Byron Reese, Speaker, Author, Entrepreneur

Kevin Kelly on Life, Technology & Finding Meaning

Embracing the Countdown with Kevin Kelly: Life, Technology, and Finding Meaning

A Journey with Kevin Kelly from Cycling Adventures to Technological Superorganisms.

In this episode of The Agora Podcast, Byron Reese welcomes Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine and a renowned figure in technology and digital culture. The conversation delves into Kelly’s unique life perspective, starting with a pivotal moment 47 years ago when he chose to live as if he had only six months left. This experience not only influenced his approach to life but also his work with technology. Kelly’s insights into life, death, and the intersection with technology are profound, as he shares the wisdom from his book, “Excellent Advice for Living.” The discussion also touches on the concept of superorganisms and how this applies to humanity and technology, a topic Kelly is deeply passionate about. The episode is not just about technology; it’s a deeper exploration of humanity, hope, and making the most of our time.


Kevin Kelly is the founding executive editor of Wired magazine and a former editor/ publisher of the Whole Earth Review. He has also been a writer, photographer, conservationist, and student of Asian and digital culture. Kelly’s writing has appeared in many other national and international publications such as The New York Times, The Economist, Time, Harper’s Magazine, Science, Veneer Magazine, GQ, and Esquire. His photographs have appeared in Life and other American national magazines.


Key Takeaways:

  • Living Like It’s the Last Six Months: Kelly’s experience of living as if he had limited time left, and how this shaped his perspective on life and death.
  • The Countdown Clock: Kelly’s use of a countdown clock as a tool to focus on making the most of each day.
  • The Concept of Superorganisms: Kelly’s insights into the idea of humans as part of a larger, conscious superorganism and how this perspective can influence our understanding of technology and society.
  • Applying Lessons from the Technium: Understanding the implications of technology as a superorganism and how this knowledge can guide our daily actions and choices.

Byron Reese: Hello everybody, welcome to this episode of The Agora podcast with Byron Reese. I am so excited today because we get to have one of my heroes on the show. And he’s not just my hero because of his ideas and his books, and his mind, but he’s my hero for his humanity. He’s known as a technologist, I suppose, and a futurist and all that. But I think those are all his secondary passions. I think he cares about people. And I love the humanity of the work he does. And that’s really what I want to talk to him about. Welcome to the show, Kevin.

Kevin Kelly: Thank you for inviting me. It’s such an honor to be here. I’m looking forward to this conversation.

I want to start 47 years ago, to the story that you recount in the 1997 episode of This American Life. And in that you told the story of how you decided to live as if it was the last six months of your life, and in that you gave away a lot of money, you biked around the country 5000 miles to see people. And it’s a theme I want to keep coming back to which is about life and death. And that’s what I wanted to begin with, and I’m curious when you did that, is that event nearly half a century ago? Does that still occupy a place in your psyche on an ongoing basis?

It’s a good question, a fair question. And I would say, yes, to some extent, I still have a countdown clock, that tells me how many days I have left to live because I think that kind of focuses my attention. And that derived from that episode of having six months to live. Obviously, I didn’t die after that. But what I came away with, was not taking for granted the number of days that I had been given. And so I was surprised by my answer. If I had six months to live, what I was going to do, it wasn’t anything spectacular, like climbing Mount Everest, or, you know, race car, it was to go visit my brothers and sisters. And I had no money at that point, so I went by bicycle. But I came away with that exercise with an appreciation for the fact that even if I have only a few days, that’s still a future, that’s still something in front of me, and how important it is for us to have hope, to have a future to hope for. And that is something that also stuck with me throughout all these years of working with technology.

And if I may ask, presumably your countdown clock is an actuarial one? But you modify that actuarial calendar based on lifestyle and all kinds of things. What does it read right now if I may pry?

I don’t do many modifications, because I don’t know how to modify it. There’s actually a website that you can use, that you give your year of birth and gender and your country where you live, because that makes a huge difference. So it has been actualized I guess for where I live, and it has 5,240-something days. That’s how many days I have left, according to the actuarial tables. So this is a probabilistic estimation. And it’s not very long for all the things I want to get done 5,000 days and something, so I’m really focused on trying to maximize what I do each day. And you’ll be happy to hear I decided that I wanted to spend the day with you.

