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What ideas in IT must die?

Are there ideas in IT that must die for progress to be made?

Max Planck wryly observed that scientific progress is often less meritocracy and more Lord of the Flies:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Playing off this insight is a thought provoking book collection of responses to a question posed on the Edge: This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress. From the book blurb some of the ideas that should transition into the postmortem are: Jared Diamond explores the diverse ways that new ideas emerge; Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes down the standard deviation; Richard Thaler and novelist Ian McEwan reveal the usefulness of "bad" ideas; Steven Pinker dismantles the working theory of human behavior.

Let’s get edgy: Are there ideas that should die in IT?

What ideas do you think should pass into the great version control system called history? What ideas if garbage collected would allow us to transmigrate into a bright shiny new future? Be as deep and bizarre as you want. This is the time for it.

I have two: Winner Takes All and The Homogeneity Principle.

Winner Takes All

A strange thing has happened to the Internet: it has turned into a medium for producing Winner Take All outcomes.

You may have noticed certain closed properties keep getting bigger and bigger: YouTube, Apple, Google Search, Netflix, Facebook, AWS, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Snapchat, and WeChat.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t competitors. Which isn’t to say the Internet isn’t full of the wild and weird. Which isn’t to say some day one or all of them won’t be replaced.

This is unexpected. It was thought and hoped the Internet would be a democratizing force. Little bits of sovereignty could be carved out and everyone could make a living on their patch of virtuality. What has happened?

The Internet has transformed from a series of tubes into a forest of platforms. We are now encouraged to align ourselves with platforms as a way to survive. Jeff Jarvis shows the extent of this transformation.

Jeff thinks the way forward for journalists is to publish directly on platforms like Facebook, Apple, and Google, bypassing their own papers and websites. The idea is to go where the users are. Bringing users to you is just too hard anymore. The implicit alliance of website and search has broken down.

Jeff is no doubt right. Notice he published on Medium instead of his own site. If you sell you likely sell on Amazon. If you host you likely host on AWS. If you socially network it’s likely to be on Facebook. And so on. We are organizing ourselves around platforms.

I have a hunch platforms are how the Internet self-organizes as a way of maximizing information flow through the system, a phenomenon explained by Adrian Bejan in Design in Nature through his Constructal Law:

For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.

In a few more words:

The Constructal Law is my statement that there is a universal tendency (a phenomenon) toward design in nature, in the physics of everything. This tendency occurs because all of nature is composed of flow systems that change and evolve their configurations over time so that they flow more easily, to create greater access to the currents they move.

The mechanism might be something Ben Thompson calls Aggregation Theory, which he nicely summarized here:

I wrote last month about Aggregation Theory, and both Amazon and Uber are examples of the theory in action: Amazon doesn’t make the stuff they sell (mostly), but they sell everything to a huge number of customers in the market with whom they have an ongoing relationship. Uber is even more distinct: the company doesn’t own the cars that provide its service but instead owns the customer relationship. Both are enabled by the Internet’s radical lowering of transaction costs and the possibilities for scale that result.

The point of leverage for these Internet companies is those consumer relationships: Amazon attracts a wide range of suppliers and merchants eager to sell to their customer base, and the company is not shy about leveraging said customer base to extract value from its suppliers. Similarly, Uber continually squeezes drivers with lower prices and higher fees, even as it remains the top choice for drivers because of its rider liquidity.

This last point is key: under aggregation theory the winning aggregators have strong winner-take-all characteristics. In other words, they tend towards monopolies. Google is perhaps the best aggregation theory example of all — the company modularized individual pages from the publications that housed them even as it became the gateway to said pages for the vast majority of people

Blessed are the aggregators.

I fully admit to wanting the Internet to be a place where you don’t need to depend on platforms to flourish. Platforms must die. But they won’t. And the reason may be more hard wired into the Internet than I care to admit.

The Homogeneity Principle

The laws of physics are thought to apply equally throughout the universe. On little old Earth many companies have a similar desire for human made laws. Google would like a permissive and consistent set of privacy laws. Uber would like a permissive and consistent set of sharing economy laws.

This makes perfect sense. And while I may agree with each of their points, what I can’t agree with is the assumption that the same laws need to apply everywhere the same.

Privacy is complicated. It’s reasonable for the EU to have their own idea of what privacy means. Just like it's reasonable for governments to specify who should be treated as an employee.

Differences may be inconvenient for developers and corporations, but there’s more than one way to live, and that should be respected.  

Remember Darwin's finches. Geographical/regulatory isolation allows evolution to occur in parallel, which makes for a richer more resilient world. A bland homogeneity that makes a clear path for a single set of platforms to spread throughout the world is an idea that must die.


