Transcripts > The Tim Ferriss Show > Ep 26: Kevin Kelly - Part 2
Hello ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Tim Ferriss Show. What you’re about to hear is part 2 of a multi-part conversion with Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine, and all around fascinating guy. If you didn’t catch the first part, you might want to do that before venturing in. But, we cover a lot of tppics and it is a conversation. So if you don’t mind your stories as more of a jigsaw puzzle then, by all means, keep on listening. So, without further ado, please enjoy part 2 of the Tim Ferriss Show with Kevin Kelly. All show notes, links, etc. can be found at Show Notes.
Does religion play a large part in your life right now?
In a certain sense, not in a ritualistic sense. I just wrote a book called What Technology Wants.
Excellent book, I highly recommend it.
It was a theory of technology and I was trying to put technology in the context of the cosmos. I think what religion gives me is permission to think about cosmic questions. I’m right in the middle of finishing a Kickstarter-funded graphic novel that’s about angels and robots. The intention there was to fictionalize the idea that robots would someday have souls, but these souls would be coming from angels and so that there was this intersection of these two possible worlds of conscious robots who were en-souled by angels.
The reason why this was interesting was that the idea was that the angels that in soul-less had been trained. They had been given moral guidance, but if you don’t give the spirit some kind of moral guidance then they can wreak havoc.
It was this idea that when we make robots we’re also going to have to train them to be ethical. We just can’t make a free being and not train it. It was a way to rehearse and think about some of the consequences of technology today.
I think my religion gives me permission to ask those questions without embarrassment to say, “Well, what is the general direction of the arc of evolution? Is it pointed somewhere? How does technology fit into the greater cosmos? What does it mean? What drives it? Why is there more of it? Is this a good thing? I consider this and other views so I have another view. I’m sympathetic to other world views. I don’t necessarily have to believe all the other world views, but I get the idea that if you have another world view that can be very helpful in seeing other worldviews.
People have a world view even though they don’t know it, but I have a world view and I know that I have a world view. Really, everybody has a religious or a spiritual orientation; even if they’re atheists, they still have one. There are some assumptions that are at the basis of it and I like to question assumptions, including my own assumptions.
Two things I can’t resist asking and we can spend as much or as little time on this as you’d like, but recently grappling with a lot of these issues that I’ve been grappling with, some of which are existential, some of which are related to death, limited time on the planet, I have become deeply fascinating by indigenous use of plant medicine. I’ve had some very transformative experiences that are difficult to put into words because they make you sound like a complete crazy person. Yeah, there’s a something-ness that is very difficult to communicate without sounding like you should be institutionalized.
What do you think the role for people who aspire to do the greatest good in the world, what is the role of that type of direct experience? Is it possible to benefit from that type of, for lack of a better descriptor “spiritual experience” without a religious framework around it?
Yeah, yeah, no. It’s a really good question. My little personal story there, of course, is I was basically a hippy. I worked for the hippy catalog, of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was about hippies living in San Francisco. All my friends were drug-taking hippies, but I for some reason never did. I just had no appetite or inclination at all for ever taking any drugs or smoking pot or anything. When I was 50-years-old I decided that I would like to take LSD sacramentally on of my 50th birthday and I did. I arranged with, I had a guide and I had an appropriate setting and I had some acid that came from a source that was extremely reliable and it was a sacrament. It was a very profound sacrament.
I think, “Yeah, you can use the drugs recreationally and for entertainment,” and I think that can go somewhere, but I think there’s another powerful use for it which is kind of what you’re talking about in which is to elevate one outside of yourself, to lose yourself, to be in contact with other things beyond your ego.
I think it can be done and I think unfortunately, because of the legal status that we’ve had for a long time, the rituals and the practice around that have not had a chance to be developed or communicated. Actually, trying to find this information was extremely hard. There was one book that I did find eventually from a guy who was doing LSD experiments while they were still legal and was able to accumulate enough wisdom about it that that would be the one place I would point people to.
