vol.6, no.3, (November 2000)

Kevin Kelly's Complexity Theory: The Politics and Ideology of Self-Organizing Systems

Steve Best  and  Douglas Kellner


Abstract: Regarded as a contemporary prophet of the new technology and economy, widely acclaimed author and editor of Wired, Kevin Kelly argues that the realms of nature and human construction are becoming one.  Human-made things are becoming more lifelike and life is becoming more engineered.  Utilizing complexity theory and other concepts fashioned on the paradigmatic logic of biological systems, Kelly envisions a future with radically different forms of social and organizational control.  In this future world, control is dispersed in highly pluralistic, open and decentralized systems.  Natural, technological, economic, and social elements of the system co- evolve towards a superior, neo-biological civilization that (among other things) will foster bottom-up control, coordinated change, and cooperation among all elements. We contest Kelly's metaphysic of the new economy and new technology, arguing that he illicitly collapses technology and the economy into nature, using nature metaphors to legitimate the new forms of economy and organization. We argue that Kelly fails to factor in the logic of capital into his scenario and fails to explore the consequences of the new organization of economy and new technology for the environment and society.


As technology becomes more animated and autonomous, I think we should be asking ourselves where it wants to go, what its biases are and how far it can govern itself. We need to know this at the very least in order to push back expertly and with appropriate force otherwise we push in blindness. Kevin Kelly


Every major intellectual field and academic discipline has taken a postmodern turn in recent years, challenging or overthrowing modern paradigms and establishing new ones.[1] In fields ranging from the life sciences to business organization to war, provocative arguments are being developed that we are emerging into a new global economy, an innovative high-tech society and culture, and novel postmodern ways of life and identities. Kevin Kelly, former editor of The Whole Earth Review, confounder of the Well, promoter of various cyberevents like the Hackers Convention, and now Executive Editor of Wired, is being presented as a prophet of the New Economy with the publication of his book New Rules for the New Economy.[2]

This text builds on his earlier Out of Control which establishes the theoretical framework in which he celebrates the new economy and new technologies as forces of inestimable progress and worth that should not be tampered with or regulated by mere human beings.[3] Kelly's work demonstrates a paradigm shift occuring throughout numerous academic disciplines, whereas everything ranging from literary texts to market institutions are being seen as "complex" and/or "self-organizing" systems. While these concepts borrowed from the natural sciences shed new light on social phenomena, they also function as ideological tools that mystify mechanisms of power and domination.

Kelly argues we need new paradigms, new ideas, and new practices to make sense of and deal with the tumultuous changes that we are undergoing due to the global restructuring of the economy, the proliferation of new technologies, rapid social, political, and cultural change, and the emergence of new modes of thought. We agree that momentous changes are occurring and that we  need new thinking and practices to deal with the fallout of the technological revolution and the global restructuring of capitalism that we see as the motor of the "great transformation" that we are now undergoing. Yet while we appreciate the importance of appropriating ideas from new sciences to help understand the technological revolution and advent of a new economy, we believe that we also need critical social theory to make sense of the current transformations. Accordingly, in this article, we will sort out Kelly's key ideas, provide a critical evaluation of his work, and indicate the extent to which we believe his writings do or do not illuminate the novel and emergent conditions, phenomena, and challenges that we are currently confronting.


Getting over Humanism: Technology and Economics Out of Control

In an age of smartness and superintelligence, the most intelligent control methods will appear as uncontrol methods. Investing machines with the ability to adapt on their own, to evolve in their own direction, and grow without human oversight is the next great advance in technology. Giving machines freedom is the only way we can have intelligent control. Kevin Kelly

Kelly's Out of Control contains an impressive synthesis of current perspectives on science, technology, nature, and human beings that provides a lucid introduction to new paradigms in thinking about these topics. Subtitled The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, Kelly provides striking examples of the ways that human-made things are becoming more lifelike, while life is becoming more manufactured and engineered. Drawing on cybernetics, chaos and complexity theory, evolutionary theory, information theory, and discussions of new technologies, Kelly claims that we need fresh models of thought that articulate the parallels between the organization of nature, the novel environments of technology, and the dynamic human and social milieux. Offering a concept of "vivisystems" to describe these domains, Kelly argues that "the realm of the born  all that is nature and the realm of the made all that is humanly constructed are becoming one."[4]

For Kelly, the biological is becoming technological as technology intervenes in the very processes of life with the emergence of bionic bodies, the genetic engineering of plants, animals, and human beings, and cloning. Yet he also insists that technology is taking on the forms of natural, living systems as it creates new "ecological" environments like the Internet or the global economy, and as it models natural processes, generates new evolving forms of digital art and digital DNA on the computer, and unfolds in self-organizing modes. A partisan of holistic systems theory and cybernetics, Kelly advocates Big Picture thinking, seeing the emergence of innovative biological-technological-social systems and their unity, as well as the need for creative and flexible paradigms and thought to comprehend and adapt to the brave new world of complex, co-evolving systems.

While cybernetics emerged after World War Two as a science of control, Kelly advocates a countercybernetics, a renunciation of attempts at systems-steering and control, urging us to allow the systems natural, technological, economic, and social to engender their own forms of self-development and self-organizing evolutionary dynamics. His vision is driven by the conception that: "The world of the made will soon be like the world of the born: autonomous, adaptable, and creative but, consequently, out of our control."[5] The common denominator of these "vivisystems" is an absence of imposed centralized control, the autonomous nature of subunits, high connectivity between parts, and a "webby" nonlinear causality interacting among subsections.

Such vivisystems can be observed, he claims, by examining the restoration of a prairie ecology, the construction of an artificial ecosystem such as Biosphere 2, the development of computer networks, artificial life experiments, and the emergence of the Internet and global economy. Kelly is fascinated with networked systems, whether they are biological, mechanical, or social which he initially describes with the perhaps infelicitous metaphor of "swarm systems" and the "hive mind."[6] His project is to show that concepts and metaphors derived from natural processes illuminate our technological and social worlds and that these models and paradigms can be used to clarify a wide range of phenomena and processes ranging from biology to the global economy.

The concept of "biologic" implies that future societies will have very complex technological systems and will involve intricate interactions between humans and machines. On this view, the only way to the future is not through the old mechanistic paradigm, where we model our thinking on machines, but rather on an ecological paradigm that emulates the complexity of nature. This process is also called "biomimicry" whereby technological systems are constructed by imitating nature.[7] For Kelly, the goal is "to extract the logic of Bios," to study the complex systems of nature in order to make our technology more complex, solve more difficult tasks, and thus to allow our machines to self-replicate, to self-govern, to learn, and to evolve and do things on their own.[8] Examples of biomimicry include trying to model computer chips on the complexity of DNA and its greater information processing ability, analyzing how spiders manufacture their webs to make materials stronger than steel, or studying the organization or bird flocks to create better car traffic flows. Kelly's own favorite example of biologic is the construction of Biosphere 2, which replicates ecological dynamics within a new technoenvironment modelled on careful study of natural ecosystems.[9]

Kelly's magnum opus opens with nine chapters outlining some of the new paradigms of thinking about life and technology, followed by five chapters on the new economy and social system, and ten concluding chapters sketching parts of his own synthetic vision. His method is to begin with personal experiences and observations, or interviews with cutting-edge scientists and technotheorists, and then to proceed to sketching out more general theoretical positions which he then illustrates with a set of examples. Kelly excels as a journalist and his credentials with Whole Earth Review and Wired enabled him to gain access to major figures in the most advanced sciences, new technologies, and high tech economy. Consequently, his portraits of the major players and gurus within the New Age science, technology, and economy community are frequently interesting and informative. Despite the rapid changes in the technological and economic environment since the publication of the book, it is still well-worth reading (the section on "e-money," for example, and references to debit cards, now registers as economic history rather than as "futuristic" projection of a new economy). Overall, Kelly provides a substantive introduction to fresh thinking about nature, technology, economics, and our emerging postmodern world, while his own synthesis and analyses provide many stimulating ideas and perspectives.

