Interview With Kevin Kelly: Bonus Round

In this Rule Breaker Investing podcast, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner talks with Kevin Kelly, Wired co-founder and author of The Inevitable, about tracking, college education, cryptocurrencies, and more. Find out what Kevin has to say about the different kinds of tracking and why tracking needs to be more symmetrical than it is today; if and when cash will die in the U.S.; what "protopia" means and why we don't notice the progress that humanity makes every year; why the metaskill of learning how to learn will be the most important thing that future generations are taught in school; and what the future holds for blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and bitcoin.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Feb. 17, 2018.

David Gardner: All right. Well, you're here. You're back. That means presumably you've enjoyed, so far, my conversation with Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired, about his book, The Inevitable. We got through all six of the points that I'd committed to my audience that we would go over. Sad not to cover points seven through 12. There's only so much time in the world, but we did want to talk a little bit more about that and then go to the Q&A. Thanks a lot for joining us during this Rule Breaker Investing Podcast Extra. Take it away, producer Rick Engdahl.


David Gardner: We're going to leave it right there for the book. Suffice it to say anyone who's, let's say, a quarter as interested as I am, if they haven't already read The Inevitable is going to [I hope shortly] click over to Amazon or Audible and buy Kevin's book and enjoy your additional chapters on filtering, remixing, interacting, and the three that follow those. And I do have to ask you quickly about No. 10, "tracking," because it might be the most provocative chapter in the book. Whether or not we think about this already, almost everything we do is getting tracked in the form of bits, and what isn't yet likely will. You point out the asymmetry of this power struggle. Can you explain a bit about that and then remind us that we are in a protopia and not a dystopia?

Kevin Kelly: I'll explain protopia first. Everybody has heard of utopia. Utopia is this imaginary destination where everything is perfect or at least super good. The problem with utopia is that it's actually, I think, a pretty boring place. Nothing would ever get better because it's already good enough.

Besides the fact that it seems like a fantasy, I do believe in progress and that progress is real, and I find the kind of skepticism that the world is actually getting better to be really perplexing, because if you actually look at scientific data, there is no doubt that on average almost everything that we care about as humans has gotten better every year. From safety, longevity, health, rights, you name it; it's on average getting better.

But that betterment is actually very tiny. It's only a few percent. It becomes invisible and the news -- whatever kind of news you're looking at -- will mask that, because the news is about things that are unusual, and progress is about things that didn't happen mostly. Like the fact that you were not robbed on your way here today. That did not happen. That would have been normal a couple of hundred years ago. The fact that you didn't die, or your friend didn't die yesterday. All the things that didn't happen are actually what progress is about, and that does not get reported, so we don't see it, except in retrospect.

So, I think the world is getting better -- not by very much -- but 1% compounded annually is civilization. We only see these things in retrospect because even if we can create 1% more than we destroy every year, that's progress. So, half the world could be crap, and harmful, and terrible; but, we don't see that 1% difference because it's almost invisible. But that's protopia. Protopia says that there is a tiny bit of progress every year and that, compounded over time, is what we get prosperity from. We have progress. That's protopia.

Even though I believe there's protopia and the world's getting better -- that next year will be better than this year and this year was better than last year -- I also think that we're going to keep tracking ourselves more and more and that we're headed into a world where almost everything will be tracked. I think tracking is inevitable.

I think we have a choice about how that tracking is done, and one version of that tracking is a world that I don't want to live in, and that's the world where "they are tracking me." I don't know who they are, I don't know what they're tracking, I can't correct it, and I get no benefit for it.

There's another version which is what I called "coveillance" rather than surveillance. And coveillance means that there's a symmetry, so it's a little bit more like the kind of tracking we had in our past evolutionary history when we lived in tribes and everybody knew everything about each other. There was basically no privacy. We evolved hundreds of thousands of years living where everybody knew everything about each other and we were comfortable because it was symmetrical.

Like in a small town, the neighbor across the street who watched you and knew everybody who came to visit you, but you watched them, and you knew everything about them. And if they got something wrong or were saying something incorrect you could correct it, and there was some benefit to it because when you were out-of-town, if someone came to the house they didn't recognize, they would call the cops, or they'd take your mail in. There was mutual benefit.

What we are needing, as we have this world of increased tracking, is to restore or make sure that there's symmetrical knowledge and so we know who's tracking us. We have access to that information. We can correct it if needed. And most importantly, that we get direct benefit to ourselves from that.

We're, I think, at the beginning of demanding or understanding that the internet is based on the fact that we're being tracked, but we're often not demanding the benefits from it. We're not demanding any symmetry in it. We don't demand that we know what happens with the information. We don't have any control over it. I think we're going to have more and more tracking -- I think that's inevitable -- but I think we can choose how we're doing it.

Gardner: Now, we're running out of time very fast. We're going to extend it a little bit because I would love it if anybody has a question for Kevin. You might have already tapped into your app, and sure enough, Chris, you've got some. I would love to share that out. Kevin, here comes the "anything goes" round.

Chris Hill: Kevin, what do you think college education should be for the future that you are describing in your book?

Kelly: I think there is primarily only one metaskill that will serve people, and that is the metaskill of learning how to learn. Let me put it this way. Learning how to learn is the skill of learning how you learn, because we all learn differently. Some of us are more oral. Some of us respond to the written word. Some of us need to move with our hands and learn with our hands.

What's really interesting is that I've only found one curriculum, which has just been offered this year at Stanford, that actually teaches people how to learn and the golden key, what you want to graduate with, is knowing how you, personally, can optimize your own learning. I don't even know that. I don't know if I read something and then I want to go to sleep, for how long do I want to rest.

