Trillions of things sending billions of messages

The O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Mickey McManus on preparing for an era of unbounded malignant complexity.


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In this week’s episode of the Radar Podcast, O’Reilly’s Mike Hendrickson talks with Autodesk research fellow Mickey McManus about engaging with extreme users and what’s going to happen when we have trillions of things sending billions of messages. McManus also talked about how we can prepare for the coming era of unbounded malignant complexity.

Unbounded malignant complexity

In talking about Trillions, a book McManus co-authored with Peter Lucas and Joe Ballay, McManus explained what exactly we’re up against in the next five years as our world becomes more and more permeated with computation:

We are probably five years away from trillions of computing devices, and that wouldn’t be bad, but then imagine a world saturated with computers. It’s almost like a super-saturated solution. They’re not all connected, so maybe we could cope with that. But, concurrently, connectivity is joining Moore’s law — people like Intel are working on Moore’s law radio that basically puts all the parts of a radio on silicon. Which means that, suddenly, the cost of connectivity drops to dirt, to nothing, to dust.

We’ll have this super-saturated solution where that seed hits it, and we’re going to turn the sock inside out. We’re going to go from information in computers, like your super computer in your pocket, to us being surrounded by information. … The next information age will be an era of unbounded malignant complexity. Because there’s a lot of stuff. We have to get ready for that.

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We’ll find our answers in nature

So, how do we prepare for this era of unbounded malignant complexity? McManus said the best place to look is in nature:

A wise man told me, if you want to figure out something really complicated and different then go find somebody who’s already done it. And it turns out nature has been doing this for three billion years. Your body’s a complicated information system in its own right. You’re going to go 80, 90, 100 years without a catastrophic failure.

There are a whole bunch of patterns like biomimicry for information systems that we can look at. I think the answer to how we’re going to cope is, we’re going to have a bubble. Two kinds of people make it through a bubble — lucky and smart.

I’ll give you one example: Pando. Pando is a stand of quaking aspen in Utah that’s been running for 75,000 years. It is one organism; it’s a clone — it shoots a shoot across under the earth and then it shoots up another tree. It’s one organism, but it’s got a whole bunch of friends. It uses this trick that nature found called mycorrhizal networks — ‘myco’ is just fungus, and ‘rrhizal’ is kind of horizontal. And if you look just a few inches below the surface, you’ll see this fungal network that’s actually taking carbon atoms from dying oak and moving it over to Pando. You’ll see this network basically grabbing water from areas of abundance and moving it miles to areas of drought. When the leaves change, they all change at the same time over acres because it’s one organism.

This is the social network of plants. It’s actually very common — it’s mutualism. It’s good for me, good for you. I think one of the patterns that we have to start understanding is being a part of the flow, and not the other kind of symbiosis like parasitism, but really, how do we play together nicely. That’s one of many patterns we can find in nature.

Human centered, FTW

Designing for this type of complexity will require everyone to learn new business and design skills — and to accept a little loss of control. McManus explained:

I think it would be a real shame if we force ourselves to meet computers halfway. Everyone wants to teach everybody to code; we should all code, and all that. It sounds like a bunch like lying old train hobbyists from when I was a kid going, “Everybody should learn how to…This thing needs to be glued on over there.” No, I’d like computers to bend to my will. I’d like it to be human centered.

Because in an era of unbounded malignant complexity, the companies, the businesses, the industries that actually pay attention to people are going to win. So, how do we tame that complexity but give us the power that complexity brings. I think that’s part of the challenge … I think designers, business people, engineers — we’re all going to have to shift from designing for complete control to designing for a little loss of control and becoming more of a gardener to pull out the weeds and turn the wildflowers to the sun and really realize that feedback loops and cybernetics and all the things that have to do with ecologies and complex connected systems are an entirely new set of business and design skills.

Cropped image on article and category pages by Paul K on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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