Kevin Kelly on Advice, Travel, and Tech (Ep. 178)

His latest book offers advice about things he wished he had learned in life earlier—but what topics was he afraid to include?

As the founding executive editor of Wired magazine and the author of several acclaimed books on technology and culture, Kevin Kelly has long been known for his visionary ideas and insights. But his latest work, Excellent Advice for Living takes a different approach, drawing on his own experience and wisdom to offer practical tips and advice for navigating life’s challenges.

Naturally then, Kevin and Tyler start this conversation on advice: what kinds of advice Kevin was afraid to give, his worst advice, how to get better at following advice, and whether people who ask for advice really want it in the first place. Then they move on to the best places to see traditional cultures in Asia, the one thing in Kevin’s travel kit he can’t be without, his favorite part of India, why he’s so excited about brain-computer interfaces, how AI will change religion, what the Amish can teach us about tech adoption, the most underrated documentary, his initial entry point into tech, why he’s impressed by the way Jeff Bezos handles power, the last thing he’s changed his mind about, how growing up in Westfield, New Jersey affected him, his next project called the Hundred Year Desirable Future, and more.

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Recorded April 27th, 2023

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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m chatting with Kevin Kelly. In the best of all possible ways, Kevin is extremely difficult to describe or introduce. I pulled a little bit from Wikipedia: It says, “Kevin Kelly . . . is the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, . . . a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Review. He has also been a writer, photographer, conservationist, and student of Asian and digital culture.” Yet it still feels that barely scratches the surface.

Most recently, Kevin has a new book out, which I recommend: Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier.

Kevin, welcome.

KEVIN KELLY: It’s real pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me. I’m really looking forward to this.

COWEN: Let’s start with some questions about your new book. Which is the piece of advice you were afraid to give and did not give?

KELLY: I’m afraid to give very much marriage counseling, things to — to run your marriage. I gave one piece about every now and then rotate in letting your partner be always right.

A piece of advice that I would be hesitant to talk about is — here’s one: I think you should have as many kids as you possibly can. That’s a piece of advice I did not include in the book.

COWEN: If advice is of positive expected value, why be afraid to give marital advice?

KELLY: Because I don’t have enough experience in — standing up to it. I only put pieces of advice that I felt I could really stand by, and there were times when I doubted my own certainty about it.

COWEN: What do you feel has been the worst piece of advice you ever gave?

KELLY: [laughs] Let’s see. Something that I changed my mind about, maybe? I think I advised someone when I was at Wired to accept to do some things that they were not inclined to do. “Do one for the team” kind of a thing. And I felt, in retrospect, that that was maybe dishonest, in the sense that I would not have done that myself. So I was advising somebody to do something that I would not have done. Maybe it was good for them, but I wasn’t certain about that. So I would say that was a bad piece of advice.

COWEN: Here’s a piece of advice; tell me if it’s good or bad: “Minimize deathbed regret.”

KELLY: I think that’s good advice.

COWEN: Why is it good? Would it lead you to do too many things just so you don’t regret having missed out, but in fact a lot of it just amounts to nothing?

KELLY: Not necessarily. I think minimizing your regrets is a good thing, and most regrets that people have are from things that they — not from things that they did, but from things that they didn’t do.

I’m trying to think of somebody who really regretted having done too much in their lives. I think I’ve not met anybody who’s ever told me that. I’ve met people who told me that they regretted not doing things. I think minimizing regret is still a good idea.

COWEN: Why is the ex post perspective better than the ex ante? If so many people at the end feel they haven’t done enough, at the time, they probably had pretty good reasons not to do it, right? If it’s such a common phenomenon. And at the end of your life it seems like it would have been easy to have done it, because you’re no longer faced with all the costs.

KELLY: Yes. I think that would be true, but I think most people wind up not doing very much not because they had good reasons to but because it was easier or that it was inconvenient at the time. I think sometimes the best things that we do are not necessarily convenient.

I think if there was legitimate reason for not getting things done, then people probably wouldn’t have regret about it. I think the reason they do have regrets is that they understood that their reasons for not doing it really are not really valid.

COWEN: If someone asks you for advice on “how do I get better at following advice,” what do you tell them?

KELLY: [laughs] Advice? I think a good way to use advice is to try to use it as a reminder. Most of the advice — here’s a piece of advice: is that everything good has already been said, but we just need to say it again. People weren’t listening.

A lot of advice is really reminders of things that we already know. I think a good way to pay attention to advice is to encapsulate it in some way that you can remember and to remind yourself. They really should be called, maybe, reminders.

COWEN: What should institutions do to, in essence, subsidize advice or encourage it?

KELLY: That’s a good question. I think — is there anything institutions can do? Institutions — like an educational institution, I think, it would help them — in terms of education — to work on life skills and learning how to cultivate good habits versus bad habits, trying to guide people with heuristics. That when they confront things that are unclear, that they have a general heuristic to help them get through it. That’s a kind of advice.

I think the educational system could incorporate the idea of advice into its curriculum as a way of helping young people develop these principles in their own lives that they could be reminded of.

COWEN: How many people asking for advice actually want advice? And to the extent they don’t, what is it they’re looking for?

