The Inevitable

The Inevitable

Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

Kevin Kelly

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. In another five years we’ll find a polite place for twittering, just as we figured out what to do with cell phones ringing everywhere. (Use silent vibrators.) Just like that, this initial response will disappear quickly and we’ll see it was neither essential nor inevitable.

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Banning the inevitable usually backfires. Prohibition is at best temporary, and in the long counterproductive. A vigilant, eyes-wide-open embrace works much better.

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Technology is humanity’s accelerant. Because of technology everything we make is always in the process of becoming. Every kind of thing is becoming something else, while it churns from “might” to “is.” All is flux. Nothing is finished. Nothing is done. This never-ending change is the pivotal axis of the modern world.

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second law of thermodynamics, which states that everything is falling apart slowly.

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Existence, it seems, is chiefly maintenance.

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Technological life in the future will be a series of endless upgrades. And the rate of graduations is accelerating.

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First, most of the important technologies that will dominate life 30 years from now have not yet been invented, so naturally you’ll be a newbie to them. Second, because the new technology requires endless upgrades, you will remain in the newbie state. Third, because the cycle of obsolescence is accelerating (the average lifespan of a phone app is a mere 30 days!), you won’t have time to master anything before it is displaced, so you will remain in the newbie mode forever. Endless Newbie is the new default for everyone, no matter your age or experience.

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Because here is the other thing the graybeards in 2050 will tell you: Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an innovator in 2016? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category and add some AI to it, put it on the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh. “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”

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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.

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Rather than use AI to make its search better, Google is using search to make its AI better. Every time you type a query, click on a search-generated link, or create a link on the web, you are training the Google AI. When you type “Easter Bunny” into the image search bar and then click on the most Easter Bunny–looking image, you are teaching the AI what an Easter Bunny looks like. Each of the 3 billion queries that Google conducts each day tutors the deep-learning AI over and over again. With another 10 years of steady improvements to its AI algorithms, plus a thousandfold more data and a hundred times more computing resources, Google will have an unrivaled AI.

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My prediction: By 2026, Google’s main product will not be search but AI.

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In the next 10 years, 99 percent of the artificial intelligence that you will interact with, directly or indirectly, will be nerdly narrow, supersmart specialists.

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The synthetic Dr. Watson at our hospital should be maniacal in its work, never wondering whether it should have majored in finance instead. What we want instead of conscious intelligence is artificial smartness. As AIs develop, we might have to engineer ways to prevent consciousness in them. Our most premium AI services will likely be advertised as consciousness-free.

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One way that would help us to imagine what greater yet different intelligences would be like is to begin to create a taxonomy of the variety of minds. This matrix of minds would include animal minds, and machine minds, and possible minds, particularly transhuman minds, like the ones that science fiction writers have come up with.

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Our most important mechanical inventions are not machines that do what humans do better, but machines that can do things we can’t do at all. Our most important thinking machines will not be machines that can think what we think faster, better, but those that think what we can’t think.

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Humans are for inventing new kinds of intelligences that biology could not evolve. Our job is to make machines that think different—to create alien intelligences. We should really call AIs “AAs,” for “artificial aliens.”

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It may be hard to believe, but before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation—including the job you hold. In other words, robots are inevitable and job replacement is just a matter of time.

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By 2050 most truck drivers won’t be human. Since truck driving is currently the most common occupation in the U.S., this is a big deal.

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any job dealing with reams of paperwork will be taken over by bots, including much of medicine. The rote tasks of any information-intensive job can be automated. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, translator, editor, lawyer, architect, reporter, or even programmer: The robot takeover will be epic.

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“Right now we think of manufacturing as happening in China. But as manufacturing costs sink because of robots, the costs of transportation become a far greater factor than the cost of production. Nearby will be cheap. So we’ll get this network of locally franchised factories, where most things will be made within five miles of where they are needed.”

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we will need a whole army of robot nannies, dedicated to keeping your personal robots up and running.

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You still have a job as a farmer, but robots do most of the actual farmwork. Your fleets of worker bots do all the outside work under the hot sun—weeding, pest control, and harvesting of produce—as directed by a very smart mesh of probes in the soil. Your new job as farmer is overseeing the farming system. One day your task might be to research which variety of heirloom tomato to plant; the next day to find out what your customers crave; the following day might be the time to update the information on your custom labels. The bots perform everything else that can be measured.

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Seven Stages of Robot Replacement: 1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do. 2. [Later.] OK, it can do a lot of those tasks, but it can’t do everything I do. 3. [Later.] OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often. 4. [Later.] OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks. 5. [Later.] OK, OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do. 6. [Later.] Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more interesting and pays more! 7. [Later.] I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now. [Repeat.]

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As Marshall McLuhan observed, the first version of a new medium imitates the medium it replaces.

