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Stacks have no Outside

gold-rush-miner

It was a quote that rolled by on Twitter the other day:

“Don’t skate to where the puck is going to be, skate to where hockey is going to be invented.”

While the speaker probably intended this to be a sign of energy and a singular commitment to disrupt the status quo with a completely new technology, I took it as a signal of a bubble that was about to burst. In the previous dot com era, there was the joke:

“If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.”

The fiction was created that one’s work is one’s life and that the two never need be in balance because they are one and the same. The current saying about hockey implies that if you are smart enough and work hard enough you can create a paradigm shift in the way technology is used and the way people live. You can create a new kind of game.

In 2008, Steve Jobs discussed how he viewed changes in the technology landscape:

“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.”

In 1848, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Northern California unleashed the largest migration of people in the history of the United States. What no one told those would-be gold diggers was that by 1850 all of the surface gold was gone. Only the large mining companies using hydraulic water cannons were still able to extract gold from the hills.

hydraulic_mining_operation

Today’s version of the large mining company is what Bruce Sterling calls a Stack. These are the ecosystems that have staked out large sections of the Internet from which they can extract gold.

A Stack doesn’t have to “break the Internet” to do this; it just has to set up the digital equivalent of a comprehensive family farm, so that the free-range cowboys of the Electronic Frontier are left with crickets chirping and nothing much to do. A modern Stack will leverage stuff that has never been “Internet,” such as mobile devices, cell coverage and operating systems.

In order to become a “Stack,” or one of the “Big Five” — Amazon Facebook Google Apple Microsoft — you need an “ecosystem,” or rather a factory farm of comprehensive services that surround the “user” with fences he doesn’t see. Basically, you corral Stack livestock by luring them with free services, then watching them in ways they can’t become aware of, and won’t object to. So you can’t just baldly sell them a commodity service in a box; you have to inveigle them into an organized Stack that features most, if not all, of the following:

An operating system, a dedicated way to sell cultural material (music, movies, books, apps), tools for productivity, an advertising business, some popular post-Internet device that isn’t an old-school desktop computer (tablets, phones, phablets, Surfaces, whatever’s next), a search engine, a dedicated social network, a “payment solution” or private bank, and maybe a Cloud, a private high-speed backbone, or a voice-activated AI service if you are looking ahead. Stack cars, Stack goggles, Stack private rocketships optional.

The goal of a Stack is to eliminate the outside. Once inside the Stack, there should be no outside of the Stack. The horizon of possibility is defined by the Stack. With the twist that the horizon should appear unlimited. The Stack is a place where you should believe that you could skate to where hockey is going to be invented.

Google Contra Mundum

Those who’ve never been humbled believe there’s a rational explanation for this fact. In the world of technology vendor sports, Google has had numerous product failures, but it’s never really been humbled. Apple was on the verge of closing its doors. It was only an investment by Bill Gates’s Microsoft that kept the company alive. Microsoft itself lost an anti-trust case and was shackled for years. Facebook’s IPO has proved a humbling experience to the most recent master of the universe.

It was Microsoft’s reaching for the stars, it’s total domination of computer operating systems and office automation software that provided the model of what could be done. Given the size and scope of the known computing universe, their domination seemed to be total and everlasting. Of course, we know now that the universe continued to expand. The distances connecting the various functions of computing were distributed across the network of networks. Text became hypertext and the glyphs themselves were used to encode any media type for transmission across the Network. Suddenly, it was a whole new ball game.

Google claims as its mission the task of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. To some extent, Google accomplished this with its search engine product. The product has entered the common parlance, and now we talk of ‘Googling’ something. Google means search, and search is its big driver of revenues and profits. The funding for all its other products rests on the back of search. This allows them to enter established markets without the burden of turning a profit. Microsoft used this tactic when it launched the Internet Explorer web browser as a free product. Suddenly there was no such thing as a ‘web browser’ business.

One of the interesting characteristics of Google is that it doesn’t partner well. In the end, as a corporate philosophy, it believes that anything you can do, it can do better. It buys companies rather than partner with them. Google’s commitment to the open web and open source computing is the one area where they do create partnerships. Although these partnerships can’t be said to exist on an equal basis. Even in these open partnerships Google dominates.

In Geoffrey B. West’s talk for the Long Now Foundation, called “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster” he addresses the issue of the lifespan of a corporation. As they become more regular in structure, they become more brittle. If we look at a listing of the current S&P 500, we find a startling fact:

The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today, according to Professor Richard Foster from Yale University.

In the age of the ecological thought, we should ask whether the empire building dreams of the old Microsoft are a reasonable corporate mission. Is it still possible for any corporation really dominate the technical universe on its own? Apple, one the world’s biggest corporations, has arrived at its current position through carefully negotiated partnerships with the carriers, the music industry, the film industry and software application and game developers. Apple’s more humble approach to partnerships seemed to start when a partnership saved its life.

