Welcome back, Weblandians

The collision of software and hardware has broken down the barriers between the digital and physical worlds.

Note: this post is a slightly hydrated version of my Solid keynote. To get it out in 10 minutes, I had to remove a few ideas and streamline it a bit for oral delivery; this is the full version.

In 1995, Nicolas Negroponte told us to forget about the atoms and focus on the bits. I think “being digital” was probably an intentional overstatement, a provocation to shove our thinking off of its metastable emphasis on the physical, to open us up to the power of the purely digital. And maybe it worked too well, because a lot of us spent two decades plumbing every possibility of digital-only technologies and digital-only businesses.


Solid attendees watch a Bot & Dolly demonstration of their Iris robot. Photo by O’Reilly.

By then, technology had bifurcated into two streams of hardware and software that rarely converged outside of the data center, and for most of us, unless we were with a firm the size of Sony, with a huge addressable market, hardware was simply outside the scope of our entrepreneurial ambitions. It was our platform, but rarely our product. The physical world was for other people to worry about. We had become by then the engineers of the ephemeral, the plastic, and the immaterial. And in the depth of our immersion into the virtual and digital, we became, it seems, citizens of Weblandia (and congregants of the Church of Disruption).

But pendulums always swing back.

The seed for our Solid Conference was planted at OSCON in 2007 when I saw Jonathan Oxer click a virtual light switch in Second Life and turn on a real table lamp in the Portland convention center. A light went off in my head, too.

That trick seems pretty simple now, contrived even, but what stands out in my memory is a room filled to standing-room-only capacity. Full of people with a hunger to code things that they could touch, things made of atoms — an impulse we saw come to full flower with the explosion of the maker movement. After wandering around in our Tron-like emptiness for so long, it seemed we had a visceral need to hack on solid things again. To prove ourselves once again agents of the physical world.

Solid explores the (re-)collision between hardware and software, and perhaps it signals our reemergence into that real world as well. What the collision looks like depends on where you are standing.

To a software entrepreneur, it means that hardware is becoming less hard. It’s still hard of course, but it’s a matter of degree — and open source tools, modular components, desktop fabrication, and fast and accessible supply chains are making it more available to the innovator.

Software, and this newly-made-malleable hardware, are no longer separate domains; they are merging into a single medium of creative expression. Maybe it needs a new name: bothware, or mixedware, or dualware, or something. Something to distinguish it from its distinct and disconnected parents.

“Bit-wrapped machines don’t just change what we do; they change human work and human organizations.”This mixture without a name lets us build software with a physical presence; it gives our ideas substance, all while maintaining the software-like malleability that makes it amenable to techniques like lean and agile. We can build “bothware” with an approach that at least approximates the methods that previously revolutionized software.

Better yet, we can finance it like software. The real magic in software for all of these years has been the the economic trick of splitting variable and fixed costs. Amazon and Google (and their investors) have been kind enough to carry the burden of fixed costs for every startup in the Valley, making it necessary for our venture backers, friends and family, and even that string of credit cards we maxed out to finance only the variable costs of our innovation. And by the time those got big, we were successful and proven, and it didn’t matter. Now that dynamic is coming to hardware, too, with companies happy to help in the early stages and take the risk off of our hands in return for future volume.

To the manufacturer and builder of things, software is the river of bits streaming off of the things we make, or soon will be — bits that won’t just instrument things, but that will transform their very economics. Bits transform things into services. Individual things combine with other digitized things to become something more, a gestalt whose whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Fractions of things, brokered by bits, are more efficiently shared — with those cheap bits standing in for expensive assets — and industries are being transformed as a result.

Businesses have long used digital means to make their back offices more efficient, but now the impact on the front office, products, and business models is accelerating. Well-established industries are being disrupted, and we’ll see more.

Bit-wrapped machines don’t just change what we do; they change human work and human organizations. The transition from organized humans to hybrid human-machine organizations will be fast. We are transitioning from humans enabled by machines to human-machine symbiosis. How long until we are the symbiont?

Whether you are a software person coming to hardware, or a hardware person coming to software, it’s the convergence that’s interesting. So, we might have given Solid a name that more directly speaks to that combination, some play on a mixture of hard and soft. But, like Negroponte, we are expressing the direction of the push, not the end state — in our case, a nudge back in the direction from which we came. I called it Solid to highlight the renewed emphasis on the tangible, on atoms. Of course, now they are atoms wrapped in bits.

But make no mistake, Solid isn’t O‚ÄôReilly’s “hardware event.” Solid is a software-plus-hardware-is-something-altogether-new event. While it feels like ETech reborn, I think it is the logical heir to the Web 2.0 Summit. It’s a continuation of the story that unfolded there.

1.0, 2.0, … We need these occasional memetic sign posts to mark points of departure along what is an otherwise a lumpy continuum. They mark the places where the accretion of change is sufficient to mark a boundary with the new. This continuum started on the web, moved to “the graph” and the power of data, and is now escaping the web altogether, to leak into every nook and cranny of our physical habitats.