In the opening chapters, Kelly is especially interested in how natural processes can be modelled in computer simulations and, conversely, how technoenvironments such as Biosphere 2 can be constructed. By the same token. he believes that concepts of "industrial ecology" and "network economics" can illuminate the changes going on in the socio-economic world.[10] These reflections are obviously given credibility by the tremendous explosion of the Internet and the global networked economy best described by Manuel Castells.[11] Castells vividly demonstrates that we are living in a world of unparalleled change and that we need new theories and perspectives to help us make sense of globalization, the information revolution, the rise of a networked society, and the new world economy.

One of Kelly's key arguments involves discussion of the coevolution of humans, technology, and nature.[12] Here it is important to cite the influence of Stewart Brand who was publisher of both the Whole Earth Catalogue which Kelly once edited, as well as the founder and publisher of CoEvolutionary Quarterly and co-founder of the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL), which Kelly also participated in. Brand moved from countercultural ecological perspectives to affirm the new computer technology, helping push the New Age intelligentsia, including Kelly, into affirmation of new technologies.[13] These and other hip, '60s intellectuals mutated into the "digerati," promoting the emergent cyberculture and its new technologies. Kelly follows Brand in this trek and returns to his mentor's conception of coevolution to push the notion that humans and technology are evolving together in a relationship of codependency.

Kelly argues that we are symbiotic with our technologies, that there is coevolution of humans, nature and technology, and that as our technological environment develops we ourselves evolve and mutate. This provides a stronger naturalistic metaphysics of the new technologies than, say, Jean Baudrillard who has no nature or biology in his theory and, like Fredric Jameson at times, tends to posit postmodernity as the replacement of nature by technology.[14] Rather, for many postmodern theorists, technology becomes more and more a second nature, a new environment, in which technology and nature implode into each other in the creation of synthetic technoenvironments and smart machines.

While we believe it is extremely important to see the co-evolution of nature, technology, and human beings, we would argue the points differently and would make distinctions that Kelly implodes. On one hand, Kelly is too eager to collapse technology into nature, seeing technologies as life-forms, possessing more and more qualities of natural and human life. The drama of his book concerns how humans will relate to the new technologies and whether humans or technology will prevail, with Kelly eventually proposing a copartnership as we note below. As our opening epigram from a 1998 interview indicates, Kelly both subscribes to and affirms a form of technological determinism.[15] His optic collapses nature and social systems into one process of coevolution, all of which follow similar laws and dynamics. In this totalizing tour de force, however, Kelly does not adequately distinguish between humans, nature, technology, and societies, while also failing to appropriately trace the relations between new technologies and social systems, the ways that a new economy is helping to shape and construct new technologies, and the sort of economy and society that new technologies are creating. In short, as we argue below, Kelly leaves capitalism and its logic and dynamics out of this coevolutionary picture, collapsing the economy into technology and both into nature.

In our view, it is today's theoretical challenge to see how science, technology, nature, human beings, and social systems interact and coevolve, to grasp how changes in one dimension effect the others, to trace and chart the dialectical interaction among these spheres, and to analyze how capitalism shapes all these dynamics. The most advanced contemporary philosophies of science and technology convincingly argue against the autonomy of technology, science, and society, demonstrating that human artifacts, techniques, practices, and conceptual schemes are socially constructed within specific socioeconomic systems, while tracing out the ways that disparate societies fabricate different sciences and technology.[16] Kelly, however, is more interested to demonstrate the co-evolution of nature and technology, and is generally unconcerned to theorize the defining features of the human and social, while privileging natural metaphors (hive, swarm, biologic, etc.) when he discusses human and social systems. Thus, Kelly fails to adequately theorize the role of the economy in the construction of the allegedly new worlds that we are entering, and how this process in turn is shaped by power and resistance.

Kelly posits a continuum ranging from an extreme form of control ("total domination") contrasted to a situation of "out of control." Only toward the end of the book does Kelly concede that his hyped conception of "out of control" is an exaggeration, that in fact he is seeking something like co-control, whereby we guide systems, while they retain their own autonomy.[17] Words like "shepherd" or "manage" come close to describing the degree of control that Kelly seeks, but "Partnership, Co-control, Cyborgian control," a sharing of control and our "destiny" with our creations is what Kelly actually is seeking.[18] But this notion of co-control arises in the context of our relationship to technology and its relevance to the economic or social system as a whole is not clear. Obviously, in the economic and political domain there is a competitive quest for control of markets, votes, and power. Surely, the current titanic battles between software corporations like Microsoft, Netscape, and other high tech firms not to mention the war between the Republicans and supporters of Bill Clinton suggest that models which abstract from power and struggle miss key dynamics of the contemporary world.

Thus Kelly covers over the virulence of agonistic competition in the contemporary world and makes the problematic suggestion that more profit is to be gained through alliances than competition, pointing to a tendency to overgeneralize and a naivete concerning economics that we will highlight in the succeeding sections. Hence, while his analysis puts in question determinist schemes and humanist fantasies about absolute control over the object world, and contains the reasonable insight that to control (guide) the behavior of objects in some domains, we must relinquish (absolute) control, this dialectic of guidance/letting go only has limited relevance in describing our relationship to natural and technical objects. Moreover, when applied to the social world, this view suggests that government and citizens should not fundamentally tamper with such things as socio-economic systems or domains like the Internet. Such a notion, however, renounces the project of refunctioning technology and our social systems to serve human needs rather than profit, as well as downplaying the need to promote social justice and meet basic human needs.

Kelly, however, seems on the whole to think that our socio-economic system and technology are just fine and do not need much tinkering or co-control. His crypto-libertarian political philosophy advances a Reaganesque "government-off-your-back" standpoint which translates into corporate hegemony and the capitulation of government responsibility to protect the health, safety, and rights of citizens. Moreover, Kelly is extremely technophilic, uncritical of the "new economy," and lacks any sense of social or political consciousness or moral concern about the directions of the global economy and the explosion of new technologies. A free-marketeer, Kelly posits capitalism as a complex system that will steer itself into order, providing a replay of Adam Smith's laissez-faire. Indeed, he sees Smith's "invisible hand" not only in the market, but in the Internet and the "Net" of life itself.[19] Hence, where Smith limited the invisible hand to the market and the mysterious laws of supply and demand, for Kelly the "invisible hand was coevolutionary life," thus promoting the Hand to the principle of Life itself and, in effect, God.[20] Like Social Darwinists and their principle of ruthless competition, Kelly reads social metaphors into nature, and then back into society, thereby eternalizing contingent relations and ideas, and legitimating society through a cosmic metaphysics.[21]

In addition, Kelly suggests that systems with free flows of information and communication inevitably lead to democracy "as an unavoidable self-organizing strong attractor."[22] Kelly thus posits democracy, and implicitly capitalism, as the only viable forms for self-organizing systems. This is a variant of Francis Fukuyama's conception of "the end of history" that capitalism and democracy (as currently constituted) are the highest, ultimate, and final forms of history that cannot be surpassed -- or are at least the "strong attractors," "evolutionary peaks," and "sweet spots" which our social organizations have generated.[23]

Kelly's mysticism of "life" and the "Net" thus leads to simultaneous celebration of the Internet and the capitalist market: "The only organization capable of unprejudiced growth, or unguided learning, is a network. All other topologies limit what can happen."[24] Presumably networks are "natural" phenomena, replicating the organization of nature, and are thus capable of growth and development, while artificial organizational forms presumably degenerate and die (e.g. bureaucracies and large static organizations like the socialist state or giant modern corporation). Socially constructed systems and organizations are thus judged by the extent to which they confirm to the laws and contours of nature and those systems are deemed best which most accord with nature's supposed self-organizing and self-evolving logic. Thus, nature seeks, and realizes itself in, the current capitalist system.

