We explore the past, present, and future of Asia with Kevin Kelly, author of Vanishing Asia: A Masterclass on the Past, Present, and Future of Asia. We cover Kevin’s travel in Asia and how he viewed its changes over time, his thoughts on how to embrace the future while retaining cultural values and beauty, and understanding the nuances of Asia and the power it will hold in the future.
We explore the past, present, and future of Asia with Kevin Kelly, author of Vanishing Asia: A Masterclass on the Past, Present, and Future of Asia. We cover Kevin’s travel in Asia and how he viewed its changes over time, his thoughts on how to embrace the future while retaining cultural values and beauty, and understanding the nuances of Asia and the power it will hold in the future.
“Don't try to be the best; try to be the only. If at all possible, you want to be doing something that you have trouble describing because there's not a name for it. That's a sign that you are working in the territory of the only." – Kevin Kelly
EPISODE GUIDE (LINKS, QUOTES, NOTES, AND BOOKS MENTIONED)
FULL TEXT TRANSCRIPT
This episode is our guide to the past, present, and future of Asia. In it we cover:
ABOUT VANISHING ASIA
Kevin Kelly's new book, Vanishing Asia, features over 1,000 pages with 9,000 images from his hundreds of trips to remote places in Asia over the last 49 years.
💌 FREE NEWSLETTER
🎙 LISTEN ON
ABOUT OUTLIER ACADEMY
Learn timeless lessons on work and life from iconic founders, world-renown investors, and bestselling authors. Outlier Academy is the forever school for those chasing greatness. Past guests include Gokul Rajaram of DoorDash, Scott Belsky of Benchmark and Adobe, Joey Krug of Pantera Capital, Mark Sisson of Primal Kitchen, Luke Gromen of The Forest for the Trees, and Brian Scudamore of 1-800-GOT-JUNK.
ABOUT DANIEL SCRIVNER
Outlier Academy is hosted by Daniel Scrivner. Over the last 15 years, Daniel has led design teams at Square and Apple, turned around a $3M+ ARR SaaS business, and invested in more than 100 companies. He launched Outlier Academy in 2020 to learn from the world’s best founders, investors, authors, and peak performance experts.
Welcome to a brand new episode of Outliers. I'm your host, Daniel Scrivner. On Outliers, every week I sit down with an incredible entrepreneur or investor to decode what they've mastered and identify the ideas, mental models, and cheat codes we can all put to work in our own lives. But this episode is a little bit different. Each month, we dedicate one episode to what we call a masterclass, which is a deep conversation about something outside of business that can help us all understand the world more deeply.
And today, we couldn't be more excited to share our latest master class with Kevin Kelly all about Asia and Kevin's new book, Vanishing Asia, which features over 1,000 pages with 9,000 images from his hundreds of trips to remote places in Asia over the last 49 years. What's more, Kevin launched this book on Kickstarter and there's still a week to back this project and get a copy of this book for yourself at a massive discount to the retail price. If you're interested after listening to this episode, visit outliers.fm for the show notes and click on the link to back Vanishing Asia on Kickstarter.
This conversation is special for many reasons. We go deep on Kevin's process building this book and how we got down from 200,000 images to just 9,000. We talk about why he decided not to print this book in Hong Kong due to new restrictions from the Chinese government, but we discussed his favorite memories and what he took away from documenting the vanishing world of old Asia and the rise of the Asian century as Asia takes its place as the gravitational center of the world in the next 100 years. As always, for links to everything discussed in the full transcript of this episode, visit outliers.fm and click on the show notes link for this episode. And please, if you enjoy this episode, go and back Vanishing Asia by Kevin Kelly on Kickstarter. It's an incredible book and I've got my own copy.
And now, let's jump into my conversation with Kevin Keller. Kevin, I am so excited to have you on the podcast for a second time. I just wanted to start off by saying congratulations because you launched this campaign for Vanishing Asia, I believe, just a handful of weeks ago, and you've already got $410,000 raised out of a $75,000 goal with 1,600 plus backers. What has that been like?
It's a full-time job. That's what it's like. I always tell people, "Yes, be prepared to have one person working full-time if you have a Kickstarter." It's not my first and I was ready for that and I've been actually giving my time and trying to answer comments and questions and doing the social media stuff and the promotion. This is all in the service of this book, which is a insanely oversized book. It's actually so big that I had to divide it into three bigger books, three big books, three volumes. The whole thing is 1,080 pages. And so this is the book. The Vanishing Asia book is the result of my 49 years of photographing in remote parts of Asia.
I've a Kickstarter to try and share those images because I began before the age of Instagram and only recently have been sharing them, even though I've been accumulating them for many decades. I am now trying to share this in a way that captures the differences, the energy, the beauty, and the invigorating spirit of an Asia that unfortunately is disappearing. And we can talk about that, but that's what the book is.
We will link to the Kickstarter in the show notes and we're actually going to try to fast-track this episode and get it out next week. So anyone that's listening and is interested can go and support the project, get a copy of the book, or even get just a hand-signed page. So I'm curious, you had that initial $75,000 goal. Obviously, you have far surpassed that. It seems like it's going to raise 500,000-600,000 before it closes. Was that surprising to you?
Yes and no. I had done a earlier book 20 years ago and it was published by Taschen, and they sold 30,000 copies of that book. So I was feeling that there was some thousands of people that I could connect with. And in this kind of narrative, I should also mention that I had this idea 10 years ago or more, 12 years ago of the 1,000 true fans. We can talk about that in detail, but in general, it was this idea that if you have direct contact with your audience, you don't need to have a million of them to have some success. You need a million if you have studios and publishers and labels involved in-between you and the audience. But if you, as a creator, actually have direct contact with your fans, then those numbers are much smaller and they're closer to the thousands.
And so my hope was that I could connect with my 1,000 true fans. And even though I'd been writing about it for a long time, I'd never really tested that idea. So my interior goal was to find at least 1,000 of them because then it would definitely work. I set the number of the Kickstarter goal, even smaller than that because I'm conservative and it's an all or nothing. So I wanted to be sure that I at least captured enough. The number of the minimum was enough to do it if I also counted on the sales from Amazon later on. In other words, if I counted both those and then the ones that would get if I were released to the public, then I could do it.
