The technological trends that will shape the next 30 years

An interview with Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine and author of The Inevitable.

The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly is the most interesting nonfiction book I've read about the future in a long time. I constantly found myself rereading passages and marking pages to come back to later. Kevin has been an enthusiastic observer of both the human condition and the state of technology for decades as a cofounder of Wired, and his insights are deep, provocative, and wide ranging. In his own words, "When answers become cheap, good questions become more difficult and therefore more valuable." The Inevitable raises many important questions that will shape the next few decades.


Kevin was generous enough to answer a few questions I had after finishing the book. Read on to find out why most people fail when they try to make predictions, what the future holds for the creative class, and why The Inevitable will be Kevin's last print book. See these notes by the estimable Derek Sivers for more background.

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If none of the important things of the next 100 years have been invented yet, how do you generate or select the next project or idea to pursue?

It is wide open! Most new ideas -- including my own -- will fail in the long term, but the ones that will succeed in becoming dominant in the next decades are most likely to come from the edge, as they have always. I'm good at working on the edge, so I look for ideas that are NOT popular at first, that seem marginal, niche, barely plausible. I'm looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.

David Pogue points out that what differentiates your work as a futurist is that you have an incredible track record of getting it right. What are the most common mistakes you see people make when they try to make predictions? Why do so many intelligent analysts get it wrong?

The most difficult part about looking at the future is unlearning what we know. There is so much baked into our generally held assumptions that tend to blind us -- all of us. You have to keep questioning the assumptions. But at the same time, most assumptions of what is correct are actually correct! So you have to keep knocking at the door, even though most times it yields nothing: "Is this really true? Who says? Why? Do I really believe it? What if it is wrong? What happens then?" That can be exhausting, frustrating, unproductive, so unless it becomes a habit, it gets old fast. You also have to question without too much stake in the answers.  You want to have strong opinions loosely held, ready to shift rapidly when needed. Most people have trouble changing their minds. I like to have my mind changed.

Most sweeping surveys of what to expect in the coming decades focus on economic and geopolitical implications, but The Inevitable goes far beyond that. What does the future hold for artists, writers, and creatives? What practical steps would you recommend we take to set ourselves up for success over the long term? 

There will be a thousand new creative genres developed in the next two decades. Each of these forms will breed a new crop of stars that did not exist the year before. Cultivate a techno literacy. The tech will constantly change faster than you can master it, so you master life long learning. Aim lower; you don't need a million fans; it's a world of niches. The biggest challenge is to think different while being connected. It's easy to think different while in isolation; it is easy to be connected. It is vastly harder to see different, make different, be different while connected to 7 billion humans all the time.  Taking vacations and sabbaticals from the hive mind become important; cultivating a lateral view, nurturing the orthogonal will be essential. Not living in Silicon Valley will probably be an advantage.

Books are one of the primary examples used in The Inevitable to illustrate the forces shaping our future. How are you applying those insights to your own work as an author?

This will be my last native text book, meaning the last book I write in print. My "books" in the future will either be born as update-able digital e-books, or will be very visual photobooks, or will be bookish videos, or full bore virtual realities. At some point these processes may throw off a printed book, but that will only be a derivative of the more native digital form.

In addition to providing a blueprint of what to expect over the next 30 years, you provide “fly through” subjective glimpses of what our lives might be like that read like science fiction. What role do science and speculative fiction play in our culture? What are some of your favorite science fiction novels that you think “get it right”?

I think the Speilberg film Minority Report got it right, but I am very biased because I was part of the group of futurists hired by Speilberg to create believable world of 2050. He got it right because he kept asking the right questions. In general science fiction is under-appreciated for its vast influence on science itself, and even on culture. Hundreds of thousands of engineers are working on projects today because they saw some product in a science fiction story that they want to make real. With the advent of computer-generated science fiction films, we can witness sci-fi's power. I would expect sci-fi worlds, a la Star Wars and Star Trek, to continue to grow in popularity, particularly as these worlds enter VR. VR may indeed become the greatest platform for science fiction, where the audience can experience the future rather than just watch it.

Watch my Google Talk

Last month, Google invited me to come give a talk about Cumulus. They filmed the entire event and you can watch it right here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1mwp0uk2cQ&feature=youtube

We discussed science fiction, creative process, social impacts of technology, venture capital investing, and predicting the future. I've always been amazed by the busy intersection of speculative fiction, engineering, and policy. There's a lot of background on Cumulus and The Uncommon Series, the big ideas the stories wrestle with, and the inspirations behind them. I fielded questions on how my work as a technology strategist influences my fiction and vice versa, the counterintuitive commonalities between artists and entrepreneurs, and what to expect from my next novel. It was a fascinating conversation and I was honored to talk through these issues with folks that are literally building the future.