People write me for advice every day, and at least half the time, I feel maybe they want the feeling of having asked me rather than the advice. Now I’m happy to supply them with that feeling, but maybe it’s process they’re maximizing.

KELLY: I think you’re right. I think that sometimes people are looking for confirmation about things that they’ve already decided. Sometimes they’re actually looking for justification for something they’ve already decided. I think sometimes they are actually looking for attention. But I think there’s a sense of, maybe, confirmation. I’m not sure how much people are actually looking for information from this.

The kind of advice that I get from — people writing are usually young people who are trying to decide about where to go, what to study. And they’re wanting to hear from an adult some sense of whether something is valuable or not, and they don’t know.

That kind of advice I’m very reluctant to give, and almost never answer, because I don’t feel I know that person well enough. I can give them a platitude (like my book is filled with), saying, “Here’s my piece of advice for a young person who is setting out — ”

And I would say my piece of advice to them, somebody I don’t know, is, “Try to work on an area where there’s no words for what it is that you do.” I would say that’s my advice.

COWEN: You said that to Noah Smith in that interview.

But if I’m a young person and then I say, “Well, how do I operationalize that? What do I do in the morning? Do I put that on my LinkedIn profile?” How do they make that concrete?

KELLY: Yes. Basically, it’s what you’re not doing. It’s not going to be instant, but it’s a journey. That’s a really important thing — is that the general drift of one’s life is going to be a direction rather than a destination.

I think you say, “Well, accounting — things that I know about — are things that are probably not where I should be headed. Even though I may start there, that’s not where I really want to go.” I make another piece of advice, which is, “It doesn’t really matter where you really begin, because that’s not where you’re going to end up.”

The idea is, “Well, I might study accounting, but I intend not to dwell there for very long, because I want to head out into the frontier where there’s something.” I would say it’s an ongoing process where you’re asking yourself, “Is this someone else’s idea of success? What’s buried in me that I can do that may be a little bit different than others?”

COWEN: Now, when you were in your twenties, you hitchhiked to work, I understand. Do you advise the same to your grandkids (or forthcoming grandkids)?

KELLY: It was all I could do to try and get them to ride a bicycle to work. I actually accompanied my son a couple of times — it was a pretty long haul; I have to say that.

But I really was urging them to be independent in that sense of even getting to work. I thought a bicycle was more appropriate for where they had to go. I’m not sure that they could have hitchhiked to work these days. I like the idea of trying to be as independent as possible when you’re young.

On vanishing Asia

COWEN: Now, my favorite creation of yours probably is this three-volume set: It’s called Vanishing Asia. If I understand correctly, it was a 50-year project based around roughly 200,000 photos; it’s three volumes. It’s one of the greatest picture books ever produced, possibly the greatest. That in turn makes it one of the greatest books ever produced.

Just a few simple questions about that. Two hundred thousand photos: Where in Asia do people most like being photographed, and where do they like it the least? And why?

KELLY: First of all, the kind of photography I do is sometimes called street photography. It’s candid. There are some portraits, but most of the time, people are often not even aware that I’m photographing them. Other times, when I ask permission — although I would often shoot first and ask questions later. I would say, places —

Actually, in some ways, China was very easy to photograph people without much resistance or hesitation. They seemed to be comfortable even if they weren’t that familiar with cameras. I think there’s something about the sense of privacy being expanded in larger range there or their sense of privacy being smaller in that sense.

I think the hardest place to photograph people certainly were in some of the Islamic countries, where women were off-limits, basically, for most of photography, and even where men were shy. Or there was some kind of a civil unrest, and so there was suspicion there. I’m thinking of eastern Turkey and some other places — northern Pakistan, at one point, where there was a suspicion of anybody with a camera.

COWEN: In 2023, where’s the best place to see vanishing Asia now?

KELLY: My book records the places in the world that there are still remnants of a traditional culture. The ideal place: they’re still wearing costumes. Because that’s the first to go — adopting machine-made Western dress, which is the cheapest clothing you can buy, is the first traditional indigenous culture to disappear.

Where are they still wearing native costumes in that way? One is in Myanmar, where there’s a lot of very traditional culture. It’s one of the least developed and isolated, up in the mountains. That’s one place you could go to see vanishing Asia.

Even places in Afghanistan, despite the troubles in the wars — it is so poor that there are still areas that have not been developed and there’s still a lot of very traditional culture and costume there.

Of course, I don’t recommend going there, but [laughs] it’s possible.

COWEN: Why are costumes the first thing to vanish?

KELLY: Because here’s what it is: the amount of effort required to make clothing by hand is so enormous. The traditional way you make clothing is you make fibers from wool. You spin the threads, then they have to make into a loom.

It is an enormous amount of energy to make clothing by hand. It’s much cheaper to buy cloth. That’s one of the first things that people do when they have the ability to have money, is that they buy clothing rather than make it themselves. If you’re not taking the homemade cloth and making it into your native costume, and you’re buying a shirt — it’s just easier to put on a cotton T-shirt, which you can almost get for free. The costumes just disappear because they’re not making the entire cloth and fabric by hand.

COWEN: Other than a camera, what is it that you need to pack? What can you do without that would surprise us?

