena with which he is associated.
Kevin Kelly is a brilliant scholar and a gifted writer; he is as friendly as he is smart. Largely self-taught, his formal education ended with high school. In 1969, he discovered the first Whole Earth Catalogue and was smitten with Stewart Brand’s vision of access to tools and knowledge for individual empowerment and self-education, so he found something better to do than college. With a backpack and camera, Kelly wandered Asia from 1972 to 1978. After a religious conversion experience in Jerusalem, Kelly headed back to the United States where he reconnected with family members by biking and hiking and working around.
In 1984, Kelly moved to the San Francisco area to work on the production of a new permutation ofWhole Earth Catalogue. Within six months, this rookie was promoted to editor of the quarterlyWhole Earth Review. The purpose statement of the Whole Earth Catalogue helps frame much of the discussion which follows, because Kelly is very much a Stewart Brand protégé.
We are as Gods and might as well get good at it. . . In response to this dilemma and to these gains, a realm of intimate, personal power is developing — the power of individuals to conduct their own education, find their own environment, and share the adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted…(Whole Earth Catalogue, 1986, 2).
Getting-good-at-being-like-gods is a pretty succinct description of the larger issues which motivate Kelly’s project. But Kelly also believes in the One God. A lapsed Catholic, Kelly’s conversion experience on Easter morning in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem led him into the Evangelical fold. He is currently a member of Alma Heights Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational evangelical congregation, and has participated in a weekly Bible study group for some twelve years. His personal and social morals are distinctly conservative, which make him a strange figure in counterculture publications Whole Earth Review and WIRED.
WIRED never tires of telling us that this technological stuff is a revolution, and the “digerati” are the revolutionary vanguard. WIRED is “the mouthpiece of the digital revolution.” Kelly’s 1994 book can be read as the intellectual blueprint for the magazine and therefore also a theoretical apparatus for this revolution. WIRED is one of the fastest growing magazines in America. As executive editor, Kelly has gone from the counterculture to the new culture, from the economically marginal to the centers of economic power.
From a startup circulation base in 1993 of 85,224, WIRED has grown to a base circulation of over 300,000 in 1996 with a staff of over 300. Hotwired, its spin-off publication on the Internet <http://www.hotwired.com>, is one of the most successful Internet sites in the world. WIRED has also set new trends and standards for graphic design with its flashy, fluorescent, in-your-face graphics that blur the boundaries of copy and advertising. Like other revolutionary journals of the past, the boundaries between social historical necessity and utopian ideology blur. Like all revolutionaries, we’ll discover a potent doses of powerful creativity, disarming sincerity, and naive idealism.
Don’t let the twenty-something, hip, body-piercing, androgynous, multicultural persona of WIREDfool you. The readership is 87.9 percent male and an average age of 37 years. 48 percent have post-graduate education or better with an average household income of $122,000 per year. The average net worth of a reader’s household is $603,000 with an average market value of current investments at $251,000. What we have here is a profile of the emerging technocratic ruling class that will dominate economics and culture in the 21st century.
Averages lie, of course, but advertisers love ‘em. With this kind of readership survey, the advertising budget is substantial. Among the long list of product advertisers are several liquor companies, most prominently Absolut Vodka. And while Kevin Kelly himself is practically a teetotaler, Absolut is one of WIRED’s most loyal advertiser and evidently Kelly’s biggest fan. Kelly was recently honored in two issues of WIRED with $22,000 back cover ads under the title “Absolut Kelly,” depicting mechanical insects and the quote “Life is the ultimate technology” from Kelly’s book. Is this advertising or magazine copy? In WIRED you always have to do a double take.
(The connection with a hard liquor manufacturer and the addiction reversal I am about to enact on Kelly’s Out of Control book should not be construed as an ad hominem attack on Kelly. He is not Absolut; WIRED is not Tanqueray. Nevertheless, one has to wonder about the prominence given in the online HotWired to the weekly cocktail recipe – res ipsa loquitur.)
