Designing for the Future


Remarks delivered to open the Internet Technology Summit, Orlando, 22 June 2010.

It is human nature to root for the underdog. Make no mistake, we loves us some winners, but we adores us some winners when they come from behind.

May 26, 2010, was a momentous day for come-from-behind winners.

For example, on the Fox network, a mildly Springsteen-esque young everyman named Lee DeWyze beat out the barefoot, coffee-house dulcetry of the favored contestant Crystal Bowersox to win the final on this season’s American Idol.

At Tropicana Field in St. Pete that day, the much maligned Boston Red Sox beat the team with the best record in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays, a whopping 11-3.

And, on the afternoon of May 26, 2010, a remarkable thing happened in the come-from-behind department. Another entity came from behind to win another contest of sorts.

Apple (a/k/a Apple, Inc., f/k/a Apple Computer, Inc.) achieved an overall market capitalization – an overall value – of 241 and a half billion dollars, exceeding, for the first time ever, the market cap of Microsoft, to become the largest technology company in the world.

And there was much rejoicing.

Yes, let the bells clang and let the banners fly. Fill the steins to dear old Apple, shout ‘til the rafters ring.

We celebrate because Apple’s surpassing Microsoft isn’t just a ratification of all that is held dear by artsy fartsy techno geeks.

No. Apple’s ascention in the capital markets, Apple’s assumption to the coveted top spot, Apple’s winning over Microsoft means something far more deep about the state of humanity, and you should care about this because it affects your job.

What it means is this:

The average person no longer cares about software. The man in the street doesn’t give a dingo’s kidney about your latest hack and is unimpressed by the obvious wit and wisdom required to pull it off.

The average person, the man in the street, we… we just wants to buy us some cheap music.

Just over a decade ago, Apple wasn’t quite dead, but it was coughing up blood, receiving last rites, and laying on a hospital bed murmuring “so cold… so cold… I’m coming Commodore… See you soon, Atari… Tandy, I’m coming into the light…”

But then, Apple did not die.

What happened was, the iTunes Music Store was launched in 2003.

On February 23, 2006, the iTunes Music Store sold its 1 billionth song.

Earlier this year, a scant 4 years later, the iTunes music store sold its 10 billionth song.

An order of magnitude growth. At that rate, by oh say 2020, Apple will have sold an infinite number of songs and its market capitalization won’t fit in the known universe.

Oh and let us not forget that Apple has given us one more thing that we also want.

The average person, the man in the street, you and me… we… we wants us some iPhones.

Apple’s win is not just a vote against Microsoft – not just a rejection of software that is bloated, slow, ugly, feature laden, slow, buggy, insecure, intimidating, humiliating, slow, frustrating, and I swear to god sometimes just literally seems to have been designed by asinine, sadistic jerks who just want my day to be worse than it would otherwise have been had I not logged in the first place.

Apple’s win is not just a vote against that. Apple’s win is a vote against the entire consumer-grade software market.

We don’t want to buy software anymore. We don’t want to care about software anymore. We don’t want to know that software even exists.

We don’t buy engines. We buy cars. Fully formed, and ready to roll.

Apple’s win proves that, instead of buying or even worrying about software, as such, we would rather buy and use products like the iPhone.

We want to buy products so stunningly beautiful they seem like they have magically fallen to earth from the future and into our loving hands, an object whose user interface is sheer visual poetry, a product you don’t so much use, as dance ballet with.

The iPhone is modern proof of Arthur C. Clark’s notion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The iPhone is a product that does not insult you, like practically everything the tech market had heretofore produced. The iphone is a product that actually delivers on what advertisers and marketers of everything from beer to deodorant have been promising us for decades – using an iPhone actually makes you sexier.

And so that’s it, right? Apple has beaten Microsoft? The war is won? We’re no longer insulted and humiliated, now we’re all unbearably sexy?