I think that it is important that the context and expectations and the setting they call it that revolves around it is very important and I do believe that these can be extremely profound and powerful experiences for good. They can remain long after and most people who understand this and don’t abuse it understand that in fact that experience was not in the pill, it was not in the chemical. It was a real experience. Unfortunately, there’s so much other stuff circulating around the use of these drugs and the misuse of them that that kind of information is often very, very difficult to find.
But I do think maybe we’re seeing a moment now in the US where the second prohibition is being undone and at least pot will become legal and maybe we can return to revitalizing the traditions and the necessary settings around that. An expectation that not just pot or LSD, but even other synthetic drugs can be extremely powerful in removing the ordinary guards that we have. We have an ego for our purpose. We have all these things to keep us sane on a day-to-day functional, exactly. If you remove it completely, you can become dysfunctional, but if you remove it deliberately and with great care you can be opened up.
I think it’s that. I think there’s an expertise there. I think there’s a lot of other things that that if we have the freedom and the wisdom to not abuse it I think it can be extremely powerful.
Do you recall the title of the book?
This is …
Or how people might search for it?
Yes. This is one of the many resources that I recommend in my book, Cool Tools. Cool Tools is a big catalog of the possibilities. It has about 1500 different items. A lot of them are like hantels, pliers and the great cordless drill, but it’s much more than that. I include things like, “What if you wanted to have a psychedelic experience that was transformative? What do you do?” I would recommend this book or there’s lots of other things in it. I don’t actually have the book right in front of me. I should. I think it’s called … I don’t remember.
In the show notes we will list it as the right one and there’s also a little, tiny book that came from England. It was a cartoon guide. They gave a street, an unjudgmental view of all the different drugs there were and what each one did and didn’t and what the plus and minuses are without recommending or forbidding them. It was just saying, “This is what it is.” That information also believe it or not, is really in short supply. It’s like, “What do you do with this and how does it work and tell me the facts. I don’t need to hear a lecture.” Either way like, “Wow, this is great or this is terrible, but just tell me what’s going on” As you know that kind of information sometimes is in extremely short supply.
It’s very difficult to find information that isn’t politicized, inaccurate or like you said, so shrouded in either fear or irrational optimism that it’s almost intelligible and certainly, generally useless. We’ll put those books in the show notes for people. I want to come back to one of the things you said far, far earlier and that was related to the pieces that you tried to give away that eventually wouldn’t die and came back. Were there any common threads, any patterns in those pieces that you can pick out as being a uniquely, Kevin Kelly theme, for lack of a better term?
Yeah, one of the things that I discovered in my six months of trying to live as if I was going to die in six months because as I was coming close to that date, which happened to be Halloween, October 31st, it was I kept cutting off my future. I may be like you. I tend to live in the future much more than the past. I’m always imagining. I’m saving this for someday when I’m going to do this. I’m looking forward. I’m going to do this here. I was very much in the future and then suddenly that future was being cut down day by day. I was thinking, “Why am I taking pictures? I’m not taking photographs because I’m not going to be here in another two months.”
There was all these things that I’m cutting out and as I was cutting them out, I had this realization, which was the thing I took away from this thing, which is that I was becoming less human. That to be fully human we have to have a future. We have to look forward to the future. That is part of us is looking into the future. After I came out of the, I embraced that. I’m saying, “Well, that future forward facing that’s what I do. That’s what I want to do and that’s what I write about it.” In thinking about the future, one of the things that … It’s very hard because the paradox about the future is that there are lots of impossible things that happen all the time.
If someone from 100 years from now would come back and tell us things, there’s a lot of stuff we just not going to believe. It’s just like that’s crazy. Just like if we went back 100 years and told them what was going on now they would say, “That’s just not going to happen.” We could even go back 20 years. I could go back 20 years and say, “We’re going to have Google Street Views of all the cities of the world and we’re going to have encyclopedias for free that’s edited by anybody.” They would say, “There’s no way.” I would tell them, “Most of it’s for free.” They were saying, “There is no economic model in the world that would allow for that,” and there isn’t, but here it is.