WIRED, Inc. is itself also a kind of icon for a bio-historical forces that are transforming the world. Housed in on the 4th floor of an old warehouse in San Francisco, the office is a bee hive expanse of the latest greatest computers set up on slab tables balanced between file cabinets, with minimal space dividers. Network and phone wires run everywhere. Music plays in the background, as the 300 plus, mostly young worker bees and drones move efficiently through the motions of putting to press the next great “happening.” Indeed, every issue of WIRED is a happening. Mean while a floor below WIRED’s office, mostly immigrant workers labor in the more traditional sweat shop of a garment manufacture for minimum wages. So the offices of WIRED are marked as a poignant icon for a future tale of two cities and a world divided between the haves and the have-nots and have-beens of the 21st century. Welcome to our neo-biological civilization!
“The Nine Laws of God” is Kelly’s attempt to summarize and metatheorize the nature of complex creativity as presented in his Out of Control book and expounded in the pages of WIRED. I will argue that these types of insights about biology and technology really must serve as data in the construction of our postmodern natural theology and then also postmodern natural law ethics. In an evolutionary universe, we need to understand machines not only as technological artifacts of science and culture, but as natural phenomena for scientific and religious reflection. Automobiles are every bit as natural as trees, they just have a more complicated sex life and appear to be dangerously dysfunctional. Natural theology today must consider not only the lilies of the fields, but the parking lots filled with cars.
Kelly postulates these nine principles of natural creativity and argues that they should guide human creativity in our neo-biological civilization. The Nine Laws of God are:
• Distribute being;
• Control from the bottom up;
• Cultivate increasing returns;
• Grow by chunking;
• Maximize the fringes;
• Honor your errors;
• Pursue no optima; have multiple goals;
• Seek persistent disequilibrium; and
• Change changes itself.
Let me briefly explain what Kelly means by some of these terms while exploring a few of the scientific examples that he uses. Let’s be clear that Kelly thinks of these “Nine Laws” as heuristics, not really laws, as inferences, and not really deductions, about the patterned complexity in nature and technology.
Like Kevin Kelly, I am a bee hobbyist. We share the fascination and pleasure of working with these industrious insects. Apis mellifera are one of those strange natural phenomena, whose 7000 year domestication into human agriculture has not diminished their wild logic. Each bee hive is a radical matriarchy. From the whole hive emerges a common identity. It is a wonderful experience to be working in the presence of this humming activity. In dissecting a large hive, one can not help but be awe struck by elegant synergism of these insects hard at work. They exhibit a strange collective consciousness in their daily toils and prolific production.
“The Hive Mind” is the title of the second chapter in Kelly’s Out of Control book. Kelly ponders the emergent nature of these gifted social insects. The hive is often referred to as a “superorganism,” because it exhibits emergent properties which could not be inferred or deduced by studying individual bees. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
The life in the bee hive looks a lot like a typical day at my university or any large organization. Students, faculty, support staff, and administrators running around, sending conflicting messages, with only the facades of hierarchical decision-making. Most parts don’t know what others within the system know, experience, or do, but out of this chaos emerges a rather amazing entity called Temple University. Out of the many parts a functional holism flourishes.
Kelly reminds me also that my brain is a lot like a bee hive. One hundred billion individually stupid little neurons generate trillions of synaptic connections emerging into the totally unrecognizable activity of “me” — communicating these thoughts and “you” presumably understanding them. The perceptions and memories of these inscriptions on this page are distributed throughout the neural network, such that I might loose a pieces of my brain and still retain my memories.
Kelly notes that “the duality of body/mind or whole/part simply evaporated when holistic behavior lawfully emerged from the limited behavior of the parts” (11). Let’s try to remember this as we make our “individual” ways through the larger collective identities which shape our world. We too are limited parts of greater wholes.
