I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago—I do that a lot these days—and about an hour into a conversation I had been thoroughly enjoying (and largely agreeing with), the guest said something that made my blood boil. The guest was Kevin Kelly, the founder of WIRED magazine.
“It’s a fallacy called thinkism,” he began his grand theory. “Thinkism,” according to Kelly, is when people sit around and claim they can think up solutions to problems. Hah! The naiveté!
He went on to pantomime his opposition: “‘Oh, people should have known that social media would cause disinformation.’ No! You can’t figure that out by thinking about it… Complex things, like technology, and all the things we are making with these technologies, like artificial intelligence, we cannot figure out by thinking about them.”
Had I been the interviewer, this is the first place I’d have interjected. He obviously hasn’t thought much about who “the thinkists” really are, because he is already misrepresenting their arguments. It’s not that technologists should have been able to predict that social media would reek such havoc; it’s simply that they should have thought about it long enough to wonder if it would. It’s a low bar— still missed.
Kelly continues, “We can only figure it out by using it… Unless you engage with technology, you can’t steer it.” It’s interesting to note that Kelly never uses the phrase, “learning by doing,” the hallmark of the “doerism” ethos. The value in “learning by doing” is self-evident, but the practice also contains the seed of its own demise. Maker-spaces, hacker culture, design thinking all share a common denominator—things have to break before you can know how they work.
Some forethought could have predicted the consequences of “scaling up” this ethos. If you break your Arduino or your start-up tanks, it’s reasonable to cut your losses, learn from your mistakes, and try again. But “doerism” has developed a pejorative connotation over the past decades. Why? The “doers” have managed to break a lot of things: the global financial market, democratic elections, entire systems of truth making. These may sound like overstated claims, but none of those systems broke of their own accord. Laws and regulations were bent and/or ignored to make room for innovation. Then again, perhaps the doers learned something while they broke all these things? But it’s hard to know, they certainly aren’t sharing.
Kelly is espousing “doerism” whether he openly claims that label or not. I am actually as enthralled by Kevin Kelly as I am upset by him (which, yes, is representative of my fascination in tech writ large). I first learned of Kelly in southern India, hours lost into the top floor of Blossom Book House, the dustiest used bookshop in Bangalore. My friend Romanshi, who took me to Blossom, rates her bookshops by how many Claritin she has to take beforehand; Blossom comes out on top
It was in Blossom that I found Kelly’s book, What Technology Wants. There I learned that Kelly spent seven years wandering Asia as a young man. “What a coincidence!?” I thought to myself. Perhaps there is something about clueless, White, American men in Asia that inevitably leads to philosophizing cyberspace! But not far into the book, I realized that theory could only hold so much water. Interest in technology is where our similarities seemed to end.
Kelly assumes a teleological reverence for technology. He invents his own word (I see a trend) to define the “global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us,” the Technium. The wants of the Technium—much like the will of God— he argues, are beyond our comprehension, much less our control.
In the face of technological inevitability, what value does thinking hold? The answer is none; every hour dedicated to thinking is an hour delaying technology’s inescapable progress. In this strange pseudo-Darwinian, pseudo-Creationist paradigm, the only logical course of action is, well, action. Do. Repeat. Where I disagree with Kelly is his premiss. Technology does not behave like biology, and it certainly doesn’t have divine will. There is no progressive evolution of machines. I think of what Rose Eveleth wrote in Vox in October of last year:
Evolution is driven by random mutation — mistakes, not plans... Evolution doesn’t have meetings about the market, the environment, the customer base. Evolution doesn’t patent things or do focus groups. Evolution doesn’t spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress to ensure that its plans go unfettered.
To be sure, all this talk of “progressive evolution” and “only do” is all a bit weird coming from Kelly, a man who has written eight books and edited two magazines, but has never built a product or invented anything other than ideas. Perhaps Kelly disdains the “thinkists” like I disdain the “doists”—we both secretly fear we are really more like the other one.
Such is the danger of reading too much into a person's single statement. So how about two?
Earlier in the interview, before all his talk of doing and thinking, Kelly shares what he believes is the meaning of life: “finding the one thing that only you can do.” Kelly is probably more mathematically proficient than I, but I typically conjecture that at least 1% of humanity is just as, if not more, talented than I am (I know, salt-of-the-earth). Considering that we number seven billion and counting, my math works out to, you know, seventy million. It's a far cry from Kelly's lone ranger.
Kelly actually ends the interview by revealing what his life’s task is, the one thing that he alone can do: world governance. After many days of shock and outrage, I’ve actually been able to temper my reaction. It’s very poetic. I’d love for Kelly to keep thinking about his “global… sentient being.” I’d love for him to keep thinking about it, writing about it, debating over it, experimenting with it. In short, I’m not against his “one machine,” what he calls the “holos, unity, emergent, planetary... thing.”
I just hope, unlike those who came before him, he thinks it through a bit longer before building it.