1,000 get me closer to being able to just do it on the Kickstarter alone. And if I get another 1,000 for 2,000, then I'm really covered to do it, even just if I didn't sell any more at all. And so that's where we are. The other thing too is I had done a previous Kickstarter for oversized graphic novel book. This was in the early days of Kickstarter, and we were killed by not remembering or counting for the shipping costs of this oversized book. And the returns that we get because when people got a damaged book and sending it, we had to send it twice. So I packed in a little bit of slack in here to cover the fact that this is a 27-pound monster. And just shipping that even in the US is expensive and there will be returns and stuff. I need a minimum to print at the cost that we think this is going to go.
And in full disclosure, I should say we had a little bit of a... I mean, another reason why I'm not rejoicing in the moneybags is because originally I was going to print this in China, where I have printed in the past and they have the best prices, and that's what we calculated on. And then in the middle of the campaign, I learned that Hong Kong, where this was going to be printed, has recently been absorbed by Mainland China in that Hong Kong was a free, willing democratic place. And now, it's not. And so one of the things is that now anything printed in China has to undergo the same censorship that something that would be distributed in China. And so my book was put through the censors and it didn't pass.
Even though it's just photos, so like [crosstalk].
Well, there's captions. There's captions and there's maps. Maps have to go to a special map censoring agency in China, and they're concerned about the contested border along India and China, and they're concerned about how you describe Taiwan. And that's part of the problems I have with my captions is I had Taipei, Taiwan, and there was like, "Well, Taiwan is part of China."
Yeah, should be Taipei, China.
I said, "Well, I am not going to change anything." And so we have to leave China and go print somewhere else, which changes the price. So all that's to say that what this has done is give me a relief, a little bit of, "I can relax a little bit."
Not only is it going to happen.
Yeah, now have covered for the emergencies, I've covered for printing somewhere outside of China, I've covered for the inevitable returns, and I don't have to rely on additional sales later on in Amazon. If we get some more of those, that's great, but I don't need those to actually make the printing costs.
I love that you brought up the concept of 1,000 true fans because I did want to spend some time on that because it's a little spooky to me that the number is slightly over 1,000 backers today. It seems like this is your foray into being a creator. You're offering something on Kickstarter with a direct relationship to your audience. I'd love to explore a little bit more. You talked about that if you have direct contact and you're able to communicate directly with your audience, that 1,000 true fans works. But if you add all these intermediaries, it doesn't. Talk about that and give a little bit more color there because I think it's really interesting and it's applicable today.
The premise, again, I first wrote about this in 2008 or so, and it was a daunting idea that I had carried around my head for a while, which is that this new technology, and at that time, it wasn't really even social media, it was just the internet, kind of disintermediated the audience and that you could communicate with them directly. And that if you calculated how many fans you would need if you got all their money directly to you and you weren't paying anybody in-between, if you imagined what I termed a true fan, as somebody who was an avid true fan and bought whatever you produced... If you were a singer, they'd travel 200 miles to see you sing at a house concert. If you're author, they'd buy the hard copy and the audible and the paperback, or if you're a photographer, they'd bought the signed print and your book, whatever.
So there was a sense that they were being true fans. And if you could get $100 from them every year, you produced enough. $100 times 1,000 that's $100,000. That's a livelihood. It's not a fortune, but it's a livelihood for a creator. And of course, then there was the secondary concentric circles of almost true fans and the other fans that would add to that. So that was the theory. And time I wrote it, there was very few people, examples that I could find of someone who originated in that. There were lots of examples in the 2008 of people who had started off professionally and with the help of publishers or labels and moved into depending on fan, but there wasn't anybody organically coming up only with 1,000 true fans.
Since that time, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who have done that in partly because they were relying on social media which came along and facilitated that to a degree that I was maybe not even imagining. And so that's the premise is that if you could get $100 from 1,000 fans, then you could make your living doing it. Now, if you're a duet, if you're a duo, if you've got a team, you've got to multiply that number by however. The point that I always emphasize, and we were talking earlier about my Kickstarter full-time job, is that the cost of this method is that you have to give some of yourself to interact with your fans. You have to keep them happy, you have to engage with them, you have to deal with the problems and this stuff. And so it's another job.
And not every creator either is wired to do this in terms of the personality or wants to do this. They may be a painter that says, "I don't want to deal with fans. I just want to paint every day. Here's my agent. They're going to deal with it. I'll give you whatever it is that you want. I'll pay you. But I don't want to have to spend my day dealing with fans." And that's fine. That's legitimate. I'm not suggesting that everybody do this way. I'm just saying this is an option for you. And as many things, there'll be hybrids. I published many things with a publisher from New York. I do self-publishing as well and everything in-between. And so this is, for me, not the only option. This is one option and it was a new option for me and it's incredibly engaging and really fantastic, but it takes a lot of time. And so you have to be ready for that.
I'm not too surprised to hear that. I was just going to add one other follow-on point too which maybe you can add a little bit of color if this sparks any thoughts for you. But I read a fascinating article yesterday. I'm blanking on the name of the musician, but it was around this same concept. And basically, it was the story of this female rock star who had previously released an album through a label and got about $52,000 in sales. And so anyone looking at her as an artist would think that an album for her is worth about $50,000. And the next time she inverted that model, did the direct to all of her fans model and also adopted the similar but different Kickstarter where you have different scales, different prices at which people can back you.
Tears. I think they're from Tears.
Yeah, Tears. It was similar to that, but I think it was more like the Radiohead kind of give your own price model. She ended up releasing her next album, giving away a handful of things at different dollar values and collecting over a million dollars. So not only is it a way to engage directly with your fans and earn your livelihood off of them and remove some intermediaries, but it can also just generate massively higher earnings because you're engaged with them and engage more emotionally.
Absolutely. I have publishing relationships with, say... well, now it's called Penguin Random House, I think. They've all kind of keep aggregating and it's hard to keep track. But in any case, for a sale of a book, I might get a dollar in royalties per book. So you have to sell a lot of books to see something substantial. Whereas if you were going to self-publish a book and then you could sell it for... I don't know. If you've got even $20 a book after your expenses, that's huge compared to a royalty in New York. But again, that's another job. Again, just being transparent, I actually try to have Vanishing Asia published again, not published, but have Taschen publish it again. They published my first book long ago, but they came back and said it was just going to be too expensive, even for them.
Just because it's a photo book, like a large format photo book?