This is something that requires a lot of work to understand. It requires teachers, and constant testing, and discipline, and practice to actually optimize your ability to learn in many different arenas. That is the skill that you want to have when you graduate because it doesn't matter what language you're taught. It doesn't matter what your degree is. You're going to have a new job description that doesn't even exist today, so you have to learn how to learn.

Hill: I've been to China twice in the past two years. No one is using cash. All transactions are done on a Tencent app that people use on their phones. When will cash be dead in the United States?

Kelly: [Laughs] It's absolutely true that nobody under the age of 30 carries any cash whatsoever. In fact, I saw a homeless guy begging, and he had his QR code. He only accepted mobile payments, because nobody had cash. So, we're hampered by the fact that we have a very robust credit card system that is an incumbent. I thought 20 years ago that we were headed for cashless. When PayPal came along I thought, "Oh, we're going to get rid of cash." I really don't know what it will take, but it's very clear that the rest of the world, which doesn't have that credit card culture, is going to eclipse the U.S. in that.

Hill: Along those lines, what are your thoughts on cryptocurrencies?

Kelly: This is a much more complicated thing. There are three components. There's the branded cryptocurrency -- like bitcoin is the brand. Then there's the general thousands of cryptocurrencies of all different flavors. And then there's the underlying technology underneath them, which is the blockchain.

Bitcoin feels to me like gold. It's not really a currency. Nobody spends bitcoin. You don't spend gold, either. It's sort of speculative. It's a different kind of wealth storage. That's there. It's not really a currency.

Other cryptocurrencies I think are interesting for many reasons, and going back to the tracking thing, most cryptocurrencies have this public ledger. It's a distributed trust. It's actually an experiment in having all transactions public. I mean, even [with] the ones that are anonymous, it's been proven that you can actually track who's who.

I imagine there will be some states, like China, that actually may have mandatory cryptocurrencies because they want to track all the transactions. People think of it as the dark web, but it's actually the opposite, because it is a publicly distributed trust. Cryptocurrencies are in so many different flavors it's very difficult to say something general about them all, because there are so many.

But the last thing about bitcoin. That is, I think, a technology that has a lot of uses that will be unexpected, but if we imagine again, my vision of having a million people working on some project in real time, technologies like bitcoin will allow those things to work. It's a way in which you could track the efforts that every one of those million people did so they could distribute payment backwards to them. Blockchain technology is one of the ways you could do that.

I think blockchain technology will continue to look for the job that it's best at. We don't know what it is. Cryptocurrencies will be around. I'm not sure they're going to be revolutionary, but maybe revolutionary in ways that people are not expecting. And bitcoin is this other thing.

Hill: The last question from the audience. Is there a new theme that you would now add that was not part of the original 12 Inevitables?

Kelly: That's a great question. There is something I've been thinking about, and it's coming from the amount of time I spent outside the U.S. traveling around, and that is there seems to me a great convergence happening. I could show you a picture of some people in the city and you could not identify what city it was in if you took off their faces. It could be Berlin. It could be Shanghai. It could be Nairobi. It's really hard to tell, because there is a convergence.

You may be familiar with a hierarchy developed by the guy Maslow which says that with everybody, the first work is to make sure that they have their physiological needs met [water, food, shelter] and then as we fulfill those, we move up the ladder to less tangible things, and at the peak is self-fulfillment, self-realization. And then what people want to do is that they move up that ladder and they spend more energy on deciding who they are.

And what I'm seeing is I think there's a convergence at the lower levels of the Maslow's hierarchy where everybody in the world -- particularly the young people. What they want is a square box that's air tight and air conditioned with running water and Wi-Fi.

If you ask them what their dream is, that's their dream. They're wearing the same cotton clothing. They've got the same apps on their phones around the world. They're listening to the same music. They're actually studying the same things in school. There's a convergence in that sense at the lower levels of the Maslow's hierarchy -- a convergence of lifestyle, maybe we'll say.

But there appears to be a divergence at the top end of what it means, and what your purpose is once you have your airtight box with Wi-Fi, what it means to you, and what your own meaning in the world is. There seems to be that there's a divergence there.

That's my hypothesis, but I don't know if it's actually true. That's something that I think technology is moving us to, is a convergence on the basics, maybe allowing us to have a divergence about what it means.

Gardner: Kevin Kelly, thank you so much for suffering Fools gladly!


Gardner: Well, his book is The Inevitable. As I mentioned in the interview, it was a 2016 book, so it's now a couple of years later. The world keeps speeding up, but I can assure you this book reads just as freshly here at the start of 2018 as it did in 2016. Obviously, I highly recommend his book, which I read in full before interviewing Mr. Kelly. It is a fascinating and deeply challenging and encouraging view for somebody who's been doing that all his life and pretty well.

At that point we had to give me and Kevin the hook so that Motley Fool ONE members could enjoy other interviews throughout that special day. My brother, Tom Gardner, interviewing the CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner. Lots of Motley Fool analysts -- some of which you would know, of course, through our podcasts -- sharing some stock research, etc. It was a wonderful event in San Francisco. San Francisco is one of my favorite cities. Maybe yours, too.

Coming up next week. Again, we'll have Investment Lingo, Vol. II and we'll be reviewing Five Stocks the World Needs Right Now. The operative question: How much has the world needed these stocks? We'll go over their performance, and more, coming next week. In the meantime, thanks for joining me this weekend. Fool on!

As always, people on this program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. Learn more about Rule Breaker Investing at

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Chris Hill owns shares of Amazon. David Gardner owns shares of Amazon. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.