on kevin kelly.

Observations on his critical curations that benefit the collective.

Photo by Christopher Michel

Kevin Kelly. 

The only imitable part of this guy is his name. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Most folks will know Kevin Kelly as founding executive editor at WIRED Magazine circa 1993. Lesser known is his work on other projects that are arguably more grand and audacious than even the founding of the iconic tech magazine. During my research on Kelly I thought it would be fun to collect the titles that people had given him: Writer. Photographer. Curator. Hippie. Cool Tool Maven. Maker. Founder. Futurist. Conservationist. Philosopher. Public Intellectual. Digital Prophet. Senior Maverick. The list goes on.

How is this one person?

Describing Kelly through titles is hard, so here is Kevin Kelly in 10 seconds: Kelly speaks and writes about very complex and hairy topics in an accessible way. People seek out his predictions because of the clarity by which he sees the world. He is able to compress assumptions into succinct predictions, conveying complex deductions within a few words. But how?

look at his website navigation as an example of unconventional wayfinding!

How is he capable of making sense of this complex world? What human skill contributes the most to the ability of seeing big trends and patterns? If you study Kelly, his interests are divergent, almost random. Is it chaos… or is there a higher order of organization that we can’t see?

Strap yourself in because we are going to explore what I believe is an overarching modus operandi in Kevin Kelly and his work: that of the Curator

The beginning as we know it

In 1983 at the age of 31, he got his first job editing a publication called the Co-Evolution Quarterly, an extension of a seminal piece of work called the “Whole Earth Catalog”. It is just about as difficult to describe the Whole Earth Catalog (WEC) as it is to describe Kevin Kelly himself: it was a counter-culture publication that listed exceptional tools that helped humans be more human, and where to buy them. The catalog was founded on a holistic view of the world, perceiving humans as powerful independent actors who can harness and shape the world around them, and live in symbiotic relationship with their environment through tooling and knowledge. 

Part of what makes the WEC such an enduring artefact was not just the sheer volume of information it contained, but that unlike a Google search, every single entry of WEC was a high-value entry. Browsing the WEC is like browsing Lee Valley’s website (an epic Canadian hardware store) with the sense that “anything you pick up will be useful and have utility”, and so you go on daydreaming guilt-free about purchasing everything. Every product in the WEC had a loving description for it written. Many had diagrams and custom sketches made just for the catalog.

The information density of these oversized pages is staggering. Apple founder Steve Jobs compares it to the “Google in paperback form” of its time. I compare it to the closest thing we have to a real-life solarpunk manual (and Solarpunk is like steampunk “but with an environmental streak”, in case you didn’t know)

The legacy of WEC

While the catalog was officially discontinued in 1971, WEC was riding a long wave of popularity well into the 80s and influenced many of the future Silicon Valley founders and shakers that we know today. Later editions and spin-off publications continued to be published due to high demand, Co-Evolution Quarterly being one of them. It was later renamed to the Whole Earth Review, where he became its editor-in-chief and publisher.  

Around this time was also when Kelly started to turn his attention to a number of other projects and collaborations. As I was researching his projects, it was hard to find a theme or common thread between them, until I came full circle and dove deeper, much deeper into what the WEC was and stood for. I spent hours poring over PDF pages of the catalog, immersing myself in the energy that continues to emanate from it, when I felt a spark of something. It was like the Matrix was faintly flickering its code at me through the catalog’s poorly-scanned, yellowed pages, revealing its higher level of organization in bits and pieces at the time.

What formed from the bits was this: I discovered seven thematic underpinnings I call the “DNA of WEC”. Once you know these, you’ll understand every Kelly project there ever was, because you can trace their lineage straight back to the “DNA of WEC”. Many of these themes were heavily influenced by important thinkers and writers of the time who were published in the WEC, or by Kevin Kelly himself. They will be mentioned below if relevant.