Just how big it is and the amount that they would have to charge for it. They felt that it wasn't going to work. I actually went to a second art book publisher, Phaidon, who were very, very interested in, and again, very gracious, but they were saying, "The numbers just don't work for us." I wanted to have them publish it because I wouldn't make any money really from it, but I didn't want to have to work on a Kickstarter for two months full-time. So, yes, in the end, you can definitely maybe even do better, but you have to count your hours in some ways, or if you do count your hours, you shouldn't put that into the equation. And for many people, especially when you're starting out, you don't have another option. And so this way of starting from the ground with your fans is really fantastic.
And 1,000 is something where you can almost handle remembering everybody's names if you were really working at it and engaging with each one one by one. And if you had 1,000, if you could gain 1 new fan a day, then would just take you a couple of years to accumulate 1,000 of them. I will say one other thing about this theory that I think is really interesting, and that is that 1,000 true fans. If you assume that that's possible... And again, it's not just Kickstarter, it was like Patreon. Again, I wrote the piece before Patreon started and-
Substack and all these things, there's lots of tools and mechanisms to do this. The next thing we're going to see very soon is a return to blogging with blogs that have a paywall that aren't individual one by one, because who wants to keep track of it, but having, again, like a system-wide platform where you are basically paying to read people's work on a blog. When we have 1,000 true fans, what that means in today's world is that even if your idea is appealing to only one in a million people with a billion audience worldwide, that means you can have 1,000 true fans. There could be 1,000 people on the planet who will find every single weirdest, strangest idea that only appeals to one in a million people. So even if your thing only appeals to one in a million people, you can still find 1,000 of them on the planet.
Now, that match finding them or having them find you, that's the next set of tools that I think we're going to continue to develop over this next couple of decades, is how do we make sure that you can find that person in Jakarta who is interested in your thing? How can they make sure that they know about it when everyone else in the world has something that they're making? And so that kind of matching problem is something that we can work on. But when that happens, I think then we really see the rise of the 1,000 true fans.
It sounds like from just your perspective, we're in the very early innings still of 1,000 true fans truly being a model that works globally given people that want to blog or create podcasts or do anything, create videos.
Yes, we're just at the beginning. I am so excited by this. In addition to the Substacks and the Patreon and social media, I spend way too much of my time on YouTube. There's just something going on in YouTube in the way that the speed and acceleration at which people are coming up with a new idea, sharing it and other people taking what they have figured out and then making improvements on it and sharing it. It's just phenomenal and it's not just in makeup tutorials and the guys in the garage. It's brain surgeons and it's people working in the highest tech. It's happening across the culture. I think that and when it comes next with the augmented reality stuff, that combined with things like Patreon and the other tools of financing this bottom up, sharing this passion economy, they sometimes call it, I think is very powerful. I think we're just at the very, very beginnings of it.
I want to ask one question that can maybe give some people listening that are trying to pursue this model maybe a little bit of insider or guidance, and then we can switch over to process because I want to talk about the process of building this book because it sounds incredible. But my question just really quickly is for someone listening... I've heard both sides of the argument on this. For someone who wants to pursue this creator route, wants to find their 1,000 true fans... And I think it's a fascinating idea you gave of just thinking about finding one person in a million. And if you can do that now, just given the scale of the internet, you can build that following.
But there's often like people try to approach it from two different angles. And one is, well, how is what I'm offering differentiated from what I'm aware of? And then another is just saying, "I'm not going to focus at all on trying to do anything overly clever with differentiation. I'm just going to try to hone in and get better and better at what's unique about my take and just try to embody, I guess, my approach better and better." Any feedback along those lines for people that want to pursue that kind of creator approach.
I think you're focusing on the exact right part. There's a proverb that I've heard attributed to different people. But here's my version of it, which is don't try to be the best, try to be the only. The only trumps the best. Be the only. Here's another version of that is if at all possible you want to be doing something that nobody has a name for what it is that you're doing, you have trouble describing it to people because there's not a name for it, that's a sign that you are working in the territory of the only. That's a high bar. It's a hard place to start off and it may take your life to arrive there. That's okay. But most students, and I do this all the time is when I'm starting out, I'm just going to imitate the masters. I'm just going to outright blatantly, unashamedly copy the masters just to see if I can do it, and you'll learn a tremendous amount and then you'll get it out of your system.
So it's hard to start in being over there. Occasionally, are similar people who are very clear about it. A part of the reason why it's hard is that you don't know what your only is, you don't know what you're best at. The only way to get there is to keep doing things and keep making things and keep trying stuff knowing that you're going to fail forward and in paying attention, a huge attention to what you like, what's easiest for you, what seems natural, how other people respond, and then you'll over time move towards that, which is authentic to you.
And so the better you know yourself, the better or quicker you'll get there. I'm a writer. One of the things that I do when I'm writing all the time is I'll write a sentence and then I'll say, "Do I really believe that?" Even the language that I'm using, "Is this a cliché? Am I saying this because I've heard this somewhere else. Is it just easy to say, or do I really, really believe that sentence? And if not, then what is it that I really think?" And so it's a process because I write not what I think, I write to find out what I think.
I love that question because it's like putting up a mirror to creative process. And it is. I imagine you will discover very often that you're like, "No, I'm just saying that because it's something people say." [inaudible] saying that is incredibly common, which you're offering nothing.
Yeah. A huge amount of what we say in everyday life and a huge amount of what we write and a huge amount of like if you're doing painting or if you're doing photography, you're doing what you see other people doing. It's hard to figure out what it is that you can do differently or want to do differently. I think it's a matter of quantity and volume. I'm a huge believer in the process of generating lots of things as a way of getting where you want to go, most of it, which is probably stuff you won't keep or don't want even anybody to see. But that's okay. You need to do that to get to the point.
There was a famous story about two photography teachers and the assignment that they gave. It was a photography class and there are two ways to be graded I believe that gave the students a choice. You can either... or grade you on the number of photographs that you take in the year, like thousands or whatever it is. You have to give me finished process in these very, very large numbers. And depending on how many you give me, I'll give a grade, or you give me a few of them of your best work and I'll just going to grade those one or two. And what he said was, "By far, the best photographs of that seminar always came from the students who tried to produce most," even though they weren't trying to make masterpieces. They were just trying to go for quantity. And so there is something about doing art by the pound that helps you try enough so you can begin to awaken those areas where you were being only you.
