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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Seven Thoughts on The Seventh Sense

I recently read The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo and some reflection on my career as a network engineer and consultant.

I've been designing information and communications technology (ICT) networks for the better part of my career. The process, the technology, the methodology have all changed - in some cases dramatically. We no longer build networks for objects to connect to; we build networks to transport information. This may seem a semantic debate, but the two scenarios require very different approaches. And what emerges may be a very different architecture. Building houses for people to live in seems straightforward. But having information like, "all the people are disabled veterans" changes the architecture from a two-floor cape to a single-floor ranch, and alters many other design elements.

Following are the seven thoughts I need to document:

  1. Connectivity is a commodity. This comes from near ubiquitous connectivity in first world countries both in the residential market but mostly via mobile. There still exists a "digital divide" and cost remains a major factor in adoption (reference WEF GITR). But consider this: Internet access in 1995 was going to an internet cafe and sharing a 1.5Mbps T1 which cost the proprietor $9,000 per month (reference Vox: The hippest internet cafe of 1995). Twenty years later, I have 25Mbps broadband (17x faster) in my house for $65 per month (138x cheaper).

  2. Applications are also a commodity. We now call them apps. We can download them for free from online stores. There are many (sometimes thousands of) versions of the same type of applications - from mobile phone games to enterprise resource planning systems. The value is no longer the application, but the interface to the application. And I mean that from every context; the user interface - clean and intuitive, to the programming interface (API). Data is the key resource and it can't be locked up in proprietary data stores inaccessible to integration. That goes against everything network computing has been moving towards.

  3. The value of having an ICT network continues to increase but the perception of that value has decreased. It's like electricity; it has made our lives infinitely better, but we don't appreciate it until a power outage. And even then, the increase in perceived value is fleeting, generally lost when the power returns. With near ubiquitous connectivity described above, it's actually quite a surprise when you can't get online.

  4. The seventh sense is "the ability to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed by connection" (Ramo, 2016, p. 30). If we turn that around, we can say an object is fundamentally changed by connection. I would go so far as to say an object's value is changed by connection. But it's not as simple as connecting a single object to a network. There needs to be something at the other end; something to exchange information with to provide the increase in value.

  5. Assuming the point above, for any single object in a multi-object network: the sum of the whole object is greater than the parts. If we take 1 (object) and connect 1 (network) we get 3. That is, 1 object plus 1 network, plus the emergent value of the connected object. We could also say it's 3n, where n is the multiplicative power of the "network effect", which increases as more objects connect to the network. This leads to the next point.

  6. Ramo talks about preferential attachment - you want to be where everyone else is (Ramo, 2016, p. 189). Do you want to join MySpace with 1 million users, or Facebook with 1 billion users? And this also plays to the increase of an object's value. As a single object joins a small network, the contribution to the network coming from the one new addition is close to the consumption from the network going to the new addition. As the network grows, these values diverge. One new user to Facebook essentially contributes zero value to the network, but the amount of consumable information for that new user approaches infinity.

  7. This last point is more of a thought on further research. If we agree that connection changes an object, I wonder how the connected object changes the person who uses the object? I think of the telephone game and how much a message changes from direct human-to-human interaction. When we communicate messages through a translated (in this case, digital) medium, how much is lost? What is gained? Think of how you can misinterpret meaning in an email or text, finding nuance or emotions that weren't intended by the sender. Or how frustrating is it to listen to the endless menus when trying to connect to a person in customer service. And that's just person-to-person via machine. What about when machines take up the far end of the communication? No real person in customer support to connect to. What about when your Fitbit transmits your vital signs to the network; they're aggregated, integrated and analyzed by your healthcare provider and suddenly your healthcare premiums increase because you aren't meeting your daily step goals? I've read research about human-computer interaction, but I'm getting much more interested in the full end-to-end path: human-computer-human, or quite possibly in the near future: human-computer-machine interaction.

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