But we won’t call this sign “Web 3.0.” We are all too tired of the banality of ordinal progressions, but more importantly, this isn’t about the web anymore. We are still talking about the Internet, but it’s an Internet sprung from the confines of the web. It has left the boxes on our desks, and the phones in our pockets, and it will be everywhere. We won’t even think of it as the Internet (or Internet of Things) anymore. It will just be part of our environment. The Internet’s very ubiquity is about to render it invisible.

Let’s come back to that other bit for a moment, that part about us shifting loyalties from atoms to bits. Somewhere along the way we became the citizens of Weblandia, the expats of nations and places, full-time residents of the web. Twenty years of living and working in bits has shifted our geo-centric and national loyalties to an ethereal network of connected ideas, a place without place.

If my Twitter stream is any indication, we Weblandians are much more concerned about patent trolls and tolls on our digital traffic than we are with more mundane corporeal concerns — like whether a newly resurgent imperial Russia will invade Ukraine again. Meh.

“I refuse to believe that we are slaves to a future we can’t influence. To hell with that.”Disruption is our state religion here in Weblandia. In our cathedral that we pretend is a bazaar, we worship the Shiva-like god of disruption — a two-faced god occupying the duality of creation and destruction, demanding only that we sacrifice the dirt-dwelling Flyovers without hesitation. Our priests teach us that compassion is a liability. To reach our potential we must shade the windows of our busses in an empathy-blocking stream of bits and keep our heads down in our screens.

It’s not our fault. The world needs destruction to cleanse itself. Old trees burn to clear the land for new growth. The earth opens up so new diamonds can jet to the surface — life from death, all that stuff. We publicly praise our deity for its creation face, but in our darker impulses we love him for the destruction. Blowing shit up is fun. Even better if you feel righteous doing it.

But now, the network we disruptive Weblandians inhabit is infiltrating the physical space that we previously abandoned. As we return and bring our creative focus to the physical world around us, perhaps symmetry suggests that we become engaged citizens of that world again, too.

Maybe it’s a reminder that as long as we remain physical beings we should remain citizens of the real world of atoms. And to be citizens is to be conscious. In particular, conscious of the role we take in changing the world, even when (especially when?) we change it in ways we didn’t intend.

We technologists are such utopians. Disruptive utopians? Those words are weird together. Sometimes our utopianism is overt and sometimes it’s quiet and presumptive. Either way, we are certain that the technique we’re discovering or developing will change the world for the better when it’s put to it’s intended use, and there are no unintended consequences. There are never unintended consequences.

Of course, in the real world, unintention often dwarfs intention. Shiva the Destroyer is unpredictable, and we would do well to fear his power a little bit, to be humble in our disruptive rapture.

In 1775, James Watt and his contemporaries thought they were building steam engines. A method of locomotion that would free humans from the drudgery of manual labor. But unexpectedly, his engines and the Industrial Revolution they unleashed, caused millions of us to pack up and move to the cities, where our suddenly dense social graphs changed politics as much as production.

The -ism’s of the 20th century sprang directly from those engines, made possible by those newly concentrated populations, and all of them were led by technocrats who were as sure of themselves and the utopian bent of their technologies as we are today of ours. Looking back at China’s May Fourth Movement or the Italian modernists, it’s difficult not to shake our heads at their misplaced faith in technology and their closely related techno-politics.

In the late 1960s, Vint Cerf and his colleagues thought they were building a packet-switched network. With (I’m sure) more meta-awareness than Watt, they brought the ethos of the counter culture to their work. They were suspicious of the top-down technocracy of the Vietnam War era, and they imbued their protocols with the principles of emergence in the hope that the network they built would maintain a bias toward decentralization and a force for democratization.

Yet, here we are. Instead of that smooth decentralized landscape, the web has concentrated and congealed into exabyte lumps of Google, Facebook, Amazon — and now we know, the NSA. Utah is set to become the gravity well of the web.

It turns out that progress progresses without regard to our utopian intentions, and each successive wave of technology has further centralized society. Even when those technologies were birthed in emergence and raised in open culture. And just look at the technology we are building now. We are wiring every bit of the world around us, filling it up with sensors and actuators. We are endowing our habitat with a rudimentary networked consciousness at the same time that we are giving it motor neural pathways and growing its muscles — talk about a wave of technology ripe for the unexpected.

Technological determinism is the meta shoulder shrug that tells us that we are absolved: whatever can happen will, that emergence is beyond human responsibility or accountability, and the only rational act is to step back and watch it all unfold. But I refuse to believe that we are slaves to a future we can’t influence. To hell with that. We all have choices to make, and we should make them consciously.

Most of us are optimists. We are optimistic about the possibilities of an Internet unconstrained by its virtual sandbox, an Internet that is joining us here in the real world to solve real-world problems. However, I think it’s worth remembering the dual nature of disruption, and that with every wave of technology, the feedback loop to our intentions is shorter and more predictable than the one that eventually ushers in the unexpected. Given that gap, the faster we go, the more the Faustian price of our bargains can grow by the time the bill comes due.

You can watch Stogdill’s Solid keynote as well as other keynotes and interviews from the show on our Solid YouTube channel.

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