Imagine that tomorrow, the world magically got 1% better. Nobody would notice. But if the world got 1% better every year, the “compounding” effect would be very noticeable — in the same way that compounding grows a bank account.
When technology solves a problem, it creates new problems. The solution is not less technology but better technology.
Kevin Kelly of WIRED magazine calls this incremental progress toward a better world “protopia.” Protopia is a direction, not a destiny.
This video is part of The Progress Issue, a Big Think and Freethink special collaboration.
In this inaugural special issue we set out to explore progress — how it happens, how we nurture it and how we stifle it, and what changes are required in how we approach our most serious problems to ensure greater and more equitable progress for all.
It’s time for a return to optimism. Enjoy the full issue now.
Read more of our stories from The Progress Issue:
KEVIN KELLY: I'm definitely not the foremost technology historian. I don't even call myself a futurist. I like to say, I like to predict the future. I have pinned to my Twitter profile, "Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists." This is not a world we have fewer problems. This is a world we have as many, if not more problems, but those problems themselves are opportunities. It is much, much harder to create a future that we would like to live in- unless we can imagine it first.
I'm Kevin Kelly, I'm Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine, and author of a bunch of books, including "What Technology Wants."
Imagine if I had a magic wand, and I could make the world 1% better. You wouldn't be able to tell. Nothing would really change very much. But if I took that 1% and compounded it year by year, over time we would notice that. That very mild 1% progress is 'Protopia.' We are very slowly crawling towards betterment. Protopia is a direction. It's not a destiny. I bought into the hippie perspective. I wanted that small is beautiful, the Henry David Thoreau, simplified "Walden" life. It was the big systems that I didn't trust. The big technology, the big corporations- but I did go to Asia, and there, things began to change. I began to live in very remote parts of Asia that had no technology. It was like being on a time machine. I was transported back centuries- a city like Kathmandu that had no vehicles whatsoever- to Northern Afghanistan. These towns there without electricity. And then there were these cities, Hong Kong, Tokyo, right before my eyes, were emerging out of the ground. So I would go by a rice paddy, and then I would come back a couple years later, and there would be like factories and people who had money. Right before my eyes, I saw what technology was bringing people. So that was the first glimmers of changing my mind about what this stuff was really about.
Part of Protopia is to envision a desirable future. The problem so far is that a lot of those visions of the future are dystopias. People have trouble imagining a world filled of technology, where it's a world that they want to live because the robots are gonna take over and kill us all: the rogue AI, or AI taking over, AI trampling us. The problem with dystopia is that it's just not sustainable. In history, dystopias just don't last long. The first thing that happens is the war lords, in their greed, install some form of order. It's not an order that we prefer, but it's a form of order. Utopia has a similar problem, in that it's actually not a desirable place. First of all, it's impossible: there can't really be a world that has no problems. I think if you made an eternal world that was forever getting worse, and an eternal world that never changed, the way you punish someone eternally is you put 'em in the world that doesn't ever change. There is a role, if not a duty, for Protopia, in helping us to imagine what that preferable future would be like.
After almost a decade traveling, I came back. I decided to ride my bicycle across to see the U.S., which I'd never seen. I was attracted to the Amish. In my initial interactions with them, they weren't anti-technology. They actually liked to hack technology to work around their own rules. I became interested in how did they actually decide which technologies to accept and which didn't. Americans, and my friends, and myself, we are also choosing technologies. Should I have Twitter or not? Should I have a phone or not? Do I wanna have an electric car or not? But we aren't choosing very deliberately, and we are certainly not doing it collectively. That's what I discovered the Amish are doing- is they actually have criteria to help them make those choices. And their criteria is: 'Will this technology keep our communities together and spend as much time with our communities versus going out?' And that's one of the reasons why they're actually embracing cell phones. They've been very slow, but they are embracing cell phones, because their communities are not contiguous, they're actually kind of broken up. And they found, big surprise, that the phone actually brings their communities together. Everything is optimized. And technologies, they feel, take them away from that, they're going to reject. And technologies that would enable them to do that, they're going to embrace.
The more important point for Protopia is that they have those criteria that they use to govern what technologies that they want to use. Most of the problems in the future are gonna be caused by the technologies today- that's the Protopian view. But, the solution to the problems made by those new technologies is not less technology. It's not to dial back the technology. It's not to stop AI. It's to make better AI. I want to emphasize, of course, that this is not a prediction, because every prediction is wrong. These are scenarios. These are wishes. This is aspirational. But just like "Star Trek" has been an inspiration to so many people making things, because they said, "I wanna make that communicator." And that's basically what we got with smartphones. They can be instrumental and powerful, to actually have a picture of something that we're aiming for in order to actualize it.
[NASA OPERATOR] 'We have ignition.'
KELLY: I don't think there is a dark side. Part of Protopia is it incorporates pessimism. It actually says the problems are valuable. When you drive a car down the road, you need an engine to move it forward and you need brakes to steer. The vehicle technology requires both the engine of optimism and the breaks of pessimism in order to steer. The entire world should endorse Protopia. I don't believe in an endpoint- that we're moving in some way to some final endpoint, some perfection. We are moving, rather, in directions. And Protopia is a direction, which is moving towards increasing options. More choices in the world.