The DNA of WEC consists of the following:

  • Humans. How humans work, and what works for humans. The historian Lewis Mumford had a term for this, “organic humanism”, which defines the limits of what humans are able to do based on their essential biological and emotional needs.
  • Tools. How tools extend humans, and what feedback loops that creates. Grounded in the teachings of Marshall McLuhan, known for the adage “the medium is the message”.
  • Environment. The place that grants life and must not be taken for granted. Our Spaceship Earth, as Buckminster Fuller would say
  • Community. The human glue that is capable of building great civilizations. Christopher Alexander is the patron saint of this category with his work on cities and settlements.
  • Survival. Humans are constantly fighting the entropy of the universe. The opposite is extropy, i.e. moving towards order; a term Kelly either coined or brought back into common parlance. He talks about this in a podcast episode with David Perell
  • Craftsmanship. The only life-giving type of human “work”. Everything else can be replaced or removed as it is a form of inhumanity. Kelly’s WIRED article on robots doing things better than humans frames the issue well.
  • Ingenuity. That which results when we fully activate the part of us that is the “sapient” in Homo Sapiens.

Much of Kelly’s work can be boiled down to some form of “curation” and a combination of these DNA strands. Let’s look at some of his more prominent curatorial projects on his website to get a better understand how these DNA strands were implemented.


Cool Tools Inc.

This project is the closest thing to a present-day WEC of today. It hasn’t retained its counterculture flair but Kelly (plus a team) has been continuing to provide tool recommendations since 2000.

screenshot that shows the cool tools website
A side note: To test how comprehensive their tooling repertoire was, I searched for something I hadn’t seen mentioned during my research: “menstrual cup”. I thought: ha-ha! I may have found a tool they’ve never reviewed! What can Kevin Kelly possibly know about this? But no. Cool Tools was way ahead of me and had already provided a collaborator-submitted review on this amazing tool… way back in 2005
Screenshot captured September 2021

There are many ways of consuming content from Cool Tools but my favourite is Recomendo, their newsletter. It’s not always about things that are traditionally known as tools. So far I’ve discovered things like:

  • life hacks (a “5-step road map for saying no”), 
  • fascinating services (like Radio Garden that allows you to instantaneously plop down anywhere in the world and listen to live radio streaming from there), and 
  • just plain mind-expanding tips like a book on alternative economic ideas (Recomendo’s Amazon affiliate link) that rethink the idea of property and taxes.

(WEC DNA Code: Cool Tools is a curation of Tools that benefit Humans interfacing with themselves, other humans or the Environment, manufactured with great Craftsmanship and Ingenuity)


Street Use

Like a wildlife photograph capturing a rugged subject in rather romantic detail, these photos of “street use” technology capture unique, bespoke devices, usually an assemblage of ready-mades that come together to form a brand new object. There’s also a sense of observing how an object that was meant to be used one way, gets used in another way in the wild. What I see in this project is Kelly’s admiration for the original hackers and makers of the world, and respect to anyone who has the imagination to create their own tools from found items.

(WEC DNA Code: Street Use is a curation of of photos depicting Humans with self-made, Crafted Tools created with time and Ingenuity)


TrueFilms 

TrueFilms is a curation of the best documentaries and non-fiction movies Kelly has watched. I particularly appreciate these categories and entries of this blog:

  • people at work”: at the top of my list is Jiro Dreams of Sushi, with the cinematography highlighting this multi-disciplined, multi-sensorial craft.
  • hard to believe / extraordinary”: I just added Man on Wire to my watch list, as it’s what Kelly described as “a nearly perfect documentary” and got 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
  • visual wit / cinematic poetry”: I couldn’t agree more with the entry of Koyaanisqatsi, a 1.5h cross-section of the state of the world wrapped in a slow-motion/time-lapse, audio-visual extravaganza. A mind boggling product of its time (1983) that influenced generations of docu-makers since then. 

That’s the beauty of good categories – they are not just for pure navigation, they can coin new genres and can be much deeper resonating than filters that simply “sort by country”. I didn’t even know I liked a category called “artists at work” until I saw it for the first time and thought: “Yeah, I do love documentaries like that.” One of my favourites is Abstract on Netflix, which is not listed on True Films but does fit in this aptly named category. Creating good categories is an underestimated art of taxonomy, and it impresses me how good Kelly is at seeing the underlying, higher order of things in all his projects.

