Apr 25 2016

Generative Technology

I've felt for a long time that certain technologies were more appealing to me than others. I'm not talking about which industries or fields the technology is applied, but something deeper that impacts all technology. It's the reason why the computer felt so special to many of us. Perhaps why a lot of us got into software. For years I've been searching for a way to describe it and now I can: generativity.

In 2008, Jonathan Zittrain wrote The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It. The book presents the idea of two types of technologies: sterile and generative. It ultimately focuses on policymaking concerns around generativity, in particular the security implications. Cory Doctorow has a good summary review if you'd like to learn more about the actual topic of the book. However, here I'd like to expand on generativity from a broader, technologist point of view.

Zittrain describes sterile technologies as those with a fixed purpose or use. They're made for one thing and don't often surprise you. Another way to think of them are as appliances. Home appliances exemplify sterile technology. The toaster is pretty much only good as a toaster. The smoke alarm is only good as a smoke alarm.

Generative technologies are those with more potential uses than the creator could even imagine. They're general, repurposable, and often surprising in how they're used. They encourage innovation and tend to result in new technology on top of them. One of the most generative technologies we have is computing. The Internet and the web are themselves also generative technologies. At the content layer on top of the web, Wikipedia is a generative technology.

Toaster and Commodore 64

Most technology falls somewhere between sterile and generative. Or perhaps, are a little of both. Zittrain describes certain devices as "tethered." That is, generative, but not purely generative. The iPhone and the App Store are common examples of tethering. They allow anybody to create new uses for the device by making apps, but Apple is the gatekeeper. Truly generative technologies and platforms don't have a single gatekeeper for their ecosystem. Again, our prime examples: the Internet, the web, Wikipedia.

Zittrain tries to remain neutral on whether sterile or generative is better. He argues that your car should likely be a sterile technology. Generative systems can grow messy, and malicious third parties can often abuse them. Truly generative systems can sometimes be compared to the Wild West. Perhaps in fear of that chaos and of what we don't understand, we let companies sterilize and exert control over these technologies.

The book ends up focusing on the debate around this trade-off. Yet it's the idea of generativity that captures my interest most. I'm not against sterile technologies, but I do have a bias towards generativity. I would love to see more generative technology than sterile, but we live in a world that discourages it.

Blame it on consumerism

Business loves sterile technology. It's more predictable and easier to control. Sterile is also easier to market. A product needs to solve a specific problem for people to see a need for it. This is why products tend to have a fixed purpose in marketing if not by design.

A product with several uses is often harder to market until the uses are well-known. Think of baking soda and personal computers.

Twilio is another example of a generative product. We first marketed to developers because they could see all the ways to use it. Later, marketing to large enterprises required a shift in strategy. We had to focus on narrow, problem-specific solutions on top of it. This is often a necessary strategy for API and platform companies.

Besides marketability, generativity often comes with other business challenges. Having untethered uses is a support nightmare. Generative technology can also be confusing and harder to adopt. And again, malicious third parties can hurt users and product reputation. These all have costs that are easier to manage by limiting generativity.

Another way to say it, sterile technology is more consumer-friendly. By keeping it simple and focused, it's easier to use, easier to market, and easier to run a business around it. These all sound great, but from a technology standpoint the trade-off is the possibility space it allows us to explore. A toaster lets us make toast. A computer lets us do almost anything.

Unprecedented generativity

Generativity explains why the development of the personal computer was such a big deal. Computing represents the most generative technology in human history. You can imagine the marketing challenge in front of early PC vendors: a device you could use for almost anything. Most of them focused on known use cases around business, learned from the previous generation of computers.

Steve Jobs had a different idea. He knew how special the computer was, often citing the magic of one mind and one computer. His mission was to make computing personal and on a massive scale. Beyond hobbyists and beyond the workplace.

Steve Jobs and the Macintosh, Norman Seeff

The way he felt he could do this was to make the computer as much into an appliance as possible. He knew the real generativity was in software, so make the hardware sterile. Plug it in, turn it on, then point and click to enlightenment.

