The Web^2: it's Exponential, but is it Contracting or Expanding?

The theme for the Web 2.0 Summit this year is Web Squared. It is rooted in the idea that as the web morphs into less of a hub and spoke distribution model and more of a network of connected people and things, innovation and opportunity on it are growing exponentially. There has been a little bit of discussion on the Radar back channel about exactly what this means, or should mean, and Nat started things off with a thoughtful response that probably should be blogged as well. In particular he introduced feedback loops into the discussion, and with Nat’s prodding, I decided to share my response to his email here. I’ve edited it a bit to make it a *bit* more cohesive, and while it isn’t as structured as I would like, these are my thoughts about the exponential future of the web and a little bit about how that future might also impinge on the future of government…

I agree with Nat that feedback loops are a great mental filter to view the world. I read a little bit of Wiener and now I see feedback loops everywhere. Furthermore, what I like about them as a mental model, is that they help me understand the web at the ecosystem level rather than at the level of a specific technology. Wiener defined a cybernetic system the way engineers define a thermodynamic system. In thermodynamics, a system is closed if no energy crosses its boundary. A cybernetic system is closed when no messages or information cross. Since messages are the lifeblood of feedback these boundaries are important. As an example, open government stuff is so exciting to me because once computing systems connect between the web and government, the boundaries of previously isolated cybernetic systems (e.g. the people and its government) begin to be permeable. And once they are permeable to computing messages they will also be permeable to cultural signals that can create cultural feedback loops. That will cause state to change on both sides of the boundary. Two small isolated cybernetic social systems become one larger integrated one with new feedback loops in place.

Regarding the exponential theme, I’m not sure that innovation is progressing as an exponential over time – although, in fairness, I’m still working on my unabashed optimism credentials. But… In the 1920’s automobile companies were springing up like crazy in America. It was the era before production methods became the dominant competitive weapon and anyone with a good idea for a better combustion chamber design or a valve train or a styling cue could still try their hand at building a car company. With access to tools, labor, and know how Detroit in the 20’s was a very generative environment for automobile innovation. But by 1980 even DeLorean with a trunk full of coke couldn’t afford the startup costs – a combination of more sophisticated design requirements and the changes in production scale economics made it impossible.

Are Data Centers the Economic Equivalent of Manufacturing Plants?

The interesting parallel with the web (or computing and software more generally) is that the rise of the data center as a key piece of competitive know how and, perhaps more importantly, capital cost. The question in my mind is whether utility computing enhances generativity, or by making it contingent on powerful interests, effectively stifles generativity in the long term despite the generative potential of the technology (I’m shamelessly borrowing the idea of contingent generativity from Jonathan Zittrain). And a related question, does the introduction of capital cost as a major factor in the eco system eventually make the web feel more like Detroit in 1980? Will it fundamentally change the web by tying it firmly to those who can access sufficient capital? (Google spent over $800m on data center capital improvements last year. That’s a number that even makes the Defense Department wistfully declare “we just can’t afford to do what Google does.”).

Or, …the electric utilities made innovation with electrical devices more possible, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that utility computing will always do the same. After all, electrical utilities ship their power to us where we use it in situ for whatever purpose we want, but utility computing requires us to send our “loads” to them where it is much easier to implement perfect mechanisms of surveillance and enforcement. Homeowners associations used association charters to turn neighborhoods into little fascist fiefs and data centers have the potential to do the same with EULA’s.

Scale and Concentration (or, is the Universe Expanding or Contracting?)

As scale on the web increases there are competing concentrating and generative factors at work (any of which might be exponential). The concentrating factors (need for capital, sophisticated expertise, …) tend, like gravity, to collapse the system down on itself in a variety of ways. I don’t mean that it becomes less relevant or makes less money, I mean that it ends up feeling more like AT&T in the 60’s with centralized control and vested interests and strict contingencies on generativity. Just like Apple’s oversight of the app store. On the other hand, the factors that tend toward expansion are feedback loops that span organizational boundaries, ready access to seed funding, standards for cloud computing that encourage true commodity availability of non-contingent generative environments etc.

Figuring out which force will dominate is like trying to figure out whether the universe will expand forever or eventually contract. The balance between the factors is quite subtle, depends on minute variations in initial conditions, and is very difficult to predict. But, we can still ask ourselves, “how can we influence the broader cybernetic ecosystem of the web to encourage policy, practices, cultural values, etc. that will promote generative expansion rather than scale-driven contraction?”

Exponential Effects and Social Structures

Shifting gears for just a moment, complexity science is the other idea I tend to come back to as a frame for viewing the web that, while not directly related to the exponential theme, is at least peripheral. The web is fascinating in the way it has become the cybernetic substrate on which both technical and social patterns are emerging. Stripes form on a zebra because “black” and “white” chemical messengers from adjoining cells interact with each other differently over distance. Out of that simple mechanism complex patterns emerge. The web is transport for human messages that don’t decay with geo-spatial distance. This geo-and-time-independent messaging is enabling human “striping” that is no longer geo-ethnic dependent.

Within a geography the existing striping can become more severe as the web enables self-selected and self-reinforcing pockets of auto-propaganda that combine with social graph clusters; clusters that only infrequently span value systems. The situation is reminiscent of 1930’s era Spanish political parties and their newspapers, but operating at photo-multiplier tube speed. We consume the stuff that reinforces our world view and segregate ourselves into more and more thoroughly strident neighborhoods of belief. We remain physically in our geo-defined country, but in our chosen echo chamber we each live a very different intellectual and emotional experience in a whirlpool of exponentially hardening world view. Perhaps someday we’ll live in “nation states” that are stripes of psychographic and value alignment instead of stripes in geography.

Of course, it’s true that as long as we are physical beings we will continue to stripe locally in our physical world. The cybernetic overlay in human relationships provided by the the web doesn’t replace that reality, but by augmenting it and letting us stripe along lines of affinity and value system without regard to geography, it contributes to fissures in our geo loyalties. These fissures are important because States exist to govern the physical world (trade, law, taxes, defense…) but they depend on shared values and culture to function effectively. Just look at Iran today to see the effect of incongruent value systems on co-located peoples.