Kelly's celebration of new technology and the new economy are bolstered in his mystical conception of life which he lyrically posits as an evolutionary force toward diversity, growth, and development, one that is "unstoppable," "irreversible," and even "immortal."[25] An inveterate optimistic evolutionist, Kelly also posits a "rising flow" of life that seeks increasing complexity, diversity, numbers of individuals, specialization, codependency, and evolvability.[26] Kelly is taken by notions of systems that are "poised on the edge between chaos and rigid order."[27] Such systems are also capable of "self-tuning" which "may be the mysterious key to evolution that doesn't stop, the holy grail of open-ended evolution."[28] Thus Kelly posits an inherent order throughout nature and a networked market economy, as if the socio-economic system itself were capable of self-organization, fine-tuning, and unstoppable growth and development, without the mediation and domination of social and political forces.

Hence, not only does Kelly posit homologies between nature, technology, and social life throughout the book, he reads the logic and dynamics of natural systems into social systems and believes that both can be simulated and replicated in computer systems. On the whole, while we find chaos and complexity theory useful for understanding natural processes, we are suspicious that conceptions derived from the study of nature can be unqualifiably imported into social systems.[29] The degree of complexity seems much greater in social systems which are, after all, the products of highly flawed humans and groups who seek their own interests and are capable of extremely destructive and irrational behavior (as the media make clear everyday); such agonistic complexity makes social modelling and prediction extremely difficult and of questionable validity.

In the final analysis, the title of Kelly's first book is not a warning that technology will escape our control; he admits it will, but does not think through the consequences. He believes, naively, that "No one is in control," a total mystification of our economic and political system in which quite specific corporations, groups, and individuals have significant amounts of power.[30] In the face of the actually existing constellation of power and control, Kelly's normative urging that we should allow complex systems to take on their own emergent chaos and allow machines to take over many human functions and swallow our human pride obfuscates the power of ruling socio-political forces and is in effect an injunction to surrender to the current societal organization and go with the flow it creates.

Interestingly, "out of control" was a negative metaphor used to critique capitalism and technology, to point to the dangers of an unregulated market system, unplanned technological development, or a chaotic polity.[31] While one might think from its title that Kelly's book might be a warning about "technology out of control," a humanist admonition to take control of our economy and technology, in fact it's quite the opposite. Thus, Kelly inverts a dominant metaphor (out of control) that once was used to critique both capitalism and technology, turning a negative into a positive conception, urging us to let go "with dignity."[32] With Kelly, the concept becomes a positive feature of a self-organizing economic and technological hive that models "nature" and that benefits precisely from lack of control.

We wonder, however, how far contemporary economies would go without economic regulation and management, the intervention of the state in times of crisis, state expenditures for military and welfare to generate economic growth and provide a safety net for those who fall through, or suffer disadvantage. For Kelly, however, the emergent network system is more creative, productive, and exciting precisely because it is "out of control." Likewise, Kelly sees no danger in releasing potentially harmful pollutants or transgenic species into the environment. He seems to assume that with the end of the industrial era pollution by large-scale manufacturing will no longer be a problem and he does not consider the dangers of biogenetics and genetic engineering that Rifkin and others have documented.[33] Hence, his notion of "out of control" is undialectical, failing to note the situations and phenomena that require more control and management than he imagines. Thus, while there is a positive notion to recognizing self-management and not interfering with certain natural or technical processes that is interesting and useful, there is also a highly regressive and problematic conception of laissez-faire that fails to recognize the lesson of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, that our human creations can get out of control, wreak havoc, and ultimately destroy us.

While Kelly's book is valuable in documenting implosions between humans and technology and some fascinating parallels between natural and technological processes, he is not worried about undoing these boundaries and finds no need to maintain distinctions between humans and technology, or natural, technological, and social processes, urging us, in effect, to accept a totally imploded posthumanist universe.[34] Thus, whereas Kelly is correct to see unity in all complex systems, there are also differences that he collapses; e.g. capitalism is something of a self-organizing system, but its dynamics are also shaped by class struggle, competition between major economic units, and complex interaction between economic and political institutions, unlike any natural system. Kelly's chapters on the economy are wholly uncritical and say nothing about such things as exploitation or monopoly control, and not much about ecological problems. He has little sense of how power operates and of how big organizations manipulate the economy and polity for their own ends. It is indeed not clear to us how an economic system can be self-organizing when it is shaped by giant corporations, monopoly control of key technologies, and the state. In Kelly, old market ideologies thus return in a new hip pseudo-scientific clothing, recycling old concepts for the new millennium. Hence, despite Kelly's exuviation toward new views of science and technology, he has not shed his old mystical, New-Age cocoon.

Hence, while we can applaud Kelly's potentially populist emphasis on "control from the bottom up" and appeal to complexity theory to argue that complex systems incorporate evolution from the bottom up, from the simple to the complex, generating distributive networks and growth and innovation from the margins, much of his "wisdom" is common-sensical ("cultivate increasing returns," "honor your errors," and cultivate change) and banal. Moreover, his admonitions to "seek disequilibrium" and free technology from all control could have disastrous social and ecological implications. Yet, on the whole, Out of Control will probably be disappointing to those searching for new models of economy, business organization, and strategy. Much of what Kelly writes on the market and business organization is somewhat abstract and now outdated, and there are few concrete examples or case studies. Economics is overwhelmed in his first major book by his relentless desire to assimilate technological and biological systems and his quest to erase fundamental differences between humans, technology, and nature. His more recent book, however, focuses on the new global high-tech economy and provides more substance concerning his economic thinking, a topic that we will critically engage in the following sections.


The New Rules of Acquisitive Individualism

In the coming order, there will be winners and there will be losers. The losers will outnumber the winners by an unimaginable factor. Jacques Attali

In contrast to the epic verbosity of Out of Control, New Rules is rather short, indeed, too slight, for it is exceedingly sketchy and superficial, having the feel of an "instant book" written at warp speed to catch the fleeting (third) wave of the moment, as it flashes unwarranted promotional hype on its jacket.[35] In New Rules, Kelly applies the basic scientific and technological concepts of Out of Control toward an analysis of the emergent global and networked economic systems. In contrast to the philosophical bravado of Out of Control, New Rules is more a pragmatic than a theoretical work, another "how-to" manual that suggests ways to exploit the "new economy." Indeed, as George Gilder's blurb on the back cover hails, New Rules is a "handbook for happening entrepreneurs," although we are skeptical as to whether Kelly's rules are going to produce new fortunes, or that there is all that much new or original about them.[36]

As a pragmatic text geared for the average J.R. Capitalist, the metaphysical baggage of Out of Control is conspicuously missing (Kelly no doubt realized that capitalist positivism is interested primarily in profit and not in his Hericlitean-cum-Teilhard de Chardin ontology), save for scarce references to the economy as a dynamic, complex system in constant flux and disequilibrium. So in place of speculative metaphysics and their corollary "laws," the reader finds utilitarian "rules," although ultimately one may find these as fuzzy as the Bergsonian-Nietzchean vitalism informing Out of Control. Kelly has an incorrigible penchant for distilling messy complexity into simplicity, into, first, nine laws, and, second, ten rules. Perhaps Eleven Blends of Chicken Soup for the Self-Organizing Soul is next? Or Twelve Ways to Prepare Tofu for the New Age Entrepreneur?