What happens when we take hundreds of millions of individually stupid computers and we network them, asks Kelly. “More is different,” notes my protagonist, especially when the more is connected in a web of parallel operations like the telephone system or an ecosystem. Kelly coins the term “vivisystem” and “swarm system” to denote complex processes of many autonomous parts, influencing each other through high connectivity without centralized control (22).
There are lots of benefits to swarm systems, not the least of which is life and consciousness. Kelly notes that swarm systems are 1) adaptable to new situations, 2) evolvable over time, 3) resilient to disruption through their parallel redundancies, 4) boundless in their expansive replications, and 5) productive of endless novelties. The problem is that swarm systems cannot be optimized, cannot be controlled, cannot be predicted, cannot be booted up quickly, and cannot be understood through linear models of causation (22-23). Chaos author, James Gleick, calls it mapping “the morphology of the amorphous” (25); something that we theologians are a lot more comfortable with than orthodox scientists.
Perhaps you can begin to see the shape of Kelly’s “Nine Laws” beginning to emerge in the discussion above. “Distribute being” and “control from the bottom up” are the laws of the bee hive. If we want to be really creative, “to incubate something from nothing,” we’ll have to follow the wild logic of the swarm (468).
“The modern world,” writes Kelly, “is being paved with mirrors. We have ubiquitous TV cameras, and ceaseless daily polling… A steady paper trail of bills, grades, pay stubs, and catalogs help us create our individual identity… Every consumer becomes both a reflection and a reflector, a cause and an effect” (72). But there is nothing new here, because this is what nature has been doing for eons. Species always coevolve with other species as both cause and effect in a dynamic feedback loop called life. There is little linear here in the evolutionary process; life is strange solipsism of everything influencing everything else and being influenced in return.
As it is in nature, so too in business. The economic world is also about coevolution, codependency and obligated cooperation. Like life, the economic world is also a house of mirrors. Macro-economics, or “bionomics” as Kelly prefers to call it, is really just an extension of an evolutionary Ponzi scheme.
It is in disequilibrium that creativity is born, not in business-as-usual. Indeed, Kelly points out, equilibrium is a good definition of death. Life, consciousness, and creativity are the product of the flux. Change is good and it will keep changing itself. Here, Kelly explores the new theories of patch ecology, punctuated equilibrium, and ecological turbulence. These new theories conflict with traditional environmentalism’s project of conserving undisturbed habitat in order to protect ecological diversity.
“[T]he idea that the elements of instability are the root of diversity runs counter to one of the hoariest dictums of environmentalism: that stability begets diversity, and diversity begets stability. If natural systems do not settle into a neat balance, then we should make instability our friend” (94)
Kelly, however, gives us no tools for evaluating how much disruption is healthy and at what point disequilibrium becomes simply crash and burn. Without an evaluative framework, these disequilibrious insights become dangerous rationalizations for anything goes in environmental policy. Is the burning of fossil fuels changing the atmosphere? Nothing to worry about over the vast expanse of evolutionary time. Are species going extinct? It is just a continuation of evolutionary creativity.
So the moral of the Kelly’s story about disequilibrium is to surf the thermodynamic wave to the creative edge. Don’t worry about how humans are changing the Earth. We are just a new phase of the creative evolutionary instability. Get the deadening, equilibrium-seeking regulations of environmentalists and social justice advocates out of the way; let the evolutionary free market exercise its creativity through our distributed being. So in the “Nine Laws” of Kelly we find “seek persistent disequilibrium” and “change changes itself” (468).
Kelly celebrates the emergence of the super hive mind of the Internet and the cashless society. “Hidden in the Net,” writes Kelly, “is the mystery of the Invisible Hand — control without authority” (26). Here we see Kelly’s repeated use of Adam Smith’s metaphor of the Invisible Hand guiding the economic market place to the mutual enhancement of all selfish-rationalizing components. This metaphor is central to Kelly’s project and self-understanding. For whether it be in the technological, economic, or evolutionary market places, Kelly is above all a free market optimist. He believes in the Invisible Hand. Hence, the luxury that he grants himself to simply ignore questions of moral constraints and self-creative responsibility.
