What ideas in IT must die?
Monday, October 26, 2015 at 8:56AM
Todd Hoff

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? 

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