I found that one really helpful way to invert that a little bit, or look at it from a different perspective is to think about it less about producing and more about the feedback that you're getting. And that feedback can be... So I'll use that photography example. When you think about feedback, yes, part of that feedback is sharing it with the world and seeing what that reception is and what people gravitate towards, what people really like that you produce. But another piece of it is just feedback with yourself, feedback of observing that work. And if you think about do you want to get one piece of feedback every two months, or do you want to get a little bit of feedback every day, obviously, the answer starts to get really clear really quickly.
My last book I wrote out loud basically on my blog, and I recommend that to writers all the time for the kind of writing that I do, which is nonfiction. I have a friend who made a living writing his science fiction stories chapter by chapter posting them as he was writing them. So writing out loud is a tremendous way to get feedback on what you're doing. You're writing pieces, writing chapters, whatever it is and posting. It's almost like why would you not do that is my feeling right now because you get people suggesting things that you hadn't thought of, people to talk to or work that you didn't know existed, corrections, where you actually say incorrect, wrong, factual things, just so much that is available. If you're willing to do and see it constructively, then I just highly recommend.
I love that piece of advice and writing out loud. I think that's a perfect segue to talking about process. One of the reasons that I wanted to explore this issue is... I'll just throw out a couple of things that I picked up just doing research. It sounds like you've been working on this for... So you've been taking photos for more than 40 years. You've been working on distilling those down into this final book form for 10 years. You started out with over 200,000 photos and got down to 9,000. All of that sounds utterly impossible for most to imagine that scale and working through it. Talk to us about that process. Was it seamless? Was there fits and starts? Just what was that like for you?
Yeah. I actually been photographing for 49 years and accumulating. And of course, in the very, very beginning, most of those were on film and talking about feedback or lack of it. In the early days of film, there's no screen on the back of your camera. I was adjusting the exposure manually and I was very poor. I would mail back finished film to my mom who would put it in her freezer, would wait until I would return and then get a job and earn enough money to develop the film. So each frame that I took was basically the equivalent of today $5 for a click.
The point of it is that... Again, I was accumulating these images and didn't really have much way to share them. And then I slowly switched to digital when it was crummy because I never had a professional level camera. I wasn't doing that much. I was an amateur. But I began to digitize in the 2000s, I guess. I began to digitize my slides. And as I was digitizing them, slowly each year I would process the best ones, process, meaning that every photo particularly wants a scan, needs some attention. I didn't have enough time to do the kind of full-fledged Photoshopping or post-processing that most images get today. I just didn't have that kind of time. So I would do a minimum amount just to bring it up to snuff. I would do that.
And then I was taking new images, I found out that for every day of photographing, there was like two days of processing. I would travel most likely in the later years for business trips and I always piggyback on personal travel, do a photograph on top of that business trip. And so after I'd come back from a business trip, I'd have stuff that I would process right afterwards. I kept up over the years with the new stuff from the 2000s on by just doing it as I went along, as a passion project in addition to my business of writing about the future of technology.
So the processing was all done, and then I took a year to lay it out and I did the layout and design myself using the new software tools, the magic of Adobe in design, which allows anybody to be a filmmaker or magazine designer. I designed it so that every single page of those 1,000 pages basically, not every single one, but very close had its own design. It wasn't a format. Each individual page was designed differently and that took a while. But actually, the thing that took the most time was I wrote a caption for every 9,000 image. Sometimes those captions was literally just identifying where it was. But believe me, after 49 years, my memory is not what it used to be.
Just trying to identify where everything was way too often sent me down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia, where I'm trying to figure out what was that temple. There is one Indian temple that I'm not 100% sure where it is and I've done tons of research writing to expert in South Indian temples asking him if he could identify this. Anyway, that was where most of the work went to because I unfortunately did not keep a journal or records of where I took things. I moved too fast. I don't know. Something about my brain doesn't work that way. I know there are very good photographers who are meticulous about keeping track of things. I am not one of them.
So I had to reconstruct things in the later years. I actually carried a GPS tracking device. And then in the last three, four years of my travels, I found out that my phone, even if it didn't have the data on, because I wouldn't turn the data on, but even without the data on, you can still make a GPS log from your phone. And so I have an app on my phone that would just basically track and make a GPS. And that was hugely, hugely helpful in reconstructing where photographs were.
Yeah, no more emailing experts, which is a nice change. So just to try to describe too for people listening, the photos are absolutely gorgeous. And what's amazing about the page layout, I'm glad you talked about it a little bit there is I've seen plenty of books that obviously it's one photo per page, which is wonderful, I've seen plenty of books where it's a grid, and it's just a really wonderful, very fluid form factor where there's a bunch of these detailed shots that are smaller and these more sweeping epics that are bigger. It's very textural. Talk about how you got to that and why that felt right.
I grew up with black and white photography, and so Adams School of making these monuments, these timeless monuments, which was always my dream. I worked in large format. And when I started photography in the '60s, the only way that you could do photography was you were the chemist. You had to develop the film yourself, you had to develop the prints in the dark room. It was very technical. As I said, you're doing manual exposures, the optics are all transparent. And so that kind of photography, big black and white landscape was my goal. And when you do book like that, of course, there's a single image on a page and it's a monument.
All these images are in color, but a lot of them could stand in that way as a single image. But what I observed was that I'm not sure where I had the... I think it was in Google Photos. Google Photos would show all your photos in this dynamic self-organizing mosaic. I just loved that. There was something that happened that transformed each image from a trumpet blaring to a single note in like a melody. And so I started to see this as a symphony, where each individual photograph was a note in this music. I wasn't just going to have one note by one note, I was going to have a symphony going on.
And so that's the model. That's the metaphor that I was working with is like, "Okay, I'm making a symphony in this book. And each one of these photographs is not a precious thing that has to stand alone with a white border." No, it's a note in this symphony that you'll get the sense of Asia as a continent. And so I began doing that. And after I was completely done, I discovered that Edward Tufte, the design guru who is leading the charge in visual display of information, had developed a whole app for making mosaics. He has a whole theory about the presentation of information in this mosaic. And that was where I got the term from.
And so I had already finished a book when I saw that. So there is some theory, I think. There's some logic about what happens when you see images that are arranged in this way. And to make that work, you really need a certain amount of real estate. It doesn't work on your phone, it doesn't work on a tiny screen. You need to have a big feel, almost like a wall to make that work where your brain is making these associations between the different images and there's something happening in your brain unconsciously as you assemble something from all these images that are related, but not the same.
