A few weeks ago, millions of people in the U.K. celebrated a remarkable anniversary.
Daisy McANDREW: The Queen is the first monarch of Great Britain who has ever reached this amazing milestone, 70 years on the throne and still going.
Queen Elizabeth II has become the longest-reigning monarch in British history. She didn’t get there entirely on her own. The Queen has a team of advisors, known as the Privy Council, from whom she can seek advice. This council has existed in one form or another since the 13th century. So that’s nice — but how about the rest of us, we commoners, with no access to a Privy Council? To whom shall we turn for sage advice?
Kevin KELLY: I’m Kevin Kelly. I am the senior maverick at Wired magazine, and I like to package ideas.
Okay, I believe he will do. And when Kevin Kelly says he likes to “package ideas,” that means what?
KELLY: I like to edit things, my ideas and other people’s ideas, to communicate and share with others. Maybe I am a communicator. Maybe I am a curator.
Stephen DUBNER: A little bit of a fortune teller, or not quite?
KELLY: I don’t use that “futurist” word because most of what we’re doing is trying to predict the present.
DUBNER: And that’s hard enough.
KELLY: That’s hard enough.
Kelly has published many books, including a few that address how humans intersect with technology. And he was actually a co-founder of Wired magazine, back in 1993; in 2000 he started Cool Tools, a website devoted to — well, yeah, cool (and affordable) tools, which he defines as “anything that can be useful … hand tools … books … gadgets … even ideas.” Kelly is hard to pin down, and part of his magic is you don’t want to pin him down. Let me put it this way: If I were the Queen, I’d want him on my Privy Council. And Kelly has just hit his own 70-year mark — not on the throne, but on the planet. To mark his birthday these past few years, he has been publishing on his website a list of advice.
KELLY: I started writing down just a few little notes, and I surprised myself because I found out I had more to say. I wrote a bunch of them. I was 68, so I wrote 68 of them the first time.
We liked that list of 68 enough to make a Freakonomics Radio episode about it. You can find it in the archive, No. 419; it’s called “68 Ways to Be Better at Life.” This year, for his 70th birthday, Kelly blew right past 70 ideas.
KELLY: I realized I had a lot more in me, and I just kept going.
He kept going all the way to 103.
KELLY: My joy in writing them was almost like poetry, was refining them to see, can I make this even shorter and still have it convey something. That has been the writer’s challenge. I don’t like to write, but I like having written and I especially like to write little things.
Today on Freakonomics Radio, the little things Kevin Kelly has written about parenting, about travel, about the future.
KELLY: So let me just verify — do I know that I’m going to live to a thousand?
But … a word of caution too:
KELLY: Maybe advice is not really the right word. Maybe it should be, “Stuff that worked for me. It might work for you.”
All right, then — the stuff that worked for Kevin Kelly, starting now.
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DUBNER: We’ve spoken a few times on this show, Kevin, and I’ve never actually asked you the question I’m about to ask you because it was so obvious to me. But I’m going to ask it, just to make sure. Do you consider yourself an optimist?
KELLY: I am the most optimistic person in the world. Certainly, the most optimistic person that you know. Let me put it this way, I’m the most optimistic person I know.
DUBNER: Would you say that your optimism has increased with age, decreased with age, or stayed roughly the same?
KELLY: My optimism has increased over time. I don’t know if it’s because of my age or because I’m smarter than I was before, but I am more optimistic now than I ever have been before. And I think it’s in part because I’ve been able to articulate my optimism. Because I have reasons for it, and because I’ve seen it at work.
DUBNER: So, give us a few reasons to be optimistic right now, in 2022, especially for someone who hears you say that you’re so optimistic and thinks, “Oh, well, he’s crazy, there’s no reason to be optimistic about anything.”
