Kevin Kelly: How Linux Will Shape the Future of Technology

libbyclark's picture

The operating system of the future is still to be determined but LInux will play an important role in creating it, says Kevin Kelly, a founding editor and Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine. Just as no one could predict what the Internet would look like 20 years ago, we can't begin to imagine future technology. But  Kelly envisions the Technium, a global interconnected super organism. The Technium is one step up from the Internet of today but can hardly be compared with it.

Kevin KellyWhat will this organism look like and how will it function? The details are to come in his keynote talk at LinuxCon and CloudOpen North America in New Orleans, Sept. 16-18, 2013. Here, Kelly gives us a taste of that talk, and discusses how the Linux community can contribute to the Technium and continue to innovate.

Can you give us a preview of your talk? What is the Technium?

Kevin Kelly: Where do I begin? Wired just celebrated its 20th anniversary, which is always a good opportunity to look back. And if we go back 20 years plus a little bit when Wired started there was no web at all. So all the fantastic abundance of amazing goodness the web has produced was not there then, and for most of us not visible at that time.

I went back and looked at Wired’s early coverage of what we thought the web was going to bring as it was starting to come online. And what we and everyone else expected was it was going to be TV but better: 500,000 different channels produced by specialty interests, like niche magazines. We missed the big deal, which was user-generated, peer-to-peer creations. We didn’t get better TV we got the web.

And as we think about the next 20 years the inclination is to think we’ll have a better web because that’s what we have now. I think there will be a qualitative change similar to the last 20 years. It’s not going to be a better web, something else is happening. And my suggestion for what that something is is a step up in the scale of things.

So we’re generating new information at an unprecedented speed and acceleration. The amount of information in the world is doubling at Moore’s rate, every 18 months. We’re going to run out of prefixes for gigabyte, petabyte, exabyte, and within the next years we won’t have words for how large this thing we’re making is going to be. So even those numbers are reaching a level where they enter into another realm where we have no experience in dealing with the size. That’s just on the information component.

But everything we’re doing is huge. The number of links on the web is equivalent to the number of synapses in our brains so we have a level of complexity this corner of the universe hasn’t seen since human minds were made.

So I’m looking at what we’re making at the global scale if you think of it as an organism. I’m trying to take the poetic metaphor of a super organism seriously and say if you were an intergalactic naturalist and look at what we have made and try to specify it as an organism, what are its characteristics? What is it doing, how does it fit into what we think we’re doing and can we specify and make suggestions about where it might go and how?

Why should we be thinking about it now?

Kelly: Part of being human is being aware of what you’re doing. And we just behave better when we’re more aware of what we’re doing and because of the scale of this and the distributed manner of it it’s very important that we see it for what it is. Having an understanding of what makes something global can change politics and legislation and financing as we understand there are global consequences for these things and long term consequences for decisions we make now.This kind of superorganisms is inevitable but what’s not inevitable is what the characteristics of it are. Whether it’s open source or a corporate version, for example.

In your view what’s the role of Linux in technology today and how has it changed?

Kelly: Linux is one flavor of an operating system. The operating system Linux operates isn’t the kind of operating system we’ll be making for this. But it shows the viability of having an open source version so the continual presence and viability of Linux is a constant reminder for future development of large-scale things. This idea of having an open source version of this has tremendous benefits and should be considered.

Linux will be part of it but not just running your PC. It’s like running a global scale (system). Imagine each processor connected to the Internet as a neuron connected to a brain. While the processors themselves may be running Linux there’s a higher level of an operating system that will be required. 

What’s the role of Linux in creating the Technium? 

Kelly: The innovation we’ve had in the last 20 years was not just new technologies but new organizations made possible and made essential by those technologies. So we had marketplaces, which accomplished many things, and corporations that accomplished many things. But decentralized loosely bound transnational organizations (also) accomplished great work that didn’t exist in the past and existed only because of the technology and were essential to making new kinds of technology.

Those structures will continue and will be even more essential in trying to make something global. You’ll have loosely bound collaborators spanning the globe and spanning time and they will be working in a distributed decentralized manner without necessarily a state or maybe even a formal organization to accomplish some of these things, and probably much of it will be accomplished this way.

How do we continue to be extraordinary in a world that is increasingly exposed to extraordinary events?

Kelly: I think the way any organization can continue to be excellent and make waves and be at the forefront is by taking on ever more ambitious goals. I don’t know how far the Linux community can go just with Linux for the next 20 years, but if it starts to embrace other, more ambitious things it would have a chance. Just refining, perfecting or optimizing Linux would be insufficient to keep it at the forefront.

There’s a fantastic book called the Innovators Dilemma and it’s a real dilemma. When you examine any institution’s resources there’s a truly difficult choice between two things. Do you take your resources to optimize what you’re successful at or pour them into the margins where there’s high risk, low yields? Any accountant would tell you to use your resources to optimize but for the long term you have to divert to the area where there’s high uncertainty, high risk, low profits, which is the edge.

Linux is a successful organization and will have the same innovator’s dilemma. Does it try for something where it’s likely to fail? That’s the true test about any organization and will be for Linux as well. That will require some very well placed nudges.

What areas of technology are leading to the Technium?

Kelly: There are several things I can imagine these planetary organisms needing. For one we don’t have a very good snapshot of what’s going on at the global scale. I was trying to find out how much electricity the entire Internet uses, for example. Or how many processors are already connected up and what’s that speed. Where is the memory or the storage, what does that look like? Part of what we’ll develop is a real time map, an account of what this thing is. Just like any computer would be able to assess itself to measure its clock speed or processing power or whatever so we could then improve it.

Then I think we’re also developing a lot of the technologies for regulation and cooperation. For instance deciding who’s responsible if something goes down, or security issues. Will there be global IDs necessary for individuals? Will issues of hygiene, viruses, now we’re monitoring that on the global system itself. Issues of responsibility like ICANN that can serve something as simple as domain names. But the issue of representation and who gets to partake and how you decide who decides and these more cultureal and societal things are technology as well.

And this is an area where the Linux community might have some influence and something to bring to the conversation is these meta questions of governance. How do you manage and make it as democratic as possible and how do you make the processes deciding it democratic and so forth? Imagine trying to make a democratic global governed anything, that’s where we are. We haven’t gotten to the starting line yet. We’re just recognizing we need that.