Readers of Out of Control who had suspicions of the conservative implications of Kelly's asocial metaphysics and theory of technology will find these dramatically confirmed in New Rules. Kelly comes out of his Wired closet as a full-blown, pro-development, growth-oriented, laissez-faire economic thinker, a neo-liberal blithely indifferent to the major social and ecological problems of our time. The title of New Rules implies two major claims. First, a generic argument that we are now in a new stage in capitalist development, which Kelly vaguely links to postindustrial discourse. Second, if one wants to circumnavigate the new scene, Kelly argues that we need new maps and compasses. Thus, any would-be capitalist who wants to gain/maintain their fleet of yachts and BMW's is in luck, for Kelly promises to provide the ten basic rules they need for wealth and happiness -- a ten-step program for an addictive desire to money. According to Kelly, opportunities have never been better for amassing wealth; but the booty will not always be ripe for the picking, since the turbulent winds of change can shake the trees of fortune bare at any time.

Trumpeting yesterday's news, Kelly proclaims that a "new economic order" has emerged which "represents a tectonic upheaval in our commonwealth," occurring as "our world shifts to a highly technical planetary economy."[37] Kelly sees both continuities and discontinuities between the old (industrial) and new (postindustrial) capitalism. For Kelly, both forms are based on fast-paced, frenetic change, but he says nothing about the continued hegemony of accumulation, exploitation, alienation, and the like in the new utopian soft capitalism. On Kelly's view, classical capitalism is built on a "hard" design of steel, industry, automobile manufacturing, and other tangible commodities, while the new economy is organized around "soft" and "intangible" goods, such as information, knowledge, services, and entertainment.

While we find that there are indeed qualitatively new phenomena in the recent reorganization of capitalism, driven by such international organizations as transnational corporations, NAFTA, GATT, and the IMF, as well as by the explosion of consumerism, computers, and information on a global scale, Kelly has no concrete analysis of when and how these changes occurred, and he exaggerates the novelty of what he claims is the cardinal characteristic of the "new economy" a dense interconnection of networks. As Marx and Engels described vividly in the Communist Manifesto, classical capitalism dismantled premodern cultures and traditions, ran roughshod over national barriers, and "nestle[d] everywhere."[38] The colonialist and imperialistic dynamics of capitalism forced it to create a complex maze of economic, political, and cultural "networks" that have indeed intensified in the last few decades, but arguably a "network economy" is rather shaky ground for positing a rupture in history, as Kelly does, since transportation and communication systems have been essential to capitalism from the beginning.[39]  

Kelly is most apt in his description of the novelties of a postindustrial capitalism, or what he terms a "soft capitalism." Hard-style industrial capitalism still exists, of course, but Kelly claims that soft-capitalism is quickly devouring it, as steel, iron, and lumber irrevocably are being sucked into the black hole of information, circuitry, and software. Thus, "the hard world is irreversibly softening."[40] Bit by byte, information and the net are ensnaring the entire world, and consequently "the logic of the network will overtake every atom we deal with."[41] Except for one statistic, Kelly provides no evidence for his core claim that the erection of a hard capitalism is deflating into the soft.[42] His concern, rather, is to encourage the Oedipal patricide of the Capitalist Father and to rejoice in the messy complexity of its offspring the network economy, following the Siren Song of beckoning profit and new forms of capital realization.

For Kelly, therefore, we are at a key crossroads between the old and the new, "between a resource-based economy and a connected-knowledge one."[43] In fact, Kelly does not theorize the current crossroads between the old and the new, as he fails to adequately analyze the continuities and discontinuities between the industrial and postindustrial economic systems. Lost in '60s pseudo-libertarian nostalgia, intoxicated with neo-liberal fantasies, he does not grasp, among other things, that the new "network economy" is still dominated by a competitive and predatory capitalist logic (as so many recent mergers and takeovers demonstrate), and that government intervention is still necessary to regulate this terrain to protect the public interest, a fact Bill Gates and other supporters of the information economy also like to ignore.

Kelly naively believes that the parts of the disintegrating old industrial economy are being magically sewn together in a complex new tapestry: "What industrialization began by shattering, the network economy completes by weaving together and serving with great attention. The web of broken shards is now the big picture."[44] Kelly seems to believe, therefore, that the differentiating logic of classical capitalism is being superseded by the de-differentiating, implosive, and ultraconnective dynamics of the network economy. Thus, whereas the atom was the core metaphor of early capitalism, a trope for a society of fragmented individuals, intense class divisions, and competing corporate powers, the network is the metaphor appropriate for the present age, where all people, businesses, and nations are interlocked into a massive hive-like system of technology, economics, and communication.  

For Kelly, many "shards" of modernity are now being rewoven into new wholes, as nation states, for example, are becoming units within a single capitalist system. With the globalization of a network economy, Kelly believes that the identity divisions between "us" and "them" become obsolete, at least in the corporate world, since everyone is plugged into the same network; thus "individual allegiance moves away from firms and toward networks and network platforms."[45] But Kelly misses how, overall, old divisions persist, as the gap between the world's rich and poor grows wider every year, as new conflicts between ethnic and religious groups explode, and as new fragmentations are being created in the turbulence of economic and cultural change, providing a welter of competing ideologies, identities, and social groups.

Yet the networks are being assembled, and the "happening entrepreneur" sipping cappucino at Starbucks in Seattle or Austin needs to grasp this phenomenon first and foremost: "Unless we understand the distinctive logic of networks, we can't profit from the economic transformation underway."[46] On Kelly's vision, the network economy realizes the postmodern cultural logic of capitalism (the causal connections, of course, are never theorized by this asocial thinker). "Network principles renounce rigidity, closed structure, universal schemes, central authority, and fixed values. Instead networks offer up plurality, differences, ambiguity, incompleteness, contingency, and multiplicity" features we identified with the emerging new postmodern paradigm.[47]

In fact, Kelly is asking us to believe that the new capitalism is also generating a pluralist, open, and decentralized system. In comparison to the old Soviet Union or to Iran, this may be true, but in relation to radical libertarian visions of society, such as advanced, for example, by anarchist thinkers like Michael Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Paul Goodman, and Murray Bookchin, Kelly's claim is laughable. A small handful of corporations such as Disney, General Electric, Westinghouse, Microsoft, and IBM own and control the means of communication and information, while the very logic of the market censors alternative culture that is not as profitable as the standardized pablum fed to the public. Kelly's parade of ludicrous claims continues as he insists that "This new global economic culture is characterized by ... pools of knowledge instead of pools of capital (156), as if knowledge were not a primary commodity in a scientific and technologically dominated capitalism. Curiously, Kelly decenters the importance of computers and constructs a false dualism between computers and communication: "Computers are over .... Communication is the economy."[48] Does Kelly perhaps have a huge group of town squares in mind? How does global networked communication take place without computers?

Probably Kelly means that individual computers in the home or office are no longer as significant as the network, a claim no one would deny, but this above example is emblematic of Kelly's propensity to cloak the obvious in the forms of aphoristic gnomicisms. Moreover, Kelly's description of a new decentralized capitalism suggests that the capitalist system can co-opt just about anything, and this includes the rhizomatic logic championed by Deleuze and Guatarri.[49] As Kelly showed convincingly in Out of Control, capitalism has indeed adopted a decentralized, networking approach through innovative strategies such as subcontracting, or "outsourcing," whereby one corporation delegates various production tasks to other corporations in the interests of speed and efficiency. Indeed, David Harvey has shown that capitalism has shifted from a rigid Fordism to a more "flexible mode of accumulation" in its relation to the labor market, products, consumption patterns, and so on.[50]

But to argue without qualification as Kelly does that the world system of capitalism is now more open, decentralized, and pluralist, that it renounces "closed structure, universal schemes, [and] central authority" is mystification of the highest order. May we remind Kelly that the 1990s saw the greatest megamergers in history, that in the era of NAFTA, GATT, and the Euro, ever-fewer corporations and organizations are gaining control over markets and people, that along with the New World Order of homogenized markets comes an increasingly homogenized global culture and simplified natural world, that the World Bank enforces unspeakably vicious austerity policies on developing nations, that sweatshops and child exploitation are on the rise?