KELLY: There’s several reasons to be as optimistic as you possibly can in general. And then there are other reasons why we should be optimistic at this point in history. I think the reason to be optimistic in general is that we kind of have a moral duty to do so, because anything good these days is going to be complicated. And it’s very unlikely that we would make a world that we want of this complexity inadvertently, without having an idea in our head of what it is. There’s an element of optimism that is pre-visioning, of imagining the good world that we want in order to make it happen. That is a work of optimism. I think optimists understand that problems propel progress, and that progress is real.
DUBNER: Okay, that’s your reasoning for being optimistic generally. What about at this particular point in history?
KELLY: If we look at the reality of today, we see that things have been getting better for most of the things that we care about over time. But they aren’t getting that much better. It’s a tiny, tiny little bit of improvement over each, say, year, that is often invisible — except if we look in retrospect. And if we look in retrospect, we see that the progress is real. Now, it could all of a sudden stop after 300 years, it could stop tomorrow. That’s possible, but it’s unlikely. So statistically, it’s going to continue at least next year. But there is a problem, which is that it’s hidden in a certain sense. And one of the things about pessimists that make them sound so smart is that the problems are visible — they’re very, very visible. And so part of being optimistic is understanding that there’s a bias in all media, which is that what optimism is mostly about is what did not happen. What did not happen was, I wasn’t robbed on the way to the grocery store. And my 12-year-old daughter did not die of smallpox. There is a sense in which only the bad stuff is what we hear about in the last five minutes, whereas if we were only to write headlines every year or so, they would look very differently.
DUBNER: This year, in conjunction with your turning 70 years old, you published your list of advice. This year, you called it “103 bits of wisdom I wish I had known when I was young.” Here’s one: “Cultivate 12 people who love you because they’re worth more than 12 million people who like you.” What’s that all about — what inspired that?
KELLY: I think the obvious reference is to the likes and follows on social media, where you have people really trying hard to have a lot of followers. I know a couple of people, friends, who actually have like a million followers on some of these. And I’ve asked them occasionally, “What do you get out of that?” And it’s remarkable, how unproductive having that many followers is. That kind of striving for liking, it’s not very fruitful. I don’t really care whether people like me; I care if they respect me. I actually respect people that I don’t like. And so it’s trying to shift the general relationship that we have with each other. I mean, part of having brothers and sisters and coming from a big family is that you’re kind of allowed not to like everybody in your family, but you still can love them and deal with them.
DUBNER: Here’s one I love. “Ninety percent of everything,” you write, “is crap. If you think you don’t like opera, romance novels, TikTok, country music, vegan food, N.F.T.s, keep trying to see if you can find the 10 percent that is not crap.” Advice for finding the non-crap 10 percent?
KELLY: I have to say, this one I’m talking to myself because I often get very impatient. So, the only bit of advice for me is to keep returning to it with as much grace and open-mindedness as possible because nine times out of ten you’re going to be very disappointed. So why are you going to go back the tenth time? Of course, life is limited. We can’t try all the stuff that we don’t like. But when I have a chance and it’s not too difficult, I’ll give things a second or third or fourth chance. And occasionally, I do change my mind and it’s like, “Wow, I’m glad that I pursued that because I didn’t see it in the beginning.”
DUBNER: Now, you would seem to be in a minority in that regard. There’s research, it wasn’t super-scientific, by Robert Sapolsky that showed that most people, by the time they reach, let’s say, between 30 and 40 years old, they’re pretty locked into their preferences in terms of the kinds of food they’ll eat, the music they’ll listen to, the people they’ll hang out with, and so on. And that we form habits, and we form an identity of ourselves that says, “I’m the kind of person who eats this, listens to this, does that.” Do you have any advice generally for being more fluid as you get older?
KELLY: Don’t sit in the same chair every night. I deliberately try not to do that at the table, to make sure I don’t get into these ruts. And I ask my kids to make me a playlist for birthday presents. Give me all the music you’re listening to as a way to hear new things and see if I can get into it. When you go out to eat, order your favorite thing, and then order something you’ve never ordered before. I think it has to be a very deliberate thing. It doesn’t really come easy.
