McManus Proffers Trillions at SF Tech Shop Future Salon

I went to see Mickey McManus plug his latest book, Trillions, at the Bay Area Future Salon held at SF Tech Shop last week on April 9th.  McManus heads Maya, which is a “design consultancy and technology research lab.”  I’m coming to believe that the more meta your business is, the more important you are.  What the hell do these guys actually do?  Well, they built an “information-centric environment” for DARPA called Visage for one thing.  McManus made some bold claims about this being based on the idea of digital DNA but, you know, actual DNA is pretty hardcore technology, so I have my doubts.

McManus’ thesis is that economics will make it cheaper to embed computation into objects than to forgo it.  This vast internet of things will contain trillions of computers, dwarfing the current internet.  It will quickly make today’s techno-catch phrases of clouds and webs seem quaintly antiquated.  I have to like anyone who refers to cloud computing as a sunset technology.  So refreshing.  And he can certainly turn a nice phrase here and there.  This trillions-scale internet of things will “turn the sock inside out.” Instead of data being “in the computer” we ourselves will be living “in the data” so to speak, since our entire environment will be completely interwoven with computation and data.  And this is a done deal as far as McManus is concerned. The markets dictate it and so it shall be…within 5 years.

McManus trotted out another nice phrase to describe this internet of things: unbounded malignant complexity.  Nice!  Soon everything around you will be a potential vector for cyber-attack.  Imagine your refrigerator getting infected with malware, or your medical prosthetics.  Of course I have riffed on this theme before, and Vinge imagines that this future will have all the stability and permanence of the financial markets.  McManus suggests we look to nature for solutions to this complexity problem: biomimicry for information systems.  He characterizes nature as being organized into hierarchies of layered complexity where simpler components form foundations for more advanced structures.  Cells make up bodies which form families which form communities, etc.

It’s not clear to me how this model can be applied to information systems in a novel way, but that’s why McManus makes the big bucks.  I got a copy of the book, I will read it and get back to you.  In the meantime, you can check out this article that McManus published about nature’s “generative frameworks” on the techonomy site.  This seems like it might be an interesting site by the way.  They put on conferences in Tucson and Detroit.  I think I will try to get myself invited to one.  Kurzweil is speaking at their Tucson conference this year.  Lord knows I can’t get enough Kurzweil.   In that techonomy article he admonishes business to create frameworks that allow their users to create inventions.  But I am skeptical of this generative framework jargon.

Sure, Apple did it with apps on the iphone.  Web 2.0 is all about harvesting user generated content and data.  This isn’t really new stuff, but again, jargon-meister McManus gives us a new name for a familiar phenomenon: exhaust data.  The era of trillions is going to push big data to even bigger bigness.  All of these devices will be generating unimaginable yottabytes of “exhaust data” and the savvy business hustlers of today should be positioning themselves to find those opportunities for data exhaust recycling.  Because nature wastes nothing, don’t you know.

McManus also delved into this idea of data liquidity and suggested that some analog of shipping containers was needed in the information systems world.  As shipping containers led to an explosion of international trade by providing a common API for physical transport, McManus envisions an informational equivalent to make the internet get even more crazy with the sharing and whatnot.  He asserts that DNA plays some similar role and is actually nature’s currency.  Which strikes me as a weird thought – the economics of trading DNA? Nature is the best example of market dynamics?  Really?  This is good stuff.  And of course it follows that the oceans can be thought of as nature’s backup drive providing the ultimate in data resiliency.  Actually maybe referring to the oceans as nature’s central banks is a better analogy.

Again, I have a hard time seeing how this plays out in information systems.  But then, I lack vision.  McManus suggested that Maya’s Visage system for DARPA which I referred to earlier makes use of this data containerization concept.  He also talked about the fact that most disagreements are identity disputes and that matter unlike data always has a unique identity and doesn’t require Universally Unique Identifiers.  Was he trying to hint at where this ubiquitous computing could go?  The ultimate merging of bits and atoms?  I cannot say, but it’s an intriguing thought.

Over all, McManus was upbeat.  He sees a world of limitless possibilities, rife with business opportunities.  What unimagined synergies will these trillions of computing devices facilitate if the right connections are made?  Maybe you can’t picture why your sock drawyer should communicate with your stereo, but then again, when Jobs cut an early deal with the Beatles, he agreed not to take Apple into the music business.  Ha, talk about lack of vision.  Er, wait, this is Jobs we are talking about.  Anyway, McManus admonishes would-be entrepreneurs to seek out unlikely partnerships today because the trillions will make all connections possible…or something.

One thought on “McManus Proffers Trillions at SF Tech Shop Future Salon

  1. I don’t doubt that we’ll get to some form of ubiquitous computing (assuming that civilization doesn’t collapse first), but I doubt that “economics will make it cheaper to embed computation into objects than to forgo it”. There’s plenty of stuff out there that has such a low simplicity and cost that even a tiny increase in marginal cost can’t be supported.

    That said, there is a nice case for RFID attached to much more stuff than now. Cory Doctorow (whose fiction has consistently disappointed me) had housemates tagging everything that way in his Makers and rigging every cabinet and drawer with RFID readers so the house “knew” where everything was. I just spend a day at a work party at the Tourist Club, and everyone in the shop was annoyed that no one knows where various things end up — and amused at how predictable that is in a shared toolshop. I can see how finding the packet of coarse sanding pads for the disc sander I was using would be nice no matter how it worked.

    This kind of blue-sky hand-waving futurism isn’t really very impressive. He’s churning a bunch of metaphors together that are each currently hot without actually making any testable predictions. DNA is “currency”? What, like it is a scarce object that takes the place of actual goods in facilitating the trade in services and goods? At least he hasn’t figured out to mix epigenetics into his story yet. That one’s really hot.

    Metaphors are a tease. They tempt us with the allure of insight, but almost always leave us frustrated.

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