Theater of Cruelty

ASIA: "We are the ones who are far away, while they are in the center"

TECHNOLOGY / According to Kevin Kelly, technology writer, photographer and publicist, the best thing you can do sometimes is slow down technology.


Kevin Kelly has just come out with an unusually large 3-volume photo book, The Vanishing Thing, which weighs in excess of 12 kilos and holds over 9000 images with captions. Most people still know him not so much as a photographer, but rather as a writer and editor of pioneering publications such as the eco-tech bible of the hippie era The Whole Earth Catalogue (1968) as well Co-Evolution Quarterly og wire magazine, which he founded at the beginning of the digital revolution. In the books of Kevin Kelly, as What Technology Wants (2011) and The Inevitable (2016), he also writes a lot about Asia and compares different technological cultures. But how has travel and the interest in technology been connected in his own life?

«The very basic idea in The Whole Earth Catalogue was that you could invent and shape your own life, and this also became an inspiration for my travels – a kind of education. The lively street life, the outdoor workshops, the human life in all its kaleidoscopic abundance, as I experienced it in Asia, also became a bit like a catalog of possibilities: alternative ways of doing everyday things, such as dressing, building a house, performing a little ritual or cooking, ”replies Kevin Kelly.

He started traveling in Asia 50 years ago – a 20-year-old suburban American who had never used chopsticks. It was like landing on another planet – or stepping into a time machine! At that time, people lived well into the Middle Ages, in ways that had not changed at all in several centuries: “During these same 50 years, the whole continent decided to take the leap into the future, and in the time I have traveled there, they have created the world's most advanced and futuristic cities. "

That which disappears

We have been used to turning our eyes to the west, to America and California, to see the future. Does Kelly feel that we should now rather turn our gaze eastwards towards Asia?

"When you move west of California, you also come to Asia! Silicon Valley, where I myself sit now, will probably continue to be a kind of center of the new world for a few decades, since this is still the place with the least resistance to new ideas. But I suspect that this center will move to Asia, where they have a stronger optimism for the future and a greater willingness to try new things. Asian culture is changing faster than most people realize.

My photo books try to capture what is disappearing, but not in a nostalgic way where I am in favor of preserving them or preventing them from being erased. These things are not as useful as before, but they also have a beauty of their own. The terraces you find in southern China and around Asia, for example, may have disappeared in 50 years. The manual work of caring for them is extremely time-consuming. Plowing a piece of land that is one meter wide, where the walls are two meters high, is difficult and that is as much as they manage to navigate there with the draft animals. There is no room for machines, and even if you could maybe make a robot that did the job, it wouldn't be profitable compared to a high-tech modern vertical plantation. Many of these terraces will collapse in time to come, so anyone who wants to see them should go now.”

The lively street life, the outdoor workshops, human life in all its kaleidoscopic abundance.

The book's collages are like pure images of diversity and variety, for example the series of carrier bags for toddlers – which is also on its way out. Still, is Kelly keen that some of these things can be reinvented and inspire new inventions?

"Of course, many of these solutions can be valuable for the designers of the future. Baby carriers are from Vietnam and China and I was fascinated by how they are all unique, with different embroideries. Wherever things are made by hand, we find great diversity due to variations in the local environment and the materials they have. This kind of thing disappears as soon as we get machines to make things."


A story about modernization that is repeated in the criticism of globalization is that we are moving from local variation to a homogenous standardization: Everyone lives in the same way and uses the same products: "Here I have a completely opposite interpretation: Modernity is moving from rigidity to diversity. We see this in professional life, how people spend their time. Wherever you lived in Asia a hundred or two hundred years ago, you became a farmer if you were a boy, and a housewife if you were a girl. Maybe you could become a blacksmith or find another craft, but most were farmers. So while there was more variety in dress, architecture and cultural expression, the way you lived and thought was heavily controlled by circumstance.

What we see in modern cities today, is a new diversity in people's identity, interests and professional life. You can become a cryptographer, a ballerina or an adviser in the field of organic diet. At the top level of the needs pyramid we see enormous budding and branching, while at the bottom where the primary needs lie, for example in the case of shelter and architecture, the solutions converge to a very simple thing: What people want and think they need is a box with installed water, electricity and internet.