I love that metaphor you gave of individual images being like a trumpet blast versus a symphony. You've done a masterful job because even watching the video on Kickstarter, watching you flip through the pages, it's wonderful. I think the only other thing that I would add is especially for a travel book where obviously myself, anyone that's reading this, we haven't been to those places. I think your impression can get colored positively, negatively, or just ambiguously by seeing one image. But if you see a whole bunch of details, that starts to assemble something that's three-dimensional, which is lovely.
It's very immersive, and that's what I would say about the book is that because of the scale of the book when you sit there and turn the pages, you are immersed, you can have to immersive experience without being in VR in these places. And there are 1,000... I think I might've sent you a sample book, which had 50 pages. Okay, there is 1,030 other pages like that.
It's mind boggling project.
It's mind boggling. I know, having done it myself, it will take half a day or at least three hours or more to actually just literally just pay to the book not reading any of the captions. There's like a three-hour journey just to page through this experience. It was constructed to be an experience rather than to be a monument.
This is going to be somewhat of a wild tangent, but just to share. I bought the book and we have a handful of books like this at home, or you may not agree, but I would fit this into a category of books. We have a collection of books at home that are really for... I mean, I love them. So my background's in design and I just love taking in and seeing different colors and patterns. But also for our kids, as a way to discover different parts of the world, we've got a three-year-old, we have a three-month-old, they're not at the point where we're going to just hand them the book. It's going to be a few more years.
But we have these wonderful books at home. I've got one all about Victorian dress. It's like 300 pages of different Victorian outfits. I've got one all about drawings, these amazingly beautiful drawings back in early days before photos existed, where people were trying to document the natural world. I love stuff like that, especially for kids just because I can take them out of the little world that they're in and expand that and [crosstalk].
You're absolutely right. I did a smaller book, as I mentioned, with Taschen. I can't tell you the number of people who told me that their kids love it and they just want [crosstalk] to watch it again and again. When our kids were small, I had some photo books like that. I had one on mammals or animals maybe from national geographic, because it was like, again, a mosaic of pictures of all these animals. And that was just endlessly fascinating for the kids just to go through what's this. And they're coming back, they've seen it again, but you know how kids are, they like to repeat. I agree that these kind of visual anthologies really work on kids in a way that we've forgotten as adults.
I'm glad that that makes sense for you too. I'm not surprised at all that you've gotten that feedback. So, yeah, no one should be offended if you produce a book and people say, "My kids love it." That's not a negative kind of work in this context.
No, no, no, no, not at all. That's the highest praise for me. But it does even suggest that I would love to have... Well, the problem with this book is that the kids will not be able to even hold it.
No, they can't hold it.
They may be able to lay on it, but maybe there is some... I don't know, how to make a kid-friendly version that won't kill them if it dropped on them. But yeah, maybe it's a parent-child experience.
I had one question and this is just a shot in the dark because the amount of images that you've taken is just massive at 200,000 and you've pared that down to 9,000, but I know for myself on the trips that I've been on, there's always a few things that just really resonate with me because they capture a moment, or they capture an experience or a feeling. Are there a couple of pictures that are like that for you? And can you narrate those or talk about them?
Again, I started photographing... I went to Asia instead of going to college in 1972 was my first trip out of the US. I'd hardly even been on a plane before. I'd never eaten Chinese food or even held chopsticks. I was so clueless about where I was going. I was going an invitation of a friend to visit him. He was learning Chinese in Taiwan. I didn't have much in my mind going on. And now, I've forgotten what your question was.
Oh, yeah, just the couple of images that really resonate for you.
Here's what I wanted to say. Very early on, I started to have in my mind the image that I was hunting for, the image that for me was like the ideal image, the image that I wanted to see that represented what I was seeing. And that image, in general, was a scene that had a foreground, middle ground, and background, where everything in that scene spoke of that time and particularly that place. It could not have been taken anywhere else. You look at that and you would see the costume, the artifacts, the background, the lighting, everything would say that could have only been taken in shinguard cashmere and you couldn't tell when it was taken. It could have been 1,000 years ago or today. So that to me was the trophy image that I was looking for.
And occasionally, I would be lucky enough to arrive at one of those and meaning that there was something going on and all the conditions were perfect and I was there and I was ready and I got it. And then that's assuming or not to mention the fact that the house will have to be cinematic or photographically perfect in the sense of the composition. So it was kind of like the composition it was like... That was the easy part. The hard part was being there on time at the right thing and having everything ready and all that, and then I can bring in my skill as an artist. But the hard part was being there.
And so there was a scene that I have... I had photographed a lot of this for weeks of a game in Afghanistan called buzkashi, which is translated in scope ball. It's this game of horses. There's maybe hundreds of horses and there are riders and they're competing, dragging this ball, which is really just a carcass of an animal. It's very brutal. There was one scene where it was on the planes and there was mountains behind and they're all in costume, costume meaning this is what their everyday wear was. But they had turbines on and their cloaks. The lighting was perfect. It was like that was Afghanistan in 1970s. It was never really going to happen that way. Again, they still have games, but their trucks are wearing T-shirts, there's power lines going across longer, just mud huts. They've gotten steel sheds. So it's a different world, but I was lucky enough to get that one. And that's one.
There's an image of more recent one. I was in India, Kerala, attending some festivals of elephant processions. And there was drummers, I think they're called temple drummers. They were wearing their sarongs and their lungis and they've got these drums in there and are in a row. There's elephants in gold drapes behind them. They're coming through a village in India. It was like, "Okay, everything is there." The lighting is right, the details, instruments are all traditional, these elephants, which are not going to be doing this forever because of the animal rights. And it was just like, "That is South Indian, Kerala." That's a timeless picture that could have been done 500 years ago, or it could have been done... It was just done last year.
And so that to me is what I was looking for, where you could see the texture. You got all the integration of religion and the geography is all being reflected. The whole thing where they were using native materials and they were using the background and the colors are in harmony with the vegetation. That is what I was looking for. And occasionally, I would get one of those.
I love the way you describe it. It sounds like you would have made a wonderful film director, just trying to get to that level of detail and get the scene right and get all the details. Just perfect.
There's two terms of photography. There are photographs you take and photographs that you make. And what you always want to do is making photographs, but I'm kind of a ninja photographer. The best way to make the kind of photographs I want is you become embedded, is that you arrive somewhere you want to be, you decide to spend a month there, you live with a family. And after two days, they don't even see your camera. You're invisible to them because you're just part of the landscape. That's the best way to get the kind of pictures I'm talking about. That's not how I did it. I didn't have time. I'm on a business trip. I've got a week here to do. I have to move fast. So I adopted the ninja where I'm going to take a picture before you even realize I took the picture.