Hence, Kelly fails to grasp the dialectic of contemporary capitalism that is both more organized and disorganized than previously, that is generating at once new forms of centralization and decentralization, and that is thus promoting both new forms of homogenization and standardization as it proliferates difference, fragmentation, and variety. Since Kelly is well aware that capitalism is a protean beast, the ten "rules" he offers are not hard and fast laws, but rather "rules of thumb designed to illuminate deep-rooted forces that will persist into the first half of the next century."[51] Given his premise that the hard is devolving into the soft, Kelly's rules are designed to apply to all businesses, industrial or postindustrial, in Detroit or Silicon Valley, and so he expects industrialists too to take notice.

The problem is that Kelly's rules like those in the endless genre of how-to-be-happy books are by and large common-sense injunctions that are obvious to most informed participants. To be sure, some may find Kelly's emphasis on networks and the new soft economy incisive, some of his rules helpful, and ideas like complexity must be grown not installed (whether for a technological or economic system) fruitful. One of his rules ("No Harmony, All Flux") which enjoins the entrepreneur to seek constant innovation mixes an obvious platitude with a novel injunction that disharmony, flux, and disequilibrium may be more advantageous to the budding entrepreneur than the harmony and stability sought in Keynesian and neo-classical models. Other of his rules, such as "Increasing Returns," enlightens the would-be Bill Gates with the bromide that connections spawn more connections and success breeds success. Many of Kelly's rules are simply advice to cyberize one's business. Most rules advance his philosophy of decentralization, rhizomatic multiplication, and yielding rigid control as the best modes of management and profit making. The reader is thus urged to "Embrace the Swarm" ("the competitive advantage belongs to those who learn how to embrace decentralized points of control") and to "Let Go at the Top" ("what we are discovering is that peer-based networks with millions of parts, minimal oversight, and maximal connection among them can do far more than anyone ever expected. We don't yet know what the limits of decentralization are").[52] So, if cybercapitalism is your cup of tea, just "skate to the edge of chaos," "explore flux instead of outlawing it," and you're on your way....

Behind the celebration of "flux," "disequilibrium," and "innovation" is an embrace of Joseph Schumpeter and his conception of "creative destruction" and notion of the entrepreneur as the key innovative/progressive force of capitalism. Schumpeter is becoming the new dominant ideologue of capital, revered by Kelly, Gilder and other apologists for the new capitalism. Celebration of the market, the entrepreneur, and the need to destroy passé economic and governmental forms has become the new religion, the ideological force behind Reaganism/Thatcherism/Clintonism, articulated in a neo-Schumperian discourse which is replacing Keynesian as the dominant ideology. This ideology is now a dominant force behind the New Economy hype, as is evident when Kelly states:

Economist Joseph Schumpeter calls the progressive act of destroying success "creative destruction." It's an apt term. Letting go of perfection requires a brute act of will. And it can be done badly. Management guru Tom Peters claims that corporate leaders are now being asked to do two tasks building up and then nimbly tearing down and that these two tasks require such diametrically opposed temperaments that the same person cannot do both. He impishly suggests that a company in the fast-moving terrain of the network economy ordain a Chief Destruction Officer.[53]

Certainly economic success requires constant innovation that involves tearing down and destroying as well as creating.[54] But Kelly seems oblivious that capitalist "creative destruction" does not merely entail the "destruction" of past successes in the drive to always create something new, but also involves the destruction of firms, competitors, communities, workers' lives and families, and the environment in the constant lust to accumulate profit and revolutionize production. Chapter 8 ("No Harmony, All Flux") also celebrates in Schumperian fashion change, "future shock" (Toffler is also a major influence), flux, and disequilibrium, a form of "perpetual disruption" and turbulence that Kelly, as in his earlier writings, associates with nature itself.

But Kelly never considers the social effects of skating economic systems to the edge of chaos, toward endless innovation and disequilibrium, nor does he imagine alternative conceptions of economics that would involve planning and democratic input. While a prolonged period of "harmony" might indeed spell death for a natural system, this depends on what we mean by (social and/or economic) "harmony" and Kelly rules out in advance stability as a desideratum for a social order. Surely a genuinely democratic and ecological economy would have to be dynamic, but Kelly's values fall on the side of disequilibrium and disruption rather than equilibrium and stability.


Theory, Metaphors, and Ideology in New Age Economics

"Metaphors are serious things. They effect one's practice." Stuart Hall

In New Rules, Kelly extends the complexity theory that underpinned Out of Control, but it is decentered in relation to another discourse he emphasized earlier, that of evolution and biology. For Kelly, the economy is/is like an ecological system by being richly interconnected, rife with co-evolving relations, in constant flux and disequilibrium, and a self-organizing system with intricate feedback loops. Like other complex structures such as evolution and life itself, the economy thrives on the "edge of chaos," at the point where it is neither too rigid and static nor unbalanced and amorphous. Taking a page out of Stuart Kauffman, Kelly writes: "If the system settles into harmony and equilibrium, it will eventually stagnate and die."[55] Thus, the goal of the new network economy is perpetual innovation, dynamic disequilibrium, and cycles of social stability and disruption.

The theorization of society and the economy through biological metaphors such as self-organization is exceedingly risky, for one can easily lose sight of the enormous differences between biological and social systems. The new dynamic, holistic, and ecological outlook toward the natural and social worlds certainly is a quantum leap in understanding nature beyond the static, deterministic, mechanistic paradigms of classical modern thought. It allows one to unravel the false oppositions constructed by modern science, and Western thought in general, such as between subject/object, order/chaos, being/becoming, inorganic/organic, and so on. Concepts such as "complex systems" and "dissipative structures" have interesting applications to human beings, culture, and health. Scientists are beginning to overcome falsely constructed academic fortresses that compartmentalize different disciplines; in particular, physics and biology are proving to have deep lines of unity in the dynamic theory of matter.[56]

But, as we suggested above, in Kelly, the lines between different levels of life are blurred and the analysis of human culture is mystified and depoliticized, or, if politicized at all, reduced to the most banal liberal clichés about tolerance and diversity. Unlike in the natural world, the application of the terms "self" and "organizing" to society are highly problematic. To begin, the term "organizing" obscures the disorganizing effects of capitalism and suggests capitalist societies are a continual march toward ever greater complexity and order.[57] To say, moreover, that capitalism is "self-"organized obscures the ways in which distinct economic agents and powers consciously bend the system and its laws to their will (certainly not always with success and exact foresight), the intervention of the state to promote some degree of economic order, and the manner in which class struggle and the contestations of various social agents influences economic policies. To say a society, like an organism, is "self-organizing," is to homogenize social diversity, whether in relations of struggle or not, into a unified "self."

For Kelly, the economy is a self-organizing totality that is self-regulated by feedback mechanisms and the magic of the market. Following neo-liberal economist Frederick Hayek, Kelly attacks "top down" economic management and centralized attempts to regulate the economy on the grounds that the economy is too complex to rationally control, that prices and market mechanisms provide the most efficacious feedback loops, and that "spontaneous order" emerges from a market economy. Hence, the ideological implications of Kelly's scientific-cum-economic theory are transparent: the anarchic system of capitalism is the only economy that can bring growth, progress, and prosperity to citizens. In Out of Control, Kelly accordingly sought to allow machines and computer programs to run freely and to find their own solutions. In New Rules, he applies the same idea to economics and politics, but where human beings are involved there are quite different implications. "We let the network of objects govern itself as much as possible," Kelly says, "we add government when needed."[58]

Similarly, in the world of business, he advocates decentralization and allowing the "dumb swarm" of workers to operate independently, in order to develop the intelligence that can only come from below, but workers nevertheless need the leadership of management. Kelly therefore rules out the possibility of both direct democracy in society at large, and workers' control in organizations, and thereby perpetuates exploitative class hierarchy. Potentially progressive implications of decentralization themes in Kelly are rerouted into a reactionary and elitist framework that gives no more dignity to an individual worker that the queen bee does to a worker bee, assigning workers value only as members value producers for the corporate hive.