DUBNER: Here’s one that resonated with me in part because it’s very practical and in part because it has happened to me. You write, “When checking references for a job applicant, employers may be reluctant or prohibited from saying anything negative. So instead,” you write, “Leave or send a message that says, ‘Get back to me if you highly recommend this applicant as super-great.’ And if they don’t reply, take that as a negative.” Does that actually work? Do you know people who’ve had success with that method?
KELLY: Yes, I have used that method. There is a kind of a weird cultural moment right now where there actually are companies that cannot comment on previous employees and stuff. There’s a bias to saying anything negative for various reasons. But I have used this model of leaving a message on an answering machine earlier and now with an email saying, “Only reply if this person is super-great,” and sometimes I have not heard back anything. That’s a sign. And other times I’ve heard back, “Yes, you’re lucky to have this person.”
DUBNER: You write, “To keep young kids behaving on a car road trip, have a bag of their favorite candy and throw a piece out the window each time they misbehave.” You have three kids. They’re grown now. Did you actually do this?
KELLY: Well, I did it once. And once is all that you have to do.
DUBNER: When I read that, I thought, “Well, if that works, it works because of what economists call loss aversion. It’s more painful to lose something than it is to gain the same thing.” Do you think that’s why it does work or is there something even simpler than that?
KELLY: Yeah, it’s just loss aversion. I want to add, I amended my thing to “unwrapped candy” because I got penalized on the internet for littering.
DUBNER: So that’s one of your 103 pieces of advice. But there’s another one that this one seems to run contra to, which is the following: “You’ll get ten times better results by elevating good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior, especially in children and animals.”
KELLY: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
DUBNER: Can you square that circle?
KELLY: I can’t. But it is true. It is true that it’s more effective to try to encourage good behavior than it is bad behavior.
DUBNER: Now I realize this is not your realm, but how do you think the argument you’re making here — about generally rewarding good behavior rather than punishing bad — how do you think that intersects with a current movement in the progressive political movement to, let’s say, abolish policing and incarceration?
KELLY: I will say that we as a society are pretty confused about what we want to do with, say, criminal behavior. We have a whole system, which is really not clear. Is it punishing? Is it rehabilitation? Is it restitution? We are really confused about what the intention is. But I don’t know what the correct answer would be. I believe in moral progress. I believe that we actually are behaving better than we were 1,000 years ago or 2,000 years ago, and that we, collectively, humans are inventing ourselves. We’re inventing our humanity. Our sense of fairness, and all these things are things that we have invented. I don’t think they come naturally. I think they come from growing up in this system, being trained. We may over time absorb some of this genetically, as we have changed our jaws from cooking and things like that. I make this claim that humans are the first animals we domesticated. And we’re still domesticating ourselves. And this issue right now of what do we do with bad behavior or even really harmful bad behavior? I think we’re kind of changing our minds about that. And that process is very messy and there’s lots of things that don’t work. I think we’re nowhere close to having a good solution to it. Confusion indicates that we have a lot of work to do ahead in trying to understand what the optimal thing is for society, but it’s clear that you need police. It’s clear that we need somewhere for people to go. But in between, there’s a lot of room for improvement.
DUBNER: “Ask anyone you admire,” you write. “Their lucky breaks happened on a detour from their main goal. So embrace detours. Life is not a straight line for anyone.” What I want to ask you about is the lucky part of that. Do you think it’s easier for us to see the lucky breaks in other people or in ourselves? Because it strikes me that a lot of people — myself included, probably you included as well — when we accomplish something, we tend to attribute it to our grit and/or talent, etc., as opposed to the fact that I happen to have been born in an amazing place and time — America, mid-20th century, late-20th century. I happen to have been born in good health. I happen to have been born into a family that was honest and honorable and so on. We do know there is a growing literature about the role of luck in success. And I am curious to know how well you think we are generally at recognizing our own fortune.