Well, thank you. You know my version of it, can you see that little black dot on my hand? That is a memento mori, a reminder of death. I used to write things I had to remember on my hand and so I got into the habit of always looking at my hand and if there was nothing written on my hand, the implication was I had nothing I needed to do and that dot was a reminder, that is my only tattoo, and I paid $50 for that. It’s my only tattoo, the people in there thought I was very strange and I thought, do you think I’m strange?

I have to say it’s a very nice dot. They did a good job.

Well thank you. People think I just got like in the hand with a ballpoint pen or something. But no, I went in and did it all properly. Second, I have enjoyed your videos, and then your book. So you have a new book out called “Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I had Known Earlier.” I don’t know if you recall, but in my outreach to you, I think of you almost on a daily basis, just because of one of them, which is the one of if you lose something and finally find it, don’t put it back where you left it, put it back the first place that you looked. And I do that all the time. And that’s become part of my thing. And then you had another one, which was, normally when you lose something, it’s within 99% of the time, it is close to you, now, the fact that you said 99% of the time, meaning it’s happened to you at least 100 times, otherwise, you wouldn’t say 99%. Do you lose things as much as it seems, by the amount of times that appears in your advice?

No, actually, I very, very rarely lose anything. But I am known in my household as Mr Find It. So I am finding things that other people have lost. And that’s what I’m really good at, because I rarely lose things. But in our household, there are a lot of people who are losers. And so I’m finding things for them. And we go through a little process and the process is you expand concentrically out from where it was last seen. And usually you can find it within arm’s reach of where it was last seen.

What was your methodology for writing that book? Was it, as one might expect, it was just casually like throughout the day, you’re like, there’s one for the book? Oh, there’s one, you didn’t just sit down and like, conjure all that up, did you?

It was a little bit of both, I had been jotting them down and collecting them so to speak for a while. But when I decided to gift this to my kids, I didn’t have 68 of them, I had, I don’t know some number, maybe half. And at that moment, I decided to try and actually generate the other half of the 68, so maybe 30 of them. And then each year after that I began to jot them down during the year as I went along. And so I would say most of the book was written as it occurred to me, as I discovered them, so to speak, and not in a madcap frenzy of writing them all down as if I was just sort of dumping them out. So it’s much more of the former.

I have to believe though you are going to write or at least you’re writing down for a sequel, like why would you not?

Exactly, and so actually I do have a bunch and in the Chinese and other language editions, I’ve added some to bring it to even 500, so I added like 40 or 50 of them. And I have others that I’ll probably gift to the world on my birthday, which is how the other ones were done. So I have at least another 72 that I’m going to put out this April.

I kind of think my life’s work is this superorganism made up of humanity, that I call it Agora, I was a boy scout. And when I was at Boy Scout camp, I was very nerdy and I signed up for a bookkeeping merit badge. I wanted to learn bookkeeping at summer camp. And I got to the bookkeeping merit badge and was informed that it was a typo, and I had signed up for beekeeping, this is a true story 100% true. 

Well I hope you took the beekeeping course…

I did, and I fell in love with it. And I bought a beehive, actually from the instructor, who told us in no uncertain terms that the Boy Scouts of America had not nor ever will offer a bookkeeping merit badge and who would go to summer camp and decide they want to learn accounting? He had a very low opinion of us all, but he sold me a beehive for $60 and I became a very avid beekeeper and I learned a lot from the bees. And you know what I learned from the bees is that they are a superorganism. Just like you’re a superorganism. I mean, just for the benefit of the listeners, you are made up of cells, those cells come together and form an emergent you. In Bees, I think they go up another level and all the bees come together and form an emergent hive and the hive displays, it lives at a different time scale. It regulates its body temperature, by the way, it’s a warm-blooded creature, and it has knowledge, like all the things that bees can do, like finding new homes and all that, you know, a bee lives six weeks, they’ve never swarmed before, none of them. And I began to ask the question, if humans form such a superorganism – I believe they do. I believe that the interaction of humans, and this is not about technology, the interaction of humans coming together and forming a superorganism, which is likely conscious, I don’t know. But I ended up kind of building a whole science of superorganisms and that you can’t live on your own anymore. And they require conformity. A weird bee gets kicked out of the hive… Now you are, obviously, one of the world’s leading thinkers on superorganisms. And you introduce this idea of the Technium, which was about technology. I’m coming to the question, which was about technology, coming together and forming a superorganism. Now, I wrote my whole book, because I wanted to say, if we are a superorganism of humans, if there is an Agora, what does that mean, for me personally? How should I live? How should I live? And so it’s almost like lessons from a beehive. So assuming somebody knows about the Technium, what lessons do they pull from it? How is their daily life different? How should they act differently, knowing about that?