The dilemma is, is that any true forecast about the future is going to be dismissed. Any future that is believable now is going to be wrong and so you’re stuck in this thing of if people believe it, it’s wrong and if they don’t believe it, where does it get you? You’re dismissed. There is this very fine line between saying something that is right on the edge of plausibility and at the same time, right on the edge of having a chance of being true. What I discovered that was helpful in trying to get away from the kind of assumptions that bind us to just extrapolate was to think laterally, was to go sideways. One thing just take whatever it was that everybody knew and say, “Well, what if that wasn’t true?”
What would be a good example of that or an example?
Everyone says, “Moore’s law will continue.” What if Moore’s law didn’t continue? What would that mean? What would happen?
Maybe I could say for the audience, but I’ll just say even to remind me, Moore’s law is … What is it? Every 18 months the size and cost of technology will decrease by 50%, something along those lines?
Let’s say even more simply.
Oh no, there’s speed involved as well.
Right. Moore law it does say that, but let’s say something right now we live in a world where every year the technology is better and cheaper. What if that wasn’t true?
Right, got it.
What if every year starting a couple years from now stuff was better, but more expensive? That’s a completely different world. Everyone assumes that things are going to get better and cheaper, but what if that wasn’t true? You can take assumption, again that’s something that’s no one’s really examining like one of the things I write about is the fact that we’re going to have a population implosion globally. That the global population will drastically reduce in 100 years from now we’ll have population, far, far less than we have right now.
All right, I have to bite at that. I thought a lot about this in what they call the Malthusian dilemmas. Is that going to be you think pandemic-related, nuclear weapon related, all of the above?
None of those.
None of those?
“AI” coming into the rise of the machines, no?
No. It’s just pure demographics. If you look at the current trends in fertility rates in all the developed countries everywhere, except for the US, they are already either below replacement level. Replacement level means that you are just sustaining the population just replaces itself. If it’s below it means that there is getting less and less so Japan, Europe, they’re all below replacement. The US is an exception because of only because of immigration. We need more people coming. Otherwise, we would be there and this would not be any news to anybody.
The real news is that people would point to developing world, but Mexico is now aging faster than the US. China is aging faster because of their one child policy. Of course, Japan is completely … They are way under water completely. Even the one exception is Sub-Sahara Africa and there’s debate right now about how fast or whether they’re slowing down, but generally around the world, South America, the rest of Asia, the rate of fertility continues to drop and here’s the thing is that the demographic transition that is happening everywhere where people become urban.
Every forecast shows the urbanity, the citification of the population continuing and I can’t think of any counter force to stop this huge migration at the scale that we’re seeing into the city and as that happens, the birth rates drop down. Even in places like Singapore or other places where they have taken very, very active countermeasures of cash for having kids, day care forever, bonuses, none of these work in terms of actually trying to raise fertility levels.
You have to understand that to go above replacement level the average woman has to have 2.1 kids. Well, that means there has to be tons and tons of women who have three or four kids to make up for those. How many people do you know with that many kids living in cities? There’s not enough of them. This is a projection. Some of these are UN projections. They have three. They have a low, high and medium. The low one is not good news because there’s not a large cultural counterforce for women to have three. A lot, a very high percentage of the population to have three or four kids in a modern world and that’s why the population continues to decrease every year.
This is perhaps a tangent, but one of the big debates in my head right now is to marry or not to marry, to have kids or not to have kids. I never thought those would even be questions in my mind and yet, here I am and now they are. What are your thoughts on having children? What type of people … This is very broad, but should have children or shouldn’t have children, whichever way of answering is easier or how do you even think about that question?
I think people who are privileged of which you are, should have children because you can bestow so many privileges and opportunities to your children and if the world is to be populated, why not populate it with children who have as many opportunities as possible? I also say from my own experience of growing up one of many kids and having … Well, I have three kids. One of my other regrets in life is not having a fourth, but we just started a little bit too late and we were unable to have a fourth, but all my kids wished that we had had a fourth, too. I would say that it’s a gift to your kids to have more than one. I know that from hanging out in China where so many kids grew up only children and really, really missed that. There is a total gift of the siblings, the brothers to each other, that is really very profound.