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Early gramophone equipment could make recordings that contained no more than four and a half minutes, so musicians abbreviated meandering works to fit to the phonograph, and today the standard duration of a pop song is four and a half minutes.

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A universal law of economics says the moment something becomes free and ubiquitous, its position in the economic equation suddenly inverts. When nighttime electrical lighting was new and scarce, it was the poor who burned common candles. Later, when electricity became easily accessible and practically free, our preference flipped and candles at dinner became a sign of luxury.

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When copies are superabundant, they become worthless. Instead, stuff that can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable. When copies are free, you need to sell things that cannot be copied. Well, what can’t be copied? Trust, for instance. Trust cannot be reproduced in bulk.

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Since we prefer to deal with someone we can trust, we will often pay a premium for that privilege. We call that branding.

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Right now getting a full copy of all your DNA is very expensive ($10,000), but soon it won’t be. The price is dropping so fast, it will be $100 soon, and then the next year insurance companies will offer to sequence you for free. When a copy of your sequence costs nothing, the interpretation of what it means, what you can do about it, and how to use it—the manual for your genes, so to speak—will be expensive.

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The tools for quickly making a tune, altering a song, or algorithmically generating music that you share in real time are not far away. Custom music—that is, music that users generate—will become the norm, and indeed it will become the bulk of all music created each year. As music streams, it expands.

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The efflorescent blossoming of liquid streams is an additive process, rather than subtractive. The old media forms endure; the new are layered on top of them.

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Painting, music, architecture, dance were all important, but the heartbeat of Western culture was the turning pages of a book. By 1910 three quarters of the towns in the United States with more than 2,500 residents had a public library. America’s roots spring from documents—the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and, indirectly, the Bible. The country’s success depended on high levels of literacy, a robust free press, allegiance to the rule of law (found in books), and a common language across a continent. American prosperity and liberty grew out of a culture of reading and writing. We became People of the Book.

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Reading becomes social. With screens we can share not just the titles of books we are reading, but our reactions and notes as we read them. Today, we can highlight a passage. Tomorrow, we will be able to link passages. We can add a link from a phrase in the book we are Reading to a contrasting phrase in another book we’ve read, from a word in a passage to an obscure dictionary, from a scene in a book to a similar scene in a movie. (All these tricks will require tools for finding relevant passages.) We might subscribe to the marginalia feed from someone we respect, so we get not only their Reading list but their marginalia—highlights, notes, questions, musings.

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Right now the best we can do in terms of interconnection is to link some text to its source’s title in a bibliography or in a footnote. Much better would be a link to a specific passage in another passage in a work, a technical feat not yet possible. But when we can link deeply into documents at the resolution of a sentence, and have those links go two ways, we’ll have networked books.

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Screens provoke action instead of persuasion. Propaganda is less effective in a world of screens, because while misinformation travels as fast as electrons, corrections do too.

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The status of a new creation is determined not by the rating given to it by critics but by the degree to which it is linked to the rest of the world. A person, artifact, or fact does not “exist” until it is linked.

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As more items are invented and manufactured—while the total number of hours in a day to enjoy them remains fixed—we spend less and less time per item. In other words, the long-term trend in our modern lives is that most goods and services will be short-term use. Therefore most goods and services are candidates for rental and sharing.

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communication technology is biased toward moving everything to on demand. And on demand is biased toward access over ownership.

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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.

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In his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, media theorist Clay Shirky suggests a useful hierarchy for sorting through these new social arrangements, ranked by the increasing degree of coordination employed. Groups of people start off simply sharing with a minimum of coordination, and then progress to cooperation, then to collaboration, and finally to collectivism. At each step of this socialism, the amount of additional coordination required enlarges.

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If it were a nation, Facebook would be the largest country on the planet. Yet the entire economy of this largest country runs on labor that isn’t paid. A billion people spend a lot of their day creating content for free. They report on events around them, summarize stories, add opinions, create graphics, make up jokes, post cool photos, and craft videos. They are “paid” in the value of the communication and relations that emerge from 1.4 billion connected verifiable individuals. They are paid by being allowed to stay on the commune.

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Over time, the companies that served user-generated content would have to start to layer bits of editing, selection, and curation to their ocean of material in order to maintain quality and attention to it. There had to be something else beside the pure anarchy of the bottom.

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While millions of writers contribute to Wikipedia, a smaller number of editors (around 1,500) are responsible for the majority of the editing. Ditto for collectives that write code. A vast army of contributions is managed by a much smaller group of coordinators. As Mitch Kapor, founding chair of the Mozilla open source code factory, observed, “Inside every working anarchy, there’s an old-boy network.”