Like any scientific theory, such as genetics, complexity theory can be deployed for different political purposes. We would distinguish between a conservative and ideological complexity theory that uses new scientific and technological insights in order to legitimate the system of global capitalism, and a critical complexity theory that interprets "bottom-up" power and intelligence in terms of direct democracy, and not a swarmlike hive. Such a critical theory, which we ourselves support, would emphasize the need for sustainability and the construction of an ecologically viable economy and just society, while criticizing destructive aspects of the new technology and society.

Kelly, however, fetishizes the existing capitalist system by making social processes look like natural ones, thus naturalizing the odious forms of the current organization of society. Even more extravagant than the fetishism of commodities which for Marx masked social relations and exploitation, capitalist ideologues today like Kelly are fetishizing the entire social system as a self-organizing complex totality. As Marx wrote in section 4 of the first chapter of Capital, capitalists attempt to present social relations as relations among things, and to endow things (commodities) with agency.[59] The ontological status between subjects and objects, in other words, is inverted, as subjects become object-like and objects become subject-like. Kelly has shown that, in fact, such an inversion an implosion between subject and object, bios and technos is taking place in substantive ways, yet, following the logic of commodity fetishism, he completely conflates the subject and object worlds, society and biology. In direct contrast to Marx, who insisted that we treat capital as a social relation rather than a thing, Kelly treats the economy as a natural entity.

Changes from one "social system" to another are not a result of "self-organization," "critical thresholds," or "evolutionary peaks," but rather are determined by socio-economic crisis, profound discontent, class struggle, and political upheaval. Metaphors like "subcritical economics," threshold points" of growth, and "phase transitions" of the system simply obscure the all-too-real impact of capitalist economics on human beings and the natural world and confirm that the Achilles heel of complexity theory is its uncritical approach to political realities and social power. The naturalization of the social world is most blatant in Stuart Kauffman, who boldly declares "our social institutions evolve as expressions of deep natural principles."[60] The "laws" of capitalism, however, surely include the need for profit and thus exploitation, accumulation, and endless growth. How these "laws" play out is determined by political struggle and not a self-organizing system, which includes social classes, government agencies, giant and small corporations, and individuals, which often have competing ends and goals that are decided through struggle and power, two variables not found in Kelly's rosy vision.

Kelly thus decenters and occludes the role of capitalism as the major social constituent and deifies technology as the Prime Mover. Other complexity theorists also try to comprehend technological innovation through an asocial model of emergent complexity, but they fail to grasp the social forces behind these dynamics. Economist Brian Arthur, for example, sees technology to be more like an evolving ecosystem than a market-driven commodity, thereby naturalizing social dynamics of competition and exploitation.[61]

Hence, the totalizing application of systems theory and complexity theory is not a mistake of Kelly's alone; indeed, it is epidemic in the genre and is blatantly on display in thinkers like Stuart Kauffman and Fritjof Capra.[62] Scientists like Alan Sokal, Paul Gross, and Norman Levitt love to criticize social theorists for their alleged ignorance of science and nature, but the ignorance runs both ways as soon as scientists attempt reflection on history, society, and culture.[63] For all their learning and interdisciplinary emphases, Kaufmann, Kelly, and Co. apparently have never encountered the likes of Vico, Dilthey, Habermas, and others who advanced powerful critiques of the positivist conflation of nature and society, nor have they learned the ABC's of social oppression, injustice, and inequality. Indeed, complexity theorists celebrate the free market system, championing the market as a chaotic system, while failing to see the social and ecological consequences of its inherent logic.

Old ideologies die hard. "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living," as Marx observed long ago.[64] Today, in addition to the revival of Lockean theories of property in the phenomenon of biopiracy, where corporations like Monsanto genetically alter the  crops traditional cultures have cultivated for millennia and then claim the new biogene as their property, so too is Adam Smith being resurrected, consciously or not, to bolster the new theories of self-organization.[65] Complexity theory is a bizarre blend of Adam Smith and chaos theory, with the market as a homeostatic "feedback loop." Kauffman imagines breakthrough insights into democracy with complexity theory, but seems to think this is a sufficient condition.[66] Democracy does indeed involve complex "feedback loops" among appointed representatives or delegates and citizens, but obviously these are under constant assault in our current plutocracy.[67] While complexity theorists may offer insights into the holistic and dynamic behavior of societies, they lack the needed context of a critical social theory. Viable forms of knowledge for the present and future demand critical theories of power, as well as normative and utopian visions of unquantifiable values such as freedom.       


Technology and Capital in the New Global Economy

"Critical Theory today must become more negative and more utopian in its opposition to the status quo." Herbert Marcuse

While we believe that Kelly's work contains undeniable insights and provides a wealth of ideas and information which illuminates the new worlds of business, technology, and challenging ideas now emerging, we see him primarily as a synthesizer and populizer of new and some old ideas rather than an original thinker, much less a "prophet" or "guru" as he is frequently presented. He obviously encourages such designata by using religious metaphors as when he discusses the "common soul" between "the organic communities we know of as organisms and ecologies, and their manufactured counterparts of robots, corporations, economics and computer circuits?"[68] Or when he offers "nine laws of God" as his concluding remarks in Out of Control, which strikes us as a pretentious and problematic method of inflating his own ober dicta with the "laws of God" (to say nothing of positioning himself as Moses!).[69]

Kelly also enjoins his readers to play "god games" and become "amateur gods" themselves, a riff on Stewart Brand's motto, "We are as gods and might as well get good at it," a rather extravagant deifying of contemporary human beings in a way that seems to contradict his post-humanism and calls for deference to the logic of technology. Kelly thus ultimately presents us with a peculiar blend of New Age metaphysics, technological determinism, and neo-liberal market ideology that is highly eclectic, derivative, and fragmentary. He is not a particularly original or deep thinker, though he is a hard-working journalist who has produced a wealth of illuminating material and is an excellent popularizer who has made a set of complex ideas accessible to a wide-audience. But, as noted, he is highly technophiliac, mystifies unpleasant social realities, and is completely uncritical of the developments produced by the new high tech economy, the new technologies, and new theoretical and scientific paradigms.

As in Out of Control, in New Rules there is not a critical position anywhere in sight; New Rules is a cynical, amoral description of the new economy and a set of suggestions for how to exploit it. The raison d'etre of New Rules is summarized in this one sentence: "Those who play by the new rules will prosper, while those who ignore them will not."[70] With homage to George Bush's fatuous "vision thing" of a "thousand points of light," Kelly's last chapter is entitled "A Thousand Points of Wealth," where he rhapsodically summarizes his passion for exploiting the wealth of the network economy. All in all, Kelly is the Dr. Pangloss of the postmodern age, never tiring of declaring network capitalism the best of all possible worlds. Kelly takes his place among worthy predecessors like Marshall McLuhan, George Gilder, and Alvin Toffler who celebrate technology but remain silent on the ills and defects of capitalism.

