How Do We Explain the Unreasonable Effectiveness of IT? 
Monday, July 6, 2015 at 8:59AM
Todd Hoff in Strategy

Joseph Campbell: As Schopenhauer says, when you look back on your life, it looks as though it were a plot, but when you are into it, it’s a mess: just one surprise after another. Then, later, you see it was perfect. So, I have a theory that if you are on your own path things are going to come to you. Since it’s your own path, and no one has ever been on it before, there’s no precedent, so everything that happens is a surprise and is timely.

Why is the IT industry so darn effective? Just think about these amazing advancements. A little over 30 years ago the Apple Mac went on sale. In 2020 Benedict Evans estimates 80% of adults on earth will have a smartphone. And about at that same time applications were typically monoliths that ran on one computer. Now applications can deploy with the push of a button on cloud native architectures that exploit many thousands of CPUs using datacenter scale operating systems. And software used to be this strange specialized niche only nerds cared about or understood. Now software is in everything and is so ubiquitous it’s becoming nearly invisible. The examples could go on and on and on...and on.

These advances have evolved step-by-step over time, so we don’t even realize the full weight of the transformative changes we’ve experienced. What can account for such astonishingly rapid progress?

Stepping stones.

What the heck do stepping stones have to do with anything? Here’s a you remember the Connections TV Series by the incredible James Burke?

For an explanation we turn to Ken Stanley, Computer scientist, artificial intelligence researcher, Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida, who wrote a new book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective, with a fascinatingly counterintuitive premise:

The greatest achievements become less likely when they are made objectives. The best way to achieve greatness, the truest path to “blue sky” discovery or to fulfill boundless ambition, is to have no objective at all. To achieve our highest goals, we must be willing to abandon them. 

The Big Idea

Note: this is a mashup from the book and an interview with Ken.

IT is Great at Creating, Collecting, and Proliferating Stepping Stones

We are now in a position to understand why the IT industry is so productive: IT is great at making stepping stones.

Like no other industry IT builds on itself, rapaciously integrating any bits that might prove useful. IT is a great novelty driven machine for exploring the technology search space. Many independent interests work in parallel generating artifacts--code, new discoveries, frameworks, platforms, processes, hardware, answers, ideas, content, new paradigms, new business models, etc--that feed forward into a great autocatalytic reaction.

The root of the IT innovation engine is the incredible generosity of people. Yes, there’s often a strong profit motive, but people are inexplicably free with their knowledge and time in the IT industry. Why that would be I’m not sure. Perhaps because IT inherits its schema of operation from the open inquiry process of the science domain? Perhaps because deep down we all recognize we are participating together in the Great Going Forward that is modernity? Perhaps it’s simply how humans work within a community that loves what they do?

Once you look stepping stones are everywhere in IT: 

All these forces and more help keep the universe of stepping stones expanding. It’s sort of inflationary model of progress radiating out from the Big Bang of the Enlightenment.

There are Some Challenges Ahead 

Be Fruitful and Create Stepping Stones 

There’s a line of thought out there that programmers should focus their skills on solving problems that really matter. That’s a lot of pressure. Not everyone has a passionate interest in problems that “matter.” And it may just be bad advice. 

Even if you don’t think what you are doing is curing cancer or making the world a better place, what you may be doing is creating a stepping stone. And that has value. So be fruitful and create stepping stones.

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