KELLY: Yes. I take very, very, very little, in addition to a change of clothes, which is basically all I have. Some soap powder. I’d have my camera equipment. These days I carry a little portable pharmacy, a medical kit, because that’s often in short supply. It’s not even just for me; it’s for those around me. Basic things like ibuprofen, aspirin, those kinds of stuff; antibiotics. Things that I might need in an emergency.

So the medical kit was one thing. Other . . . I had a few little — duct tape! — tools that are essential to keeping things going. Some super glue.

These days, once photography turned digital, a lot of what I carry is power packs, extension cords, backup drives, and that kind of stuff. Beyond that —

Oh yes, there is one thing. I’m sorry. One vital thing that I carry with me everywhere, even today, and that is mosquito netting. I have a little portable mosquito netting in my luggage at all times, because I am very allergic to mosquitoes. It’s not even necessarily the disease aspect, but I am allergic to them. I wake up if I’m bit. So I put up my mosquito netting and carry it with me everywhere, and even when people say “there’s no mosquitoes here,” they’re wrong. I’ll still put it up.

COWEN: What do you do for books?

KELLY: I have a Kindle, and that’s mostly what I use for books when I’m traveling. Before that time, I usually had a paperback. And I also — believe it or not — read books on my phone.

COWEN: Do you ever feel that if you don’t photograph a place, you haven’t really been there? Does it hold a different status? Like you haven’t organized the information; it’s just out on Pluto somewhere?

KELLY: Yes, I did. When I was younger, I had a religious conversion and I decided to ride my bicycle across the US. And part of that problem — part of the thing was that I was on my way to die, and I decided to leave my camera behind for this magnificent journey of a bicycle crossing the US. It was the most difficult thing I ever did, because I was just imagining all the magnificent pictures that I could take, that I wasn’t going to take. I took a sketchbook instead, and that appeased some of my desire to capture things visually.

But you’re absolutely right. It was a little bit of an addiction, where the framing of a photograph was how I saw the world. Still images: I was basically, in my head, clicking — I was clicking the shutter at the right moments when something would happen. That, I think, was not necessarily healthy — to be so dependent on that framing to enjoy the world.

I’ve learned to wean myself off from that necessity. Now I can travel with just a phone for the selfies that you might want to take.

COWEN: Maybe the earlier habit was better.

I sometimes think your fundamental contribution, if I try to tie together all the different things you’ve done, including your very long list of reviews of documentaries, your work for the All Species Foundation, Wired, your writings on tech, your blogging (basically every day for 20 years): is your true innovation some new way of organizing information, and you’re just applying it to all these different areas?

Vanishing Asia; 200,000 photos.

KELLY: I see my skill as a packager of ideas in a very visual way. That was the fun of Wired, was that it was absolutely experimenting with what could you do with cheap color printing. The web moving onto digital and the web and things like that is an extension of that kind of a packaging of ideas.

I’m reluctant to assign any large general thesis to all the things I’m interested in, because I think it’s just a pure reflection of my own idiosyncratic interest in the world. I’m not sure that there’s a bigger thing connecting them all together.

COWEN: But is the bigger thing some insight about how packaging helps you frame the content, and you’re trying to teach people that, in a lot of different ways?

KELLY: It might be — and maybe I’m not self-aware enough to see that. For me there is a joy in that marriage of text and images (and, these days, moving images). I do one bit of art a day. For the past year I was making it myself; this year I’m using — cogenerating with AI, posting one new image a day. There is for me a supreme joy in packaging ideas, my own or other people, in an artful way. I’m a book lover. I’m a magazine lover. I’m a website lover.

Maybe they do — maybe that is the fundamental impetus, is presenting things that are conceptual in a visual way.

On traveling well

COWEN: Are you happier when you travel, or do you travel for other reasons?

KELLY: I’m very happy when I travel. I’m very content. I think I was a little frantic. People didn’t like to travel with me, often, because I really literally was working from morning to night. I wasn’t relaxing, hanging around the pool. Even when I was visiting things, I was on the hunt for these images. I’ve since learned to take a different mode.

But I am very, very happy, because I like the kind of travel that’s not for relaxation and not so much for rejuvenation but for learning. I’m happiest when I am encountering things I’ve never seen before, making me question and change my mind and try to understand things. That makes me supremely happy and content, so I can just keep going and going. Particularly in situations where I’m learning the entire time.

COWEN: We’re very similar in this way, but I sometimes think most people don’t actually enjoy their so-called vacations more. They don’t enjoy it when they travel. They may do it for social bonding, or they feel they’re supposed to, or they don’t know what else to do with themselves, but it’s a funny thing to spend so much money on something that makes you less happy. That’s what I observe.

KELLY: Yes, that’s true. There is a kind of travel where people are being rejuvenated and restored, where they may have to relax or be pampered or in some ways enjoy a level of living that they don’t normally get to. But that’s not the reason why I go out. I head out to confront the otherness in the world. To come back with a new sense of who I am, a new sense of what’s possible.

COWEN: What’s the biggest travel mistake you make repeatedly?

KELLY: Trying to do too much. I’ve learned a little bit better, but I am very ambitious in that, particularly if I’m with other people, like my family. I have to repeatedly try to accomplish too much.

I’ve learned not to travel around. When I go somewhere, I’m very content to not travel within a country but to travel around where I am in that, to exploit that. Still, I want to keep going. For the sake of others and my own sake, I’ve tried to slow down a little bit. But I keep making the mistake of trying to do too much.

