Kevin Kelly: The Impossible is the New Normal

One of the best things I’ve read this week is Kevin Kelly’s take on “the impossible is the new normal”:

Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we’ll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens which focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everyday-ness. As long as we are online – which is almost all day many days — we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.

That light of super-ness changes us. We no longer want mere presentations, we want the best, greatest, the most extraordinary presenters alive, as in TED. We don’t want to watch people playing games, we want to watch the highlights of the highlights, the most amazing moves, catches, runs, shots, and kicks, each one more remarkable and improbable than the other.

We are also exposed to the greatest range of human experience, the heaviest person, shortest midgets, longest mustache — the entire universe of superlatives! Superlatives were once rare — by definition — but now we see multiple videos of superlatives all day long, and they seem normal. Humans have always treasured drawings and photos of the weird extremes of humanity (early National Geographics), but there is an intimacy about watching these extremities on video on our phones while we wait at the dentist. They are now much realer, and they fill our heads.

My only lament is how Mr. Kelly chose to present the extraordinary with a poor statistical anecdote:

To the uninformed, the increased prevalence of improbable events will make it easier to believe in impossible things. A steady diet of coincidences makes it easy to believe they are more than just coincidences, right? But to the informed, a slew of improbably events make it clear that the unlikely sequence, the outlier, the black swan event, must be part of the story. After all, in 100 flips of the penny you are just as likely to get 100 heads in a row as any other sequence. But in both cases, when improbable events dominate our view — when we see an internet river streaming nothing but 100 heads in a row — it makes the improbable more intimate, nearer.

Sure. But it would have made more sense to discuss the probability of getting 100 heads in a row versus various other distributions (for example: probability of getting between 45 and 55 heads in 100 tosses of a fair coin).

KK is the author of What Technology Wants, which I recommend reading (I read it near the end of 2010).

One thought on “Kevin Kelly: The Impossible is the New Normal

  1. I agree with you on the lack of statistical evidence which somewhat weakens his argument, however I think he completely ignores the downside of this. My first thought was of when my little brother will show me various compilations of feats in sports, utter dedication and pure luck.

    My second thought drifted to the negative aspect, which at best is the compilations of stupid acts of teenage desperation and really at worst falls into the deep abyss of the Darknet. I understand it is simply nicer to look at the heaps of heart warming ‘impossibilities’ but if you are to even broach the subject of impossibilities then you can’t avoid the utter disparity between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ impossibilities.

    It is much easier to happen upon a trove of anonymous fools goading another person to ‘an hero’ than the uplifting speeches at TED. I’d like to say this makes the former less impossible and perhaps makes the argument less apt but the truly evil shit that comes from the internet never stops and it only really gets worse.

    Sorry about that, just wanted to add that.

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