Those are mine. What ideas in IT do you think must die? 

Reader Comments (5)

"Winner takes all"
Wrong as in a market the winner takes most of it, not all.
You suffer from egalitarianism, eg wanting equal results, whatever the conditions.
Every market is likely to be structured like this. An early leader is likely to continue being the leader, to leverage its advantages, to hire the best engineers, etc.
It is also your choice to define makets in that way. If you compare Microsoft to Google, Google to Facebook, Facebook to twitter, who is the leader ?
Copiers don't takeover the creators. If you compare Facebook to Google plus, of course Facebook is huge, and uncatchable. Pure dumb copy doesn't work.

October 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

I have been loath to embrace containers, especially since I attended a conference that was supposed to be about DevOps but was 90% about all the various projects around Docker and the like. I worked enough with Jails in the past two decades to feel exasperation at the fervent religious belief of the advantages of reinventing an old wheel.

I attended a presentation about Kubernetes yesterday. I try to keep an open mind. Kubernetes is an orchestration tool for containers. "Watch how fast I can re-allocate and scale my compute resources!" Well, I can do that more slowly but conveniently enough with my VM and config management tools . . .

. . . but I do see a utility in that containers could offer a simpler deployment process for my devs.

There was an undercurrent there that Kubernetes is the Great New Religion that Will Unify All the Things. I used to embrace ideas like that, then I got really turned off by thinking like that, and now I know enough to see through the True Beliefs. I could deploy Kubernetes as an offering of my IT "Service Catalog" as a complimentary option versus the bare metal, hadoop clusters, VM, and other services I have to offer. It is not a Winner Take All play, but an option that could improve productivity for some of our application deployment needs.

At the end of the day, as an IT Guy, I need to be a good aggregator, offering my users a range of solutions and helping them adopt more useful tools for their needs. My metrics for success are whether or not my solutions work for my users, whether they further the mission of my enterprise, and whether they are cost-effective, in terms of time and money.

October 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDanny Howard

The 1980s time travelling IT manager that calls the shots across all departments with zero consultation and micromanages their employees until the entire workflow grinds to a halt, then improves the process by putting layers upon layers of hand written "documentation" (e.g. non searchable nonsensical forms) in the mix so that new requests never meet the bar, and prevent automation through all levels of the business.

Paid mass money with all the authority and none of the accountability. They destroy a company from within with "best practice" then move onto the next sucker like a parasite talking about all the stuff they did like it was a good thing.

I work in an Enterprise organisation. These people need to die.

November 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCody

I liked Taleb's book and it opened me to a different line of thought. I ended up with better job and more money. However, he did not debunk Gauss's normal distribution. It still applies where it should be used. He debunked its use in financial analysis. It was never supposed to be used there.
I'm in IT for a long time and one trend is enduring: The worst technology wins.
- Intel 8088 was a piece of junk. It won.
- Windows used to be an application and then they called it an Operating System. It is still a dominant platform, but it lacks some basic features of OS, like the one that an app cannot crash the OS, memory management and similar. It won by far margin.
- Visual basic is a pathetic excuse of a programming language. It became at one point the most popular programming language.
- Once we thought it couldn't be any worse PHP emerged. Here I rest my case.

All technologies that failed had one thing in common. They counted on the intelligence of their user base. All stupid people are the same, the smart ones are unique. You can only make money on stupid not smart. It is not that there are no smart people, it is just that they are too diverse to make any business plan work.

If you are looking what will die just look at its user base. If they are smart it will die. If something more stupid emerges it will replace the old one. No offense intended, it is just the statistics. They create a critical mass and then all the clever ones will have to follow eventually because they do not offer any alternative as they are pulling in different directions. Politics work that way, communities work that way, army works that way, all other industries, IT is no exception.
Sometimes a small group of people create something smart. Then it deteriorates to the mainstream. If it doesn't, it dies.

Strong typed languages will all die. Too much thinking.
Relational databases will die. Even more thinking.
Licensing model where you buy a product and own it will die. Everything will be subscription because it is more expensive to pay.
Linux will die. Ubantu, Mint, CentOS... Too much choice - it will die.
Agile is already dead in everything but name. It's been hijacked by the same category of people it was supposed to save us from - extroverted alpha type.

Just to clarify, for all intents and purposes of this discussion, becoming a niche means dying.

November 2, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDrake

One thing very annoying thing that should die: Teaching IT apprentices to talk in terms of what is best (as an absolute). "Best" is a comparative term: ..For What, ..With What, ..When, ...
[Yup, this is a behavior, not an idea, but exactly how do you communicate ideas with out expressing it behaviorally, Bubba?]

November 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLazyDev

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