COWEN: It doesn’t yet sound like a mistake to me, I have to say, right?


KELLY: Well, our mistakes may not be the same.

Because there’s a value — here’s what it is, and that is something related to what I say, is that there’s a tendency to always want to keep moving, but often what I’m looking for is right next to me. I can sometimes miss that ability to go deeper because I’m still traveling. I’m still in that motion mode.

COWEN: I sometimes think my biggest mistake is going too many times to the same places, because a city like London or New York — you’ll get a lot of good invitations. It’s hard to say no to them, and you love those cities. But you could just head off to, say, Caribbean coast of Honduras or something rather than going there.

KELLY: Yes. I’m not making that mistake. That hasn’t been a mistake, but yes, I can see that.

COWEN: If you’re not making that mistake, what’s your algorithm for deciding where to travel next?

KELLY: That’s a great question. One of them is looking for these little pockets of the world where there is more otherness than others. I’m really interested in going places that are very different — tempered with the ease of travel. There are places of the world that are very different, that require girding up: you know, Sudan, Chad, whatever it is; and where it’s not going to be necessarily an easy entry, an easy time.

I’m trying to balance the ease of getting somewhere with the surprise and value of being somewhere very, very different. I’m looking for those places where there’s the right combination of those.

COWEN: Here’s another systematic mistake I make: when I imagine places like that in advance, I think they’re much more difficult than they usually turn out to be.

KELLY: That’s true.

COWEN: I went to Gondar, Ethiopia. At first I was thinking, “Oh, that’s so nearly impossible. Will I even get there?” In fact, it was all super easy and relaxing.

KELLY: I think that is a mistake, maybe, that I make, is believing things were more difficult than they actually are if you actually get there.

I have a friend who keeps convincing me I should go back to Afghanistan. “It’s really perfectly — ” Well, I don’t know. I’m not really sure if I’m ready for that.

COWEN: Paper maps or GPS? Which is better?

KELLY: GPS is better. I have a drawer full of fabulous maps that I don’t even take with me anymore — paper maps.

COWEN: Don’t you like the feeling that you’ve figured out where everything is when you use a paper map? You don’t get that from GPS?

KELLY: I don’t get it, but I don’t miss —

It’s not as important as actually knowing where I am and having a track of it.

COWEN: What are the best books to read while you’re traveling?

KELLY: I tend to really read about the place I’m in as much as I can. It’s really weird, because I find that often I’m not really interested or willing to read about it unless I am there. Once I am there, I have an insatiable appetite for finding out about the history, whatever was going on, other people’s view of it, that is not present when I’m not there. I tend almost exclusively to read about where I am.

COWEN: I tend to read about where I’m going in advance a lot. But once I’m there, I read for offset. I’ll pick some classic book that has nothing to do with the place where I’m at.

KELLY: I haven’t been able to do that. That’s not how my brain works for some reason.

COWEN: I also find after I’ve been to a place, when I then process subsequent news stories about that place, I just remember them much better. So one reason I go places is to be able to read news about those places and have it make some sense.

KELLY: Absolutely, absolutely. And I also feel that I have a better image of its relationship with all the stuff around it, which has a huge influence. That cartographic intelligence is really supreme, so if you’ve been to some places and you have an idea of how far away the other related places are, that gives you an intuitive sense of that news. It’s absolutely true that that is a way —

And there’s an interest, too, because I’ve been there and so I’m curious about — it’s like having met someone: you’re vested into their story. After visiting a country deeply, you’re now vested into their story.

COWEN: Which is your favorite part of India?

KELLY: One way to answer that is where have I returned to the most. And that would be Rajasthan. That was because it was the most colorful, photogenic, (in some ways) intact of the places. My second favorite is Kerala, for a similar reason. Those two areas I’ve returned to the most often because there was, photographically for me, this little bit of a kind of a vanishing Asia: the intact traditions, the culture, the ceremonies, the festivals, everyday dress was supreme.

I’m sorry to say, I’d probably go back again there before other places in India.

COWEN: Traveling with kids: What’s the secret? I know you’ve done it. Many people are afraid. What’s your advice, if I may put it that way?

KELLY: The advice is simply: do it. For us, there were far less issues or trouble than we imagined. I know one concern people have is about health. Frankly, we’ve never had any kind of disaster, but I can see why that might be very stressful if there were. I don’t see the difficulty in it. It has been very, very easy to do it. We had our kids in very, very remote places.

I would say one thing: that when they were younger, they were often overwhelmed by the stuff. I took my young girls by myself to parts of Tibet when it was very, very rough and tumble, and they were a little intimidated by the huge Tibetans and the strangeness of it. And I felt in some ways it was a failure, because they would rather play cards on the train than look out the window. It was like, “You’re missing this. This is the Himalayas,” whatever.

What I found out was, later on — they didn’t have enough to process what it was. And it was later on that those trips became more and more important to them as they were able to digest and process it. Even though they maybe didn’t appreciate it at the time, or seem to be paying attention, they were actually reprocessing later as they grew up, and those trips became more important to them than they were at the time.

I would say one thing, one piece of advice, is — if your kids don’t seem to appreciate it, it doesn’t matter. They’ll probably appreciate it later on.