KELLY: Yeah, I would say we are not very good about acknowledging the luck in our own lives. One of the metrics that I use for people that I admire is the degree to which they acknowledge luck in their lives. And I have very little patience with particularly successful people who don’t acknowledge the luck. And if I have gained any knowledge or wisdom over time, it is my increasing realization and admittance that I am the product of luck. There is just no way around it. But having said that, I think you can still choose luck. I have to say this very carefully, in the sense that there are people who are luckier than others, and it’s not because of how they were born. I think there are probably different species of luck. The little bit I’ve read about luck is that people who have decided that they’re lucky are luckier. And so lucky people are expecting to be lucky, and that expectation is self-fulfilling. It’s kind of like that increasing returns — it’s because I have been lucky, I expect to be lucky, and therefore I am going to be luckier. In the same way, if you decide that you’re an unlucky person, you’re not going to be lucky. And that’s also been proven.
DUBNER: Here’s one I like. “Actual great opportunities do not have, ‘Great Opportunities’ in the subject line.”
KELLY: Yeah, have you noticed that? I mean, the ones from Nigeria, it is very obvious. It’s just this idea that most great opportunities don’t look like great opportunities at the time. The truly great ones are usually hidden in some ways, or disguised, or obscured by the problems that prevent other people from taking them. And so particularly if you’re young, you want to be working in an area where there’s no name for what it is that you’re doing, where you’re ahead of the language. You have trouble describing what it is that you do to someone else. Your mother doesn’t understand what it is.
DUBNER: You write, “Your growth as a conscious being is measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations you are willing to have.” How can people be encouraged to have more uncomfortable conversations? And let’s, for the sake of this conversation, agree that “uncomfortable conversation” doesn’t mean just shouting at someone, “I’m right, you’re wrong,” etc.
KELLY: Yeah, uncomfortable conversations usually entail a certain level of vulnerability on one or the other or both parties, meaning that you’re willing to talk about something that you may not want to talk about, or the other person may not want to talk about. I don’t think this is a matter of plunging deep into the most difficult thing. It’s something that you can train yourself to do.
DUBNER: It reminds me of a research paper we featured on this show a year or two ago. It was about asking what the researchers called sensitive questions. And it found that almost everybody avoided asking the questions that we deem sensitive questions — about money, sex, politics, etc. — because we assume the other person does not want to talk about them. It turns out that’s exactly wrong.
KELLY: Right. They’re waiting for you to ask. I think it kind of relates to another piece of advice, which is if you really make it clear that you really are listening, that is what people want, and are willing to open up, not to start to berate them or express surprise, but really kind of like, “I really want to hear your story about this.” That is the key thing, to be a really good, active listener, meaning you’re reflecting back that you’re hearing that person. By the way, you could ask a question and then listen to someone for half an hour as they talk, and they will describe you as a great conversationalist because you’re listening. That’s the primary thing, a genuine interest in their answer. And you can ask people about almost anything with that kind of very sincere listening.
Coming up: We will sincerely listen to Kevin Kelly’s thoughts about how to see yourself better, and more.
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When we spoke with Kevin Kelly, he was in a Covid quarantine at home in Pacifica, California, just outside of San Francisco. He had recently returned from a trip to England. Most of his travels, however, have found him in more remote places. He recently published a three-volume book, called Vanishing Asia, that includes 50 years of his photographs “from Siberia in the north to Indonesia in the south, and everything in between.” Kelly has spent a lot of time in places many of us have never heard of. Here’s one of the 103 pieces of advice he recently published: “Always read the plaque next to the monument.”
KELLY: Let me say right off the bat that that is stolen right from the 99% Invisible podcast. That is their motto.
DUBNER: It’s a good place to steal from.
KELLY: I was hiking in the Cotswolds just this week, and there was a plaque about a nuclear bunker that we’d walked past and had no idea what it was, or that it was even there. And then there was a plaque for a site that turned out to be a burial mound that they believe is older than the pyramids. There’s always a story about something. And it’s not evident or obvious, and it will always enrich your lives. And there’s a courtesy in the plaque saying, “Hey, I’m pretty interesting. You just spend one minute here, and I’ll tell you. I’ll let you in on the secret.” And then you do it and you say, “Thank you, plaque. That was amazing. I’m so glad you stood there all that time.”