In the future, do you officially come from behind and win if you can sell us a little slice of sexy magic to carry in our pocket?

We live in a strange universe. Current observations suggest that our 3-dimensional existence is fully describable as a hologram off a 2-dimensional surface. Quite literally, we seem to live in an astral projection.

Current observations suggest that time itself does not really exist as a fundamental component of reality, but is just an emergent property that arises out of a particular condition of a static, timeless, quantum undergirding.

And for decades we have known beyond any realistic shadow of doubt that reality itself doesn’t actually exist until we observe it. It is a proven scientific fact that the very fabric of the universe creates itself for us to look at.

All of reality is a smudge, a smear of quantum probability, pregnant with nothing but possibility, until someone observes it and by doing so, collapses the quantum state vector, whereupon reality promptly and conveniently condenses into existence for us to share and enjoy. When we look away, however, the universe turns back into smoke.

Apparently the universe itself is indistinguishable from magic.

This is true. Google it.

Funny thing… If you know anything about memory management inside the kernel of any computer operating system you’ll recognize how much the quantum world seems to kinda sorta be paging into a virtual swap file.

Reality seems to present itself to us in more or less exactly the same way that computing resources are allocated to processes inside computers.

Computing is different to other technological advances humans have enjoyed. Indoor plumbing rocks, to be sure; the steam engine? A superb addition to the repertoire.

But computing is different. Computing is the gift that keeps on giving. With computing, you can create that which is virtual, that which can simulate reality.

With numbah 6, you get virtual egg roll.

We have had virtual memory, virtual machines, virtual operating systems since roughly the Lyndon Johnson administration. For the past few years we’ve toyed with virtual reality. Tens of thousands of people a day login to virtual worlds.

In the not too distant future, possibly in my lifetime, but surely within the lifespan of my kids and of anyone born in this millenium, the computing power of the average handheld computer will exceed that of the human brain. It will be capable of thought, if we can figure out how to program it properly.

All that you perceive yourself to be is composed of a highly organized matrix of electrochemical potentials running on a supremely portable, 100-watt massively parallel computing device made of about 5 pounds of meat situated right behind your face… and if we could precisely duplicate the state of your brain in another computing device, when we powered that device up, it would swear it was you.

In a few years, devices with that power will be commonplace. Hopefully we’ll figure out how to program them carefully. Hopefully using such devices will be less like Outlook hell, and more like iPhone heaven, so that as I am downloading my consciousness into it, my consciousness will be transmitted free of angst, frustration, grit, and scale.

So how far away are we from a world in which fully conscious, fully sentient, effectively human simulacra are running around in your laptop? Moore’s law dictates it won’t be that long – just a few years now – before the Sims will be taking matters into their own hands.

And if we can simulate virtual humans, how long will it be before they, our virtual children, hit upon the divine spark to uncover the means to invent their own virtual computers, compose their own virtual software, create their own virtual worlds, and breathe life into their own conscious, sentient, virtual beings?

And if we can invent simulacra, and our simulacra can invent simulacra, and so on and so on ad infinitum, then what on god’s green earth presupposes that we are at the top of this inventive chain?

I remind you again of how much the fact that reality springs into being as we observe it, bears an unmistakable similarity to virtual memory management inside a computer.

OMFG. There is an MFG, and she’s a hacker.

Quod erat demonstratum.

I firmly believe the universe is teaming with life and that some of it is bound to be intelligent and that as soon as we can figure out how to span the enormous distances between us, we’ll go out and meet them someday and when we do we won’t give a damn about the extent of their technological advancement. Interstellar space travel is a hard problem. If we can engineer ourselves into a truly spacefaring race, we will by necessity have solved pretty much any technological problem a species could ever encounter and so we won’t be terribly impressed with any particular tech our extraplanetary brethren might show us. Nor they, ours.

What we will hunger for, what we will judge each other by, is by our culture. We will care about their music and their poetry and their appreciation for the mysteries of existence, and we will care about how they govern themselves and whether or not they attend gracefully to the weak and infirm among themselves.