COWEN: And as you reprocess your own travel experiences, are you more impressed or struck by the unity of mankind or the diversity?

KELLY: Yes, that’s a good question. I had an epiphany recently about that and that was — Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which he never really made into a pyramid but we all imagine as a pyramid, and at the base is satisfying our need for shelter and clothing and basic water and food. At that lower level, the entire world is converging on uniform, basic needs. Everybody in the world wants to live in an airtight, air-conditioned concrete box that has Wi-Fi, and it’s looking very similar.

But I believe that at the higher levels of actualization and what it all means, I’m seeing a diversity in the world. I think there’s a commonality that we all share fundamentally, more than ever, at the base level of our genetic bodies and basic human needs. There’s weirdly a diversity of differences in what it means to us and how we make value and the kinds of things that we find important or not.

So yes, there’s two things going on. There’s this huge commonality and then there is this difference that we find important.

COWEN: I think travel has helped me to see just how much virtually all squabbles are petty squabbles. You go to other places and you hear them talk about what they’re squabbling about: like, “Oh, what kind of music should you play in the church ceremony?” You think of it, “Well, that’s a petty squabble” — and you’re right, but your own squabbles are not less petty.

That’s the unity I come away thinking more about after a lot of trips.

KELLY: I think for me, the overwhelming lesson about those kinds of travel for me has been how — what’s the word I want? Basically, most people in the world are fairly racist, sexist, suspicious of strangers, and stuff. Relative to the rest of the world, the US is doing pretty good.

That’s one of the things I come back — the general thing that we’re trying to move from was the norm for most of the world, for most of history. The kind of elevated society that we want is, compared to the rest of the world, a pretty good deal.

On tech

COWEN: Some tech questions. What in tech should we be paying more attention to?

KELLY: Tech, in general . . . I think —

Let me put it this way. There was a technology that I thought was 100 years off that I’m now convinced is much closer than I thought, and that is the brain-computer interface. Elon Musk’s Neuralink and others. There’s a whole field of people who are doing — and having gone to visit to see their work, I’ve been really shocked that they’re much further along in being able to bypass our fingers in order to actually communicate via computer. I thought, again, that that was going to be way off, but it looks like that could be within 25 years, which was a shock to me.

I would say that’s one place you might be looking for things that could happen kind of suddenly, even though the research has been going on for decades. And that would really shake things up if that was to happen.

COWEN: How would that change people’s lives? Say your grandkids. How will it matter for them?

KELLY: I think at first, of course, it’s going to be mostly (and that’s what they’re aiming at) is in disabled —

COWEN: Oh, sure. But for nondisabled individuals.

KELLY: Right, exactly.

COWEN: How will it matter?

KELLY: I think what it matters is a way of auxiliary — I don’t think it’s going to necessarily replace typing, but I think it’ll be another way of interfacing with the technology that we want to do. One of the dreams that Jaron Lanier and others have had with virtual reality is being able to create — paint — things as fast as we could think of them. There could be a way in which we are generating content faster and more easily than the laborious way we have right now of having to put things into language — there may be some way to post-symbolically skip some of the language framing that we do to make, say, an image.

This is something I’ve learned recently about making daily AI art, which is that theoretically these machines can make any possible image. The real shock that we’ve had right now is we now suddenly have the conversational user interface. We now have an ability to use conversation as an interface to the AI capabilities.

Here’s what happens: is we’re using a conversational interface to try to make art, but there’s a lot of art that humans create that can’t be reduced to language. You can’t get there by using language. There’s art that I’ve been trying to make, and I realize I’m never going to be able to make it with an AI because I need language to get there. There’s lots of things that we can’t get to with language.

That’s one way in which this human-computer interface could make a new frontier, is enabling us to do things where we can bypass language and work with maybe emotions or other intuitions or things that we don’t even have language for because we’re actually tapping into the brain directly.

COWEN: But do you ever find that, say, you need to write a piece to figure out what you think about something, or maybe it’s the act of painting that is giving you the idea of the image, and there’s no way to reverse engineer that?

KELLY: Absolutely. I write in order to think; that’s how I think. I think by writing. I don’t have the ideas and then sit down and try to write them. I use writing to get the ideas.

I think painting certainly may be part of that. Or rendering it — making it visual. That’s the point: is that that may be something that we can do without having to go through language or our fingers to get there. For the grandchildren, this ability for maybe playing games or maybe creating things or maybe walking through this virtual metaverse space — this may be an interface to it that’s very different from the interfaces that we have right now.

COWEN: How will recent developments in AI alter our understanding of God and religion?

KELLY: I think the moment that one of our created beings says, “I have a soul — ”

COWEN: They’ve said it already, right? I don’t believe them, but they already say it if you ask them to.

KELLY: Right. Exactly, right. “I have a soul and you have to believe me, and here’s why I believe it,” and they want to be baptized. I think that is really, really important. In fact, I’ve been working on this project called a Catechism for Robots. It’s half jest, but it’s 80 percent serious about trying to have theological, cosmic answers for the beings that we create when they want to know why we created them and to what purpose.

