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My Dream of the Great Unbundling

by | Apr 8, 2021 | New, News

Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment, until it becomes a memory.

— Dr. Seuss

Lately I’ve taken greatly to this epaper tablet, the ReMarkable 2. I’m not sure who sells it. Not Apple or Amazon. It’s slower and monochrome and less powerful than my iPad, but somehow its duller, paperlike screen and its simple software encourage me to scribble, and I’ve been using it to write weird calligraphic notes that I send to my friends. Sometimes I prepare presentations with it, in cursive, and use them when I’m on a video call in lieu of PowerPoint. It doesn’t glow or read email, and I delight in that.

As I doodle in the sunlight, my Roomba bumps my foot. The children have named it Biscuit. You can connect to it via an app, but lately I just hit its big dumb button, and it does its thing (vacuuming). Upstairs my $35 Raspberry Pi computer, running software called Pi-hole, has blocked 97,000 ads from our home network. I am making oatmeal on the stove, my phone is somewhere, charging, and all is well with the world. I’ve been thinking, idly, of installing a landline. Not a real one. A Wi-Fi one. I’m sure I could power it with another Raspberry Pi.

You know the story: The web shows up in the 1990s. It’s totally decentralized. Everyone can participate if they can learn HTML. But the platform companies, like Google and Amazon, come along, start to command more and more attention, and take a huge helping of the advertising pie (there was pie?) until only a few megaplatforms matter. And the way you access those platforms is from your phone, which can send emails, order food, call cars, and take pictures—and now check your heart and respiratory rate, or encourage you to walk more until you close your circles. The amount of power this concentrates into a few companies has led to perpetual congressional hearings. We live with it.

It’s hard to talk about these companies. They’re enormous and complex. But there’s also a paradox built into tech culture: We’re supposed to celebrate scale, while using every possible tool to destroy the incumbents. So you end up feeling as if you should somehow worship these giants and fear their power and size and ability to innovate—and sure, the Apple M1 rollout is for the ages—but at the same time there’s a cultural imperative to smash them, using any (digital) means necessary. We must disrupt the enemy, who is us.

But how? By making new internets, but guaranteed decentralized this time. We’ll use open protocols, like Mastodon, the Twitter anyone can self-host! Or maybe the answer is to make a globe-spanning network of redundant files, using IPFS. Let’s create our own currencies, like Ethereum, to support dapps (decentralized apps) that run on … ETH gas? Whatever, NFTs! Build a new browser! Everyone who writes code on the weekends eventually thinks to themselves, You know, if things bend my way, I think I’ve got the next Facebook. Even if it’s a site that makes animated kittens dance. There’s always that little parsley sprig of hope in the mashed potatoes of your side projects.

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But this is fantasy, because giant companies are not going to be disrupted anytime soon. They can afford to buy any threat. And they are built to survive. In 50 years Amazon will be using drones to deliver your denture cream. Apple will be building trains. Facebook will take over the national telecommunications grid in 20 distressed nations and call it the F20.

They aren’t immortal, of course. All giants fade away. Look at Sears, look at AT&T. Microsoft is 46, but why won’t it make it to 90? We will all probably die before Google does. Every single human reading this will live out the remainder of their life in between product launch events held at Apple Park in the Steve Jobs Theater. People will read our funeral announcements on Facebook and add little sobbies.

I have an almost physical need to follow the above paragraph with the words “But what’s next?” Biotech? Drones? China? Nanotech? Crypto? Push? But there is no natural law that says there must be a next big thing.

The story of the web often neglects that it was a parasite. It rode in along with email, the “killer app” of the 1990s. AOL and Microsoft both tried to distract people with their own information services. But the web grew like mold, inside of every enterprise, built into every system, until it was underneath everything, like that enormous mushroom under Michigan. It’s become the solution to every problem, and every giant company is confident their version of that solution, built atop their ecosystem, is the best. Buy our cloud. Install our app. Big problems need big solutions. Installing updates.

That’s a way of seeing the world, but maybe we need lots of little solutions instead. Cheap devices that do certain things more pleasantly than your phone does them. Weird tablet computers, cheap toylike Raspberry Pis sipping power instead of big water-cooled supercomputers. Your robot vacuum doesn’t need to talk to the internet, not really. It just needs its button pressed. A lot of the time we may not need any solution at all. Whole container ships’ worth of stuff could stay in the ground.

At work I live in the shadow of giants, launching software on cloud platforms. At home I love my little alt-gadgets and mess around with decentralized technologies. (Download the IPFS desktop app, it’s cool.) As hobbies go, it’s about as expensive as having a reasonably nice bicycle. But as a technologist, I need to acknowledge that the giant companies of our industry are far bigger than even my biggest ideas. I doubt we can displace them with a few well-crafted protocols.

If we’re going to live together, the giants and me, I’d like to ask them something. Humbly. If you’re a product manager working on a feed or search interface inside of a giant tech company, you have access to hundreds of billions of hours of human attention. Could you help your users spend one hour a year learning about what’s coming for the world, climate-wise, with a small dose of civics to go with it?

Because, if you did, that would be 2 or 3 billion hours of shared experience. Two to 3 billion hours of people learning how important it is that we come together calmly. And that is a beautiful canvas of time upon which to paint a future. It would be one hell of a product. We’re counting on you.

We have no choice. You won.

Billions of us need help making millions, billions of decisions. Decisions about whether to upgrade HVAC systems, or how to fuel our shipping, or what to plant in the backyard. Sometimes it feels like the paradigm has inverted. Technology was the mold growing across human systems. Software was eating the world. Now it feels like humans are the mold growing on technology.

I said that there’s no next big thing. But deep in my soft, uncynical heart, where I keep my most embarrassing predictions, I do know what it is. The next big thing is us. Just plain old people. Humans using language. Humans accepting limits. I can’t help you turn it into Q4 results. I don’t know how to invest in it, nor who should run the conference series. Nor could I tell you who should host the podcast.

I just know that it’s got to be our turn. I love technology, but this is faith.

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