Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Children of the Net: Why Our Decendents Will Love The Cloud

Our children--or perhaps our grandchildren--won't remember a time when there was a PC on every desk, or when you had to go to Fry's Electronics to buy a shrink-wrapped copy of your favorite game. This, as Nick notes frequently in The Big Switch, is one of the real parallels between what our ancestors went through with electrification and what we have yet to go through with compute utilities. Heck, I already find it hard to remember when I didn't have access to the World Wide Web, and in what year all of that changed. Also, I'm frankly already taking the availability of services from the cloud for granted.

My Dad used to tell me stories of when he lived in a house in Scotland with only a few lights and no other electrical appliances, no indoor plumbing and no telephone. I can't imagine living like that, but it was just about 50-60 years ago. Those born in the latter half of the twentieth century (in an industrialized country) are perhaps the first to live a lifetime without seeing or experiencing life without multiple sockets in every room. It is unimaginable what life was like for our ancestors pre-electrification.

There will likely be both positive and negative consequences that come from any innovation, but to the innovator's descendants, they won't remember things any other way. In the end, once basic needs are taken care of, all human kind cares about is lifestyle anyway, so the view of how "good" an "era" is, is largely driven by how well those needs are taken care of. One of those basic needs is the need to create/learn/adapt, but another one is the need for predictability of outcome. This constant battle between the yearn for freedom and the yearn for control is what makes human culture evolve in brilliantly intricate ways.

I for one hold out hope that our descendants will be increasingly satisfied with their lifestyles, which--in the end--is probably what we all want to see happen. Will those lifestyles be better or worse from our perspective as ancestors? Who knows...but it won't really matter, now, will it?

Of course, one of the biggest challenges to humanity is meeting even the basic needs of its entire population. To date, the species has failed to achieve this--the study of economics is largely targeted at understanding why this is. Cloud computing could, as Nick suggests, actually make it more difficult for some groups of people to meet their basic needs, but I would argue that this would be counter productive to the rest of society.

At the core of my argument is the fact that so much of online business is predicated on massive numbers of people being able to afford a given product. Nick argues that life in the newspaper world shows us the future of most creative enterprises; the ease of the masses to create and find content makes it difficult to sell advertising to support newspapers, thus the papers struggle. But if huge numbers of people are out of work, with no one valuing their talents and experience, that will lead to less consumer spending. Less consumer spending will lead to less advertising, which will in turn lead to less income for "the cloud" (i.e. those companies making money from advertising in the cloud). Its a horribly negative feedback cycle for online properties/services, and one I think will fail to come to pass.

The alternative is that the best of the talent out there continue to find ways to get paid, while the masses are still encouraged to participate. Newspaper journalists are already finding opportunities online, though perhaps at a slower pace then some would like. I believe that ventures such as and even YouTube will create economic opportunities for videographers and film makers to rise above the noise. Musicians are already experimenting with alternative online promotion and sales tools that will change the way we find, buy and consume music. Yes, the long tail will flourish, but the head of the tail will continue to make bank.

The result of this is simply a shifting of the economic landscape, not a wholesale collapse into a black hole. Yeah, the wealth gap thing is a big deal (see Nick's book), but I believe that the rich are going to start investing some of that money back into the system when the new distribution mechanisms of the online world mature--and that should create jobs, fund creative talent and create a new world in which those that adapt thrive, and those that don't struggle.

Did I mention I think the utility computing market is a complex adaptive system?


LanceW said...

Hi James,

The indoor plumbing comment is really interesting. I lived in Edinburgh as you know and in "the old town" indoor plumbing only came about really within living memory of many people.

That said, visit any good Roman ruin and you'll see central heating and indoor plumbing from 2000 years ago.

I wonder if that means in a 50 years some start-up will launch software you can buy on a disk?

I also agree that the "talent" will keep making money in new ways. Here in the UK "new media" is is ways dominated by old media stars.

Stephen Fry (TV celebrity), has a successful blog; Ricky "The Office" Gervais a popular podcast. Heck, you know things are changing when Lenny Henry (Comedian) has a TV show that consists almost entirely of YouTube videos.

James Urquhart said...

Thanks, Lance.

You make a very interesting point regarding plumbing over history. I think, however, there is a certain "haves vs. have-nots" in that example--the Roman's perfected an indoor plumbing system that was strongest in Rome and reached out from there. By the time you get to Scotland, the Roman's aren't exactly matching Rome's infrastructure achievements.

The same may be said, I think, about high tech in general. We take the telephone for granted, for example, but having a personal phone is still considered advanced technology in many countries. My history is terrible--I wonder if plumbing technology actually degraded to pre-indoor technologies in Rome before the modern era...