So I'm not going to interfere with it. I'm not going to arrange anything, but I'm making it in the sense that I am going to stand right here because I know and I'm going to move right here, I'm going to wait maybe an hour because I know that this is where it's going to happen. I know this is what's going to happen. I know this is how it's going to do. I'm going to be over here by the light where the room is. And so I'm going to position myself and I'm going to make the photograph in that way.
You know what you're trying to capture and you're willing to be patient. And then you're willing to let all the right factors hopefully come into play-
... and get something magical. I want to talk a little bit about just your experiences traveling, because one thing that was remarkable to me learning more about the story is you dropped out of college, this was in 1972, you go on this trip to Asia, and two thoughts bubbled up for me. One was... I'm just going to make an assumption here, but it sounds like at that point maybe you were excited to go to Asia because it was totally new, but you didn't know just how important and profound a part of your life this was going to be. So I want to talk a little bit about that.
But then a second one kind of related is... So the title of the book is Vanishing Asia. And at this point, you've catalogued nearly 50 years of just Asia's progression in a lot of ways into the modern world. But I imagine that that label, Vanishing Asia, didn't pop up until some point in time. And for a while, it was just Capturing Asia. And at some point, you realize that it was changing very rapidly. Can you talk a little about both of those, kind of your first experience and when you realized that Asia was vanishing?
I really didn't have a very deliberate plan. I had no forethought about what this would be like, or that I would even ever return certainly on my first trip. I had no idea. But I think once I arrived, there were so many things about Asia. Again, I didn't even know I was arriving in Taiwan. I had no idea whether this was representative of anything. I wasn't thinking about anything beyond Taiwan. There were so many things that were different about it, including a kind of I would call a kind of transparency that was very different from where I grew up, which is that people lived on the street. I mean, literally, not being homeless, but they were kind of like they'd have garage like houses where they would just be working on the street. They would take over the street to work to do welding, to cook. There was street food. I had no idea there was such a thing as street food when I went.
Again, the ignorance that I had, it was hard to believe right now today with internet where you can research things and you see things are relevant, there was none of that. So everything was out in the open. And there was this sense of which, oh, you can see how things are done, you can see how the world works. Of course, in Taiwan, and China later on, they were making things for the US, things you would buy in the store. Here they were, they were making them on the street. You could watch them how they were being made. There was a different sense of privacy, where it was completely expected and benign just to walk in to this place which was their home and their workshop, or whatever it is and I'm just walking in. There's no sense of personal space at all that we would have.
And so there was this other thing that allowed me to be educated, to learn. So every single day I was learning something new and changing my mind. And that was like, "Okay, that's addictive. So I'm going to go back there again and again as long as I had money and I'm going to try to capture this." And the third thing that I observe from the day one was how fast things were changing right before my eyes, even my time in Taiwan. I would come back to somewhere that had been a rice paddy couple months before, now is a factory. Things in the city were being rebuilt constantly. And what they were building wasn't old stuff. It was new. It was like, "My next trip after Taiwan was Japan." Okay. Mind blown. I was never even in Tokyo. It was happening throughout Japan where the old things were being replaced by not just new things, but by future things.
And so from very early on, I saw that that was disappearing and I understand why it was disappearing. I'm not racked with nostalgia. I don't really have a nostalgia for all of the things... a nostalgia in the sense of a clean to them and a desire to prevent them from vanishing. That's not what this book is about. I am not trying to stop them or save them. There are other people who record things. I'm a big fan of the Jimmy Nelson books before they pass away, where there's some attempt to maybe like let's preserve this, let's keep this here. I don't feel that. I understand fully why some of these traditions are disappearing.
I don't think in some cases there's much that we can do to stop them from going away. They probably will never disappear entirely. You may have to subsidize them. That's all, that's fine, but that's not my purpose. My purpose is just to record them and to present them to the reader and say, "Look, these are valid design choices, and in them are the seeds for future design choices." These are recurring perennial problems about how we arrange our interior space and what we wear as clothes. And those aren't going to go away and some of the things that people came up with are things that we can return to as ideas or parts of them.
And so here, I want to document all those design choices as a form of inspiration of seeds to make future designs from. I was aware that they were vanishing and those traditions are being pushed further and further into little pockets to remote parts while the cities of Asia become convergent in an urban, modern, and futuristic cities. Go to Shanghai, it's just amazing, or Tokyo. The cities in Central Asia being built from the ground up. I think I was aware of it and I became interested in documenting it because I realized how fast it was going, although I was not trying to stop it from going.
And if I have a superpower is I have a pretty good nose for feeling and seeing where something was happening in a city where that kind of little energy, that celebration was going to erupt any minute now, kind of spidey sixth sense of like, "Oh, over there and the other part of the city, I can tell there's going to have a street fair right now." And/or I can tell from reading my research that in this area here, there's still retain some costume. And if they've got the costumes, they have other traditions that they also have saved because the costumes are the first to go. So I can make my way there and I'm going to record that before it's completely gone.
This is probably going to be a clunky question because it's difficult to form in my mind. But one of the things that I wanted to ask you because you've documented an incredible array of different cultures that all have different aesthetics, different details, different values, something that I love and geek out on often is just Japanese culture and Japanese aesthetics. I have a whole book just on the traditional way that Japanese people would bind and package up things, which I think is just absolutely fascinating.
You ever seen wrap with five eggs?
This is a book about traditional Japanese packaging using traditional materials and the classic one is how they wrap five eggs. I saw in China at markets there's some pictures in the book of people wrapping eggs that way with straw in five eggs, just out on the street. So that's a little note. Yes, anyway, so go on. I'm sorry.
No, I love that. I love that you even know what I'm about there. But one of the things that I guess I want to try to ask you because you have this, I think, wonderful duality where you're both an optimistic technologist at heart and you also have this love for ancient culture, ancient beauty. And one of the things that I've tried to think about, I don't have a great answer on, I think you may have some interesting observations on is how we embrace this optimistic future. And that can be everything from building super modern green buildings that ideally also have some connection to the local culture. I think architects do an amazing job of actually taking buildings and respecting and embedding in a bunch of these cultural cues that doesn't seem to happen well with clothes. As an example, as you said, everyone moves to Nikes and T-shirts and you lose all of these cultural things. It's an awkward clunky question, but any just broad thoughts or specific thoughts on how we embrace the future and yet have cultural values and beauty show up in that somehow?