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organizations built to create products rather than platforms often need strong leaders and hierarchies arranged around timescales: Lower-level work focuses on hourly needs; the next level on jobs that need to be done today. Higher levels focus on weekly or monthly chores, and levels above (often in the CEO suite) need to look out ahead at the next five years. The dream of many companies is to graduate from making products to creating a platform. But when they do succeed (like Facebook), they are often not ready for the required transformation in their role; they have to act more like governments than companies in keeping opportunities “flat” and equitable, and hierarchy to a minimum.

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I would guess that in 50 years a significant portion of Wikipedia articles will have controlled edits, peer review, verification locks, authentication certificates, and so on. That’s all good for us readers. Each of these steps is a small amount of top-down smartness to offset the dumbness of a massively bottom-up system.

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It’s fast, cheap, and out of control. The barriers to start a new crowd-powered service are low and getting lower. A hive mind scales up wonderfully smoothly. That is why there were 9,000 startups in 2015 trying to exploit the sharing power of decentralized peer-to-peer networks. It does not matter if they morph over time. Perhaps a hundred years from now these shared processes, such as Wikipedia, will be layered up with so much management that they’ll resemble the old-school centralized businesses. Even so, the bottom up was still the best way to start.

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The largest, fastest growing, most profitable companies in 2050 will be companies that will have figured out how to harness aspects of sharing that are invisible and unappreciated today. 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.

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A filter dedicated to probing one’s dislikes would have to be delicate, but could also build on the powers of large collaborative databases in the spirit of “people who disliked those, learned to like this one.” In somewhat the same vein I also, occasionally, want a bit of stuff I dislike but should learn to like. For me that might be anything related to nutritional supplements, details of political legislation, or hip-hop music. Great teachers have a knack for conveying unsavory packages to the unwilling in a way that does not scare them off; great filters can too. But would anyone sign up for such a filter?

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Way back in 1971 Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize–winning social scientist, observed, “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Simon’s insight is often reduced to “In a world of abundance, the only scarcity is human attention.”

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the average cost to consume one hour of media in 1995, 2010, and 2015 is respectively $3.08, $2.69, and $3.37. That means that the value of our attention has been remarkably stable over 20 years. It seems we have some intuitive sense of what a media experience “should” cost, and we don’t stray much from that.

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That leaves the big question in an age of cheap plentitude: What is really valuable? Paradoxically, our attention to commodities is not worth much. Our monkey mind is cheaply hijacked. 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.

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Not coincidentally, humans excel at creating and consuming experiences. This is no place for robots. 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.

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Modern technologies are combinations of earlier primitive technologies that have been rearranged and remixed. Since one can combine hundreds of simpler technologies with hundreds of thousands of more complex technologies, there is an unlimited number of possible new technologies—but they are all remixes. What is true for economic and technological growth is also true for digital growth. We are in a period of productive remixing. Innovators recombine simple earlier media genres with later complex genres to produce an unlimited number of new media genres. The more new genres, the more possible newer ones can be remixed from them. The rate of possible combinations grows exponentially, expanding the culture and the economy.

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Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film. Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. That would be useful in video as well. And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations.

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In a few years we’ll be able to routinely search video via AI. As we do, we’ll begin to explore the Gutenberg possibilities within moving images. “I consider the pixel data in images and video to be the dark matter of the Internet,” says Fei-Fei Li, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “We are now starting to illuminate it.”

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Typically I dip into my inbox or outbox several times a day to scroll back to some previous episode of my life. If we expect to scroll back, this will shift what we do the first time. The ability to scroll back easily, precisely, and deeply might change how we live in the future.

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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.

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The Sensory Substitution Vest takes audio from tiny microphones in the vest and translates those sound waves into a grid of vibrations that can be felt by a deaf person wearing it. Over a matter of months, the deaf person’s brain reconfigures itself to “hear” the vest vibrations as sound, so by wearing this interacting cloth, the deaf can hear.

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The achievable dream in the near future is to use this very personal database of your body’s record (including your full sequence of genes) to construct personal treatments and personalized medicines. Science would use your life’s log to generate treatments specifically for you. For instance, a smart personalized pill-making machine in your home (described in Chapter 7) would compound medicines in the exact proportions for your current bodily need. If the treatment in the morning eased the symptoms, the dosage in the evening would be adjusted by the system.

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“When I acquire a new memory of (let’s say) talking to Melissa on a sunny afternoon outside the Red Parrot—I don’t have to give this memory a name, or stuff it in a directory. I can use anything in the memory as a retrieval key. I shouldn’t have to name electronic documents either, or put them in directories. I can shuffle other streams into mine—to the extent I have permission to use other people’s streams. My own personal stream, my electronic life story, can have other streams shuffled into it—streams belonging to groups or organizations I’m part of. And eventually I’ll have, for example, newspaper and magazine streams shuffled into my stream also.”

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In his research Bell discovered that the most informative media to capture is audio, prompted and indexed by photos. Bell told me that if he could have only one, he’d rather have an audio log of his day than a visual log.