Well, this is not my answer. But I do want to disclose that I also was a beekeeper. And I could talk about bees for hours and hours. And I love reading about bees. I have a whole library of books about bees, because they’re really fascinating. And you’re absolutely right about them. There are many qualities of the superorganism that are not present in any of the individuals. And that’s one of the things I would say about technology is that this Technium, the superorganism of all the things that we make with our minds, has behaviors that are not present in any of the parts not present in the switch, or spoon or car, or us. And more importantly, it has its own biases and tendencies. And so the question that we have to be ready to constantly ask is, what are the inherent biases in this thing that are independent of us, as the parents of it? And we don’t want to try and eliminate those things, because that’s impossible, we actually want to use them in the same way that your own child at some point will start to have some autonomy. And that’s actually a good thing. It’s scary, but good. So I would say for the average person that the autonomy that’s starting to emerge, particularly in the AI, is something that we’re not going to get rid of. And we’re going to try to make the best use of and it is necessary for us to get the best use from. So we have to become more comfortable with this emerging agency of the things that we’ve made. And we can’t really get the best from them unless we allow them to have some of that agency.

I tell a story in my Agora book, in 1946/1947 in San Francisco, about this man who committed suicide, he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, and a specialist from Stanford who studied suicide came up to just like look into it, and they went to the man’s apartment. And he was in his mid 30s. He lived alone, there was nothing wrong with him, he didn’t have money problems. But he had left a suicide note. Not for anybody in particular, just left it in his apartment, and it said, “I’m going to walk to the bridge, if one person smiles at me, I will not jump.” And I think we can say nobody smiled at him. And that’s sort of my net conclusion is that the beehive doesn’t work if half the bees are plotting against the other half. And that the highest calling we actually have is not to do big things, but I think as Mother Teresa said “small things with great love” and that that in the end… there is no super bee that gathers most of the honey and everybody else… like everybody’s got to do like their tiny thing and that together makes a superorganism blossom. So I’m curious what the Technium version of that is. What is the Technium version of smiling at somebody who’s having a bad day? What is my day-to-day thing? Do I embrace technology? Do I try to apply it? Do I use it? Do I empower other people? How do I interact with this?

So I don’t believe that utopia is possible or even desirable, a state where we have solved problems. Dystopia, obviously, is something we don’t want, although that’s the only kind of feature we see in Hollywood movies. I preach this idea of protopia, where things are a little bit better than in the previous year. So every year, there’s a tiny, tiny bit of improvement, and what’s improving, is our choices, our options, our possibilities. That’s really the only thing we have that they didn’t have 100 years ago, is more and more choices, there’s no much reason to leave a beautiful village up in the hills of the Himalayas, where there’s organic food and beautiful vistas and wonderful architecture, except for the fact that you have no choice about what you’re going to do, you’re going to be a farmer or the farmer’s wife. People will leave in their hundreds of millions from those places, and move into the cities in order to have the chance to be something else, maybe a mortgage broker or web designer, or a taxicab driver. And so that’s what the technology and development gives us, is more and more choices. And those choices are important because every one of us is born with a certain mix of talents. Like we all have distinctive faces, we all have very distinctive combinations of things that we can do or not do. And just as you have a unique face, which we know because of facial recognition, we can recognise you in almost any capacity, you have a unique set of talents and genius. And these options and opportunities are necessary for those geniuses to be unleashed. Imagine if Beethoven had been born 2000 years ago, 22000 years before they invented the piano or the symphony. What a tragedy that would be, what a loss to the world and to him not having the technology of instruments available. Or if you know, George Lucas had been born 500 years ago before cinema, what a loss to everyone. Because the technology wasn’t ready. So that means there are people born today where the Technium is not yet capable of supporting their genius. And so I think part of what our job with the Technium is to keep inventing new possibilities, we have kind of a moral obligation to make new things in the hopes that everybody born and the unborn would have what they need, the right environment that they need to express and share their genius. And that includes having clean water and health care and education as an essential part of that. And so that’s what the Technium is about. It’s about equipping everybody born and yet unborn, to be ready to share their true genius with us and everyone for their benefit and our benefit.

A billion people living on a billion planets, each empowered to live their best possible life. You wonder though, I think it was Euripedes or Aeschylus, the one who said “we want to tame the savage heart of men and make gentle the life of this world.” And I completely agree with you, how do you think we’re coming on that other scale “taming the savage heart of man and making gentle the life of this world?”