We will care a great deal about whether they are evil, or peaceful. Their capacity for pleasure. What kinds of beer they prefer. That sort of thing.

And if there is a master programmer above us in the chain (and let’s not forget the possibility, nay the inevitability that he, she, or it, too is just a virtual precipitation of bits running around in some even higher being’s computing device), if there is something or someone above, isn’t it likely that he, she, or it is judging us on the same criteria?

My point is this:

It matters how much beauty you create in the world. Because it sticks. Your actions have consequences. Your products, your services, your companies, your customer service techniques, these things literally raise or lower the aggregate level of happiness in the world with every act and omission.

And it will be remembered.

The code you write today may still be running in 20 or 30 years. How much happiness will it have created? How much frustration?

I beseech you: engineer beauty. Peddle pleasure. Sell happiness. We agree on happiness. We all want happiness.

We don’t agree on much more.

According to a recent Harris poll, 24 percent of republicans think that Barack Obama might be the antichrist and 22 percent of republicans think Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win.

What’s disappointing about this – well among the symphony of things that are disappointing about this – is that only the remaining 2% of those polled have demonstrated the intellectual thoughtfulness to recognize think that if Obama is the antichrist he probably wants everyone to lose, even the terrorists.

‘Cuz that’s how the antichrist rolls, man.

So we don’t agree on who’s good and who’s evil. And we don’t agree on certain other important things.

Here’s a passage from a children’s book called “Ni Hao Kai Lan” which is intended to introduce American children to Chinese culture:

“When you make something and people copy you, sometimes it means that they really like it too! And that makes it even more special!”

So, it is one thing to embrace the open source movement, to promote sharing, and to choose to release your innovative output under the creative commons license. It is quite another to have communist china inculcating, dare I say, indoctrinating, your children into a way of thinking that abdicates the very basis of all intellectual property ownership rights.

So we as a species do not agree on what is right and good. We’re still not planetary. We’re still nationalized based on where we live. We still have yet to divorce jurisdiction from geography. The laws that apply to your behavior change every time you travel to a different hunk of rock. God only knows what laws apply in the non-space… the pan-space…. that is the internet.

The good news is that, as of yesterday, the Yuan will be allowed to float against the dollar, so in theory the Chinese will be able to buy more of our stuff. Oh wait, the Chinese make all our stuff. Hmm… quick make some stuff to sell to the Chinese!

We are all connected like we’ve never been before. For all intents and purposes, nearly everyone on the planet has a cell phone, give or take a billion. As Clay Shirky put it, here comes everyone.

So how do you sell to that? How do you create a product today that will win over a massively interconnected world of consumers who don’t agree on the difference between good and evil, don’t agree on the basic rules of how to govern themselves? How do you create a product that will speak well of you to your virtual children decades hence, a product that will acquit you as you someday stand before the aliens or the master programmer or whomever else comes along to pass judgment?

My advice: take a page from Apple’s book. If you can do nothing else, for the love of MFG, make stuff that makes people sexier.

Current history demonstrates that that’s a winning strategy.

Thank you.

2 thoughts on “Designing for the Future

  1. Excellent!!

    “It matters how much beauty you create in the world. Because it sticks. Your actions have consequences. Your products, your services, your companies, your customer service techniques, these things literally raise or lower the aggregate level of happiness in the world with every act and omission.

    And it will be remembered.

    The code you write today may still be running in 20 or 30 years. How much happiness will it have created? How much frustration?

    I beseech you: engineer beauty. Peddle pleasure. Sell happiness. We agree on happiness. We all want happiness.”

    Brilliant!!

  2. I laughed so hard my dog jumped straight in the air!

    ‘‘Cuz that’s how the antichrist rolls, man.”

    I laughed so hard my dog jumped straight in the air! Brent, my man, you really hit your stride in this post, sir.

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