In place of the technophilia of Kelly and others, we propose a critical theory of technology and society that contextualizes technology within a social, political, and economic framework, and that assesses both the positive and negative implications of new technologies in terms of their potential to enhance or restrict freedom and democracy, to promote or undermine environmental sustainability, and to create or block the creation of a more humane and just society. Kelly, by contrast, celebrates the new technologies and engages in a form of technological determinism which sees technology as the agency of a new economy. He thus fails to theorize the complex relations between the global restructuring of capitalism and the rise of new technologies, as well as the positive and negative effects of this process. Ironically, this complexity theorist is often far too one-sided and simplistic.

We, by contrast, see the construction and implementation of new technologies as crucial to the global restructuring of capitalism, but as a complex process with costs and benefits which need careful differentiation. Because of his biological mystifications and technological determinism, Kelly, however fails to see how the "new economy" is still all-too-like the "old capitalism" and recycles the old ideologies as if they are still relevant in the contemporary era. Kelly is so enthralled with capitalist institutions and values that he actually praises the "widespread reliance of economic values as the basis for making decisions in all walks of life."[71] But the logic of commodification and the market has indeed become the organizing principle for contemporary capitalism, and is the primary cause for the deterioration of our hospitals and medical care system, the legal system, schools and universities, the political institutions, media culture, and culture in general.

To correct Kelly and the current economic order's one-sidedness, we might turn to old Immanuel Kant, who argued that nothing is good unless it is informed by the good will, enjoining the importance of moral agency in shaping one's life and environment. The praise of scientific, technological, or economic advances for their own sake, the severing of their development from ethical values and informed public debate, are two of the cardinal errors and problems of Western society in the last three millennia. Kelly perniciously reproduces the capitalist tenet that the only values that matter are monetary values, and therefore that ethical, social, and other values are expendable. Money, trade, and economics will be important to any complex society; yet any culture that exclusively emphasizes monetary values, acquisitive individualism, and profit-oriented behavior will suffer myriad pathologies, violence, and crises without the resources to adequately deal with them and produce a better world.

While Kelly seems to realize that there is a serious moral vacuum in the culture of accumulation, he has nothing to say about it: "Because the nature of the network economy seeds disequilibrium, fragmentation, uncertainty, churn, and relativism, the anchors of meaning and value are in short supply."[72] He does not see how the crisis in human values is a direct result of our society's embrace of his economic philosophy. Rather than address the urgency of apathy, violence, nihilism, and the loss of the sacred in our culture, Kelly ends his book with a call to self-interested survival: "Those who obey the logic of the net, and who understand that we are entering into a realm with new rules, will have a keen advantage of the new economy."[73]

Fin d' text. Kelly concludes by making clear that his new maps and new rules are for those who need safe guidance in the jungles of Social Darwinism. Unfortunately, Kelly's concern does not extend to the billions of people on this planet who lack the most rudimentary necessities of life. Nowhere is Kelly's world does one find a scintilla of compassion for the vast majority who are hung skins in the global safari of profit. Kelly is perpetuating the oldest, most vulgar ethos of capitalist, namely, unrestrained egoism. Even Adam Smith, who naively believed that competing private interests would magically advance the greater social good, valued the ideal of a commonwealth of benevolent and empathic citizens; even Francis Bacon, whose work is redolent with images and metaphors of the rape of nature, was intensely concerned that science not be severed from ethical values. Kelly's work, by contrast, is totally devoid of any trace of altruism, concern for the public good, or social responsibility.  

Kelly thus ultimately projects a view of the world from high-tech Silicon valley, he is the embodiment of what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron described as "the California ideology," that celebrates new technology in countercultural and New Age terms as the realization of the utopia dreamed of in the 1960s. Unfortunately for most of the world, the networked economy is more a promise than a reality and the "soft," "weightless" (Coyle), digital and wired, "friction-free" (Gates and Lewis) postindustrial economy is overshadowed by the hard realities of low-wage backbreaking labor, gross inequalities, intensified exploitation, and growing poverty and suffering on a global scale. Soft metaphors idealize contemporary capitalism, masking its most vicious and violent features; they beautify the ugliness of exploitation, poverty, sickness, and hunger amongst the majority of the world's peoples, and they lead writers down the primrose path of fetishized analysis uninformed and insensitive to the all-too-concrete, tangible, weighty, hard, friction-ridden nature of labor, suffering, and struggle in the belly of the global capitalist beast. While the view from California may be rosy, for the rest of the world everyday life smells like what is needed to make the roses grow and blossom.

Clearly, the "softening" of the capitalist world is not without the hardening of the heart. The amoral/immoral non-contextualism of Kelly's argument is clear in passages such as the following: "the destiny is clear. We are connecting to all until we encompass the entire human-made world. And in that embrace is a new power."[74] What kind of power is Kelly advocating? What will be the impact on traditional cultures, wildlife, and the wilderness? Who are the "we" doing the connecting? What are "we" doing and seeking and what will be the consequences?

At stake are what concepts are best used to describe the new economy, our emerging technological society, and our imbrication in the natural world. Is Adam Smith's "invisible hand" really the best metaphor to describe a capitalist market economy? Does it, as Kelly suggests, also best describe nature itself and our new technological environment? And how do Kelly's metaphors of the "swarm" and "hive" mesh with Adam Smith's market metaphors and the complexity of the capitalist system itself? Isn't the Schumpeterian notion of "creative destruction" that is central to Kelly's imaginary directly antithetical to Smith's invisible hand which implies harmony and balance whereas the former stresses disequilibrium, turbulence, and destruction? To the extent that Kelly merges these positions he is embracing two contradictory and incompatible systems though it could be argued that Out of Control is more Smithian whereas New Rules is more Schumpeterian.[75]

But such issues do not concern Kelly who is content to concoct a mix of highly heterodox elements into his postmodern ideological brew. While Kelly would in effect displace social theory and economic theory for New Age metaphysics, and by collapsing the social and economic into the natural privileges biological metaphors, we see the continuing importance of critical social theory to grapple with the novelties and crises of the present era. We believe that we are undergoing a "great transformation" (Karl Polanyi) as massive as that of the industrial revolution, but that this process is to be interpreted in the context of new technologies and a global restructuring of capitalism. Hence, against the postmodern attack on grand narratives, we believe that the same broad, historical theorizing that Marx, Weber, Polanyi and other classical theorists used to theorize the rise of capitalism, and that the Frankfurt School used to describe the new stage of state and monopoly capitalism is needed today.[76] Kelly offers broad, novel and bold theorizing but is too caught up in New Age metaphysics and neo-capitalist apologetics to provide the sort of theoretical and practical perspectives needed to deal with the challenges of the epochal transformation that we are now undergoing.


[1]. On the postmodern turn in business, marketing, organization theory, and management, see David Boje and and Robert F. Dennehy Managing in the Postmodern World (Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1994); David Boje, Robert P. Gephart, and Joseph Thatchenkery Postmodern Management and Organization Theory (Sage, 1996); and Stephen Walter Brown, Postmodern Marketing (Routledge, 1998). On postmodern theory and culture, see Steven Best and Douglas Kellner Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (Guilford, 1991), The Postmodern Turn (Guilford, 1997), and The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies (forthcoming).

[2]. Kevin Kelly, New Rules for the New Economy (Viking, 1998). Kelly's work is part of a burgeoning genre of "new rules" books that advise individuals of the promises and perils of the postindustrial economy, and how to survive and flourish in the information age. In all cases, the basic idea is that the postindustrial economy organized around knowledge, information, entertainment, services, computers and digital technology, and a global "networked" economy turns the economic world upside down, such that wholly new rules and maps are needed, often based on counter-intuitive principles (such as "quality goes up as prices go down" and "make money by giving things away for free"). For other books in this genre, see Diane Coyle Weightless World: Strategies for Managing the Digital Economy (MIT Press, 1998); Stan Davis and Chris Meyer, Blur: The Speed of Change in the Corrected Economy (Warner Books, Inc, 1999); Stephen Herzenberg, John A. Alic, and Howard Wial, New Rules for a New Economy: Employment and Opportunity in a Post-Industrial America (Cornell University Press, 1998); and Ted Lewis, The Friction-Free Economy: Marketing Strategies For a Wired World (HarperBusiness, 1997).