There is also I know from my friends who have had lots of kids that there is a fair amount of teaching from the older to the younger and that’s a lot of what they learn and that the curve of the amount of energy that you have to expend actually after three doesn’t really matter in terms of the parents. I have one friend who has nine kids and I have another friend who has seven and basically, how do they do that? The older kids were helping to parent the younger kids. That’s the only way that it really works, but that is actually, basically they have five parents instead of having two parents.
Right. It’s very traditional in a way, traditional meaning reaching back thousands or tens of thousands of years.
It is. Of course, in that the old days you may have had 12 born, but they rarely had 12 kids survive so that actually is a very recent … I mean it’s like the 1800s onward. I hang out with the Amish a lot and they still have these very large families and they all survived so they have in some senses an unnatural expansion. One of my predictions, again going back to the assumptions, one of my predictions is that in America in 100 years from now there will be … The complete countryside is run by the Amish.
The Amish take over the entire countryside because they never sell land. They have eight kids and then there’s all these people living in the city and it’s like everybody’s happy. You drive out to the Amish lands and it’s just fantastic. They are very happy doing their thing and running the farms. I have been predicting for years that the Amish would come and start buying upstate New York and that’s exactly what they’re doing right now.
Why do you spend so much time with the Amish? This is news to me, but very interesting and how long has that been going on?
For a while. By the way …
Does your beard have anything, is there any relation to the Amish?
I had the beard before my interest in the Amish. I’m going to show you some pictures when I was 19-years-old. I have an Amish beard, which means I have a beard without a mustache. The reason why the Amish don’t have mustaches is that it was at the time that they were adopting their dress code, the mustache was all military men had mustaches and so they were very anti-military. They refused to serve in armies. They don’t even vote. It was their rejection of the military by shaving off their mustache.
I hang out with the Amish because their adoption of technology seems to us totally crazy because first of all, they’re not Lettites. They’re complete hackers. They love hacking technology. They have something called “Amish electricity,” which is basically pneumatics. A lot of these farms had a big diesel … They don’t have electricity, but they have a big diesel generator in the barn that pumps up this compressor that sends high-pressure air tubes down tubing into their barn into their homes and so they have converted their sewing machine, washing machine to nomadic.
Seems like a bit of a side-step of the word of God?
Exactly. They’ll have horse-drawn buggies and horse-drawn farm implements and the horses will be pulling this diesel-generated combine and you’re thinking, “What are they doing?” In fact, if you look at our own lives and I have done this many times, I can ask you Tim or you can ask me, there will be some weird thing like, “We don’t have TV in our house, but I’ve got Internet.” It’s like, “What is that about?” We all have these things, but here’s the difference is that the Amish do it collectively. They are very selective. They are selecting their technology collectively as a group and secondly, because they’re doing it collectively they have to articulate what the criteria is.
A lot of us are adopting, “We try this, we try that.” We don’t have any logic or reason or theory or framework for why we’re doing this stuff. It’s just a parade of stuff, but the Amish have very particular criteria and their criterion is there are two things that they’re looking for. The main thing they want to do, the main reason why they have all these restrictions like horse and buggy and all of this stuff is that they want to have these communities, very strong communities. They noticed that if you have a car that you’ll drive out and shop somewhere out of the community or you go to church somewhere out of the community, but if you have a horse and buggy you can go only 15 miles and so everything has to happen … Your entire life, you have to support the community. You have the community within 15 miles. You have to visit the sick and you have to shop locally so you’re shopping with your neighbors.
When a new technology comes along they say, “Will this strengthen our local community or send us out?” The second thing that they’re looking at is with families. The goal of the typical Amish man or woman is to have every single meal with their children for every meal of their lives until they leave home. They have breakfast and they have lunch and they have dinner so breakfast and lunch is they go to a one room schoolhouse and they pedal back for lunch that their parents had with them. That means that the business is ideally in their backyard. They have a lot of shops and stuff. If they’re not a farmer and they have a backyard shop, which actually has to be cleanish because it is in their backyard. Well, it is in their backyard, so they really want to ensure that … Many of them have metalworking shops which they really try to keep non-toxic and work because it’s in their backyard. That means that they can come home for lunch. They have breakfast and lunch so they’re on the premise and they have every single meal with their children until they leave.
