Book Review – Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World

properties-of-information-out-of-control-kevin-kelly-book-reviewI first read the book “Out of Control” in 1996. In this practical and elegant compendium of contemporary philosophy, author Kevin Kelly explores the questions at the very core of our existence. Today, 17 years later, Kelly’s concepts are still stuck in my mind like I just read the book yesterday.

Kelly begins by showing us how a colony of bees gets its “hive mentality” and quickly progress to discussing the essential nature of computer viruses.  How do they work? How do they behave? Kelly describes the very earliest experiments with computer viruses, back when computer viruses were still laboratory curiosities. In many ways, computer viruses are a form of life. In Kelly’s world, life is also a form of information. Biological life forms and artificial systems have very similar information structures and evolutionary patterns.

Data and information are recurring themes in Kelly’s book, since without information, life is all but impossible. Kelly thoroughly explores how information behaves, exploring Stewart Brand’s maxim “Information wants to be free.” Information also wants to replicate. Success, in nature and in complex artificial systems, depends on information organized in a ways that “do not resist either the replication or roaming urges of the information.”

The several stages of evolution, including: 1) Auto-genesis of systems, 2) Replication, 3) Genetic Control, 4) Somatic Plasticity, 5) Memetic Culture and 6) Self-directed evolution.  Throughout the book, Kelly repeatedly circles back to evolution, weaving information science into the subject. In Kelly’s view of the world, biology is information and information is a living thing.

Despite man’s attempt to master self-directed evolution, nature remains determined to hide critical and essential information.  Despite our attempts to decipher DNA and RNA, most of life’s secrets still remain firmly locked up.

“Out of nothing, nature makes something.”  Kelly ends the book by describing The Nine Laws of God governing the incubation of something from nothing.  The nine principles not only apply to biological life forms but are also equally applicable to artificial systems, as a response to complexity.

Kelly is an uber-geek but a master storyteller none-the-less.  If you are the least bit curious about the world you live in, you will find at least one interesting story in this book. Reading the whole book will change your outlook and you will perceive the world in a whole new way.

Andy Pattantyus, CPIM is president of Strategic Modularity, Inc., a systems engineering consulting firm that works with clients on process oriented Lean Transformation projects, including initiatives to improve administrative workflows. Andy is also an active member of APICS-SFV and The ACA Group. Contact Andy at

Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World by Kevin Kelly is available through Amazon.

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