Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists

Kevin Kelly

What Technology Wants

Originally published in the 75 Anniversary Issue of The Hollywood Reporter on “The Future of Entertainment”

The desire to hear a well-told story will never leave us. But the way in
which stories are created and delivered will change immensely in the
next 20 years. These changes, although birthed in culture, are
ultimately driven by technology. What will entertainment technology look
like in 20 years? Let’s listen to what technology says.

First, technology has no preference between real and simulations.
Neither will our stories. The current distinction between biological
actors and virtual actors will cease, just as the distinction between
real locations and virtual locations has almost gone. The choice will
simply come down to what is less expensive. In fact in 20 years the
equation will flip, and story-tellers might use a real location
primarily because it is more expensive to do so. A future criticism
might be that a director used a live real location simply because it was

Further virtual sets don’t necessarily mean that they will be
photorealistic. Once simulated locations are indistinguishable from
“real” sets, they no longer have to prove anything. This will tend to
make sets, like paintings, become more abstract, fanciful, and
non-photographic because the real world can’t. We’ll move into an
impressionistic period in cinema, where real becomes hyperreal as a way
to distinguish the made from the born. We already see a bit of this in
the underground movement to craft movies within video games.
Twenty-somethings who are listening to the technology are producing
weekly shows using the characters and sets in XBox games, or PC games.
They write a script and employ easily directed figures in the detailed
ready-made world of Halo or The Sims, and are happy to have it look

The blur between real and simulated will continue to blur the line
between documentary and fiction. As straight documentaries continue to
surge in popularity in the next 20 years, so will hybrids between
fiction and non-fiction. We’ll see more reality shows that are scripted,
scripted shows that run out of control, documentaries that use actors,
actors that are robotic creations, news that is staged, stories that
become news, and the total collision and marriage between fantasy and
the found.

The most obvious effect of this shift will be visible in the craft of
visual storytelling — what we know as movies and TV. The fact of
capturing something on film is no longer the final step, but only the
first step in fantasy. Images are like paint, to be finessed and redone,
to be layered and bent and shaped just like words. They can be edited at
any time, in multiple editions, in multiple versions. Films and shows
are no longer monuments but processes without end. Technology turns all
nouns into verbs.

Second, technology wants to be free. Not free as in free beer, but free
as in freedom, to quote Richard Stallman, a digital pioneer. Technology
wants content to migrate merrily, to be liquid, to be portable between
devices, to be manipulated by the users and audience, to be linked,
tagged, commented, categorized, collected, annotated, and deeply
participatory. As iTunes proved, the great advantage of digital music
was not that it was free (as in beer) but that it was wrapped in the
free (of freedom) for users to create playlists, to link cover art, to
sample it, to email it, to ENGAGE the content. We are entering into a
regime where technology encourages participation. The more that
customers participate in the creation at hand, the more they want. This
makes some artists and publishers who were comfortable with the previous
notion of fixed monumental art quite nervous because participation is a
new way, a seemingly extreme way. But what technology wants is maximum
flexibility and liquidity. Fans want a hand in the creation, if only to
trade annotated screen credits, swap early drafts of the script, or
produce their own alternative scenes. The revolution in digitalization,
both in production and distribution, accelerates the freedom of content
and the culture of participation.

Third, the reach of participation will turn the audience into producers.
That idea was laughable until the rise of blogs. Twenty years ago, the
worried were wringing their hands over the death of reading and writing,
how TV had killed the alphabet, and made kids illiterate. Now, every
second another person will begin writing a daily blog. The audience is
prosumer. Will that happen with much-harder-to-create video and music?
Yes. Technology is making it easier and easier to whip up visuals as
fast and cheaply as words. Good stories are just as hard to complete,
but bad stories will be amazingly easy to produce. Prepare yourself for
a two-decade great flood of really bad movies — and some of the best
stuff ever produced by humans.

Third, technology wants to fill in all the times. The two-hour movie and
half-hour TV show are legacies from the scarcity of distribution. We
should expect to see more great works at the scale of music videos,
3-minute shorts, or 15-minute serials (at the short end) and
interminable seven-part epics (at the long end). Think of any duration
other than the half-hour unit, and now imagine a flood of creations
filling that niche — made possible by the freedom of the niche-rich
“long-tail” distribution.

Forth, technology is universal. Global piracy is a symptom of success in
how universal the ubiquity of technology has become. Kids around the
world are eating the same foods, listening to the same music, watching
the same films, studying the same subjects in school, and packing the
same technology. Different languages, but one technology. The most
interesting films in the next 20 years will be made wherever there is
the least resistance to new technology. That may be China, or India, or
maybe even California.