They say, “Will this technology allow us to do that? Will it help us do that or will it work against that?” Right now, they have been deciding whether to accept cell phones or not, even though they don’t have land line phones. Basically, some of them are going to accept cell phones and they do that by there’s always some early Amish adopter who’s trying things and they say, “OK Ivan. Bishop says you can …” He has to get permission. He says, “You can try this, but we’re watching you. We’re going to see what effect this has on your family, on your community. You have to be ready to give it up at any time we say that it’s not working,” and they do this on a parish by parish. It’s very de-centralized. They try it out. Always trying out new technologies and they’re always looking to see, “Does this strengthen the families? Does this strengthen the communities? If not, we don’t want it.”
I have two questions. The first is since you’re normally as I understand it based on the West Coast in Northern California, how do you get out to the Amish or is there a separate community closer by? Secondly, what have you incorporated into your own life or your own family that originated from the Amish?
Yeah. I don’t get to see them as often as I want it actually, when I go east I have some contacts that I will exercise and I try to get to stay overnight and go to church in a buggy or something.
This is Pennsylvania?
Actually, Pennsylvania is the heart of it, but actually there are more communities in Ohio, where my brother lives, Iowa, there’s a lot more happening in New York. The Pennsylvania are the Ground Zero, but in fact there are bigger, more extensive communities outside of Pennsylvania.
I didn’t realize that. The Amish Diaspora.
It is. I’m saying they literally are just buying up farmland. They’re expanding. They’re constantly expanding. They have a very small attrition rate, very large families. They all are buying. Basically, they’re buying farms and stuff for their children and they never sell. They also don’t even move into areas as a … They have a minimum number of families that need to move in at once. What did I learn from them? One of the things that we’ve had, particularly when we had younger kids was technological sabbaticals or Sabbaths I should say. I’ve now seen other families who aren’t even religious adopt that same thing which is once a week you take a break from either you can define it however you want, the screen or the keyboard or connectivity or something and you step back. You do that not because it’s terrible or poison, but because it’s so good.
There’s lots of people who are like they’re going to drop out from Twitter. They’re kind of like, “This is like a toxin. I need to detox.” I think that’s entirely long way to think about it is you want to take breaks from this not because they’re toxic, but because they are so good. It’s like you want to step back so that you can re-enter it and with a renewed perspective, with a renewed appreciation, with having spent time looking at it in a different way. I think that kind of rhythm of having Sabbaths and then yearly vacations, retreats. Then every seven years you take a true sabbatical, I think that kind of rhythmic disconnection or Sabbath I think is very powerful, something that works very well and was something that we had in our family.
I take Saturdays off as it turns out as my screen-less day. I really try to make that a weekly occurrence and it’s incredible the effect that it has, this galvanizing effect of just a mere 24 hours, not even that if you just consider the waking hours. Every seven years a vacation or sabbatical of how long in your case or your family’s case?
Yeah. Partly because my wife actually is granted a sabbatical from the company she works for which is Genentech. It was one of the few companies that actually have an official sabbatical for all their researchers at least and it’s very meager. It’s six weeks. Of course, a six weeks sabbatical is basically a European annual vacation. For an American …
Right. It’s three years.
That’s a big thing. We’re doing something different. This year we’re taking one and we’re going to camp in national parks for one month of it and then the other two weeks we’ll go to Asia, but we haven’t been to a lot of the national parks. I’m going to do a different kind of project that I haven’t done before and we’ll do some car camping. We haven’t really done a big road trip like that so it’s all new for us.
What is the longest in the last few years that you’ve gone without checking email?
Oh, probably two weeks and in China.
How do you manage that?
Well, it was not very easy. I was unable to pick it up because China was blocking Google.
Makes it more challenging.