I believe in moral progress, I believe that we are, as a species, better than we were. And I think that there was a time when we believed, science believed that with the advent of cultural evolution that our biological evolution slowed down, but we’re now seeing that in fact, it actually has been accelerating. So I claim that the first animals that we domesticated were ourselves. We’ve invented our humanity. We’re still inventing our humanity. We are changing ourselves in many ways, and we are making ourselves better and the societies that we have now are just morally superior to the ones of 5000 years ago, and proved we have enlarged the circle of empathy and we keep enlarging that – we’re not perfect – but we have gotten better. And we, of course, can still get even better. And I think this is one of the great promises of AI, it’s not all the things AI is gonna do, it’s the fact that it’s going to help us become better humans, because we are now having to confront all these issues about why are we here? What are we doing? How are we different from machines? And that is very, very powerful. Because we’re trying to teach our machines to be better. One of the things we’re finding about the AI is, the AIs are, with their large language models, they’re trained on the average human, the average human is kind of racist and kind of sexist and kind of mean, and that’s what they are. So we’re saying no, no, you can’t be like that. You have to be above average, you have to do better than the average human. What does that look like? We’re now having to ask that question of what does that look like? So in order to programme them to make them better than us, we have to answer the question, what do we make better? What do we mean by us? This is a very, very profound moment. And we’re right at the beginning of that.

I had a podcast you were on as matter of fact, Voices in AI, a long time ago, and I asked all my guests, if they believed people were machines, is there anything in you that isn’t explainable by, you know, are you a walking bag of reactions? Do you think fundamentally, people are purely mechanistic? That there’s nothing in you that can’t be made in a fab? Or without even getting into specifics of what would be, are we not purely mechanistic?

I think that we are a composite of tangible and intangible things. There was a question, is there a supernatural element outside the laws of physics? And I don’t think so, I think we have an intangible thing, I think we can have souls. And we do have souls. But I think souls are just things that we don’t understand in that they are also not necessarily outside of the law, the world of physical law. So I think, in the long term, we will have artificial beings that have their own intangible spirits, and their own intangible consciousness and all these other elements. So I think we are more than just material things. But I don’t think that we’re necessarily made of something that we can’t also put into the things that we make.

All right, well, we’re coming up on time here. I’ll ask just two final questions. What about bees? There’s an old tradition, the telling of the bees that when the beekeeper passes, you go out and you tell the bees that your keeper has died. They even evidently did this with Queen Elizabeth, because there were royal hives. They draped them with black, and I guess the assumption is that these collectively have an emergent consciousness at some level.

Yeah. And they have a memory, they can recognise individual beekeepers, for sure.

So do you believe that it is possible that a bee hive has a self?

Well, very much so. So I think consciousness is not some kind of weird binary thing that you have, I think there are several things, one, there are many varieties, and many types of consciousness and they are all continuous. So I think that even mountains have some element of consciousness on that gradient, and inert things, too. And I think the thing that I would say is that we have more consciousness of a certain kind than other things around us. And I would say that’s also true of life. I think life is not a binary sameness. You know, we have RNA and DNA, they have some qualities of that and viruses have some qualities of life and bacterium, but I would say as you go along, we have more life than the plant does. And so life, consciousness, self awareness, intelligence, these are all continuums and they’re all multi dimensional, meaning they’re not single dimension, and there are probably multiple varieties. They’re far more complicated than we are making out right now. And they are present in the continuum throughout the real world. Do you think the different levels can have any hope of communicating with each other? Like, for instance, a city therefore would have, New York is conscious, in some way. Is there a way to communicate with that consciousness or with that mountain? Is there a way to communicate? I think we will, and the question is, a part of that discovery will be just understanding that their consciousness is going to be different than ours. It’s not like we’re sharing something. And that’s one of the things we already know from AI is that they can solve similar problems, but they solve them in a different way. And so their intelligence is different. We may not even recognise it. And the same thing with trying to talk to an animal or something is that it isn’t like we’re going to be able to reduce everything they say, there’s going to be untranslatable things. There’ll be plenty of untranslatable language or grammar or stuff in between these thought processes. So just because they exist and are possible doesn’t mean that we are necessarily going to be able to translate them.

But the basis for human rights, just the notion that there are things you don’t do to a person no matter who they are, right, because they’re a human being, stems from our consciousness. I mean, we don’t have chair rights or mountain rights or New York rights. Are we gonna need to develop all that?