So while Kelly writes a chapter on Postdarwinism that would offend orthodox Neo-Darwinist’s sensibilities with notions of symbiosis, directed mutation, and self-organization, he turns out to be fully committed to a kind of Social Darwinist laissez faire social- techno- evolutionary nonpolicy. And while Kelly advocates biological design and ecological restoration, he wants no traffic with limits-to-growth environmentalism or eco-romanticism. He might write about German and Danish industrial ecology, but he wants nothing to do with the decades of political advocacy and government regulations that create such models.
Of the many interviews in his book, the only person Kelly is openly disrespectful towards is Dana Meadows, co-author of the Limits to Growth studies. Kelly finds flaws in the computer-modeling and expresses contempt for environmentalist nay-sayers to technological progress. Indeed, when queried directly the only technology that Kelly expressed any moral ambivalence about was germ-line engineering of the human genome.
In a scathing interview-debate with Neo-Luddite Kirkpatrick Sales that appeared in WIRED 3.06, Kelly expressed contempt for this paper-tiger environmentalist. The two ended with a paper bet of $1000 that global economic, environmental, and social collapse would/would not occur in the next twenty-five years.
Kelly gets impassioned talking about “Tree Huggers, Deep Ecologists, and Neo-Luddites.” In an interview, Kelly explains this contempt:
When you have a bad technology, the answer is better technology; when you have a bad thought, bad thinking, stupid ideas, the answer is not no thinking, no ideas, but better ideas. Technology is a thought, a kind of thinking with material, thinking out loud with the things we make.
Well, I’m all in favor of better technology and better thinking, but the criteria for betterness needs more explication. There is here in Kelly’s words also a profound moral confusion in the conflation of thinking and doing. We can have many different thoughts and feelings; when we enact them in the world, they are profoundly different. Technology is more than just a thought. Technology is an enactment of thoughts with real repercussions in social and biophysical worlds.
In the short space of my 40 years of life on this planet, the human population has doubled to 5.6 billion souls. In the same period, the consumption of fossil fuels has more than quadrupled, fueling previously inconceivable wealth and prosperity, as well as pollution. This exponential growth in population and consumption patterns is unprecedented in human history. Humans have already significantly altered every bioregional ecosystem on the planet and the chemical composition of the atmosphere as a whole. On the microcosmic scale, humans are re-authoring and re-assembling the atomic, chemical, and genetic structures of our world.
In a July 1997 cover story entitled “The Long Boom: A History of the Future 1980-2020,” Wiredauthors Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden present a radically optimistic interpretation of the last twenty years of world history and an even rosier scenario for the future. The authors argue that waves of new technologies and unprecedent integration and openness in the global economy will result in a sustained growth in world gross domestic product of 6 percent annually at which rate the productivity of the world will double twice in just 25 years. By the year 2020, the authors predict that the human population will stabilize around 11 billion mostly middle class people. This will be accomplished “without blowing the lid off the environment,” because the “five great waves” of technological advancement — personal computers, telecommunications, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and alternative energy — will give us a new Green Revolution in food production and vastly more efficient communication, transportation, and production systems.
The Wired authors have transformed the slogan “Don’t worry, be happy” into a social and historical necessity. Schwartz and Leyden write that “without an expansive vision of the future, people tend to get short-sighted and mean-spirited, looking out only for themselves. A positive scenario can inspire us through what will inevitably be traumatic times ahead.” So while the authors acknowledge “Ten Scenario Spoilers” and “a daunting number of problems,” they don’t dwell too long in reflecting on these. Rather, we are left with pure American optimism to drown out “the chorus of naysayers.”
Whether this magical thinking is Neo-Calvinist or New-Age doesn’t matter. Beware the prophetic messenger of bad news, however, because this power of positive thinking can easily descend into a closed feedback loop where manic free market optimism becomes the only alternative todepresive social justice and environmental constraints.
