Kevin Kelly wants us to embrace the future, and he has always led by example. The former publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Review and the co-founder of WIRED magazine, he’s a peripatetic intellectual whose journey started in New Jersey, meandered through Asia, transfigured in Jerusalem, and was transformed, over and over again, through technology. Kelly’s exploratory spirit has led him down multiple paths of expression, each impactful in its own way. But his pursuits are all unified by a relentless engagement with the potential of new tools to reshape our lives and society at large.
It all began when Kelly encountered the Whole Earth Catalog as an impressionable teenager somewhere around the turn of the 1970s. Launched by Stewart Brand through the nonprofit Portola Institute out of Menlo Park in 1968 and released in various editions throughout the 70s, the Catalog rode a cresting wave of California counterculture to provide readers with “access to tools” and information outside of traditional, mainstream thought systems. It was at once a nostalgic throwback to American mail orders from Sears and a wholesale reinvention of the form for the hippie heyday, encompassing product reviews, tips, suggestions, how-to guides, and brief commentary on everything from cybernetics and engineering design to auto repair and creative glassblowing.
Sourcing selections in part from subscribers, the Catalog championed self-sufficiency, educational autonomy, and holistic self-improvement in a manner that anticipated what Kelly has referred to as the “informed enthusiasm” of modern blogging—and with a techno-optimism tempered by a pastoral bent. It was a dispatch on how things were, with the foresight to imagine what they could be.
Above all, the Catalog was a galvanizing instruction manual for marching to the beat of your own drum, and Kelly dutifully listened. Following its ethos of self-reliance and lifelong learning, Kelly dropped out of his first and only year of college in 1971 and led a nomadic lifestyle for an extended period, wandering around Asia as a freelance photographer and travel writer. After having a conversion experience while sleeping on the supposed spot of Jesus’ crucifixion in 1979, he returned home to temporarily live with his parents, then worked in a biology lab at the University of Georgia. Eventually, he connected with Brand online, through the nascent Electronic Information Exchange System. In 1984, Brand enlisted Kelly to edit the final issue of his CoEvolution Quarterly journal, which merged with another Catalog spin-off in 1985 to become the Whole Earth Review, with a renewed emphasis on software and computer tech.
As a Web1 pioneer and a Web2 critic and optimist, he now espouses an ideal of “protopia”—not dystopia or utopia, but a society grounded in a belief in incremental progress engendered by more, and better, technology.
Kelly’s vision for the Review, where he was publisher and editor from 1984 to 1990, was shaped in large part by an earlier revelatory encounter he had with the Apple IIe personal computer. The machine made him keenly aware of technology’s power to bring together communities of geographically distant, disparate individuals, united by shared interests—not dissimilar to his experience with the Catalog. He became convinced that the next continent to explore was the fragmented, immaterial realm of information, which became a key framework for his next decade of activity.
In 1984, Kelly helped present the first Hackers Conference, bringing together for the first time some of the iconoclastic programmers and developers featured in Steven Levy’s book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984). The following year, he contributed to the launch of yet another Catalog offshoot called the WELL, or Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link—an online gathering place for Whole Earth readers and others, considered to be one of the internet’s earliest forum communities. And in 1988, Kelly spearheaded the build and release of the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog, a CD-ROM version of the publication. It was financed by Catalog acolyte Steve Jobs and used Apple’s HyperCard software to reformat the Catalog as 9,000 cards connected via hypertext.
After publishing additional Catalog titles throughout the late 1980s, Kelly teamed up with journalist-entrepreneurs Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe in 1993 to start a new magazine called WIRED. He would hold the title of executive editor for the next seven years, integrating the Catalog’s contrarian spirit with the idea of creating a platform where journalists and prognosticators could consider and critique the burgeoning digital forces affecting life on Earth. In 1994, he published what would be the first of several books combining technological analysis and philosophy, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. Its meditations on the complexities of modern industrial economies proved prescient—and if Keanu Reeves is to be believed, were required reading for all actors in The Matrix. (Kelly would have a similar dalliance with Hollywood in the early 2000s, as a futurism consultant for Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002).)