Ann Farmer orchestrated the entire event and I am deeply indebted to her for suggesting it. The Talks at Google program has hosted some of my favorite writers, including folks like Neal Stephenson, George R.R. Martin, and Michael Lewis. But one of the coolest things about the experience was the interviewers. David Allison leads teams and builds products inside Google and previously was the CTO of Nulu and Brightscope. Rick Klau is a partner at Google Ventures (now called gv). Both David and Rick have been dedicated early readers since my very first novel, and have generously helped vet the technologies presented in the books. That meant that we could go deep during the interview, tackling the toughest questions buried in the stories.

Watch it and let me know what you think.

Unveiling Neon Fever Dream

I'm delighted to share that my next novel, Neon Fever Dream, is coming out August 4th! The Kindle version is already available for preorder here.

[drumroll]

NEON FEVER DREAM

A dark secret hides in the swirling dust and exultant revelry of Burning Man.

Asha Amarasuriya is bored and struggling to get by as a martial arts instructor in Oakland. When an enigmatic seductress offers her a golden ticket, Asha decides to take a leap of faith and head to Burning Man. But there is more than meets the eye at the infamous desert pilgrimage and Asha gets sucked into a quest to unravel a sinister mystery at the heart of Black Rock City.

Will Asha and her friends survive to expose the shadowy conspiracy? By the time the Man burns, their lives will have changed forever.

"Outstanding. Totally nails it at all levels. Incredibly powerful female characters who are simultaneously introspective and totally kickass heroic leaders. I read the whole book in one evening and loved it."
-Brad Feld, Managing Director at Foundry Group

Brad read an early draft and already published a post about it, which you can check out for a sneak peek under the hood of the book.

Neon Fever Dream is in the last stages of proofing and design. I'm really happy with how how the story came together and can't wait to get it into your hands next month. I'm nervous and excited to hear what you think.

Finally, if you have a column, podcast, mailing list, or blog audience, would you like to do a feature, review, interview, or post an excerpt? I've made very few media commitments so far, so let me know.

A dark vision of the social impacts of social media

An interview with science fiction author William Hertling.

By day, Angie, a twenty-year veteran of the tech industry, is a data analyst at Tomo, the world's largest social networking company; by night, she exploits her database access to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them. She can't change her own traumatic past, but she can save other women.

When Tomo introduces a deceptive new product that preys on users' fears to drive up its own revenue, Angie sees Tomo for what it really is--another evil abuser. Using her coding and hacking expertise, she decides to destroy Tomo by building a new social network that is completely distributed, compartmentalized, and unstoppable. If she succeeds, it will be the end of all centralized power in the Internet.

But how can an anti-social, one-armed programmer with too many dark secrets succeed when the world's largest tech company is out to crush her and a no-name government black ops agency sets a psychopath to look into her growing digital footprint?

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That's the pitch for William Hertling's new technothriller, Kill Process, which came out this week. I'm a fan of William's work and we've become friends over the past few years. His bestselling four-book Singularity Series is some of the most sophisticated science fiction out there about the future of artificial intelligence.

In Kill Process, Williams brings the lens of speculative fiction to bear on the present day. The story wrestles with the social impacts of social media, the centralization of power among big internet companies, and the burgeoning movement of independent programmers working to create new options outside of a closed system. If you like computers and science fiction, you'll get a serious kick out of it.

William was kind enough to agree to answer some questions about these issues, and more. Hit him up on Twitter at @hertling if you have follow up questions or comments.

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Kill Process wrestles with many big ideas that are suffusing the zeitgeist right now. Where did the premise come from? What were the initial moments/thoughts/experiences that the story grew out of? What social struggles are reflected in the novel and why did you focus on them?

​Abuse of power is a theme I've explored throughout my books, especially abuse in the form of manipulation through the control of information. I'm also particularly interested in corporate abuse of power. As companies grow larger and wield more influence, whether intentional or accidental, abuses of power become inevitable. We see that with Facebook, for example, where something as simple as feed selection algorithms have a huge influence over how we perceive the world and what we learn.

The Circle by Dave Eggers and Future Crimes by Marc Goodman were two books I read that intensified my interest in exploring current day issues around data privacy and ownership, but one of the most influential moments for me was meeting Amber Case and Aaron Parecki, then cofounders of Geoloqi, and learning about IndieWeb.

It doesn't get much more grassroots than IndieWeb, which is a bunch of people building a decentralized alternative to the corporate-owned web, line by line of code, without any real backing in the form of venture capital money or corporate sponsorship. They're facing the combined might of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Those giants may not intend to be evil, but their ownership of and control over everyone's data and relationships is a type of abuse. There's so much as stake, and we've got just a few programmers arrayed against the largest, most powerful companies in the world.

