All power to the robots

June 9, 1995

Tony Durham meets Kevin Kelly, Wired editor and machine lover. Packing more technology than Popular Mechanics, while vying with i-D or GQ in the style stakes, Wired magazine seems a long road indeed from Whole Earth Review with its 1970s message of simple life, self help and respect for nature.

But that is the road that Kevin Kelly has travelled, by way of the Hackers Conference, the virtual reality Cyberthon, and Northern California's favourite online meeting-place, the WELL.

The executive editor of Wired was in Britain for the paperback launch of Out of Control, a rambling 600-page brain-dump of a book about artificial life, autonomous robots, self-organising systems, chaos, complexity, markets, post-Darwinism and the Internet. Kelly argues that our creations (from nanorobots to global markets) work best when they are allowed to fend and learn for themselves - in short, to live.

This line of argument could easily have led him to advocate machine liberation as Peter Singer advocates animal liberation, but Kelly settles for the less radical message that if we allow machines some autonomy they will serve us better.

The Whole Earth Review stood for revolt against an over-mechanised society, but now Kelly seems almost in love with machines.

"I have changed my mind," he explains. "I used to think technology was neutral, it could be used either way. I am more of a mind right now that technology is in general, by itself, 100 per cent positive."

Wired has been a platform for the ex-hippie capitalists of the personal computer industry and their pressure groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The utopianism of the hippies has gone, and what remains is their enthusiasm for dealing in candles, cheesecloth or macrame - now replaced, of course, by ATM switches or some other high-tech product.

In Europe we know this condition: people become rightwing in their middle age. Kelly protests: "Rightwing is not the right word. It has become much more libertarian.

"There is a something forming that is not left, that is not right wing. It is very much focussed on this idea of free market capitalism as being a terribly good thing."

A deft wrench of the tiller steers him left of Lady Thatcher again as he adds: "I do think that Americans are pathologically individualistic and that we need to swing back to more communitarianism, but exactly what that looks like we are still figuring out."

Declaring machines to be alive is a strong philosophical statement. But Kelly is unsure whether to go on record as a materialist. "You know, I certainly am in this book," he begins.

"Personally I am a pretty devout Christian and I certainly believe in a spiritual realm. But in this book I take a very materialistic stance because I am probably both." The attempt to pigeon-hole him has failed once again.

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