Bulletin 11 May 2018 – The Seven Laws of the Information Age

[Note: If you have not actively opted into this bulletin and I have been in touch, this will be the last one you see. Thanks for all the fish, see you on the circuit!]

I confess to have hesitated before I used the word ‘the’ in the title to this bulletin. After all, that’s quite a statement. Nonetheless, these seven principles have been plaguing me for some time in one way or another.  As always, I’d welcome any views you have. 

The law of falling thresholds

Advances in the fundamental building blocks of technology — processing, storage and communications — reduce bottlenecks and make new things possible due to falling cost, power and size needs, in parallel with increased capacity, capability and bandwidth. The Internet of Things, for example, is a manifestation of how sensor-based remote management and control can apply to whole new areas, once it becomes affordable that is. In turn, this enables new practices and models such as pre-emptive maintenance or competitive fitness apps. 

At an infrastructure level, falling thresholds are enablers to new approaches to storage and processing, driving specifics such as in-memory Apache Spark, and more general trends like cloud computing. As 5G becomes a thing, so we will see vastly increased bandwidth, making such things as streamed augmented and virtual reality possible — should anybody want them, of course! 

The law of self-fulfilling prophecy

Like the technology it creates, the technology industry is constrained by both financial and engineering limitations, which means it has to set priorities. Frequently, these are put in place based on supply and demand: if the market for RAM increases, so will finance be found to create more of it. At the same time, priorities can be influenced by agendas, charisma, personal drive and other forms of influence. 

A positive example of this is Moore’s Law: when an entire industry gets behind a single theme, putting the necessary research behind it, so it is possible to maintain a steady level of progress across, well, decades. We’ve also seen the single-mindedness of people like Steve Jobs, who drove the market for tablet computers through seeming force of will, and of course Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. 

The law of potential differences

Over recent decades, many of the most exciting breakthroughs in technology-led business models have resulted from spotting new connections to enable value exchange. That is, I give you something, and you give me money back. These are dressed up in clever economic terms but boil down to the same set of questions: what can I give you that you are prepared to pay for, and/or how can I short-circuit existing business models? 

The result plays to the agile startup: given just how slowly old corporations move, if I can do something new quickly, I will be able to siphon off a bunch of money and grow to such an extent that I will have established myself by the time they catch up. E-business, disintermediation, Uberisation, the Network Economy are all manifestations of this same principle. 

The law of exponential complexity

This can be formulated in a number of ways. For example, that the amount of data that we create will always exceed the amount of processing we have available. Or that the needs of the devices we have to manage, in terms of volumes, rate of update or upgrade or will always exceed our capacity to manage them. Or that the attack surface will always be greater than our ability to secure it. Or that the photos we take will never be tag-able in a meaningful way. 

However it is framed, the consequence is always the same: that the hopes we have — we the business, or IT management, or home user — live in a constant state of forlorn hope, that the next generation of technology will solve what remain some pretty fundamental issues (manageability, security, insight delivery). Only to find that next-gen tech creates as many new challenges as it purports to solve. So, on we go. 

The law of inflating expectations

A counter to the law of falling thresholds is that a technological advance can very quickly become a default, rather than an exception. We only have to look at the progression of video, from a minority owning expensive, tape driven camera equipment, to a situation where capturing and uploading video has become a blight on music gigs, and indeed a disappointment if it is not possible for whatever reason. 

In turn this drives the law of exponential complexity, as our default behaviours result (for example) in generating far more video content than we can fit on our two-year-old smartphones. Again, this is a law which can be ‘leveraged’ by technology companies: by getting the customer base to see the new as the norm, it drives new spend as the old very quickly becomes inferior. 

The law of unintended consequences

Innovation is no longer in the hands of the technologically savvy few, as individuals create whole new ways of using tech that were never part of the plan. Often these are positive, such as geocaching; equally, they might drive the use of a new technology to its absolute limit, driving designers to distraction and feeding the law of inflating expectations. 

And frequently they can have negative consequences. Each new generation of technology creates new ways to extricate money from people, which is why we have a whole industry around cybersecurity, to counter a whole industry around cybercrime. 

The law of innovation decay

Any innovation has a sell-by date, as over time, contextual requirements will move to a state which make the innovation a poor fit to the situation at hand. Individual solutions can never change as quickly as the problem spaces they serve, in many cases as hardware, software and communications are overtaken by the very complexity that they create. 

In part this is a consequence of the law of self-fulfilling prophecy: the push to create new things inevitable drives things out of date more quickly. It also results from the laws of both inflating expectations and unintended consequences. Some device vendors have exploited this law through designed obsolescence, accelerating the point at which a device will become redundant. 


All the best, Jon

Bulletin 11 May 2018 – The Seven Laws of the Information Age

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *