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

We are morphing so fast that our ability to invent new things outpaces the rate we can civilize them. These days it takes us a decade after a technology appears to develop a social consensus on what it means and what etiquette we need to tame it.

Banning the inevitable usually backfires. Prohibition is at best temporary, and in the long counterproductive.

Our greatest invention in the past 200 years was not a particular gadget or tool but the invention of the scientific process itself.

Get the ongoing process right and it will keep generating ongoing benefits. In our new era, processes trump products.


Technological life in the future will be a series of endless upgrades. Endless Newbie is the new default for everyone, no matter your age or experience.

A world without discomfort is utopia. But it is also stagnant. A world perfectly fair in some dimensions would be horribly unfair in others. A utopia has no problems to solve, but therefore no opportunities either.

Protopia is a state of becoming, rather than a destination. It is a process. In the protopian mode, things are better today than they were yesterday, although only a little better. It is incremental improvement or mild progress.

What we all failed to see was how much of this brave new online world would be manufactured by users, not big institutions.

Right now, today, in 2016 is the best time to start up. There has never been a better day in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute. This is the moment that folks in the future will look back at and say, "Oh, to have been alive and well back then!" Today truly is a wide-open frontier. We are all becoming. It is the best time ever in human history to begin. You are not late.


The arrival of artificial thinking accelerates all the other disruptions I describe in this book; it is the ur-force in our future.

The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services--cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. You'll simply plug into the grid and get AI as if it was electricity.

There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or more valuable by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. Find something that can be made better by adding online smartness to it.

This postindustrial economy will keep expanding because each person's task (in part) will be to invent new things to do that will later become repetitive jobs for the robots. Each of these new vocations will in turn be taken over by automation later.

When automatic self-tracking of all your activities becomes the normal thing to do, a new breed of professional analysts will arise to help you make sense of the data.

Our human assignment will be to keep making jobs for robots--and that is a task that will never be finished. So we will always have at least that one "job."

You'll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots.


If something can be copied--a song, a movie, a book--and it touches the internet, it will be copied. The technology of the net needs to copy without constraint. The flow of copies is inevitable.

Now we are transitioning into the third age of computation. Pages and browsers are far less important. Today the prime units are flows and streams. We constantly monitor Twitter streams and the flows of posts on our Facebook wall. We stream photos, movies, and music.

When copies are free, you need to sell things that cannot be copied. Well, what can't be copied? Trust, for instance. There are a number of other qualities similar to trust that are difficult to copy and thus become valuable in this cloud economy. The best way to see them is to start with a simple question: Why would anyone ever pay for something they could get for free? And when they pay for something they could get for free, what are they purchasing? In a real sense, these uncopyable values are things that are "better than free." Free is good, but these are better since you'll pay for them. I call these qualities "generatives." A generative value is a quality or attribute that must be generated at the time of the transaction. A generative thing cannot be copied, cloned, stored, and warehoused. A generative cannot be faked or replicated. It is generated uniquely, for that particular exchange, in real time. Generative qualities add value to free copies and therefore are something that can be sold. Here are eight generatives that are "better than free."

  • Immediacy

  • Personalization

  • Interpretation

  • Authenticity

  • Accessibility

  • Embodiment. Live concert tours, live TED talks, live radio shows, pop-up food tours all speak to the power and value of a paid ephemeral embodiment of something you could download for free.

  • Patronage. Deep down, avid audiences and fans want to pay creators. Fans love to reward artists, musicians, authors, actors, and other creators with the tokens of their appreciation, because it allows them to connect with people they admire. But they will pay only under four conditions that are not often met: 1) It must be extremely easy to do; 2) The amount must be reasonable; 3) There's clear benefit to them for paying; and 4) It's clear the money will directly benefit the creators.

  • Discoverability. Once something, like music, is digitized, it becomes a liquid that can be flexed and linked. Success in this new realm requires mastering the new liquidity. What counts are not the number of copies but the number of ways a copy can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, and enlivened by other media. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. What counts is how well the work flows.


We should properly call this new activity "screening" rather than reading. Screening includes reading words, but also watching words and reading images. This new activity has new characteristics. Screens are always on; we never stop staring at them, unlike with books. This new platform is very visual and it gradually merges words with moving images. On the screen words zip around and float over images, serving as footnotes or annotations, linking to other words or images. You might think of this new medium as books we watch or television we read.

This liquidity is just as true for the creation of books as for consumption. Think of a book in all its stages as a process rather than artifact. Not a noun, but a verb. A book is more "booking" than paper or text. It is a becoming. It is a continuous flow of thinking, writing, researching, editing, rewriting, sharing, socializing, cognifying, unbundling, marketing, more sharing, and screening--a flow that generates a book along the way. Books, especially ebooks, are by-products of the booking process.

The chief revolution birthed by scanning books: In the universal library, no book will be an island. It's all connected. Books will seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together into one large metabook, the universal library. The resulting collective intelligence of this synaptically connected library allows us to see things we can't see in a single isolated book. At the same time, once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums or playlists, the universal networked library will encourage the creation of virtual "bookshelves"--a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books--that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these "bookshelves" or playlists for books will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages. The ability to purchase, read, and manipulate individual pages or sections is surely what will drive reference books (cookbooks, how-to manuals, travel guides) in the future.

You might concoct your own "cookbook shelf" or scrapbook of Cajun recipes compiled from many different sources; it would include web pages, magazine clippings, and entire Cajun cookbooks. This is already starting to happen. The boards of the online site Pinterest allow folks to quickly create scrapbooks of quotes, images, quips, and photos. Amazon currently offers you a chance to publish your own bookshelves ("Listmanias") as annotated lists of books you want to recommend on a particular esoteric subject. And readers are already using Google Books to round up mini libraries on a certain topic--all the books about Swedish saunas, for instance, or the best books on clocks. Once snippets, articles, and pages of books become ubiquitous, shuffleable, and transferable, users will earn prestige and perhaps income for curating an excellent collection.


Possession is not as important as it once was. Accessing is more important than ever.

The switch from "ownership that you purchase" to "access that you subscribe to" overturns many conventions. Ownership is casual, fickle. If something better comes along, grab it. A subscription, on the other hand, gushes a never-ending stream of updates, issues, and versions that force a constant interaction between the producer and the consumer. It is not a onetime event; it's an ongoing relationship. Access mode brings consumers closer to the producer, and in fact the consumer often acts as the producer, or what futurist Alvin Toffler called in 1980 the "prosumer." Access amplifies the interactions we have with all parts of a service.

Food as service (FaS). Other possible new service realms: Furniture as service; Health as service; Shelter as service; Vacation as service; School as service.

The wealthiest and most disruptive organizations today are almost all multisided platforms--Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. All these giants employ third-party vendors to increase the value of their platform. All employ APIs extensively that facilitate and encourage others to play with it. Uber, Alibaba, Airbnb, PayPal, Square, WeChat, Android are the newer wildly successful multiside markets, run by a firm, that enable robust ecosystems of derivative yet interdependent products and services.

Clouds enable organizations to access the benefits of computers without the hassle of possession. In industry terms, this is infrastructure as service. Computers as service instead of computers as product: access instead of ownership.


Sharing -> Cooperation -> Collaboration -> Collectivism

The largely unarticulated but intuitively understood goal of sharing technology is this: to maximize both the autonomy of the individual and the power of people working together.

The increasingly common habit of sharing what you're thinking (Twitter), what you're reading (StumbleUpon), your finances (Motley Fool Caps), your everything (Facebook) is becoming a foundation of our culture.

The shift from hierarchy to networks, from centralized heads to decentralized webs, where sharing is the default, has been the major cultural story of the last three decades--and that story is not done yet. The power of bottom up will still take us further. However, the bottom is not enough. To get to the best of what we want, we need some top-down intelligence too. Now that social technology and sharing apps are all the rage, it's worth repeating: The bottom alone is not enough for what we really want. We need a bit of top-down as well. Every predominantly bottom-up organization that lasts for more than a few years does so because it becomes a hybrid of bottom up plus some top down.

Editors are the middle people--or what are called "curators" today--the professionals between a creator and the audience. These middle folk work at publishers, music labels, galleries, or film studios. While their roles would have to change drastically, the demand for the middle would not go away. Intermediates of some type are needed to shape the cloud of creativity that boils up from the crowd.

Today the audience is king. But what about the creators? Who will pay them in this sharing economy? How will their creative acts be financed if the middle is gone? The surprising answer is: another new sharing technology. No method has been as beneficial to creators as crowdfunding.

Anything that can be shared--thoughts, emotions, money, health, time--will be shared in the right conditions, with the right benefits. Anything that can be shared can be shared better, faster, easier, longer, and in a million more ways than we currently realize. At this point in our history, sharing something that has not been shared before, or in a new way, is the surest way to increase its value.

"For decades we have been sharing our outputs--our stream of photos, video clips, and well-crafted tweets. In essence, we have been sharing our successes. But only in the last decade did we realize that we learn faster and do better work when we share our failures as well. So in all the collabs I work with, we keep and share all the email, all the chat logs, all correspondence, all intermediate versions, all drafts of everything we do. The entire history is open. We share the process, not just the end product. All the half-baked ideas, dead ends, flops, and redos are actually valuable for both myself and for others hoping to do better. With the entire process out in the open it is harder to fool yourself and easier to see what went right, if it did. These days I live constantly connected. The bulk of what I share, and what is shared with me, is incremental--constant microupdates, tiny improved versions, minor tweaks--but those steady steps forward feed me. There is no turning the sharing off for long. Even the silence will be shared."


I like to book inexpensive hostels when I travel on vacation, but with a private bath, maximum bandwidth, and always in the oldest part of the town, except if it is near a bus station.

"In a world of abundance, the only scarcity is human attention." Since it is the last scarcity, wherever attention flows, money will follow. But not all attention is equal. In the advertising business, quantity of attention is often reflected in a metric called CPM, or cost per thousand (M is Latin for "thousand"). That's a thousand views, or a thousand readers or listeners. The estimated average CPM of various media platforms ranges widely. Cheap outdoor billboards average $3.50, TV is $7, magazines earn $14, and newspapers $32.50.

The remaining scarcity in an abundant society is the type of attention that is not derived or focused on commodities. The only things that are increasing in cost while everything else heads to zero are human experiences--which cannot be copied. Everything else becomes commoditized and filterable.

If you want a glimpse of what we humans do when the robots take our current jobs, look at experiences. That's where we'll spend our money (because they won't be free) and that's where we'll make our money. We'll use technology to produce commodities, and we'll make experiences in order to avoid becoming a commodity ourselves.


All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists. These tools, more than just reading, are the foundations of literacy.

Remixing--the rearrangement and reuse of existing pieces--plays havoc with traditional notions of property and ownership. So what should the new laws favor in a world of remixing? Appropriation of existing material is a venerable and necessary practice. As the economists Romer and Arthur remind us, recombination is really the only source of innovation--and wealth. I suggest we follow the question, "Has it been transformed by the borrower?" Did the remixing, the mashup, the sampling, the appropriation, the borrowing--did it transform the original rather than just copy it? Did Andy Warhol transform the Campbell's soup can? If yes, then the derivative is not really a "copy"; it's been transformed, mutated, improved, evolved. The answer each time is still a judgment call, but the question of whether it has been transformed is the right question.



A quantified-self experiment, on the other hand, is just N=1. The subject is yourself. At first it may seem that an N=1 experiment is not scientifically valid, but it turns out that it is extremely valid to you. In many ways it is the ideal experiment because you are testing the variable X against the very particular subject that is your body and mind at one point in time. Who cares whether the treatment works on anyone else? What you want to know is, How does it affect me? An N=1 provides that laser-focused result.

In formal studies, you need a control group to offset your bias toward positive results. So in lieu of a control group in an N=1 study, a quantified-self experimenter uses his or her own baseline. If you track yourself long enough, with a wide variety of metrics, then you can establish your behavior outside (or before) the experiment, which effectively functions as the control for comparison.

The Scout from Scanadu, is the size of an old-timey stopwatch. By touching it to your forehead, it will measure your blood pressure, variable heart rate, heart performance (ECG), oxygen level, temperature, and skin conductance all in a single instant. Someday it will also measure your glucose levels. More than one startup in Silicon Valley is developing a noninvasive, prickless blood monitor to analyze your blood factors daily. You'll eventually wear these. By taking this information and feeding it back not in numbers but in a form we can feel, such as a vibration on our wrist or a squeeze on our hip, the device will equip us with a new sense about our bodies that we didn't evolve but desperately need.

There is an equally important domain of tracking that is not conscious or active. This passive type of tracking is sometimes called lifelogging. The idea is to simply, mechanically, automatically, mindlessly, completely track everything all the time. Record everything that is recordable without prejudice, and for all your life. You only pay attention to it in the future when you may need it. Lifelogging is a hugely wasteful and inefficient process since most of what you lifelog is never used. But like many inefficient processes (such as evolution), it also contains genius.

An embrace of an expanded version of lifelogging would offer these four categories of benefits:

  • A constant 24/7/365 monitoring of vital body measurements.

  • An interactive, extended memory of people you met, conversations you had, places you visited, and events you participated in.

  • A complete passive archive of everything that you have ever produced, wrote, or said.

  • A way of organizing, shaping, and "reading" your own life.

Those who embrace the internet's tendency to copy and seek value that can't be easily copied (through personalization, embodiment, authentication, etc.) tend to prosper, while those who deny, prohibit, and try to thwart the network's eagerness to copy are left behind to catch up later. Tracking follows a similar inevitable dynamic. Indeed, we can swap the term "tracking" in the preceding paragraphs for "copying" in the following paragraphs to get a sense of its parallels.

Ubiquitous surveillance is inevitable. Since we cannot stop the system from tracking, we can only make the relationships more symmetrical. It's a way of civilizing coveillance. This will take both technological fixes and new social norms. Science fiction author David Brin calls this the "Transparent Society,"

There is a one-to-one correspondence between personalization and transparency. Greater personalization requires greater transparency. If I prefer to remain private and opaque to potential friends and institutions, then I must accept I will be treated generically, without regard to my specific particulars. I'll be an average number.

Now imagine these choices pinned on a slider bar. On the left side of the slot is the pair personal/transparent. On the right side is the pair private/generic. The slider can slide to either side or anywhere in between. The slider is an important choice we have. Much to everyone's surprise, though, when technology gives us a choice (and it is vital that it remain a choice), people tend to push the slider all the way over to the personal/transparent side. They'll take transparent personalized sharing. No psychologist would have predicted that 20 years ago.


As far as I can tell, the impossible things happening now are in every case due to the emergence of a new level of organization that did not exist before. These incredible eruptions are the result of large-scale collaboration, and massive real-time social interacting, which in turn are enabled by omnipresent instant connection between billions of people at a planetary scale. From this new societal organization, new behaviors emerge that were impossible at the lower level. When we weave ourselves together into a global real-time society, former impossibilities will really start to erupt into reality. It is not necessary that we invent some kind of autonomous global consciousness. It is only necessary that we connect everyone to everyone else--and to everything else--all the time and create new things together.

The internet is like a lens that focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everydayness. As long as we are online--which is almost all day many days--we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.

I've noticed a different approach to my thinking now that the hive mind has spread it extremely wide and loose. My thinking is more active, less contemplative. Rather than begin a question or hunch by ruminating aimlessly in my mind, nourished only by my ignorance, I start doing things. I immediately go. I go looking, searching, asking, questioning, reacting, leaping in, constructing notes, bookmarks, a trail--I start off making something mine. I don't wait. Don't have to wait. I act on ideas first now instead of thinking on them.

The paradox of science is that every answer breeds at least two new questions. More tools, more answers, ever more questions. Thus, even though our knowledge is expanding exponentially, our questions are expanding exponentially faster. And as mathematicians will tell you, the widening gap between two exponential curves is itself an exponential curve. That gap between questions and answers is our ignorance, and it is growing exponentially. In other words, science is a method that chiefly expands our ignorance rather than our knowledge.

So at the end of the day, a world of supersmart ubiquitous answers encourages a quest for the perfect question. What makes a perfect question? Ironically, the best questions are not questions that lead to answers, because answers are on their way to becoming cheap and plentiful. A good question is worth a million good answers.

A good question is not concerned with a correct answer. A good question cannot be answered immediately. A good question challenges existing answers. A good question is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you cared before it was asked. A good question creates new territory of thinking. A good question reframes its own answers. A good question is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics, and business. A good question is a probe, a what-if scenario. A good question skirts on the edge of what is known and not known, neither silly nor obvious. A good question cannot be predicted. A good question will be the sign of an educated mind. A good question is one that generates many other good questions. A good question may be the last job a machine will learn to do. A good question is what humans are for.

Question makers will be seen, properly, as the engines that generate the new fields, new industries, new brands, new possibilities, new continents that our restless species can explore. Questioning is simply more powerful than answering.


I'm calling this planetary layer the holos. By holos I include the collective intelligence of all humans combined with the collective behavior of all machines, plus the intelligence of nature, plus whatever behavior emerges from this whole. This whole equals holos.

The large-scale, ubiquitous interconnection of this new platform at first seems like just the natural extension of our traditional society. It seems to just add digital relationships to our existing face-to-face relationships. But, in fact, as all these qualities keep steadily increasing, just as temperature and pressure slowly creep higher, we pass an inflection point, a complexity threshold, where the change is discontinuous--a phase transition--and suddenly we are in a new state: a different world with new normals. We are in the Beginning of that process, right at the cusp of that discontinuity.