Short works

Books : reviews

Kevin Kelly.
Out of Control: the new biology of machines.
4th Estate. 1994

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 1 May 1996

As machines become more complex, they become more life-like.

More is different.

We have the choice of a small number of large machines, or a large number of small machines: 'swarm' systems. The advantages of swarm systems is that they are adaptable, evolvable, resilient, boundless, full of novelty. But, they are non-optimal (they have multiple goals, and can only 'satifice', not optimise, all of them), non-controllable, non-predictable, non-understandable, non-immediate (they need to be 'grown', not 'switched on'): they are out of control.

For jobs where supreme control is demanded, good old clockware is the way to go. Where supreme adaptability is required, out-of-control swarmware is what you want.

Kelly describes swarm systems, and how we must give up our desire for control in order to reap their benefits. He does this in a dense book that covers artificial life, Biosphere II, complexity, distributed control, electronic money, emergent properties, evolution, feedback loops, hypertext authoring, navigating the Library of Babel, prairies, simulation, subsumption architectures, and more. He weaves a vast number of small threads into a lush, fascinating, mat of his view of the future: biological life and machine life converging.

Often books written by journalists, although fascinating and fun to read, are simply 'biographies' of an exciting area of research. But Kelly has a thesis, and uses interviews, quotes, and bits of history to build up and explore his thesis. This is no mere biography, this is synthesis.

p357. It may be that any highly evolved form is beautiful.

If you are the sort of person who underlines or highlights important passages [shudder], don't bother: you'll have to mark the entire text.

Kevin Kelly.
New Rules for the New Economy.
4th Estate. 1998

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 29 October 2000

The new economy of highly-connected networks obeys its own set of economic rules, many of which seem counter-intuitive. In this slim volume Kelly lays out the new order, and how to survive and prosper in it.

Decentralisation, the non-linear growth of the value of networks, plenitude, gift economies, devolution, non-equilibrium working at the fluxing edge of chaos, and above all, the opportunities of waste, are important ideas here. Kelly weaves together some of the ideas from Out of Control, applies them to the network economy, and comes up with some fascinating seemingly counter-intuitive ideas. I particularly liked his attack on productivity:

Efficiencies are for robots. Opportunities ... are for humans.
The fact that a task is routine enough to be measured suggests that it is routine enough to go to the robots.

This is an exhilarating ride through the opportunities of the network economies. The counter-intuitive way way these work means not everyone will realise the possibilities. But for those who do, there is an exciting, scary, and prosperous, time ahead.

Kevin Kelly.
What Technology Wants.
Penguin. 2010