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every car manufactured since 2006 contains a tiny OBD chip mounted under the dashboard. This chip records how your car is used. It tracks miles driven, at what speed, times of sudden braking, speed of turns, and gas mileage. This data was originally designed to help repair the car. Some insurance companies, such as Progressive, will lower your auto insurance rates if you give them access to your OBD driving log. Safer drivers pay less.

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the U.S. government has not unified these streams because a thin wall of hard-won privacy laws holds them back. Few laws hold corporations back from integrating as much data as they can; therefore companies have become the proxy data gatherers for governments.

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The internet wants to make copies. At first this fact is deeply troubling to creators, both individual and corporate, because their stuff will be copied indiscriminately, often for free, when it was once rare and precious. Some people fought, and still fight, very hard against the bias to copy (movie studios and music labels come to mind) and some people chose and choose to work with the bias. 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. Consumers, of course, love the promiscuous copies and feed the machine to claim their benefits.

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Some people fight hard against the bias to track and some will eventually work with the bias. Those who figure out how to domesticate tracking, to make it civil and productive, will prosper, while those who try only to prohibit and outlaw it will be left behind. Consumers say they don’t want to be tracked, but in fact they keep feeding the machine with their data, because they want to claim their benefits.

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The growth of information has been steadily increasing at an insane rate for at least a century. It is no coincidence that 66 percent per year is the same as doubling every 18 months, which is the rate of Moore’s Law. Five years ago humanity stored several hundred exabytes of information. That is the equivalent of each person on the planet having 80 Library of Alexandrias. Today we average 320 libraries each.

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In our everyday lives we generate far more information that we don’t yet capture and record. Despite the explosion in tracking and storage, most of our day-to-day life is not digitized. This unaccounted-for information is “wild” or “dark” information. Taming this wild information will ensure that the total amount of information we collect will keep doubling for many decades ahead.

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Metadata is the new wealth because the value of bits increases when they are linked to other bits. The least productive life for a bit is to remain naked and alone. A bit uncopied, unshared, unlinked with other bits will be a short-lived bit. The worst future for a bit is to be parked in some dark isolated data vault. What bits really want is to hang out with other related bits, be replicated widely, and maybe become a metabit, or an action bit in a piece of durable code. If we could personify bits, we’d say: Bits want to move. Bits want to be linked to other bits. Bits want to be reckoned in real time. Bits want to be duplicated, replicated, copied. Bits want to be meta.

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There is a one-to-one correspondence between personalization and transparency. Greater personalization requires greater transparency. Absolute personalization (vanity) requires absolute transparency (no privacy). 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.

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For the civilized world, anonymity is like a rare earth metal. In larger doses these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. Yet these elements are also a necessary ingredient in keeping a cell alive. But the amount needed for health is a mere hard-to-measure trace. Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishingly small doses, it’s good, even essential for the system. Anonymity enables the occasional whistle-blower and can protect the persecuted fringe and political outcasts. But if anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system. While anonymity can be used to protect heroes, it is far more commonly used as a way to escape responsibility. That’s why most of the brutal harassment on Twitter, Yik Yak, Reddit, and other sites is delivered anonymously. A lack of responsibility unleashes the worst in us.

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Because of our global connectivity, a relatively simple hack could cause an emerging cascade of failure, which would reach impossible scale very quickly. Worldwide disruptions of our social fabric are in fact inevitable. One day in the next three decades the entire internet/phone system will blink off for 24 hours, and we’ll be in shock for years afterward.

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When we all wear tiny cameras all the time, then the most improbable event, the most superlative achievement, the most extreme actions of anyone alive will be recorded and shared around the world in real time. Soon only the most extraordinary moments of 6 billion citizens will fill our streams. So henceforth rather than be surrounded by ordinariness we’ll float in extraordinariness—as it becomes mundane. When the improbable dominates our field of vision to the point that it seems as if the world contains only the impossible, then these improbabilities don’t feel as improbable. The impossible will feel inevitable.

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To steer a kayak on white-water rapids you need to be paddling at least as fast as the water runs, and to hope to navigate the exabytes of information, change, disruption coming at us, you need to be flowing as fast as the frontier is flowing.

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The more disruptive a technology or tool is, the more disruptive the questions it will breed. We can expect future technologies such as artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation, and quantum computing (to name a few on the near horizon) to unleash a barrage of new huge questions—questions we could have never thought to ask before. In fact, it’s a safe bet that we have not asked our biggest questions yet.

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We think we are merely wasting time when we surf mindlessly or post an item for our friends, but each time we click a link we strengthen a node somewhere in the holos mind, thereby programming it by using it. Think of the 100 billion times per day humans click on a web page as a way of teaching the holos what we think is important. Each time we forge a link between words, we teach this contraption an idea.

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