So I wanted to tell a story about that, but I also wanted to tell a story about a character who has many disadvantages yet still fights on. Angie is a woman working in tech, trying to recover from her brutal past, physically handicapped, and yet she never gives up. The technology backdrop is interesting, but ultimately this is Angie's story.

You're best known for the Singularity Series of science fiction novels which are set in a future that's pretty far off (at least in the later books). What was it like to write a technothriller that is much nearer term, much closer to the present day?

​In some ways liberating, and in some ways challenging. In Avogadro Corp, which was set in 2015 or so, the challenge was figuring out plausible technology advances just a few years into the future. It's so easy to get that wrong in very obvious ways. For example, I wrote the book in 2009, and smartphones and tablets make only brief and insignificant appearances in the story. By the last book in the series the challenge had changed. The Turing Exception is set in 2045, and the difficulty became in extrapolating technology far enough to be plausible.

Setting Kill Process in the present day, with current technology removed the need to predict where technology is going. On the other hand, it's more necessary to get the details of the tech right, and I'm limited to existing technology, so I couldn't employ any magic bullets to solve plot holes.

Kill Process is your most personal story yet, and takes on major sociological questions. Does science fiction play a role in our culture beyond entertainment? If so, what role does it play?

​I think so. I enjoy stories that are just entertainment, but the best and most memorable science fiction makes you think about people, society, and technology, and it changes you. In many ways, I am the product of all the science fiction I've consumed, from Neuromancer to Star Trek to Buffy. I hope Kill Process helps at least a few people make different technology choices because of the implications for data ownership, and it helps at least a few people implementing this stuff see how their decisions can ultimately be abusive toward their customers.

How does your work as a technology strategist influence your science fiction writing, and vice versa? What interesting similarities/differences are there between writing software and writing novels?

Both writing software and writing novels are creative acts. Both involve lots of hours meticulously arranging alphanumeric characters according to rules in order to achieve an end product, which is then given over to other people to use and enjoy. Both are gratifying in a lot of the same ways.

That being said, it's far easier, more forgiving, and satisfying to write a large novel than a large software program. Far more time is spent in the actual act of creation in the novel case, whereas the vast majority of time is spent debugging in the software case.

The fact that both are connected, in that technology is integral to my stories, is nice. It means I get to swim in a sea of ideas all the time.

What was your creative process like for Kill Process? How did it go from idea, to rough draft, to finished product?

​It took about eighteen months from start to publication, and began only with a clear image of Angie's character, her history, and her short term objectives. Everything else--all of the bigger plot arcs, the decision she makes about a quarter of the way through the book, even the inclusion of IndieWeb--came organically as I wrote and continually asked myself what would have to happen next.

As with my other books, Kill Process is indie published, but that wasn't always a given. A well-known publisher asked me to send them the manuscript and give them a chance to make me an offer before I published it myself. I figured it couldn't hurt to hear their offer, and planned to take them up on it as soon as the manuscript was complete.

Around then I heard from yet another writer, the third in total, who had started out indie published, then took a traditional publishing deal, and ended up disappointed due to lack of creative control, poor marketing, and poor sales. The offers these writers received were attractive in theory, but in practice, were bad business. I decided that it could, in fact, hurt to hear an offer--an offer that might sound too good to pass up--and avoided the problem by going straight to indie publishing Kill Process.

What lessons did you learn from writing Kill Process?

Back in 2009 or so, I shared an early draft of Avogadro Corp with friends to get feedback, and one of them said, "Good story, but are there no women in your world?" I was deeply embarrassed and disappointed to discover I really wasn't giving women a fair part of the story, especially when I loved strong female protagonists. I started paying a lot more attention to women-in-fiction panels at writing conventions, to woman-in-tech panels at tech conferences, and to feminist issues in general.

​So when I wrote Kill Process, which tackles several issues--women-in-tech, domestic abuse, and a strong, female dominated cast of characters--I cared quite a lot about getting all of those details right. Eventually I asked a writer friend who focuses on feminist issues to read the manuscript, and then waited, practically sick to my stomach with worry, waiting for her to get back to me. When she did, her feedback was something like "Great story, loved all the strong female characters, but are there no people of color in your world?"

There is always room for, and in fact, requirement for, more growth as a writer.

Can you share some reading recommendations? What are a few recent favorites? 

​I loved The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, although it's a frightening book to read amid the current political backdrop in the United States. I'm currently reading her MaddAddam trilogy.  The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin was fantastic. Stacking in Rivertown by Barbara Bell is a well written and deeply disturbing book that will give most people nightmares.

The Uncommon Series is now available on Kindle Unlimited

That's right, The Uncommon Series is now available on Kindle Unlimited. You can dive in and start reading right here.

