In short, software is eating the world. — Marc Andreessen, 2011
I. If a technology’s popularity grows far enough, it will disintegrate
Consider three stages of technology adoption. First, it is available only to an elite:
“The newspaper reports that the governor used one of Mr. Bell’s telephone devices to converse with his counterpart on the other side of the country.”
Then its spread makes it an exciting popular novelty:
“The Smiths finally got a telephone, so now Timothy can call his sweetheart, but of course the whole town can listen to him try to persuade her to meet at the dance.”
Eventually it is absorbed into how people live, and its name can disappear into the human purpose it serves:
“Let’s talk tomorrow.”
In 2017, computer-powered information technology is shifting from the second to the third stage. Referring explicitly to “computers”, “the Internet”, “the Web”, and “smartphones” is increasingly a distraction, just as it became archaic to say:
“We’re going on an automobile journey! We’ll surprise Sarah’s cousin by joining her birthday party! Won’t she be astonished that we appeared from such a distance in our smoky, trumpeting magical chariot like faerie creatures!”
as opposed to:
“We’re going to visit Sarah’s cousin for her birthday.”
“Visit” is a human action and a human interaction: the end to which the technology and its employment are a means. Horseless carriages lost our attention because they became so popular they were no longer noteworthy. A friend’s birthday matters more than the smoky trumpeting chariots we’ve all ridden in so many times. Consider this example from today:
“My daughter used the Firefox web browser to make a Google Doc file for her social studies class.”
as opposed to:
“My daughter wrote her social studies report.”
In the first sentence, my daughter is a “user” of specific technologies. She is defined by the means she employs, and the ends are a subordinate matter — literally relegated to a dependent clause. In the second sentence, she is a person performing a task that defines a core identity of hers, student. The first, in which she is a user, seems artificial by contrast. Consider when it isn’t artificial to speak of technology use:
“How is your cursive handwriting coming? Did you try holding the pencil the way I showed you?”
When we are learning, specific technical means take over from general human ends as the subject of our activity. When a cook makes dinner, the means are often implicit while the end is universal. When an apprentice chef learns how to dice an onion, the means are the end. Learning dominates when technologies are new and not very useful for broad human purposes. If you want to explore a coral reef in 2017, buy a plane ticket to the tropics. If instead you buy “FishWorld, a fully immersive underwater experience for Oculus and Gear” you will learn more about virtual reality technology than you do about reefs. Now cast your mind forward: in 2037, you will not play with or think about “virtual reality”. Either it will be defunct, or it will be so useful that we speak of an evening at home exploring coral reefs. The technology will fail and evaporate, or it will succeed and be absorbed, but either way, it will disappear.
“He was the driver. No one got badly hurt, but he still feels terrible.”
Technology use also surfaces when something goes wrong. Everyone needs to travel. People who identify as car users have a learner’s permit, a hobby, or a problem: “I was stuck in traffic.”
II. The term “Internet” no longer coheres
The Internet coheres. It comprises a world-spanning address system where computer circuitry invokes the IP protocol to transmit data. My programming contributes to Firefox, a tool for accessing the first application of the Internet that reached non-specialists.
Like most of my colleagues, I can’t remember the last time I wrote software to create or route IP packets — to write Internet software per se. Instead, we work with what people mostly mean when they say “the Internet”: roughly, “activity performed with networked computers.” But while networked computation strongly shapes the many activities we perform with it, precisely because it has become an effective tool it no longer dominates the individual activities themselves.
Let’s contrast computing technology with one of the technologies that made us human: cutting with blades. Consider these ways of cutting with a blade:
- dicing an onion
- removing a cataract
- preparing a rough diamond for setting
- splitting fuel for a wood stove
Each of those actions is, essentially rather than incidentally, cutting. But we do not yoke them together in our minds under the term that denotes their essence. “Cutting” does not cohere across their variety. Now consider that when cutting was new, our ancestors used one kind of blade for all cutting. Cutting did cohere. With the passage of eons, the activity has become ubiquitous and wildly differentiated: chips far off the old rock. Differentiation is dis-integration. Civilization has absorbed cutting.