DUBNER: Are you saying that plaques need to be a little bit more aggressive?
KELLY: I think with the metaverse and things like this, that we will have a version of plaques where if there’s something really interesting, particularly that you’re attuned to, it will be a little bit more active and waving hands, saying, “Oh, over here, over here, over here. You’re really going to like this.” And so, they can get out of hand, but I think I’m looking forward to that.
DUBNER: So Kevin, you are a founding board member of the Long Now Foundation, which is a nonprofit that tries to encourage long-term thinking and long-term problem-solving. If you were going to live to, let’s say, 1,000 years old, or maybe 10,000 years old, or maybe infinity, how would you live your life differently? Because plainly, scarcity leads us to make a certain type of decision. And if life were not as scarce or at least as finite, I’m curious how the advice you’re giving here might change.
KELLY: That’s a really good question. And I have to confess, I’ve never seriously considered this idea of living for 1,000 years. I am right now trying to live my life with the idea that I’m not going to live forever. So presumably it would change. Let me just verify — do I know that I’m going to live to a thousand?
DUBNER: The reason I’m asking this question is, it’s always struck me that among the many paradoxes about human life is that it’s precious in part because it’s finite. And young people, as has been written about since the beginning of time, don’t really have a sense, often, of their mortality. But as you get older, you do. And that really does change how you behave, how you think about the world and other people. But if that were not the case, what I really want is the essential stuff, is how that would change your relationship to what it means to be a human and what kind of core you would have.
KELLY: I would definitely eat more ice cream, right off the bat.
DUBNER: I have to say, I was expecting something slightly more philosophical than ice cream.
KELLY: Well, that’s the whole point of the ride here. It’s very physical. It’s very embodied in the senses and sensual. And so I’m going to take advantage of that, for sure. Here’s the thing. I think right now we are still doing mostly short-term things. The kind of projects that I have been mostly involved with are on a five-year horizon. If you had 1,000 years, then I could start doing like 25-year projects or 50-year projects or century projects. And I think that’s part of what we have right now as a society, is that we are not doing enough of what we would need to be intergenerational projects like a cathedral that would take 100 years to build and therefore would outlast us and some other generation would have to complete it. With a 1,000-year lifespan, you could do some really big projects that you wouldn’t even think about doing at the current lifespan.
DUBNER: Do you have any personal cathedral projects, things that you would be doing if you had ten times, 100 times the amount of time on earth?
KELLY: One of the things that I’ve been involved with at the Long Now Foundation was trying to build a 10,000-year library. I would like to have a way of not just archiving but maybe, say, organizing the world’s knowledge to ensure that it was available.
DUBNER: I thought Google did that for us. Wasn’t that their intention?
KELLY: But here’s the issue, is everything we know about digital information is it’s very easy to replicate within time, but it’s very difficult to replicate over time. So, will all that knowledge still be there in 100 years? Like, what’s it on? A big solar flare could wreak havoc, it could eradicate all the data. So a real kind of civilizational approach to this information, we really haven’t really grappled with it. Is there a backup? Right now — this is true — right now there is one crazy guy, one guy who’s making a backup of the Internet, Brewster Kahle. One guy. Why isn’t that like not just a national project, but like a civilizational planetary project? So that would be one project: curating the archive of all human knowledge and then structuring it in a way that makes it accessible to everybody and then ways to improve that knowledge. I would also like to make a version of YouTube that’s closer to Wikipedia. Right now, anybody can edit Wikipedia, and you can improve it. Right now, if you have a really good tutorial on YouTube, it’s very hard to improve it. Some of that’s because of I.P. issues, but the tools aren’t really ready. And so that’s a short-term thing, but that’s the kind of place I would go if I had a thousand years to live.
DUBNER: You write, “You see only 2 percent of another person and they see only 2 percent of you. Attune yourselves to the hidden 98 percent.” How do you do that?