There is much in the weaving of positive scenarios that is saluatory. There is much in Wired’s “Big Boom” scenario that would even please environmentalists. But we need a life vision that integrates the darkness, social and economic values that acknowledge our limitations, and hope that transcends materialist failure or success.
So it is time to present my antithesis to Kelly’s thesis. Let me now invert Kelly’s optimistic naiveté and turn Kelly’s utopic daydream into an apocalyptic nightmare. Let us simply re-metaphorize the title from “Out of Control” [this is fun] to “Out of Control” [help!]. We are already out of control and that is precisely the problem.
Kelly feels confident that the world will not experience economic, environmental, and social collapse. My reading of human history is less sanguine. We are all suspect in this debate. Kevin, you, and I live comfortably in the United States, privileged among the privileged of the world. There is a knowing part of us that should look over our shoulder as we travel through the days of the week going about our pressing business-as-usual. Vast regions of the Earth have been damaged, species are going extinct, the entire planet is in the midst of a technological domestication, in what can be understood as a new chapter in the evolutionary epic of the planet. The challenge of the twenty-first century will not be the terra-forming of Mars, but the anthro-forming of Terra. Kevin Kelly certainly helps us to better understand this epic evolutionary moment, but the WIRED utopic daydream is also an apocalyptic nightmare.
Distributed beings without a moral and political marketplace of constraints is a dangerous ideology. This neglected discussion of morality follows from Kelly’s unreflected ideological commitments. At first reading, Kelly seems to be advocating designing with nature and instituting non-hierarchical social structures, but the more central theme is actually a techno-utopic vision of benevolent laissez faire evolutionary and market forces. This techno-utopia is his central commitment; and it is strangely anthropocentric and misanthropic at the same time. Whether and which humans and nonhumans thrive or survive does not appear to be relevant in Kelly’s analysis.
Kelly’s Two Kingdom theology of nature is apparent in his debate with Kirkpatrick Sales, when he praises the Amish for their selective use of technology based on “an old-fashioned spiritual stance: their sureness of the reality of God and sin. . .”
We dominate nature at first so that we can survive, but beyond survival I believe the focus of technology, culture, and civilization is on human creativity, to allow humans to be creative, to allow every human born to have a chance to create, to write a book, to make a film, to make music, to love, to understand the universe. I think that’s what technology is for. I think that’s why we’re here. It’s not to worship nature (WIRED 3.06, 213-215).
Humans stand above nature, we do not belong to nature. Our meaning and purpose are not rooted in Divine incarnations in the evolutionary process, but in Divine and human transcendence of nature.
So Kelly’s Out of Control book is aptly titled. In the late twentieth century at the end of the Cenozoic era, we really are already out of control. Our neo-biological civilization is hooked on a consumer growth binge. Dependent on frequent injections of petroleum into the veins of our economy to sustain our habit. We need ever increasing sensory stimulation to make us feel alive. More becomes the solipsistic meaning and purpose of our lives in search of the next fix. The WIRED world, our world, is like an addict seeking more speed to compensate for ever deadening sensibilities.
Kelly admits as much at one point, “Stripped of all secondary motives, all addictions are one: to make a world of our own. I can’t imagine anything more addictive then being a god” (233). Soon our computer game worlds will become artificial universes of sweet sensation and fantasy interactions, like the Holodeck in Star Trek series, itself a hollow Hollywood projection of our culture optimism and escapism. But a projection of a projection of a projection has a way of becoming a twisted reality. The Borg are here today. “Prepare to be assimilated, resistance is futile.” Indeed, resistance in this Star Trek fatasy world requires that we embrace technology in order not to be “assimilated”.