“Apple doesn’t have to lose for Microsoft to Win. Microsoft doesn’t have to lose for Apple to win”

– Steve Jobs

Even Microsoft doesn’t believe in the old Microsoft. For example, they now offer Linux on Windows Azure. They’ve been very friendly to the JQuery and Drupal open source projects. It appears they’ve learned something about coexistence. Interestingly, the one area where Microsoft always had partners was in hardware. With announcement of Surface, that dynamic is going to change.

Google’s Android is the direct analog to Microsoft’s Windows. The difference being that Google subsidizes Android; it’s generally provided for free to its partners. Although if you’ve read anything about gift economies, you know that something given for free creates an obligation of a different sort.

When you look at the scope of Google’s products, it becomes clear that organizing the world’s information actually requires them to mediate every human contact with the world. The world itself becomes an unbundled, chaotic swirl of qualities. It’s just color and light, textures and shapes, never resolving into objects. To get an understanding of how Google sees itself mediating and rendering the world, making it accessible and useful, take a look at their new television commercial for the Nexus 7. A father and son, camping in nature—what could possibly come between them?

It could be that Google is the harbinger of a new era of philosopher kings, or perhaps we should call them engineer kings. And perhaps a king who has never been humbled can rule with humanity and wisdom. On the other hand, Google’s harmartia may lie in its belief that there’s a rational explanation for why it’s never been humbled.

Olympians: Caliban and Blake

The New York Times called it ‘weird’ and ‘unabashedly British.’ Some other descriptors included ‘wild jumble, celebratory, eccentric, off-the-wall, noisy, busy, witty, dizzying, slightly insane, and zany.’ In the end, the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic games, created by director Danny Boyle, was boiled down to a tribute to the anarchic spirit of the British. After all, the winner of the motto contest for the Olympics was “No Motto Please, We’re British.” The spectacle was packed with much more than can be quickly unpacked in a short essay, but there were a couple of moments that really caught me eye.

The thing that caused a conservative member of Parliament to call the ceremony too “lefty and multicultural” was that it wasn’t an unequivocal, unqualified positive portrait of Great Britain. It’s interesting to contrast its project with the production four years ago in China. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony spectacular offered a vision of how we all really got here—to this spot–where these games will be played with competitors from all over the planet. By definition the Olympics are multicultural and to some extent ‘lefty.’ But to hold that mirror up to the world is still a dangerous proposition. Best to be thought of as ‘zany’ rather than serious.

I’m reminded of something I recently heard in Paris. Some citizens there were discussing the question as to whether France should be multicultural or not. One need only walk around the streets of Paris to know that the question is moot. Rather than start from a position of purity, Boyle starts with the words of Caliban, a moon calf, a freckled monster, recited by the actor Kenneth Branagh:

CALIBAN
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

The Tempest 3.2.148-156
William Shakespeare

Caliban’s dreams far outstrip his reality and so he cries to ‘dream again.’ In essence he seems to be dreaming of pastoral Great Britain, something well beyond his grasp.

While the floor of the stadium is portraying pastoral Great Britain we hear the anthem “Jerusalem” with music by Sir Hubert Parry, written in 1916. The words are by the visionary poet William Blake. Presaged in the poem are the dark Satanic Mills that transform the green and pleasant land to an industrial machine.

Jerusalem
(The Preface to ‘Milton, a poem)
William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land

John Lienhard describes what Blake meant by the phrase ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight:’

Blake, the sensible observer of the human lot, outlines our responsibility. We can’t shrink from the mental fight of building a world fit for habitation. When he asks for his bow, arrows, spear, and chariot of fire, he’s reaching for tools with which to build that world. He’s arming for mental fight. He realized that, from now on, nature would shine through the fire and mills only if we had the wits to make it do so.

It’s difficult to imagine the courage, the mental fight that Boyle had to muster to show the world this stage picture of England during the industrial age:

The information age follows the industrial age in Boyle’s telling of the story. And here all our modern stories are woven together into the multicultural fabric that we inhabit. Of particular note in the transition section is the tribute to the National Health Service.

And finally the entrance of the athletes by country in alphabetical order. The exceptions are Greece which traditionally enters first, and the host country, Great Britain which enters last. The randomness of the sequence of the letters of the alphabet presents us with strange and beautiful juxtapositions of countries and cultures. While the Olympics are contests of physical skill, they also represent a shining example of ceaseless mental fight.

Without Kings

Spending two weeks in Paris, I was immersed in the past. Architecture of bygone times poking through from a dozen historical eras as I walked the streets. There’s a kind of sublimity that’s the experience of being overpowered by the object of contemplation. The size, scale and beauty of the cathedrals and chateaus take the breath away.

I was never so conscious of being born and raised in a country that never had Kings, a country that was never dominated by the Church. These monuments left by Kings and Cardinals just aren’t the kind of things that could exist in my country. We’ve had our industrialists and captains of industry, but the power of capital simply isn’t at the same level.

Stewart Brand wrote a book about how buildings learn; even these monuments created to glorify royalty or the institution of the church have adapted to the new environment of the Republic. We preserve the sublime without regard to its origin. We experience its beauty and turn a deaf ear to the raw power responsible for its being.

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