When Wired magazine cofounder and editor Kevin Kelly looks at the trends that will shape our future, he sees verbs. The tangible will become intangible as physical products are replaced by services. This in turn diminishes the benefits of ownership, which is being pushed aside in favor of access. As Kelly argues, if you can get something anywhere, any time and leave it behind, why would you want to own it?
In Kelly’s view, cognification — the process of making objects smarter by connecting, integrating sensors, and building software/artificial intelligence into them — is the most impactful trend on the horizon, one that he details in his new book The Inevitable.
“The technology that enables cognification to happen is the greatest force that will be at work the next few decades,” Kelly explained. “Over the long term, say 50 to 100 years, it’s going to be the equivalent of the industrial revolution. Artificial intelligence is going to impact all aspects of our lives: sports, religion, food, clothing, education, military, business. It’s going to have a huge impact on billions of people.”
China’s role in the changing world
Kelly sees China playing a big role in our future. He goes there quite frequently to see what’s in store for the rest of the world because, as he argues, the sheer gravity of its 1.4 billion inhabitants will soon pull other developed countries into China’s orbit. The tipping point is still years away but Kelly feels it getting closer every day.
“By my estimation, China has five to ten years until they produce a truly global product that everybody in the world wants,” Kelly posited. “It could be a self-driving car or a robot. They’re still in a copy culture, as Japan was for a long time. But then Japan broke out with the Sony Walkman, cameras and other things that people wanted. Japan was the best at making those products. I think China is nearing that moment.”
Kelly sees two cultural changes happening in China that are helping push the country to the point where it can have a consistent delivery of goods:
The questioning of assumptions and authority
“We know these challenges can be overcome because the Chinese scientists and engineers working in the U.S. are fantastically creative and innovative,” Kelly said.
As for the U.S., Kelly sees a time of difficult transition on the horizon.
“I think Trump is the last gasp of an America that’s lost the industrial model that defined the identity of a lot of older workers,” he said. “Also, the U.S. is not the only superpower in the world, which is difficult to accept psychologically. I think we’re seeing some of the pain of that right now and it’s going to take a generation to overcome.”
The future of education
One institution that’s been dramatically impacted by new technology is higher education. Whereas previous generations struggled with pressure from parents and society at large to attend college, Kelly believes today’s high schoolers have a choice to make. If you’re a self-motivated person who can arrange and optimize your own learning, then you don’t need college. On the flip side, if you need incentive and motivation to complete things, college is probably the best option for you.
“What my wife and I told our kids was that after they graduated from high school, they had to do something where they were learning,” Kelly shared. “That could be traveling around the world. It could be an internship somewhere. Whatever it was had to be structured. If they couldn’t think of something like that, they had to go to college.”
All of Kelly’s kids did end up going to college because that was their preference. But he stands by the view that he and his wife posed college as a second option, not the only option.
The power of true fans for an entrepreneur
As our devices and lives become more connected, the relationship between creator and customer will continue to evolve in exciting ways. As outlined in his well-known essay 1,000 True Fans, artists like filmmakers, musicians and game designers can deliver products and services to their customers without an intermediary like a movie studio, record label or software company. Their customers, in turn, can pay them directly. This means creators need a smaller fan base in the new, democratized economy to make a living than they would have in the old economy that was ruled by gatekeepers.
“If you can sell to your true fans — somebody who’d purchase whatever you produced — and they buy $100 worth of your stuff in a year, you only need 1,000 true fans to make a living. In the past, you needed to make millions because there were intermediaries involved that were consuming what people were giving you.”
But thanks to the direct connection creators have with customers through social media, an email list and even crowd-sourcing, the numbers become much more doable. Having 1,000 true fans is a lot more achievable than needing to sell a million copies.
“The internet connects basically everyone on the planet,” Kelly said. “Even the most esoteric, obscure, niche passions can find 1,000 other people who share that interest. It’s good news for anyone who wants to make a living off their passion.”