It's a really good question. It's a very complicated question and I'm not even sure I have a good answer or even a good prediction. But another way of saying it is will everything converge in the future or will we have divergence? Will the culture diverge? My current thinking on this is that if you have in your mind the pyramid that we call Maslow's hierarchy, which by the way, Maslow didn't ever draw, it was drawn after his work, but at the base of this pyramid are the large amount of effort that we need to do to get our clothing, shelter, food. And then as you go up the smaller tiers of the pyramid, you're becoming more inner-driven, where you are doing things not because of survival, but because of obligations to the social obligations. And then at the very tip, you have your self-actualization, what we were talking earlier about, being the only. So at the very, very tip, you're the only.
My rough estimate is that at the bottom levels of Maslow's hierarchy, the basic needs... that we're going to converge around the world, that basically everybody in the world wants to live in air-conditioned box with Wi-Fi or 5G. One of the very first things anybody bought in history and didn't make themselves was machine-made cloth because making cloth by hand is so laborious and tedious. And that's the first thing that goes anywhere in the world in traditional cultures is handmade cloth because it is so time-consuming and the benefits of having machine-made cloth, even before you have a metal pot, a knife is another one. A metal knife maybe is first. So the machine-made cloth is second. If you go to any Amazon tribe, anywhere in world, the first thing they get is they want to have a T-shirt.
Anyway, so the basic clothing and stuff I think is going to converge, but I think we're going to diverge in what it means to us and what we do, what our occupation is, how we spend our day, the importance in our self-identification. And as part of that, we may start to change the kinds of clothing that we wear to reflect that, even though we don't have to, or even though we don't always wear, whatever. So that's my guess. My guess is going to be that in the future we will converge on some basic things like infrastructural stuff and that the diversity will show in the art and expression of that.
One of the questions is like, "Are we going to have more than one internet? Will there be cultural versions of internet like China has, where you have firewalls or other kinds of social obligations that are first?" I don't know, that's a really fair question and I think we haven't really answered yet. Will there be cultural differences in automobiles and cars? If there are, the one thing I would suggest is that we're, in general, as a planet, moving away from geographically-centered cultures to much more affinity-centered cultures, where you may identify more with your tribe who's dispersed around the globe than with the people who live next door. So there's still maybe some remnants of geography living in the desert versus the beach. But I suspect in the far future at least that we'll have very strong cultural ties, but they may be affinity based rather than geographically based.
I think you've got a ton of incredible ideas there. I love the affinity-centered cultures and the framing of expression and being in a position where you're now focused on self-expression and that kind of meaning obviously as countries and everyone in them works their way up Maslow's hierarchy need. As they go higher up that, hopefully we see that more and more because I think that's something that, to me, it gets bleak and somewhat dystopian and if in the future there's just bland, vanilla, all covering the whole world and we [crosstalk].
Yeah, everyone is wearing black-
... all around the world and white T-shirts. Yes-
I don't love that.
... you want some color. I'm hoping that our current fashion with cars, where they're all white or beige goes away and we look more like the trucks in Afghanistan or the jeepneys in the Philippines, where they're just parties, they're on wheels. Why not? Color is free. And actually, what's happening in China, where the size of buildings are screens and they change. I just love that. That to me is really cool where you would have a very colorful things. It's cars. I saw some technology in China of flexible screens, and screens meaning like movie screens that are very thin and they're going to make a dashboard from it. If you can make a dashboard a screen, you can make the outside of the car a screen. You see sometimes these vinyl wrapped cars, but imagine they were screen-wrapped vehicle.
And again, this is what the value of my book is. In Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, there are these bicycles, pedicabs, bicycle-driven taxi cabs, pedicabs that are just like the Disney light parade. They're just moving light things. And you can see some glimpse of what future vehicles could be, where they are just moving screens and inside is the people are probably doing VR.
Yeah, I think anytime we can take something that's static and make it something that can be used for self-expression. And just imagine a city where instead of everything just being single-colored cars, you've got this amazing pattern work of different vehicles starts to get really interesting. So you've been so gracious with your time and it's been an incredible conversation. I wanted to ask two closing questions. And the first question is... So we've talked a lot about what your experience has been like spending nearly 50 years in Asia, watching the change, not being nostalgic in the sense of wanting to cling onto it, but also wanting to honor it and remember it, note it down for people to take away from. I'm curious if at the end of the day, this kind of massive body of experiences for you, what is the core of how that's maybe shaped or changed your outlook on life, your outlook on culture, your outlook on the world, if there's anything there that you can share?
By now, I spent so much time in Asia. I married a Chinese woman. Our kids are bilingual. I mean, California, which is the closest I can live in Asia and still be in the US. There are actually very few ancient cities I would actually want to live in. Singapore is one of them. But what has changed is this, what I got from my travels was the privilege of being able to visit another century, the 1500s. I had no money, but I had a lot of time and a willingness. I came at the right moment where someone with very little money like me could go into areas that in the past would have taken an expedition and support, maybe protection, all kinds of things. But when I was there, you could take a Jeep or you could take a bus. The buses were starting to run into the most remote areas and for $2.
I remember taking an overnight bus from Lucknow, India, into Kathmandu, an overnight bus, changing countries, going into the Himalayas, and it was $5. For $5, you could go to Nepal. I had the benefit of being at the right time where I could see the medieval world, where it was affordable for someone with no money just before it became vanished. Now, you can get to all these places very, very easily and cheaply, but they've been altered. So there was this one little moment where I snuck in and part of that experience was I got to live in worlds where there was very little technology. So it's different ages. You could go back to the 1800s pretty easily. With some effort, you could go back to the 1500s. And then occasionally into the tribal areas, you could go back way, way back and some places like in the hell areas of Thailand and Burma or in the Philippines.
In those moments, I had the experience of living without the technology that I grew up with, let alone the ones that was coming the next years. I had visceral appreciation for what that brought to people. It wasn't like happiness per se. People are very adaptable and can adjust to what they have. And so at some level, they were happy, content, in that sense. They were living in villages that had organic food, fantastic vistas and this beautiful organic architecture. They were very strong families and community support. They had a very clear idea who they were. All those are really very valuable, but they were taking one way tickets into the city where there were grimy slums.