[3]. Kevin Kelly, Out of Control. The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (Wesley, 1995).

[4]. Kelly, Out of Control, p 1

[5]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 4

[6]. Kelly, Out of Control, pp. 5ff. We believe that Kelly would be better off using more sociological conceptions of "networks" and that his biological metaphors have problematical implications which we will indicate.

[7]. See Janine M Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired from Nature (William Morrow and Co., 1977).

[8]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 2

[9]. Kelly, Out of Control, pp. 138ff

[10]. Kelly, Out of Control, Chapters 10 and 11.

[11]. Manuel Castells, The Informational City. The Space of Flows (Blackwell, 1989); The Rise of the Network Society (Blackwell, 1996); The Power of Identity (Blackwell, 1997); End of Millennium (Blackwell, 1998).

[12]. Kelly, Out of Control, pp. 69ff

[13]. Stewart Brand, The Media Lab. Inventing the World at MIT (Viking, 1987).

[14]. See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 1991).

[15]. Kelly,

[16]. See Sandra Harding, Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Epistemologies (Indiana University Press, 1998).

[17]. Kelly, Out of Control, pp. 329-331

[18]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 331

[19]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 26

[20]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 78

[21]. Bolstering his naturalizing of capitalism and the present social order, Kelly cites Stuart Kauffman on the remarkable congruence of Adam Smith and Darwin: "I had this profound sense then that there's a deep similarity between natural selection what Darwin told us and the wealth of nations what Adam Smith told us. Both have an invisible hand." Kelly, Out of Control, p. 396

[22]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 396

[23]. See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (The Free Press, 1992).

[24]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 26

[25]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 102

[26]. Kelly, Out of Control, pp. 412ff

[27]. Kelly, Out of Control, 402

[28]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 403

[29]. See Best and Kellner, The Postmodern Turn, Chapter 5.

[30]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 449

[31]. Interesting, Benjamin Barber notes in his generally excellent Jihad versus McWorld that: "Two recent books, the one by Zbigniew Brzezinski cited above about the 'global turmoil' of ethnic nationalism (Jihad), the other by Kevin Kelly about computers and "the rise of neo-biological civilization [McWorld]" both carry the title 'Out of Control'" (Jihad versus McWorld [Ballatine Books, 1996], p. 310). But Barber fails to mention that while for Brzezinski and in Barber's own analysis "out of control" signifies turmoil, pandemonium, and chaos, for Kelly it is a positive unleashing of the energies of a self-organizing cosmos, thus putting a positive spin on a usually negative conception.

[32]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 127

[33]. See Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World (Tarcher/Putnam, 1998).

[34]. In his more speculative moments, there are curious similarities to Baudrillard's quasi-ironic suggestion that the subject should surrender to the object, that we should engage in technomimicrcy, that we should imitate machines, be like them, surrender our humanist hubris, not try to control them, take the other side, serve machines, find out what they desire, and enter into a new symbiosis with the products of our creation (see Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies [Semiotext(e), 1990], and the critique in Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (Polity Press and Stanford University Press, 1989). While Kelly is onto a good idea with the insistence that the future hightech world if it is to be viable and sustainable must learn from and mimic natural systems, it is more questionable to advocate a technomicicry, an imitation of technology.

[35]. The book was hastily put together; there is little documentation of Kelly's assertions, the notes on pp. 155-6 of the last half of the book are several pages off, the bibliography is missing references, including to our own The Postmodern Turn which is cited in the text, there are typos, and other signs of shoddy production, suggesting that the main purpose of the book was to capture quick market share in the booming manuals on success in the new high-tech economy.

[36]. Gilder's earlier celebration of new technologies and American capitalism with metaphysical, spiritual, and cryptoreligious underpinnings is extremely important for Kelly's work (see George Gilder, Microcosm [Simon and Schuster, 1989]). Both provide valuable journalistic insights into the new sciences, technology, and capitalism, but offer elaborate and highly apologetic ideological legitimations that are extremely problematic and which rest on dubious metaphysical foundations.

[37]. Kevin Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 1

[38]. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader (Norton, 1978), p. 476

[39]. This argument is made in a Harvard Business Review critique of Kelly by Peter L. Bernstein (November, 1998/December, 1998: 159).

[40]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 3

[41]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 75

[42]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 11

[43]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 114

[44]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 132

[45]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 65

[46]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 2

[47]. See Best and Kellner, The Postmodern Turn, Chapter 6, cited by Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 159

[48]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy p. 5

[49]. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (University of Minnesota Press, 1993), and A Thousand Plateaus (University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[50]. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Basil Blackwell, 1989). For Harvey, "The relatively stable aesthetic of Fordist modernism has given way to all the ferment, instability, and fleeting qualities of a postmodernist aesthetic that celebrates difference, ephemerality, spectacle, fashion, and the commodifications of cultural forms" (156). Postmodern developments are therefore directly related to "the more flexible motion of capital [which] emphasizes the new, the fleeting, the ephemeral, the fugitive, and the contingent in modern life, rather than the more solid values implanted under Fordism" (171).

[51]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 2

[52]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, pp. 161, 18

[53]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 86

[54]. Kelly's mentor Gilder is even a more aggressive neo-Schumpeterian; see Gilder Microcosm, pp. 63, 188, 209, 316, passim. Both celebrate "creative destruction" without any apparent concern over who or what is being destroyed and what is replacing it.

[55]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 11

[56]. See Best and Kellner, The Postmodern Turn and The Postmodern Adventure.

[57]. On "disorganized capitalism," see Claus Offe, Disorganized Capitalism (Polity Press, 1985), and Scott Lash and John Urry, The End of Organized Capitalism (Polity Press, 1987).

[58]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 19

[59]. Karl Marx, The Marx-Engels Reader (Norton, 1978), pp 319ff

[60]. Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 304

[61]. See the discussion in M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (Simon and Schuster, 1992).

[62]. See Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (Anchor Books, 1996).

[63]. See the critique in Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn, Chapter Five.

[64]. Karl Marx, The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 595

[65]. Indeed, from Kelly's perspective, Adam Smith was prescient in his idea that chaos leads to order and that the economic system needs to be left to its own operations as much as possible, to be left "out of control" a position also argued in this century by Frederick Hayek.

[66]. Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, p. 28

[67]. Kelly does not discuss any concrete issues of democracy, nor does he reflect on the current configurations of power that are undermining democracy. Curiously, he also does not provide an analysis of how the Internet might promote stronger democracy, or discuss any examples of a democratic Internet technopolitics. See Best and Kellner, The Postmodern Adventure, and Douglas Kellner, "Intellectuals, the New Public Spheres, and Technopolitics," New Political Science, #41-42 (1997), pp. 169-188 .

[68]. Kelly, Out of Control, p. 4

[69]. Kelly, Out of Control, pp. 468ff

[70]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 1

[71]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p.156

[72]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 159

[73]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p.160

[74]. Kelly, New Rules For the New Economy, p. 19

[75]. Another aporia: Smith's notion of the invisible hand is modernist with its emphasis on stability and harmony; Kelly's postmodern complexity-oriented economics by contrasts seeks an economy on the edge of chaos, which he believes is the only way it can survive and flourish, through a perilous dance on the abyss of structure/disorder. Yet he continues to also deploy Smith and the invisible hand, a metaphor that just doesn't want to go away....

[76]. On the postmodern critique of grand narratives, see Jean Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (University of Minnesota Press, 1984).