KELLY: Yeah, we were talking earlier about having uncomfortable conversations. I think you can attune yourself, first of all, to just acknowledge the fact that you’re seeing a superficial percent of someone — that there’s a history. There’s all kinds of things going on. Lots of people’s behaviors are formed because of their genetics, because of their background, upbringing, and those are not always visible. So, part of what you’re doing is seeking a deeper and fuller vision of that person. They do something that may seem strange or even annoying. But saying, “There’s something else going on here.” So, I think the first step is simply to acknowledge that. And then, to have these difficult conversations, or to give someone a second chance, that’s a good way to go a little deeper. I don’t think we can even get to this knowing 100 percent, even if you’re married to that person.
DUBNER: What percentage of yourself do you think you actually see and know?
KELLY: That’s a great question.
DUBNER: Another of your maxims is, “A great way to understand yourself is to seriously reflect on everything you find irritating in others.”
DUBNER: So, I guess that’s one way to turn a mirror on yourself. But can you just talk more about that? If you see only 2 percent of me, let’s say, how much of yourself do you see?
KELLY: You know, I’d be surprised if we see 10 percent of ourselves. I think we have great difficulty in understanding ourselves and knowing ourselves. And part of what we’re going to be seeing as we go forward with neuroscience and artificial intelligence is acquiring new tools that will help us to understand how our minds work and then individually, eventually to understand ourselves a little better, because I don’t think we understand ourselves very well at all. So maybe 10 percent.
DUBNER: You write, “The chief prevention against getting old is to remain astonished.” So, you’re not that old, Kevin. You just turned 70. But what does astonish you these days?
KELLY: Oh, my gosh.
DUBNER: Is that a long list?
KELLY: Yes. So many things. I am just completely astonished by YouTube almost on a daily basis. I’m astonished by the amount of creativity, innovation, sharing. I don’t see how you cannot be astonished if you spent a day on YouTube just going to whatever corners you can find. It is really underrated in terms of its influence on the culture, it’s underrated as an accelerant of learning. I am just blown away and astonished by all kinds of things, including what amazing humans can do.
DUBNER: So, you write these lists, and you publish them on your site. And the people who read you seem to love them. They leave these rapturous comments. But I’m curious how or if you know that your advice is any good. Because it may be that these are things that have worked for you. But what about what’s called survivorship bias?
DUBNER: We hear about the things that have survived. I’m curious how you know when you are ‘right’ about something.
KELLY: Yeah. I have no idea whether these are right for others, and for me, that’s what advice means. All I’m saying is that these worked for me. So it may be that we need a new word. Maybe advice is not really the right word. Maybe it should be, “Stuff that worked for me. It might work for you.” I think advice is kind of like little hats you try on. They aren’t rules. They aren’t meant to be infallible. They’re meant to be useful. And if it isn’t useful, just forget about them.
DUBNER: Do you think there’s too much or too little advice-giving in the world today? Or, I guess, it’s possible, just the right amount?
KELLY: Here’s what I would like. I would like everybody to do one of these. I would like Steve Dubner to do a version of his own and send it out. So, in that sense, I would like to see more. I have a huge appetite for hearing people try and reduce or extract what they know into something that’s readable and transferable. And so I would say there’s not enough advice in the world.
DUBNER: You seem to value the act of thinking — which may seem fundamental, but it’s an activity that a lot of people don’t spend much time on. And it’s hard to blame us, people — life is busy, thinking hard can be difficult, can be lonely. And also, I would argue there are a lot of elements of the new digital economy that actively dissuade us from having to think at all. A lot of decisions are being made for us without really assessing options or consequences. Do you think it’s important to actively encourage people to spend more time actually thinking?
KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I think you kind of almost veered onto Alfred Whitehead’s definition of civilization, which was that civilization advanced to the degree which we didn’t have to think about other things. So instead of having to think about where am I going to get enough food to eat, we could think about some other things because we have a system called civilization that provides all the food that we need and more. So I think what I would see over time is us switching where we spend time with our attention and our thinking, up the Maslow hierarchy, away from basic things about survival and shelter, maybe away from just generic things about having a job and being occupied to higher level things of self-realization in the larger sense of not just our own individual self-realization, but where we’re going as a society, as a collective species. And we have collectively a very difficult assignment, which is, who do we want to be as humans? What do we want humans to be? And one of the reasons why I’m really keen on artificial intelligence is that we’re going to use A.I. to help us answer this question of what do we want humans to be. Because we’re going to be giving them lots of things that we thought we were about and realizing they can do that. And I think this larger identity problem of not just who am I as an individual, but who am I as a human, is where we’ll spend more time. And as we go on, I think this kind of identity crisis, not just on an individual level, but as a collective level, becomes more and more of the conversation.
When Queen Elizabeth II has a birthday, it is usually celebrated with a parade in front of Buckingham Palace. Also: not one, not two but three military salutes: a 21-gun salute in Windsor Great Park, a 41-gun salute in Hyde Park, and a 62-gun salute at the Tower of London. Kevin Kelly, meanwhile, has come up with a more modest means of marking his birthday — these lists of advice and ideas that, if you think about it, may be a bit more useful than all that wasted gunpowder. If you want to read the 103 things that worked for Kevin Kelly — and see if some of them might work for you — they are on his website, kk.org, under a section he calls “the technium.” Considering his longtime attachment to new technologies, I also wanted to ask him about the blockchain and cryptocurrencies — because next week, we’re putting out the first episode in a three-part series about the blockchain and crypto.
KELLY: My little glib answer these days is, “I’ll talk about crypto, but while we’re talking about it, we’re not allowed to talk about money.” And those are very short conversations. And the reason is that the amount of money flowing through crypto is so huge, and so many of its early uses are finance-related, that it just distorts and obliterates other aspects of it.
DUBNER: Well, that’s because most people who are able to talk about crypto at the moment are involved in the parts that have to do with making money or speculating. But there are those people who keep promising that this is an underlying technology, this is a utility that will change the way we conduct a lot of our activities. So, can you say anything more about that possibility?
KELLY: So, I think the underlying technology of blockchain is a true innovation. I think it’s going to be a long while before it transforms things, because a lot of what we’re trying to use it right now for can be done in other ways. There’s about four or five different, I would say, tensions in crypto, contradictions, that are working against each other. An example of that would be, in the digital world, one of the things we know about is that there’s something called increasing returns. Which means that the more people that join a network, the more valuable that network gets. And so that’s why people become evangelists for the fax machine or for other things, because the more people that join onto the network, the more valuable that becomes for them. But in that network effect, most of the value comes at the end. You don’t want to be the first person to buy the fax machine because it’s completely useless because there’s nobody to fax to. But if you’re the billionth person to buy a fax machine, you’re getting it for $25 and you’re getting a multi-trillion-dollar network value, because everybody’s on it. Crypto is trying to reverse that, it’s going the opposite direction. It’s benefiting the early adopters first. The thing we know about decentralized systems is how incredibly inefficient they are. I mean, evolution is incredibly inefficient. It’s a crazy way to do anything. You have billions of eggs, one survives. That’s inefficient. And so when we want to have a decentralized system and that adaptability, there’s a cost and that cost is inefficiency. And the question is going to be, are we going to be willing to pay that cost of inefficiency and are there going to be other things in between that may not be as inefficient? I think when it does arrive, it’s going to be like plumbing. It’s like, yes, really good idea. Yes, very boring. Who wants to talk about it? I’m glad it’s there. Keep it going. But it’s not going to be sexy.
If we had talked to Kevin Kelly before starting our blockchain series, maybe we would have reconsidered. Or maybe we would have made a series about plumbing instead. But it’s too late now! So, next time on the show, we’ll try to wade through the hype and figure out: What can blockchain do for you?
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Morgan Levey, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Jacob Clemente; we had help this week from Jeremy Johnston. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Kevin Kelly, senior maverick and co-founder of Wired magazine.