And why were they doing that? Well, because they had the chance to be the only, because when they were in their village, they had only one choice of what they were going to do, which is they're going to do what their father or mother did. They're going to be either a farmer or a mother, even if they might have had the abilities or the genius of a Mozart or an Einstein. And when they moved into the city, what they're moving towards were choices and opportunities and possibilities. And even though the electricity might be uneven, they at least have electricity. Even though the textbooks were missing, they had the choice of going to school and going to college.
And so that's why they were moving in by the hundreds of millions. And so what I got from that was seeing what technology gave us and understanding that, yes, there was a cost to it. There was a price that we pay, but the net gain from that was a positive. I've since refined that idea as I studied technology more and as I traveled more. The way I would refine it is I would say that the net gain in a year is only 1%. We may only create 1% more than we actually destroy, but that 1% is enough, that 1% compounded every year is civilization. And so I arrived at this kind of awareness of what we're getting even as we destroy things, is that, yes, there's a net gain in choices and possibilities, and that is a net positive. And that's what I am backing. That bigger story, that bigger arc is what I hold on to. I got that from traveling in Asia.
That's beautifully said. It's interesting to me that you've obviously lived a life that's been steeped in technology, but you really needed that kind of black and white high contrast of technology and no technology to really have that kind of message pure through. It's interesting too as soon as you said why were people moving to cities because they had a chance to be the only. It's profound in a lot of ways because it's basically the kind of notion that technology allows us to separate ourselves and truly embark on our own hero's journey or journey into becoming something that's really unique, which is really profound.
The thing to emphasize is this giving you the opportunity. It doesn't guarantee that it will happen.
Doesn't guarantee a quality, doesn't guarantee a lot of other things.
I am the first to point out that technology will invent or create almost as many new problems as solutions. And so every new technology that we invented to solve a problem of a previous one will itself make new and harmful things. This is not a utopia, I call this protopia, where the pro is in progress, the pro is in proceeding, the pro is in affirmative as the moving forward, as a prototype early. And so this is one that's it's a flawed world that has just a little tiny bit more good than bad, but social media will have tremendous new problems, AI, oh my gosh. But there will be just a little bit more net game because of the opportunities and possibilities that we're creating. And so there's no guarantee that people moving to the city will find themselves, but they have an opportunity that they didn't have before. And that's, to me, worth it.
I think it's an amazing perspective. I want to ask one more closing question. And just to set it up a little bit, I want to ask about... So you've traveled to, what was it? 35 countries?
In the 49 years of traveling to the end of the road in 35 countries, there was a couple of Asian countries I didn't get to. Iraq, I was banned from Turkmenistan for some reason I can't figure out, but I've seen most of the Asian countries.
Yeah, you've seen most of them, not only are you aware of them. And part of why I want to ask this is something I've really... Yeah, I'll just put this on myself. Something I've noticed in myself that I'm really trying to work on is just understanding Asia in particular with more nuance, because I think when a lot of people think of that, they think of India, they think of China, but there's Turkey, there's Iraq, there's Turkmenistan. There's an amazing array of different countries or localities you can go visit. So I'm curious what would you draw attention to, is just something that you don't think gets enough attention that people should go see in Asia, in general?
I talk a lot about this book, Vanishing Asia, being an ode to otherness. Otherness is sometimes a loaded word. I don't mean this otherness to white male guys like me. I mean, the fact that as you might say, the otherness between Korea and Turkey is almost as much as the otherness between Korea and the US, or Oman and Mongolia and Borneo and the caucuses. So it's a very vast continent with huge diversity, a huge amount of otherness, even between himself. And it's dangerous to generalize. We do it all the time because it's convenient and sometimes only the way we can work. But I see the center of the global culture moving towards Asia, at center in Asia, and eventually even heading towards Africa, which is there's some adjacency.
But I think we're headed into the Asian century. There's a mathematics at work there, which is there's about one and a half billion Indians and one and a half billion Chinese alone, 3 billion to the 350, and America 10 times as much. If you added all the other Asian countries, it's half of the world's population lives in this area, half. And what they think and what they do is going to matter more to the world than what Americans do. This is a very hard lesson that Americans are going to have to wake up to and adjust to. It's going to hurt.
We're going through that now.
We're going through that now.
I see those stories [crosstalk].
We've seen just the beginning of it. The trumpian stuff is just part of that symptom. We're being dethroned. As American, we're being dethroned from that kind of sole superpower status. It's not going to be pretty. There's no easy, painless way to do this. I think there are better ways to do it than others, but all of them will involve a demotion of some feeling. And so until now, America has run the internet. We may not get to run the internet anymore. That's an adjustment coming. The other side of that is I think the cultural production in terms of like movies, music, the new gadgets that we all want. I think it's going to move to Asia. The ambition, the momentum, the scale of what's happening is simply not understood by people in the US.
Go to China, ride this super train from Hong Kong to Beijing as it cuts through the country in seven hours and you will see what's happening. It's big, it's unstoppable, and we don't want to stop it. That's the whole point is that there's this move forward, there is a gathering, there's an eruption of creativity and ambition and all the things that we want in the world's happening in this huge continent with half the world's population. And so I feel as if we're going to see more things happening sooner than later. I expect very soon that China at least is going to make a device or something. It can make a product that will be the best in the world and everybody in the world, including everybody in the US, wants to have it.
Maybe it's an electric car, maybe it's smart glasses, maybe something else I don't even know about, but they're going to make it and it's going to be like the Apple iPhone of the next thing. It's like, "Yes, that is the best. That's so cool, that's so good, and that's so cheap. I will want that one." And so that'll come completely from something that the Chinese design and make and then do it. So that's one hint of what I expect to see in the coming years is the Asian century. And my book is about the cost of what they're leaving behind to achieve that.
It's a beautiful note to end on. Thank you so much for your time. This has been an incredible conversation. I know people listening are going to love it and we'll make sure in the show notes to obviously link to Kickstarter and link to your website and make sure it's easy for people to be able to go and get this book for themselves. So thank you so much, Kevin.
Thank you for giving me time. It's always easier and funner to have a little bit more time to take to relax doing it. So thank you for your great questions. I really enjoyed my time being here.
Thank you so much for listening to Outliers. To explore other episodes and sign up for our free weekly newsletter, visit outliers.fm.