I was in some remote places and so even the connection was hard, but it was like they weren’t letting me get it. I’m not a mobile person. My first smartphone was the iPhone 5 and I’m still not using it properly. I use it for phone calls.
Yeah. I don’t use my iPhone as an input device either. It drives me nuts.
I can’t type. When I travel I like to leave everything. I spend a lot of my time sitting in front of a computer. I’m like the Zen: walk-walk, sit-sit, don’t wobble. I’m here. I’m really online. Then when I leave this studio I don’t want to be connected at all and I won’t be and I’m not checking email. I’m not checking this other stuff and I can go days, typically I’ll go days without checking even in the US if I’m traveling. If I’m overseas I will go probably three or four days before I get the email. That’s pretty typical.
Let me shift gears just a little bit. I’m looking at LongNow.org. I recommend everybody take a look at it, Long Now Foundation. Humans are generally I would say pretty bad at thinking long-term, certainly when it comes to habit change, very, very high failure rate with long-term incentives. “You’re going to get diabetes in 20 years,” for instance, as opposed to “You’ll have more sex if you have a six-pack when it comes to diet.”
At the Long Now Foundation I just want to read a few things on this website for people. “The Long Now Foundation is established in 1996,” written as 01996, “To creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years ago.” Then you have 10,000 year clock, which is a monument scale, multi-millennial all mechanical clock. It’s an icon to long-term thinking; The Rosetta project, building an archive of all documented human languages; Long bets, featured bet is here, Warren Buffett, Protégé Partners, LLC. “Public arena for enjoyable, competitive predictions of interest to society with philanthropic money at stake,” and then “Revive and Restore,” which is bringing extinct species back to life. There is a lot here.
Can you explain to people because I have greatly enjoyed many of the seminars and speeches of the Long Now Foundation. I’m a supporter. I suppose I’ve even spoken there on stage and love the email synopses that Stewart sends out. What is the function of the Long Now Foundation and what is the value?
The Long Now Foundation is reactive. It’s reacting to the very inherent, short-term bias that our society, particularly this technological society, particularly say the Silicon Valley exhibits, which is often a focus on the next quarter, the next two quarters, the next year, results needing to be immediate, instant satisfaction, if something is not on Netflix streaming, we don’t even wait for the DVD. It’s this fairly very fast-paced, short term thinking and also, somewhat blinded by the fact that we don’t have a lot of sense of history either that we’re ignorant about what’s happened in the past.
The term “The Long Now” came from Brian Eno who noticed that we have a very short now, which is the next five minutes and the last five minutes. The Long Now is an attempt to expand that so that we, as a society and as individuals, would try to think about things at a generational or civilizational scale. How about working on something that might take longer than your own lifetime to accomplish? You start something now that maybe make it so that it might take … Like the cathedrals of old, what if we were trying to make something that might need 25 years to accomplish? How can we do that?
We’re trying to encourage people to think in that perspective, to take that perspective and then to maybe move in that direction. We’re not necessarily saying we have to have the Asimov Foundation where we have to have a master plan for the next 100 years and we’re going to plan out the future. No, we’re agnostic about what it is that people make or do. We’re just saying that it would benefit thinking about the long-term. I’ve often heard some people who advised to counseling to individuals about thinking about the long-term in your own life, even though you might want to act locally and be spontaneous, but you do want to keep in mind the fact that you’ll be around for a while, whether it’s putting some savings away or working on a skill that might take some time, more than the six months or a year to acquire or whatever it is that you can have both perspectives.
We’re not attempting to get rid of the need for people to survive, the need for companies to have a profit this year. We’re saying there can be additional perspectives in addition to that where we say we commit to a program, a science research where it’s pure science and the results of this say in mathematics is one of the most profound things that we can invest in, even though most of the things in the beginning seem to be non-utilitarian. They don’t have any purpose, but we know from our own history that in 20 years they’ll pay off in some way or other. Being able to construct a society so that we can allow the rewards of long-term investment, long-term thinking, long-term perspective that would make us a better civilization.
I love the Long Now Foundation. I encourage everybody to check it out, LongNow.org.