Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, now holds the title of "senior maverick" with the publication. And his contrarian tendencies have earned him a huge following among the geekery — and plenty of scorn from critics.
In his last book, What Technology Wants, he highlighted a minority view of evolutionary biology — that it favors unending progress and ever-mounting complexity — and suggested that technology has followed the same trajectory.
The trouble, critics argue, is that evolution is more random — shaped by unpredictable mutations and meteorites falling out of the sky to eradicate the dinosaurs — than Kelly would have it. And sometimes, they note, it even favors simplicity.
More importantly, there is a concern that Kelly's upbeat Darwinism gives short shrift to the very real problems of technology — fracking's poisoning of the groundwater, Facebook's invasion of privacy — and our responsibility to intervene.
I asked Kelly, who will speak at the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium on March 14 at 7:30 pm (the event is sold out, but the university will give no-shows' seats to stand-bys), about this line of attack.
He insisted that he agrees more with his critics than they might suggest. "Every new invention yields new problems," Kelly said. "I'm not utopian at all." But on balance, he argued, the march of technology has produced more good than bad.
That's how he seems to feel about the subject of his talk at RISD: what he calls our emerging "screen culture."
"We were a people of the book," he told me, from the Bible to the Constitution. And our culture, commerce, and politics are still built around the book. But we're in a period of transition. And the implications are profound.
If a book was an immovable object, a finished project, a piece of truth — "author" and "authority" sharing the same root, he notes — the screen is something far different. It is fluid and ephemeral. These days, truth is not found inside bound volumes, but assembled from a constant stream of information.
Kelly said the present hysteria over screen culture — that it represents a dumbing down — echoes the howls that accompanied the birth of the written alphabet, a development that brought all sorts of concern about the emergence of frivolous texts.
Of course, we lost something with the passing of oral culture, Kelly acknowledged. But "most of us," he said, "have agreed to the price."