Today, at 70, Kelly remains on WIRED’s masthead as “senior maverick.” As a Web1 pioneer and a Web2 critic and optimist, he now espouses an ideal of “protopia”—not dystopia or utopia, but a society grounded in a belief in incremental progress engendered by more, and better, technology. To that end, he currently works as a board member, alongside luminaries like Brian Eno of the Long Now Foundation, which aims to encourage long-term thinking through projects like a monumental clock in the Colorado mountains, meant to keep time for the next 10,000 years. He also continues the lineage of the Catalog with Cool Tools, an email newsletter/blog/book hybrid he launched in 2003. His own recent recommendations include black caulk, a large apple slicer, and “alternative worlds”—a mix of the utilitarian and the imaginative, the magical and the mundane.
So what can we learn from Kelly? How do we absorb his endless enthusiasm for and negotiation with new tools while tending to our inner and outer landscapes before they become overplanted, too dense to navigate or decipher? In this interview with Zine’s own Yana Sosnovskaya, Kelly took us on an invigorating stroll through the verdant forest of his eternally curious mind, discussing topics such as DAOs as an ideological experiment, toxic anonymity, and his view of the blockchain-based world of Web3, which he likens to a high school graduate still figuring out their place in life.—Aaron Gonsher
Yana Sosnovskaya: In your book Out of Control, when you share your first experience with the personal computer, you say that it was an almost religious experience. Why was that moment so significant for you?
Kevin Kelly: I had seen computers before in the late 1960s. My father, who was involved with computers to some extent, took me to a trade show in Atlantic City, and I was very unimpressed by the computers then. They were boring because they were these very big cabinets and there were no screens. I ignored them until I met the personal computer, which was an Apple IIe, in the laboratory of the scientist I worked for.
The entire revelation came when we hooked the Apple IIe up to the telephone: there were things called modems, where you took the handset from the phone, and you put it in this cradle. It would make an audible noise of it connecting, and that was when everything changed. It was when it was a communication device primarily. Late at night, whenever everyone else was gone and the computer was free, I began to log into these numbers that were being passed around; there was this emerging culture of bulletin boards, they were called, often a computer that was run in somebody’s bedroom, and that would allow people to call in. Only one person at a time could be in the bulletin board: you’d leave a message and then exit, and someone else would come in and read it. While they were there, they occupied your phone line, and you got a busy signal. It was very, very primitive.
But I had this glimmer of this world opening up, this territory that was now accessible, and it was like a big “aha.” It’s this new world. I decided to write about it as if it was a new world, because I was a travel writer at the time, and I decided that I would cover this as if it was a new continent, a new nation, a new country. So I had permission to explore all the different bulletin boards, but they weren’t connected together—this wasn’t the internet yet. It was very nerdy. Most people dismissed it in the way that you might dismiss people who are interested in crypto today. I couldn’t foresee that everybody would be talking about it all the time, but I certainly could see that it was going to be a major thing.
It (Whole Earth Catalog) covered my interests of science and art and everything in between and I desperately wanted to contribute to it, but I absolutely knew nothing.
YS: What was it about the philosophy or ideology of the Whole Earth Catalog that shifted your perception? What was attractive and appealing about it at the time?
KK: The Whole Earth Catalog was this amateur, independently produced publication printing a lot of niche information that was impossible to find anywhere. They were based in California and self-publishing this book that, if you read some of the longer pieces today, you would recognize as a blog. They were using technology that was very innovative to produce a do-it-yourself guide: how to build your own house, how to do homeschooling, how to do design, how to be interested in religion, how to do drugs.
It was all about providing users with choices and possibilities about things that they had no idea about and giving them some entryway into it. It was a user-generated publication in the sense that a lot of it was being written by the users coming in. There was no advertising. You had to subscribe to it. That made it very democratic. It anticipated a lot of the ethos and the atmosphere that the internet later on had. It covered my interests of science and art and everything in between and I desperately wanted to contribute to it, but I absolutely knew nothing. I had no expertise. I had no insight. I was a high school kid in New Jersey.
After traveling around for a decade, I realized I had something to offer: I knew more about budget travel than anybody. I later worked at Whole Earth and then I edited it and then I published it. What we were doing with WIRED and what I do with Cool Tools now is an extension of that.
YS: Web3 communities,the communities operating on the blockchain, have an almost cultish attitude towards Whole Earth.
KK: Oh really?
YS: I was curious if you were aware of that. And if not, why do you think that could be?