In the very recent past, a single computer “user” might employ her tool for dozens of discrete purposes which her friends referred to indiscriminately as “being on the computer.” Computer users were unusual people, and differentiating among their activities was not pertinent for the rest of us. That time has passed. Perhaps the time to speak of computer “use” is passing as well. Because “the Internet” touches more than half of humanity in literally uncounted ways, it has become like “blade” in the time of cuisine, jewelry, surgery, log-splitting, and on and on. Not a broken word, but one that cannot encompass every instance of itself without stretching beyond denotation. By triumphing everywhere, the Internet has dis-integrated its own name. “The Internet” no longer coheres.
If you label my daughter’s writing a report as “using the Internet” rather than as “doing her homework”, you inspect her activity through the wrong end of the telescope. You might as well narrow your focus all the way down to her fingers and call it “typing.” It’s not that nothing of moment has changed; quite the contrary. It does matter that what she does on a distant computer via keyboard and screen I did with pencil on paper. But to understand her work we must hold in our minds both what has shifted and what has not, and the latter is enormously more consequential. Consider how computer technology has affected medicine. Problems surgeons once approached with knife in hand, they now address with lasers directed by circuitry. That change in tooling changes health care systematically. We cannot understand health care today without naming and considering the new tools. But it is health care that concerns us1, not tools. We need to focus on the systemic consequences of absorbing technology, not the technology itself or even the specific changes directly attributable to technology.
In August 2011, Marc Andreessen wrote that computer-powered technology was transforming the world. His classic2 essay describes how computerization disrupted a wide range of markets in the USA. By “the world” he meant “the American economy.” In February 2017, Andreessen’s colleague Mark Zuckerberg published “Building Global Community” in which he shows how Facebook has become “social infrastructure.” Zuckerberg’s essay appears to have been received mostly as public relations. It is public relations. It’s also a detailed announcement of upcoming plans by the dynamic executive of a world-dominant organization, a convincing argument for Facebook’s tremendous importance to society, and an example of Facebook’s importance as a publishing platform. It demonstrates that we should no longer speak of computing technology as distinct from civilization3.
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. — John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624.
Nor is computing technology distinct from thee or me. 微信4, WhatsApp, and Facebook materialize Donne’s extravagant metaphor into daily routine. Who do you love? Take a moment to bring their faces to mind. Your relationships with other people are not something you “have”, but something you are. If you took that moment, it likely nudged your mood and your blood pressure. Other people are in your cells, shaping your systems and your thoughts. In 2017 half the world’s adult friendships occur in part via computing technology. We have met the technology, and it is us.
Andreessen aptly chose “eating” to highlight the dynamic of engulfment central to American markets in 2011, but it is not the most accurate term to span technologically-driven change in 2017. When human relationships amalgamate with computing technology, we have not been eaten by software. We have absorbed software. 微信, WhatsApp, and Facebook are us — but we are also them. How should we think about that phenomenon? What should we do about it? Those two questions have one answer, because they are the same question. More soon.
1. An irony in my choice of analogy: the incessant debate on health care markets in America’s politics (rather than health) is a disastrous example of privileging means over ends.
2. Specifically, it defined its time for its community, making it a kind of living historical document. Most such documents I can call to mind are of great political importance: Common Sense, the Gettysburg Address, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and so on. I cast no aspersion by allowing that Andreessen is not Lincoln or King, but for one economy at one time his words mattered. By describing what was happening to American business in the premier American business journal of the time, he gave the others in his community a better handle on it. Names are also tools (“a better handle”). A closer parallel to “Why Software is Eating the World” is Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, which described technology-driven business change and was immediately adopted by a dominant technical firm of the time, Intel, to drive a sharp change in strategy with widespread consequences.
3. The meager attention my conversational community has paid “Building Global Community” relative to its tremendous importance on multiple fronts should shock any of my peers and colleagues who think we have a good handle on the state of the world. We saw Zuckerberg’s manifesto — it wasn’t exactly hard to notice — gave it a glance, and went back to Trump’s twitter feed and the Uber scandal du jour. … and no sooner do I publish this than my friend Ryan gives me the lie with: “The Future of Social Media: Group Identities”
4. Aka “WeChat”, which is probably more deeply woven into its “users’” lives than Facebook is into its. But my conversational community on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean can’t read Mandarin, so we largely ignore it.