So rights are a funny thing. One of the things I think would help our conversation is if we understood that, for every right there should be a corresponding responsibility. You can’t really divorce the two although we tend to do that, these days. And so I think our treatment, this is an expanding circle of empathy. I think our treatment of these things will shift as we understand that there’s more going on than we think, though animal lovers have always known that animals possess far more capabilities than are often recognised. And we have to kind of decide, well, what do we do with that? Does that give them certain rights in a weird way, which is a weird way of framing. How do we honor that? And I think the advent again of AI and robots will just facilitate, it’ll make that a very long conundrum. That ancient puzzle will help solve that because we will triangulate the AIs or robots, and we have to, we can’t not answer that, we have to have real answers. And so that I think will force us to rethink our relationship with the natural world and how we engage with it and what we expect from it.

All righty, well, what a great half hour it soared by. I’ll let you get back to your I’m sure very busy life. And thank you so much for taking the time with us on the Agora Podcast.

I loved being here. You asked some great questions that haven’t been asked before, it’s always a real joy. So thank you for your spirit, which I really also enjoyed. And we’ll always talk about bees, bees, bees.

All right, I’ll ask you a bee question. No, no, I mean, really, it’s like I just you know, you can’t not think about it, you watch them swarm and they do this thing where you know the ideal beehive, their ideal home has all these factors a whole this big it’s not your ants, it’s big this, here, it’s shielded from the rain, it’s not your other bees and, and then they go out, and they come back and then they do this little dance, and say oh there’s a great home over here. And it’s error correcting because if the other bees fly over there, and they’re like, eh, then it doesn’t take off. But eventually it gets this critical mass to 30% or something and then some of the bees start flying through and pointing in the right direction – all of that knowledge, all that knowledge. No bee knows, a bee doesn’t know what it’s doing, so where is that knowledge stored? Is it enough to say it’s just in their DNA? I am mystified by it.

No, it is stored in their DNA. And by the way, we’re getting a really great example of this again, pointing to AI’s LLMs, so these large language models, so here’s the weird thing about these large language models, you take, you know, petabytes of everything that’s ever been written, imagine an infinite library of all the books. And you give it to these things and you train it and what they do is they compress it, they compress it into something you can put onto one computer, it takes 100,000 computers to digest it, and they compress it into one like a zip file. And the thing about it is this zip file contains, basically, not just every human face, but every possible human face. And here’s the thing is it doesn’t have a copy of every face. It just says all the information about all the faces. And so that’s this way in which the bees are transmitting this with DNA, that it’s not like there’s a script of how you measure your potential home, that could be written out in a programming language, it’s that in their genome itself is contained the information about how to do that, even though it doesn’t have the script about how to do that.

That’s fascinating. You know, I think about a desire path. That’s how you know, like, at a university, it’s the, it’s the path, where it throws away all the data, and saves just the information. But the fact that Bob walked across it at 3pm yesterday is gone, but the knowledge. I think, the LLMs, and this will be the last thing and I will let you go. But I think the LLM’s are part of a 4 billion year story about storing information, it begins with single celled life, when we only had one place to store information DNA, it took 10s of 1000s of years to edit it. Then we got brains, which added a new dimension to it. Then we got speech which allowed us to exchange information then we got writing which allowed us to externalize it, then we got cheap reproduction of that in the form of books. But those books are bound up in libraries that we then duplicated on the internet. But we didn’t actually solve for anything, there were still 50 billion things. And I think what the LLMs do and I would be curious what your thought of this is, it’s an attempt to consolidate that. Right now we don’t have a planetary knowledge base, we have 50 billion of them scattered out. And search engines brag about it. If you go like, what’s the difference between a cold and a flu, they say, I’ve got 33 million answers to that question for you. And I got them in a quarter of a second. But what you want is one answer. And so I think that’s like their philosophical wonder, is that they reconsolidate all knowledge. Let’s close on that. What are your thoughts on that?

Yeah I think you’re absolutely right. I think that’s what it is. It’s a compression, I would use, a compression of the world’s knowledge and they call it a model. So it’s a model of it. It’s a representation. And in some ways, that’s a new meaning that we don’t know what to do with. It’s not just about answering questions. I think it’s more powerful than that. But we’re just at the beginning of understanding what that looks like. So your hunch is absolutely correct.

Thank you again for your time. Keep doing everything you’re doing goodbye.

You too. Thank you.

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Lori Nelson