I think the role of AI — first of all, I think it’s instrumental in us deciding who we are and who we want to be. I think that will impact our ideas of God and our understandings, because we are going to be gods ourselves. That’s the major thing: is that our act of creating these beings — we will be godlike. That’s going to illuminate to us our notions of what being godlike is like.

COWEN: Christianity in particular: How will it change? The idea of a demiurge will become more important?

KELLY: I don’t know how Christianity itself will change. I think that — the Christian creed is that humans are made in the image of God. Therefore, since God is a creator and made other beings like us, that this could reinforce the idea of demigods and that we are godlike: we’re fulfilling the commandment to be like God by creating other beings. We might have to have some — what’s the word I want — guidance, some principles about “here’s how to be a good god, based on biblical principles.” That’s a possibility.

I think one of the things we see the trends in Christianity is an increasing number of sects and divisions and schisms, and so it’s possible that there could be a sect derived around AI and the ability of making and guiding and creating other beings.

COWEN: What would be a technology that you refuse to use, and why?

KELLY: Weaponization of technology is something that I shy from. I personally am not going to use technologies like a gun — like a better gun.

COWEN: Oh, sure. In more ordinary life — say, I won’t use a microwave. I feel it makes people lazy in their cooking.

KELLY: Oh, I see.

COWEN: What’s your analog?

I also won’t kill someone with an atom bomb, but —

KELLY: I can tell you something right now, is I don’t have social media on my phone.

COWEN: But you use it.

KELLY: But I use it. I use it on my desktop, but I don’t use it on my phone.

Is there a technology that I would not use? OK, I don’t want to be the first to use the brain-computer interface. I’m not going to be the first to be checked in. I might use it if my friends all used it and they lived.

I think I’d be very hesitant to use certain kinds of genetic germline alterations. I’m not sure I would say no, but I would certainly be very, very, very hesitant about that. I think we have to be very cautious. So there are things that I’m cautious about, and I would say, “Well, let me see how — ”

This is the Amish. This is the Amish take on how you do it. “Let me see how other people are doing it and how it affects their lives before I decide to do it.” And If there was generally positive results in their own lives and around them as society, then I might adopt it.

I can’t think of something that I absolutely would not do at all.

COWEN: What’s the most surprising fact you know about the Amish?

KELLY: They are adopting cell phones. Let me caveat that. The Amish decide to use technology parish by parish. It’s a very decentralized way, and there’s many different varieties and many different sects. Generally, the most liberal ones are more at the core of Lancaster County and where the Amish began. Some of the most rigid and ones that are more old-fashioned are actually further away, like in upstate New York or other places.

But generally they have decided that cell phones are appropriate technology. (And they often are flip phones; they’re not even smartphones.) And that it’s appropriate for them, because they find that it keeps their families together. What they’re doing is they’re spreading around the country buying up cheap farmland, and they have a certain number of families they need to have as a minimum, and to keep in contact with their families further back away, from where they have left, they’re finding that the cell phones help strengthen their families.

That’s a surprising fact that most people don’t know.

COWEN: Now, as you know, non-Amish birth rates are both low and falling.


COWEN: What is the mechanism that caps the percentage of Amish in, say, the American population? Or does it just asymptotically approach one?

KELLY: One of the scenarios for the future of the US is that, basically, the Amish take over all the farmland. Because right now the Amish are continuing to expand. Their attrition rate is still very — attrition meaning the number of kids that they have that don’t stay with the church — it’s still only a few percent.

Amish always buy land. They’ve never sold land. They’re still expanding. And it’s possible to imagine them taking over the rural areas over time. I don’t see much of a cap right now in the current birth rates that they have, given the birth rates of the rest of the US. I think it’s a very viable scenario is that most of the rural farmlands is being run by the Amish.

COWEN: You don’t think there’s a scaling problem? If someone says, “Oh, America: it could have 60 million Amish.” Do you think that’s an equilibrium, at least potentially? Or does being Amish somehow fray when the numbers are so large — such a diverse group, they have so much contact with the outside world?

KELLY: Yes. Well, there may be limits because the big cash crop for most Amish is actually dairy, and there’s a limit on the amount of dairy that we’re going to consume. But they’re really good at the small holdings, animal raising, combined with raising the food for the animals. So I would say, maybe as long as there’s actually consumption of meat and animal products, the Amish —

But there might be some limit to the amount that we as a society are consuming. Perhaps if there was really good animal-cell-based meat prevalent and animal-cell-based milk prevalent, maybe then the Amish are capped.

COWEN: How would society most change if we simply could double or triple our amount of long-term thinking?

KELLY: I am involved with this group called the Long Now Foundation, where we’re trying to promote long-term thinking. I think the way it would change is that there would be a couple of things. One is I think we would collectively, maybe mostly through government, have more long-term research involved, and the benefits of that would be spilling over to everything. Most science experiments today last as long as a PhD, which is like four years, and there’s very little really long-range research being done.

Then, secondly, there’s very little projects that might take 25 years or more to do, whether infrastructural or otherwise, and more of those — garnered by the number of people who understand that there’s a benefit to having payoffs come not just for the current generation but future generations — would allow longer-term, maybe even bigger projects to become more normal and conventional than they are right now.