This moment of recognition by Kelly, however, is not an occasion for a horrified cry for help. He does not propose that we go slow, institute policies and programs to guard against misuses and abuse of technological and economic power, or protect disempowered social groups and ecosystems from technological dislocation and disruption. Instead, he postures himself as the voice of sanity in the face of Neo-Luddite extremism and attacks the Eco-Geek Dana Meadows for creating a bad computer simulation. It is the real world, not the SimWorld, that worries me.
At this point I don’t know what to make of a devout Christian who writes in celebration of “the headlong high of substituting for Jehovah, and the genuine, overwhelming, sheer love for one’s private world, [that] will suck in any and all who near it” (233). This is not an addict on the road to recovery, but an addict on a binge. There is “out of control” [this is fun] and then there is “out of control” [help!]. Missing in Kelly’s Christianity is apparently an appreciation of our banal depths of human evil and finitude.
Kelly graciously reviewed an earlier draft of this essay and responded in particular to this last comment in an e-mail message:
I assert the reality of evil, even Evil. I asset the reality of what we call original sin – the tendency of people untrained to commit selfish acts, eventually leading to hateful acts. But part of the grand story I get about the biblical God is that no matter how greatly evil individuals are, or even groups of individuals — and they can be horribly wicked — their evil cannot overcome the collective good of individuals performing small acts of charity, mercy and love. Good will triumph over evil… Is the goodness of God centralized in God, or has the Creator distributed the nature of goodness? I believe the latter (without believing for a second that God is pantheistic).”
Indeed, I also believe that goodness and evil, like God, are distributed. We must go on to theorize and act upon our understandings of this distributed goodness and evil. So it would seem that the dangers of our time are also nonlinear, swarm-like complexities, that cannot be predicted, adequately understood, nor easily controlled. There are still patterns in our moral and spiritual lives that can guide us, just as there are patterns in complex creativity that Kelly theorizes about. So my “Out of Control” antithesis remains as a necessary proposition and a possible intervention, but by who, how?
When will our addicted society hit bottom? How does a swarm system enter into recovery anyway? Like the alcoholic on the mend, our planetary journey into sustainability will be a metaphysical and spiritual journey that begins with the recognition that we are indeed out of control [help!]. Here, we can perhaps invert Kelly’s “Nine Laws of God” transforming them from simple guidelines for complex creativity into complicated constraints on our neo-biological civilization. It is time to move from prescription to description, from the “Is” to the “Ought,” from natural philosophy to natural law.
When queried, Kelly himself resisted this move to the ethical. He doesn’t presume or want his “Nine Laws of God” to replace “The Ten Commandments.” His project is about god-like creativity, not god-like moral constraints on creativity. He says that he keeps his religion and science separate. But if humans are a Lamarckian wild-card in evolution, then we are the Naturalistic Fallacy incarnate. We rewrite the future structures of evolution and God’s continuing creativity in our thoughts and deeds today.
The irony is that in spite of Kelly’s political, technological, economic, and religious commitments, his project offers a practical political and moral theory that undermines the WIRED laissez faireagenda. If we really distribute power and control to the bottom; if we really maximize the fringes of the human and nonhuman world; if we really honor our errors instead of compulsively repeating them; if we really no longer pursue optimization measured in the mono-rationalization of currencies; if we really sought disequilibrium rather than what is actually business-as-usual in bright new colors; then we would have a rather different world indeed with better thinking, better technology, and better lives. When we turn Kelly’s philosophy of nature into natural ethics, we are compelled to adopt truly conservative social and environmental policies that seek to conserve, preserve and enhance cultural and ecological diversity and systemic processes.
And so on the sixth day, in Kelly’s retelling of the Genesis story in a chapter entitled “God Games,” Yahweh made the Earthling out of clay. “In some cybernetic way,” writes Kelly, “the man was to be a simulacra of Yahweh.” And so humans are created in the image of Yahweh, imbued with some modicum of free will and love, we are created to be co-creators.
