Kevin Kelly's Out of Control:
Is the flag waving? or the wind? . . . or the mind?


Richard Thieme

Enculturation, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 2000

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One of the pleasures of reading a book like Kevin Kelly's Out of Control in the year 2000 is that the book is much shorter. Of course, the number of pages in the book have not decreased, but six years is a century in Internet time, and Internet time is the clock that ticks as we revisit "The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World." A backward glance at a future-oriented writer like Kevin Kelly who attempts to grasp, synthesize, and articulate for his readers the depth and breadth of the digital revolution in all its detail, with excursions into complexity, self-directed evolution, the digital economy, astronomy and cosmology, and by inference into anthropology, epistemology, ontology, and ethics - well, that's a lot to grasp, synthesize, and "repurpose" for even the most literate of the digerati.

So, returning to this book felt like coming home from a vacation to find Wall Street Journals all stacked up, three or four weeks deep, discovering, as you sort through them, that much of what would have seemed significant in the immediacy of the light of the day is in much greater perspective. Strikes are settled, earnings have been digested, the Fed has or has not acted, and much of the seeming urgency of those events when discussed in advance or at the time they occur has dissipated.

We are all temporal provincials, living in the largeness of the present, and trees crowd our field of vision, hogging our mental resources. Hindsight lets us edit our lives and the text of a book like Out of Control into an anthology of ideas, easily skimmable - and reduced in length at least by half.

While that's always been true of books that intended to be topical, it is doubly true in these Internet days, and triply true of writing about the Internet or the latest take on scientific theories of mind, matter, and cosmic mayhem - writing, that is, in BOOK FORM in the era of the rapid electronic dissemination of data, one-to-one and one-to-many. Despite the coming of e-books since Kelly penned this print-text tome, books are still embedded in the cultural matrix of the technologies that created them and made them portable and cheap. That may be changing too, and fast, oh fast, but the logistics of publishing in print still lengthens the process by which ideas are filtered onto paper pages. By the time those ideas make their way into the bookstore, they are often dated.

As the author of online columns with a global circulation via email (Islands in the Clickstream: www.thiemeworks.com), I know how quickly the currents sink what seemed so relevant only yesterday (remember push technology? how about the paperless office? or building "mindshare" for a business without worrying about a positive cash flow?). Ideas and insights that sound profound at the striking of midnight seem pretentious in the light of the next morning, like coming onto the Las Vegas strip at ten in the morning and seeing the glamorous neon-reddened world for what it really is.

New technologies, heralded as the wave or emblem of the future, are often roadrunners heading toward the edge of a cliff, and these days we work closer to that edge than ever. Kelly called Out of Control "an update on the current state of cybernetic research," which means that we must read this book now as a part of "intellectual history," locating it in the shallow choppy waters of the recent past and trying to separate the treasure from the trash.

"I live on computer networks," Kelly writes, emphasizing his digital credentials as a forerunner of cyborg humanity, plugged in and turned on 24/7. But maybe we need to remember that the human mind creates as its field of perception a foreground and a background, just as it cannot escape weaving space, time, and causality into everything it thinks it sees. We are always like the ape that learned to draw for the first time and used a piece of charcoal to draw the bars of its cage. The network, complexity, and all the fractal-like connectedness between the ideas explored in this book were so much in the foreground because they were new. They seem to eclipse everything that came before, we seem to be living already in a new landscape, when in fact we are as always locked into the process by which the thesis posits its own antithesis, still very much on this side of a synthesis.

For all his executive editing of Wired and immersion in that new world, Kelly chose to write Out of Control as a book. Nearly of his references to others' ideas are to books, magazines, journals, (i.e., the world of text that formed him and in which he still lives and moves and has his very being). Well, it takes one to know one. I am a middle-aged man who began writing short stories as a teen and taught English literature at the University of Illinois in my twenties. I too span a divide between worlds that we can only see so clearly because we are a bridge generation. But this side of the divide, a different generation, socialized into the world we knew only by contrast with the one in which we were born and raised, speaks a completely different language.

This is noticeable even in the short generations of "computer hackers." The founders of Def Con, the annual convention for computer hackers that is eight years old now, grew up with the network, formed by and forming it in a symbiotic relationship. Now in their late twenties, early thirties, they are challenged to mentor a new generation of hackers who grew up never not knowing the network, never without video games, never without a hundred channels of choices. The network for younger hackers in their teens is water to a fish. Not for them the astonishment of landing on the moon and NOT sinking into the dust. Their astonishment will come with extraterrestrial contact made known and explicit, with the finding of life near the thermal vents of Europa, the terraforming of Mars, the building of habitable structures somehow in the methane-thickened mists of Titan . . . and these are merely the things we know we will do and experience as we come down the steps of our planet like toddlers leaving the front porch for the first time. We have not even crossed the street yet, much less left our familiar neighborhood.