Then, thirdly, I think thinking in terms of generations rather than just the immediate next quarter or next year — I think that also would enable us to manage the planet in a better way, because lots of the planetary things that we’re interested in and paying attention to have a longer-range dynamic than just the immediate year or two: the “short now,” we call it.

For individuals, I think that that’s not maybe necessarily going to change their own lives, but I think it changes our lives at the civilizational level.

COWEN: Of all the people you have known, who is it that has handled power the best?

KELLY: [laughs] People that I have known. I know Jerry Brown a little bit, and I’ve been very — I was very impressed with him. He was in the leadership in California and was doing well.

Here’s somebody. I know Jeff Bezos, and I’ve actually been very impressed with Jeff Bezos. The more I know him, the more I admire him. I think he’s very fast to own up to mistakes and to take responsibility. I think he is very aware and sensible. In my own observation, I think he’s working very hard to deal with the responsibility that great power comes from. And so I would say Jeff Bezos.

COWEN: What film has most expanded your conception of what reality is?

KELLY: Most expanded my conception of reality. Boy, I’m not sure that I’ve seen a film that’s changed my idea about reality. There are actual — after all, they’re just fictional.

I would say seeing 2001 [A Space Odyssey] by Kubrick expanded my idea of what’s possible. Maybe that’s — an aspect of reality is believing what’s possible. I found that vision was exhilarating at the time; and this is pre–Star Wars.

But I have to say Star Wars itself, the idea of the worn and old future: that shifted my idea and expanded my possibilities, my idea of what’s possible, as well. I think maybe the idea of a future that was worn and used and not just streamlined — I think that that did shift my idea of reality.

COWEN: Which is the most underrated documentary?

KELLY: There was a documentary called King of Kong, which was about the champion — the Donkey Kong video game. What was underrated about it and what was fabulous about this movie was that there was a villain. There’s not that many documentaries that have villains, and here was a villain, and they were filming — the villain basically gave them access to his whole side of it, and even though he was incredibly villainous and scheming and just underhanded, he didn’t think he was, but it was very obvious to everybody else he was. That made a really fabulous documentary, because you’ve got a villain in there and you’re seeing the villain the whole time. So I think that’s underrated.

COWEN: I love that movie, by the way. I also quite like Werner Herzog’s — the German-language version of Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Do you know that one?

KELLY: I’ve only seen the English version of it. Why is the German version better?

COWEN: Just deeper, more authentic, more morally ambiguous.


COWEN: It feels more Herzogian. So that would be a favorite of mine.

What is something unusual that you measure about yourself?

KELLY: I and my partner, Gary Wolf, we began the quantified self movement: this idea of using technology to measure ourselves, to quantify our lives, to do things. And I was very much doing that in the beginning. And I don’t measure almost anything about myself these days.

The reason why I shifted in that was, it turned out to be very easy to generate the data, the metrics, the information, the measurements; but it became really, really hard to make sense out of it, to get meaning out of it. What it needed is what we’re about to have, which is, it needed AIs to digest the huge ocean of data that was generating to really make sense of the patterns and things that are not obvious, that we can’t see, that aren’t intuitive.

At a certain level, what I discovered — like, say, counting my steps — is I actually counted it long enough and measured it long enough that I can actually, to almost within 100 steps, tell you how many steps I took today, because I was correlating all those measurements with my own experience.

To go beyond that, it just needs cheap, ubiquitous AI to monitor this stream of data and to try and help extract out some meaning from that. That has not yet happened, and because it hasn’t, I haven’t been measuring very much at all about my life.

COWEN: Way back when, why is it you dropped out of University of Rhode Island?

KELLY: Yes. This was in 1971. Had there been at that time a gap year or internships, I would have done that, and that’s what I needed, and I would have gone back, I suspect. But there wasn’t such a thing, and it felt like grade 13. I was sitting in the same desks with the same routine, and what I needed was to do a project. I needed to just get out of my seat and do stuff, and there wasn’t any option at that time to do that, so I dropped out. In retrospect, I regret having even spent that one year there.

COWEN: What was the job you took after dropping out?

KELLY: My job was to go to Asia and to photograph, and I didn’t know what I was going to do there, what I was going to photograph, but I wanted to be a photographer. I actually called up National Geographic. I was like a 19-year-old whatever. I called up National Geographic and I said, “I’m going to go to Taiwan and Japan. Do you need any photographs?” I found a photo editor in the phone book. And he graciously said, “You know, it doesn’t work that way, but when you come back, show me your photographs and we’ll take it from there.” He was good to his word, and I did.

I decided to photograph and become a photographer. That was what my dream was.

COWEN: I hesitate to use such a general phrase, but the world of tech: what was your first entry point into that?

KELLY: I had a hippieish attitude, and when I was dropping out, I was very influenced by the Whole Earth Catalog. I believed what it said, that you should invent your own life and that all these things were possible. I had a very arm’s-length — I owned nothing. I was very suspicious of computers, which my dad worked with. Kind of the “small is beautiful” take. Thoreau was my hero in high school: building your own house, living in a little simple life. That, I believed, was my destination.

That changed when I came back from traveling; I “graduated” from traveling and decided to try to make a living somehow or other, and I decided — I did a mail-order catalog of travel books. I had discovered all these really interesting books when I was traveling that were not available in the US. There was this guy named Rick Steves who was self-publishing a book about Europe: Europe through the Back Door. There was Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who had a little stapled book called Lonely Planet: Shoestring Guide to Southeast Asia. I was importing them: my little catalog.