Will the advent of neo-biological evolution complete the cycle that Yahweh started? Is our playing god a game or a blasphemy? Will our neo-biological civilization’s revisiting of Genesis be “an act of true flattery” or “foolish audacity”? Kelly poses the problem, but avoids dwelling on the ambivalences. With his infectious optimism, Kelly disassociates from the problem. He won’t pass judgment, except that it is hard work and a lot of fun playing god. We can take comfort though in knowing that our “models won’t be perfect, either.” Nor will we really be responsible because “these imperfect creations” of our neo-biological civilization will not really be “under our godly control.”
With God’s creativity as our role-model, Kelly thinks we can cut ourselves some slack:
To be a god, at least to be a creative one, one must relinquish control and embrace uncertainty. Absolute control is absolutely boring. To birth the new, the unexpected, the truly novel — that is, to be genuinely surprised — one must surrender the seat of power to the mob below.
The great irony of god games is that letting go is the only way to win (257).
Yes, yes, it just sounds so right. Humans are presented as beings of God’s making and in God’s image; but it is traditionally considered idolatrous, if we mistake ourselves or our own handy work for God. Our god games are perilously close to the edge.
Our challenge is now to really follow this mythic Yahweh, who becomes the Lord God by giving up power, but not giving up responsibility. Yahweh is the primordial alcoholic in recovery, and we must follow in order to flourish. In the late twentieth century at the end of the Cenozoic era, our giving up the illusion of control [help!] and paradoxically shouldering the burdens of responsibility and ambiguity, may be the beginning of our moral redemption and creative liberations. So to Kelly’s Nine Laws, we might add a tenth — Seek creative tension; embrace ambiguities. In other words, on the paradoxical journey of recovery into a neo-biological civilization, we can do the Nine Laws with Kelly and the Twelve Step with God as we understand God.
I have posed a strong antithesis to Kelly’s thesis, though I am clearly attracted to much of what he describes and prescribes for our Terra Nova. The synthesis is beyond either Kelly’s optimism or my apparent pessimism. Indeed, both hope and fear can be swindlers. The synthesis is a real-time experiment with nature and culture, with science and religion, that promise to transform the world and ourselves, for better and for worse, in the coming years.
As for the nature of complex creativity, our society’s quest to incubate something from nothing, I am slowly learning that it is some times better to simply stop, be silent, and listen expectantly.
Barbrook, Richard. “The Pinnochio Theory: A Review of Kevin Kelly’s ‘Out of Control’”, Hypermedia Research Centre, University of Westminster, England <http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/hrc/manifesto/pinnochio.html>
Keegan, Paul. “The Digerati,” New York Times Magazine, May 21, 1995.
Kelly, Kevin, taped interview conducted by William Grassie, on June 6, 1996 in San Francisco.
Kelly, Kevin. 1994. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Kelly, Kevin. E-mail received on 22 October 1996.
Plunkett, John and Louis Rossetto, Mind Grenades: Manifestos from the Future. San Francisco: Hotwired. 1996.
Point Foundation. 1986. The Essential Whole Earth Catalog. New York: Doubleday.
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Portrak Seminar on “Post-Modern Ecology” in Santa Monica, CA, March 1995.
WIRED Magazine 3.03 – 4.10.
WIRED Press and Advertiser Kits, June 1996.
WIRED Scenarios: The Future of the Future 1.01. Fall 1995.
* Measuring fossil fuel consumption is actually deceptively difficult. One must convert oil, gas, coal, shale, or tar into an equivalent unit in terms of each other or BTU or Joules equivalents. In whatever conversion approach used, however, significant difference between these fossil fuels are either obscured or overstated. World Watch Institute created such a comparison in comparing World Population, World Economic Output, and Fossil Fuel Consumption in 1900, 1950, and 1986. The use of “billion tons of coal equivalent” is frankly as gross a measurement as quantifying Economic Output in “trillion 1980 dollars.”
Fossil Fuel Consumption
(trillion 1980 dollars)
(billion tons of coal equivalent)
Brown, Lester et. al., State of the World, Washington, D.C. : World Watch Institute, 1987, (5).