What people want and think they need is a box with running water, electricity and internet.”

As I also often point out, there is much to learn in a traditional and purely cultural sense, for example from festivals and celebrations, of which I have photographed a lot. In Southeast Asia they have festivals on the beach with hundreds of thousands of participants, and in India millions of people often gather at the same time. How do they achieve this?”

Technological development

In a country that Norway everything is planned from the top down, in a hierarchy of responsibility and planning. IN India on the other hand, one can get the impression that things happen more from the bottom up. If something needs to be cleaned, rebuilt or repaired, there is almost always someone who can help. Perhaps it is simply supply and demand, but it also seems like something else, an art of improvisation, spontaneous collaboration. Doesn't this "grassroots" remind you of the best of the hacker culture that Kelly has written so much about, we ask him:

"There are still different cultural styles, stereotypical features. You know, the Indian way of dealing with the future is very different from the Chinese, because they have a completely different cultural character. That kind of bottom-up approach is very effective for certain things. The Indians are unmatched here. But it is also very clear that there are also weaknesses hidden in our character. This chaos, which can be creative, is also something that India will always struggle with, simply because it is largely not that effective.”

At the same time, you also notice in India that things are becoming more organized and modern, and places often change beyond recognition. Has Kelly visited many places where he has seen the changes gradually unfold during the half century he has traveled about?

"I tried to avoid it, because the experiences were usually disappointing. IN Shanghai the city changes enormously in just two years, entire neighborhoods disappear, and everything is brand new and perfect. And I find that exciting. But the little hidden nooks and crannies where I have visited nomadic people and the like, those places I try to avoid, so I don't have to see everything that has disappeared. I'd rather choose something new, as there's so much I haven't seen."

"For me, it's mostly about the experience itself. I mostly take pictures of people.”

Places like Shanghai consciously try to invoke the future and make time accelerate. But in Asia there are also remnants of a thoughtful skepticism towards the new, as in the Kingdom of Bhutan, which for a long time had no cars. I read that they just started using smartphones, so it might seem that the technological advancement is really irresistible?

"Even the Amish people in the USA have adopted the mobile phone, but they stick to small flip models. When it comes to technology, you have to choose anyway, so you might as well have very clear criteria for what you choose and what you want to optimize. The Bhutanese have what they call gross national happiness, but the Amish people don't try to optimize happiness. They want to optimize the community. So the Amish people say they will use a technology if it enables them to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with the whole family around the table. Sometimes slowing down technology is the best thing you can do – to stop, suppress or ban it rarely succeeds anyway. In my family there are things we don't like, so we don't have a TV set, for example. I want society to limit itself to a maximum of things that I can then choose from in a minimalist way.


In the time of the pandemic, we still have access to everything online, but travel in the physical world has become very limited. Tourism, which perhaps began with pilgrimages and was followed up by educational trips, before mass tourism, may be entering a new phase. Kelly traveled to Asia in the first phase of backpacking, but how has travel changed – and what is the future of travel?

"My gut feeling is that travel and tourism will continue to grow, and that is positive. I think here in the US and elsewhere we should have two years of compulsory service for young people under 21, a kind of peace corps, where you could also choose where you wanted to go – and where you could work together with other young people from all over the world, on completely new places. Traveling is good medicine for so many things, so young people should get government funding so they can get out.

The way society has become, we are all logged in and connected 24 hours a day, and thus it becomes increasingly difficult to think differently. At the same time, thinking differently is the driving force in the economy, so here travel is a good investment. For me, it's mostly about the experience itself. I mostly take pictures of people, so it becomes a journey where you meet people on your own journey through life. I hope that people who see my pictures can feel something of the presence of these people who may seem so far away – in Central Asia, for example – and see in a glimpse that it is us who are far away, while they are in the center . I believe that seeing their faces in their own lives and the world can help us understand how it all hangs together – that we are actually together here on this planet.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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