KK: I wasn’t aware that there was much of an appreciation for Whole Earth. I’m glad to hear that. I think Web3 sees themselves as counterculture. Whole Earth was counterculture and it preached a kind of Walden “march to your own drum.” There is some aspect of that in Web3—really feeling that they are outside the orthodoxy, which they are. But I will say that the Whole Earth Catalog was not a huge fan of communes, and that’s probably because Stewart [Brand] had tried to live on a commune and became very disgruntled with it. I didn’t have any real direct contact but I was always kind of suspicious of them, but I think the Catalog in itself was not; it was sold and made a huge amount of money from communes buying it. So it wasn’t anti-commune, but it really wasn’t in favor, either. Everybody was paid the same amount of money, which was interesting. All the employees, including me, when I was even publishing it, we all made 10 dollars an hour.
YS: Do you see a gravitation towards communes and communal thinking in Web3?
KK: I see it in some of the DAOs. The theory of the DAO is that people have a stake in the direction and the governance, a more democratic or decentralized governance. That’s communal in a certain sense. Part of the problem with communes is that it’s really hard to govern anything without a hierarchy of any sort. People eventually left communes because of that issue.
That’s my advice to anybody who is interested in starting a DAO: be a cooperative first. And then, if you survive that, live in a commune and see the difficulties of actually getting things done. There’s not an equal amount of enthusiasm for governance. There’s a natural hierarchy or a natural variance in people’s interests. I think I’m interested in DAOs as an ideological experiment trying to uncover other models of governance.
YS: 2021 was called the Summer of DAO because of this huge wave of excitement around them. For people of younger generations who hadn’t experienced communes and communal living, it was a novel idea. They are now experiencing problems like what you’re saying about voting fatigue, etc.
You position yourself as an optimist in certain interviews. You were optimistic about the technology. Coming back to this notion of optimism today after Web2, centralized technology, the pandemic, wars—how do you feel about optimism in technology right now?
KK: I am more optimistic than ever before. Not because I think our problems are smaller or fewer, but because I think our capacity to solve them is bigger. Our ability to learn things, to figure out things, to create solutions has been accelerated by things like YouTube and the communication technologies that we have today. Smartphones—everybody, everywhere—that is huge.
The continued advance movement to solar and electric vehicles is just fantastic and will continue to accelerate. We now have a duty to be optimistic as we imagine a future. It’s difficult to imagine a high-tech world full of AI and genetic engineering and surveillance that we want to live in, but if we can imagine a way in which it works for the better, then we can aim towards that. I think we should strive to imagine a future full of all this technology that works.
YS: What role do you think blockchain can play in that?
KK: Blockchain is being tried on lots of different problems. And as they’re being applied, we see the cost and downside. It feels to me as if it’s a technology looking for the right job. It reminds me of a high school graduate who’s very talented and odd, and they are trying to figure out where their place is.
My feeling is that blockchain is going to be most useful when you have no idea that it’s there. It’s like plumbing. It’s not going to be sexy when it works. It’s going to be very, very boring. Like encryption. We’ve had encryption for years and years, and most of it happens way beyond, and we’re not aware of it. And the fact that we’re not aware of it is why it works.
The blockchain could be useful in harmonizing trust, harmonizing interoperability, harmonizing authentication and all these other issues that would need addressing in a decentralized world.
YS: Is there any application of a blockchain that excites you that you don’t see society or even Web3 communities talking about enough?
KK: There are two places where I think blockchain could work in the future. One is that it could help create the metaverse we want, which is a very decentralized interoperable place with many millions of people contributing to it. It’s not controlled by one thing. And if the metaverse, the mirrorworld is what I call it, has digital versions of everything, you might want some way to authenticate things, to verify that they’re not a spam hydrant or a mailbox that is actually unauthorized or unofficial or whatever. I could imagine that the idea of authenticating, legitimizing, making official, and making clear ownership in the digital mirrorworld would be a role for blockchain.
The second use for blockchain is tokenization—that everything is tokenized and you have monetary value added to everything. I can imagine that as another level in the metaverse or mirrorworld, where tokenization permits allotting of resources. It also allows for a real-time accounting thing, which we don’t have. Big businesses do not yet have real-time accounting. They have batch mode. The blockchain might have a role in that.