Out of Control describes the way the mind of a text-man like Kevin Kelly felt as it reeled from exploring new vistas, new ways of constructing the cultural lenses that will enable humankind to soar out of the deep cave of the earth into space like bats at twilight. It is not the universe or the world or even human culture that is out of control, but the great airplane of this man's mind as it struggles to make the stabilizers work.

Out of Control is the attempt of a text-man, then, tangled in lanyards and lariats of words and typographical symbols, to move into a new world defined by complexity, new models of systems living and half-living and non-living alike, a world in which cyborg-humanity no longer even finds the bladerunner question surprising, "How can it not know what it is?" Like Deckard suspecting that he himself is a replicant, we are looking into the polished mirror of our evolving technologies and seeing our cyborg face look back.

So really to achieve what Kelly set out to achieve those long six years ago, we must integrate the work of a generational anthropologist, one who has the insight and detachment to live among short discrete generations like a social scientist among tribes, listening to the children like those assembled by Sony in a lab behind one-way mirrors to show the inventors of the Play Station how it might be used. Kelly gave it a great effort, but he was simply too close to the trees interesting trees, these various pioneers of thought and invention he sought out and interviewed, and interesting branches, these half-formed theories of life, the universe and everything else, and above all, interesting fruit, these "wholes, holes and spaces" that hang in the void like stars, like the "heaventree of stars hung with humid night-blue fruit." But still, for all that, trees and not the forest.

Out of Control is an interesting compendium, encyclopedic in form and narrative structure, rather than a synthesis of ideas into a new holistic vision. Like Wired, the magazine Kelly edited before it sold itself down the river and morphed into a slick version of People Magazine for affluent youth beset with technolust, the book shows the strengths and weaknesses of the short-lived rag. Too much tree, not enough forest. Still, like the old Wired, the book is a fun read, even if it's a skimmer now and not a Deep Think. Kelly did track down a lot of interesting people and ideas and combine them into a roller coaster narrative of emergent ideas, technologies, and nascent possibilities of the cybernetic age.

Let's use that now-familiar concept, "emergent realities," as an example of the problem always raised by the literary genre, "futurism."

"I often use the word 'emergent' in this book," Kelly says, "[which] as used by practitioners of complexity means something like 'that organization which is generated out of parts acting in concert.' But the meaning of emergent begins to disappear when scrutinized, leaving behind a vague impression that the word is, at bottom, meaningless." Kelly substitutes the word "happened" for every instance of "emerged" and discovers that it works just as well. Why? Because "emergent" is descriptive, not explanatory, and is widely used to escape the challenge of real explanation, with all the causality, complexity, and deeper meaning that requires. "Emergent realities" turn out to be those that show up, somehow, and which we can not explain. Which reminds us that only the predictable is predictable and the genuinely new can never be articulated clearly from inside the old model of reality. So like religious prophets, we use archetypal symbols in the style of the Apocalypse of St. John in the Christian scriptures, letting readers project the concrete contents of their lives onto those images and symbols. "Emergent reality" is one of those symbols so it can mean anything that we want it to mean.

So reading Out of Control in the year 2000 reveals how difficult it is to see the genuinely new and say what we see. Nietzsche described original thinking as the capacity to see just a few minutes before the herd what is coming over the near-term horizon and giving it a name. When others use those names, they validate our prophetic insight and vision. The high calling of philosophy turns into a name game. But for all his bold new aphoristic style, Nietzsche too was constrained by the way text happens, how it means, how it discloses meaning from its far horizons toward the minds of future readers. For all its stylistic variation, even hypertextual books are books, defined within the more linear contours of the ways they make us think. Hence books like Out of Control still calibrate historical events in linear time in a way that is anathema to genuinely digital thinkers. Those cybernauts who surf non-linear systems, discerning the potential energies of multiple futures fanned out scenario-like in a quantum card-game, a random hand, would never write "Out of Control." In fact, they aren't. They are doing something else entirely, something for which we do not yet have the easy names.

Out of Control is not describing reality "out there," after all, but reality "in here." Of course there is no "out there," and in fact, there is no "in here" either, but I think you know what I mean. We are trying to define the interface where "out there" and "in here," both illusory, define the human condition as a possibility for action. That's what cultures enable, after all, new ways for us big-brained animals to hold ourselves as possibilities for action, free of some of the constraints of our genetic heritage at the same time we are defined by them. To be a possibility for action here and now is what we mean by "having a future." But of course, there is no such thing as "a future" either.