I worked at University of Georgia in the science lab, and there was an Apple IIe there that was used in the lab for data stuff. I got a modem for it and I started to send information from the little catalog I was making to a local newspaper to have it typeset. But I discovered that there was this bulletin-board world on the modem. There was this online thing happening. I used the computer to telephone the modem into these bulletin boards where there was these conversations happening. For the first time, I felt that there was this organic technology. There was something very community-, Amish-barn-raising-like about it.

That was my entry. That was when I began to rethink about technology, because for the first time, it didn’t seem like smokestacks and big conglomerate, industrial-scale technology. Here was something that was very intimate.

I started paying attention to that, and I started to explore that as if it was a new country. I got my first — one of the first magazine articles I ever wrote was exploring this online world as a new country, and I was trying to do like a tour guide to it. I was taking my travel metaphor, and it was called “Network Nation.” That was the thing that flipped my idea about technology and seeing a different face to it.

COWEN: How has it affected your worldviews having been born into Westfield, New Jersey? Where I’ve been many times, I might add.

KELLY: You mean the “it” meaning the technology?

COWEN: No, anything.

KELLY: Oh, I see.

COWEN: You’re from Westfield, New Jersey. How does that matter?

KELLY: Yes. Well, I try to convey to my kids how parochial Westfield, New Jersey, was during the ’50s and ’60s, where I graduated high school never having eaten Chinese food, never having picked up chopsticks, never being around people from other cultures. The paucity in the local bookstore of finding out information, of how things worked: it was incredibly parochial at that time.

Even the cuisine, the stuff that we ate: macaroni and cheese, meatloaf. It was unbelievably hard — when I came back from Asia the first time, I decided I wanted to try to cook something Chinese, so I went to hunt for fresh ginger. I had to basically travel to Newark, New Jersey, a big city, to find an Italian grocery to find fresh ginger, which of course now is available everywhere.

There was this sense of the parochial, little, circular, isolated sense of a suburb that is most strong in my mind right now. I feel as if I knew nothing and there was very little contact with things that were different or other. It was not cosmopolitan in the least.

That, of course, has changed over time. But that’s the journey that I’ve been on, is leaving that behind.

COWEN: I used to think of Westfield as the bigger town, so imagine my upbringing.

KELLY: [laughs] Where did you grow up?

COWEN: I was born in Kearny, New Jersey, right next to Newark, but mostly grew up in Hillsdale, which was a sleepy town of 20,000 people. The chess club — we would go play Westfield. They were the big, strong chess club from the big place, and we were afraid of them because they were from Westfield.

KELLY: Yes. It’s all relative, but for me, I felt this was a small town, and some of the small-town and parochial sense of it was for me the reason why I left basically right after high school and only recently went back after 50 years for my 50-year high school reunion.

I went back, and the main thing I wanted to see was — when I was 17, I planted an acorn in our backyard, a little seedling from an acorn. And I said, “I’m hoping that this tree will grow to be a huge tree in 50 years.” And I went back, and the tree was there, in the same yard, and it was a magnificent, huge oak tree. And I just felt very proud that I was being a good ancestor.

COWEN: Long-termism, right?

KELLY: Exactly.

COWEN: Last two questions. First, what’s the last thing you’ve changed your mind about?

KELLY: Yes. The last thing, and I have to say this very cautiously — but I have been deciding that I think the Civil War was a mistake. That we should have — we, the Union, should have left the South to secede, if the majority of people who were voting had voted for it, and that the right of the Union to enforce that Union, I think, was a mistake.

The number of people that died, the division that it caused, and everything else was wrong, and that it would have been better to have left the South to secede. I recently came to that conclusion.

COWEN: But wouldn’t slavery just have gone on for a very long time?

KELLY: I don’t think so.

COWEN: Do you think it would have ended for not being profitable enough, or just slave owners would have given up all that wealth?

KELLY: I think it ended for the same reason it ended in all the other places in the world. I think maybe it would not have ended as fast, but I think it would have proven to not withstand industrialization.

COWEN: I’ll mention your book again before the final question: Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier.

Last question: now that your book is out or coming out, what will you do next?

KELLY: I’m working on a project called the Hundred-Year Desirable Future. I think it’s really important to try and visualize where it is that we want to go with all this technology, because I think it’s hard enough to get there deliberately, and it’s almost impossible to get there inadvertently. I think having a vision, a destination, of wherever it is that we want to go is helpful. That’s actually — it’s difficult. It’s easy to imagine how things don’t work, because that’s more probable; failure is the norm.

Seeing how high all this AI could work is really hard to see. How is there a world in which we have ubiquitous AI, ubiquitous genetic engineering, constant surveillance — how is that a world that we want to live in? I’m trying to imagine what that is with a set of scenarios that would say, “Here’s a possible future of this high tech that could work,” and I call it the Hundred-Year Desirable Future or Protopia.

COWEN: Kevin Kelly, a real pleasure. Thank you very much.

KELLY: Tyler, you always ask the very best questions. I just love it. Each one of them made me really think hard, which is a real joy when you’re doing these kinds of interviews. So thank you very much.