Once you have something like the metaverse where you go across boundaries, you have different regimes. The blockchain could be useful in harmonizing trust, harmonizing interoperability, harmonizing authentication and all these other issues that would need addressing in a decentralized world.
YS: There are a lot of anonymous identities and anonymous people in Web3. When you’re talking about authentication and identification, what do you think about the future of anonymity? Is it sustainable?
KK: High levels of anonymity are toxic, and that is actually something hindering Web3. It breeds distrust. It allows the worst of human behavior to flourish. I think pseudonyms are even better than just pure anonymity. I would be willing to bet that systems that have large amounts of anonymity don’t prosper over time. They’re just not places that most people want to hang out.
YS: What do you forecast for the future of crypto and blockchain in terms of the relationship with the governments and legislation in 10 years?
KK: I’ve long predicted that some of the biggest cryptocurrencies will be government-mandated because everything is transparent. You can certainly imagine China having cryptocurrency where they don’t allow anonymity and every transaction is on the public ledger. I don’t think Bitcoin’s going to go away. I think there’ll be anonymous coins forever. But I don’t suspect that there’s going to be a very large percentage of all this because there’s low trust. There’s discursion because of the uncertainty of who people are, and businesses don’t like uncertainty. These negatives will keep it from becoming the dominant currency, even though it will never go away.
YS: Do you think the government would ever be open to embracing the idea of decentralized identification in voting systems?
KK: There’re many governments in the world. The US is particularly allergic to a unified ID for some reason. I’m imagining that in the near future we collectively will settle on having a very biocentric ID. Things that are linked to our eyes, our voice, our heartbeat, fingerprints—all the same cues that I use to identify you, that we’re going to use to identify each other, and that will have some singular name or number that governments and businesses will use.
It’s not completely serious, but I think maybe by the end of this century, most people will have legal names that they choose rather than having legal names that their parents give them. Having a name that your parents give you will be as strange as having an arranged marriage. Changing your name will be easier because your identity isn’t going to be in your name, identity’s going to be this other stuff.
I think governments will play a role in that. I think it’s to everybody’s benefit to have a stable ID. It just doesn’t make any sense for most people. There are the libertarian types, anarchists are concerned about opting out, and that’s a legitimate concern. How do you opt out? Everywhere, until now, we’ve had a frontier where people who wanted to opt out could go opt out. And so, we probably want to retain some way for people to opt out of the system. It’s probably healthy to have that mechanism. If we have a world government, which I think we should, that becomes even more important. The one advantage we have of having multiple national governments is that there’s competition. If you have a world government, that’s a monopoly; you can imagine it getting stagnant. I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe there’s two world governments.
YS: Circling back to the history of the internet and its creation, you might have noticed the Web3 community has a specific attitude towards Web2 and how extractive it is. As a key figure in creating Web1, when do you think things went wrong in Web2? What happened?
KK: I don’t think things went wrong. I think Web2 was a much better improvement. I think it’s magnificent, wonderful, fantastic. Can Web2 be improved? Absolutely. And that’s what Web3 is trying to do. But I don’t think Web2 was a step backward. I think it was a step forward. It was much more participatory and engaging. Social media has been fantastic in terms of allowing people to express themselves and have an audience. So I think Web2 was a fantastic step forward. And is it the end of it? No. There’s Web3, there’s probably Web4 and 5, and hopefully they’ll make it better. Web3 has yet to prove itself in terms of having actual innovations that are adopted.
I know that the Web3 people talk about getting a more decentralized state away from the big monopoly players, but we had a monopoly. We had Microsoft Windows, and I actually argued that that was good. You don’t want to have a monopoly, you want to have an oligopoly. You want to have two or three to choose from. Having those platforms makes it really good and easy for people to develop apps and programs because they don’t have to make stuff for 50 different platforms.
And Google, Amazon: I go to Amazon every day because they are so good. Their scale allows them to be incredibly efficient and productive in meeting my needs. Are there some dangers? Yes. So there’s some issues with fake reviews and counterfeits—we need to get rid of those. Amazon doesn’t seem to be doing it as fast as they could, so some pressure is needed. But I don’t want to do away with Amazon. I would say the same thing with Facebook. Yes, there are some issues, but compared to what? Let’s make it better, but let’s not get rid of it. That’s where I am. I’m interested in improving things rather than destroying things.
Photography by Julian Berman.