A friend and I recently had to separate before finishing our conversation. "So call me," she said, "and finish our talk. But call me! Don't send me an email. I want to talk to a real person."

The Zen-spirits roared with laughter in the vast monastery of the planet earth as she turned appearance into reality. The telephone rings or plays a few chords or vibrates on my cheek bone and I say "Hello." The voice I hear is not a real person but a signal reconstructed from the breaking apart and recombination of what once upon a time was a human voice. But I have so internalized that experience as meaning that "a real person is calling me" that I distinguish it from the "unreal" experience of an email, mute on my monitor, seeming like signing in the noisy world of my mind.

The operative word is "call." Once we have a word like "call" to mean not only the receipt of an email but the multiple kinds of experiences explored by Kevin Kelly that have not yet been internalized as normative human experience in our cyberculture hive mind, then the world will not feel nearly so "Out of Control." It will feel, on the contrary, tamed for the moment, before the next wave breaks behind and knocks us down. But then, the waves are always inside, inside that field of subjectivity that defines human consciousness, where everything is always happening anyway.

Except that to restrict consciousness to the mental field of humankind merely is SO twentieth century.

I hope this little reflection does not sound critical of Kevin Kelly's fun book, which is a wide-ranging compilation of interviews, ideas, and then-current techno-fashionable words. Writing a book like Out of Control as anything other than an encyclopedia or "road trip" of the inquiring mind was simply not possible. Because of what "writing a book" means. The book was congruent with the best efforts of a lively inquiring mind to surf the intellectual currents it hoped to understand, so it had to lack perspective. How can a book about this kind of non-book reality not lack perspective? The larger pattern it sought to discover or create did not yet and does not yet exist, and Out of Control did not finish the job so much as show us how difficult the task of self-definition during a transitional era really is. If the "book" or digital form that finishes that task does exist, it is being written by someone else whose genius has not yet been recognized. But then . . . the whole notion of a piece of "intellectual property" written by "an author" rather than a collective identity into which our "individual identities" merge (and individual identities like individual rights are only a few hundred years old) . . . that's a wistful romantic idea that evokes nostalgia from those who are increasingly embedded in the wireless and wired network that is turning us all into nodes with names assigned dynamically, on the fly, rather than named forever at an arbitrary moment of birth. Our second birth, said Carl Jung, is our own creation, and one can't fault Jung either for not knowing that humanity would soon have the opportunity to choose identities for a third birth, a fourth birth and many more as longevity stretches toward 150, 175, even 200 years and the life span of a tortoise brings social challenges we can not even think yet to our long-term memory storage devices, our sense of the persistence of a single self, and what in fact we decide it means to be a human being.

This compendium of insights and ideas attempted to define a new world before it had been formed. The book hovers over the darkness and tries to say, "Let there be light," and the crackling of the static brightens for a moment and then fizzles. The new world is being formed out of an interaction between these first bold visions of itself, all blinding in its impossible new births, and the way we will subsequently come to nuance the complexities of what we can realize only afterward when we recontextualize ourselves in a self-transcendent fractal-like climb up the spiral of consciousness. That time is almost here. But not quite.

Out of Control is a fun collection of snapshots taken by the thousands by someone with a new digital camera. Many are interesting, some are terrific, and a few are mind-blowing winners. But a shoebox full of glossy prints is not an art show. Kelly did the best he could, given that the enemy is how our brains think about things, which in retrospect is one definition of the limitations inherent in this book.

We can only know that which the knowing of which no longer threatens our identities or selves with annihilation. The new paradigm is only grasped after the shock of change has been absorbed and we sit up again, rubbing our heads, looking out at the landscape with wonder. It was fun to visit these ideas, people, and places once again, like any nostalgic road trip is fun, and a little wistful and melancholy. We know at the end of the trip that the most we can know is how a wave might break as it gathers momentum and the most we can do is surf the wave and enjoy the ride, breathing the ozone at the edge of the curl of consciousness trying to understand whole an impossible collection of fragments. That is a challenge we can't seem to resist writing books like "Out of Control," knowing our inadequacy to the task of defining the Bigger Picture. Crawling like miners with lamps on their hats through a long tunnel in the vast mountain of darkness, looking at the square foot of illuminated earth in front of our faces and thinking we see where we're going, our audacity more than equal to Kelly's in writing that book, (i.e., writing a review like this only six years later and pretending that everything in the past, although obviously as much a mystery as the present and the future, can be somehow understood).


Works Cited

Kelly, Kevin. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World. Reading, MA: Perseus Press, 1995.




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