The trilogy is the #1 top-rated financial thriller on Amazon and follows a kickass entrepreneur as she takes her tech startup from garage to IPO and gets caught up in an international conspiracy along the way.

Kindle Unlimited is an Amazon subscription service almost like a Netflix for books. In return for a monthly fee, readers get access to an enormous library of tens of thousands of digital books.

If you haven't read the story yet and you're a KU subscriber, now's the perfect time.

Audiobook of Uncommon Stock: Power Play is available now

You can find it here:

http://www.audible.com/pd/Mysteries-Thrillers/Uncommon-Stock-Power-Play-Audiobook/B01GUE4PLO/

Power Play is the second book in The Uncommon Series, the #1 top-rated financial thriller on Amazon (you can find the audio version of the first book here). The story follows an entrepreneur, Mara Winkel, as she leads her tech startup from garage to IPO and gets caught up in an international conspiracy along the way. Here's what to expect:

Mara Winkel is the CEO of Mozaik, the fastest-growing tech startup in Boulder, CO. But Mozaik doesn't just build widgets; their software uncovers financial fraud. When Mozaik's first major project reveals a dark secret at the heart of a large international bank, Mara and her team get sucked deeper into a conspiracy of dangerous money launderers, dysfunctional team members, and shady venture capitalists. Can they build a new business and survive intact? Their company and their lives are on the line.

Audiobooks have exploded in popularity over the past few years. I'm not surprised. I've loved audiobooks every since I was a kid. We'd listen to them on family road trips and I made constant trips to the local public library to borrow large sets of books-on-tape. Smart phones have made the experience that much easier, and now with the touch of a button we can dive into a story while driving or doing the dishes (right now I'm listening to The Fireman by Joe Hill).

Because I love audiobooks so much, I take production very seriously. Jennifer O'Donnell is a brilliant narrator and really brings Mara to life (we reviewed ~40 auditions). Brick Shop Audio did a great job mastering and producing the files. I think you'll appreciate the results.

Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

Cumulus is available now

I've got a new book out. Check it out here.

Cumulus takes place in a near-future Bay Area ravaged by economic inequality and persistent surveillance. It’s a dark, gritty, fast-paced story packed with political intrigue, world-changing technology, and questionable salvation.

I’m humbled that some esteemed people and publications like Brad Feld, Tim O'Reilly, Andrew Keen, Lucas Carlson, Josh Anon, Ars Technica, and Endless Magazine have said nice things about it. Google has asked me to give a talk about the book in June and I'm delighted that a number of my favorite science fiction authors requested advance copies. You can find a review here, an excerpt here, and a podcast interview here.

I’m really proud of how Cumulus came together. I moved back to Oakland in 2013. It was the city of my birth and where I grew up. Seeing how Oakland has evolved since the ’80s is at once inspiring and harrowing. Cumulus is a kind of twisted love letter to my favorite city in the Bay Area.

Over the course of the past few years, we’ve bonded with many of our incredible neighbors, sated our appetites at countless ethnic food joints, had a triple homicide on our block, installed a free little library for our community, hiked in beautiful Redwood Park, and watched a protest with thousands of people and hundreds trailing police vehicles terminate at the end of our street. We love the birdsong but hate the gunshots. Oakland feels like a special point of confluence for so many critical social issues: the implications of the growing wealth gap in American society, the extraordinary promise of new technologies and diverse world views, our failure to solve persistent social problems like poverty, racism, and homelessness, and the power of fierce, pragmatic optimism.

Writing Cumulus allowed me to explore my enthusiasm for my hometown and my fascination with how new tools like the internet are reshaping our lives in so many ways, big and small. Through years of working with startups and venture capital investors, I’ve had the privilege of seeing how some new technologies come to be and getting to know a few of the people who build and popularize them. I’ve never been more excited about the promise of human ingenuity and there’s no other time in history when I’d rather live. That said, these new developments are changing our social fabric, the texture of our personal lives, and even our geopolitics. Such change is always painful. Times like these require open-mindedness, compassion, critical thinking, resourcefulness, and creativity. I don’t have the answers but I hope that this story might contribute a few questions.

I will be donating the first six months of proceeds from Cumulus to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chapter 510. The Electronic Frontier Foundation fights tirelessly for a free and open internet, championing user rights in the face of entrenched special interests. Chapter 510 is a local literacy non-profit serving underprivileged youth in Oakland. These organizations are the real heroes. Day in and day out, they roll up their sleeves and work to avert the darkest aspects of the future that Cumulus portrays.

Both the audiobook and Bound serial are currently in production. Oh, and there are a few easter eggs hidden in Cumulus for fans of the Uncommon Series.

Give it a read. I’d love to hear what you think.