(WEC DNA Code: True Films is a curation of video format that highlight an aspect of the Human condition, excellent Craftsmanship, or a spark of Ingenuity)


Wink

The slogan reads: “Remarkable books that belong on paper.” In the age of digital books, it’s easy to think that the writing is on the wall for paper books. But then, I challenge you to digitize these following books: 

Flotsam by David Wiesner: Years ago I was compelled to pick up another work of Wiesner called “Sector 7”. Despite it being sold as a children’s picture book, it combined so many things that I loved: Clouds. Light Steampunk. Fantastical architectural worlds. And friendship. His illustrations bring such depth of expression to each scene, it is a brilliant example of something I’m calling trans-lexical storytelling. “Flotsam”, though I haven’t read it, looks to be equally as excellent. (Images from here and here)
Building Stories by Chris Ware: This graphic novelist is one of the first that turned my attention to the connected tissue of our realities. He illustrates this so well on a 2D, paper surface format, I wanted to make all my projects look and embody this philosophy since I first learned of his work. The stories are so human and so imperfect, which is in stark contrast to his graphic style: the pinnacle of perfection and tidiness. His works are a wonderfully juicy reading experience.
(Image from MoMA)
The Works by Kate Ascher: I lost custody of this book in a previous breakup but I still fondly remember flipping through with wonder at all the big and small things that keep a city like NYC functional. I’m a huge sucker for flow diagrams and isometric exploded illustrations that reveal how things work.
(Image from winkbooks.net)
Visual Explanations by Edward Tufte: Bringing the science to graphic design, Edward Tufte is known for the gospel of upping the “data-ink ratio”. His books illustrate how visuals can be used as powerful tools to present evidence and stories through his personal analysis of successful (solving cholera through mapping) and failed (the Challenger accident) graphics of our time.
(Image from winkbooks.net)

These books offer visual and tactile stimulus that belongs firmly on bound paper pages. The realization is: such books are not all books, which Kelly’s popular blog post Better Than Free explains in the following way:

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.

Better Than Free — kk.org

These are the books that you’ll find in Wink: the stuff which cannot simply be drag-n-drop copied, and that will become scarce and valuable over time. Books are dead, long live Books!

(WEC DNA Code: Wink is a curation of books, a type of Tool, that embody Craftsmanship and Ingenuity in both content and media)


We’re going to end the Kelly show-and-tell here, even though I left out so many projects of his that I love. Kelly is one of the most prolific people you may encounter, and I invite you to explore more of his work in other projects.

For now, let’s move on to the grand finale… 👇


Whole Earth Catalog DNA + Curation is…
Kelly’s secret sauce?

Curation is such a curiously human thing to do. It’s one of many ways to hone our signal-to-noise ratio, and to find a way out of input overwhelm. Kelly might be a master at taxonomizing and curating information, but I don’t think he’s in it for pure mastery. Rather, I believe curation is two things for him:

  1. it’s a tangible way to make sense of the complex world, one object at a time, and
  2. a way to get in touch with the deeply human trait of seeing patterns, which traces back to a time where seeing a pattern could be a matter of life and death. 

Kelly takes it one step further and does his curations in public. He will often preface his curatorial blogs with the following: 

As dogged as I have been in tracking down great true films, I have seen only a fraction of the estimated 40,000 that have been made. So I am ready for more….If you know of an available, amazing true film that I’ve missed please recommend it to me.

from TrueFilms.com, with a link to a recommendation form

When someone curates in private, it only benefits from the sole contributor to the collection.

When someone curates in public, it has a way of attracting and directing additional energy in the universe to this cause. I don’t think it is a coincidence that he’s doing this. Kelly is harnessing the power of human attention, riding on the swell of crowdsourced insights to generate a collective wisdom about a collective human experience. Humans have the specific ability to contribute to such unending, ambitious public projects, because we are extropy-powered beings. We are energized by seeking patterns of order in chaos.

Kevin Kelly shows us that open-ended, collective curation projects can help us all get closer to the things that are most essentially human.

If you were asked to publicly and collectively curate something for life, what would it be?

Published
Categorized as Essays
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