But Jobs was a control freak. He tried wherever possible to make the software sterile, or at least tethered, as well. Can you imagine how excited he was to move Apple into consumer electronics? Actual appliances! If you recall, he even tried to get away with making the iPhone a closed, sterile appliance with no third-party apps.

This sterile appliance strategy started with the Apple II. But since the Apple II was Wozniak's baby, it was more generative than sterile. One argument in particular about the design of the Apple II captured their contrasting values.

Woz wanted 8 slots for expansion cards in the Apple II. With more slots, third parties could add more functionality to the device. This would increase its potential uses, making it more generative. Jobs only wanted two slots for two specific add-ons: a printer and a modem. Fixed, predictable, sterile.

The story of Steve Jobs is all the more remarkable considering his dedication to the sterile appliance strategy.

The Apple II was a success, but it would seem as though it was because of the generativity that Woz kept intact. Yet every computer product Jobs orchestrated from then on applied the appliance strategy in full force. It seemed to only result in financial failure after failure. From the Lisa, to the Macintosh, to the Next Computer. You can imagine somebody in his position might have reconsidered this strategy. He persisted.

Finally, with his return to Apple, the timing was right for the iMac. The technology was cheap enough and the PC market was large enough. The strategy finally had a chance. It worked and it would seem Jobs not once doubted the appliance strategy. In fact, he took it to the next level with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

But I don't believe computers should be sterile. It doesn't make sense. They're fundamentally generative. And it wasn't just Jobs that pushed them to be more sterilized. Every business in the industry wanted to sell computers to more people. They were all incentivized to dumb down and sterilize computing. Not just the hardware, but where it hurts the most: the software.

The upside is that computing is now everywhere. Perhaps sterilizing computing was necessary to get here. The problem now is that what we have is a stunted form of computing. I call this Pop Computing.

Generativity and hacker culture

The Apple II expansion slot story was as much about Woz as it was about Jobs. It wasn't just telling about Jobs and his appliance strategy, it was also about Woz having a preference for generative technology. This is significant because Woz is a symbol of hacker culture, and I don't believe his bias for generativity is separate from his values as a hacker.

I'm beginning to define a hacker as a person that needs to use and build generative technology. It might not be a conscious drive, but I believe generativity is part of hacker DNA.

Think about it: they prefer using technologies that have more generative properties. Open source, extensible, programmable … "hackable". They often have a distaste for products that are more sterile. For example, Apple products. Most hacks, including life hacks, are a form of repurposing or applying generativity where it wasn't before. Jailbreaking the iPhone is making a sterile device more generative.

Some say hackers are about freedom, citing open source and free software. Perhaps they're about unchaining from control and authority. But there are plenty of hackers that are okay with some control, or okay with closed source. So I don't believe these are the ideas that define hacker culture as a whole.

Being a hacker seems more about the acts of building, tinkering, and repurposing. But what is the motivating force behind these actions?

I think hacker culture is about a bias towards generativity. Using and building more generative technology. Perhaps hackers are just people that intuit the importance of generativity for humanity.

The point of technology and generativity

In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly explored the biases and trends of technology across human history. He broadly defines technology as anything useful created by a human mind. This includes hammers and gadgets, but also law and cities. He found that technology helps us trend towards more choices, opportunities, possibilities, and freedoms.

These are all different ways of talking about the same thing. Every new technology brings us the potential for more new technology. Again, this is not just tools, but art and ideas. Now imagine Mozart before the piano. Or van Gogh before cheap oil paints. Or Hitchcock before film. These creators were made in part by their mediums. If their technologies had not been invented or discovered before their time, their voice might not have been heard.

How many kids are out there today whose medium doesn't exist yet? Kids that might not be able realize their full potential. Having an outlet that resonates so strongly that it fills their life with purpose and meaning, or at least a way to express themselves.

Vine, a micro-video platform, has allowed for a new form of celebrity: Vine stars. This is different from being a movie star, or even being a YouTube star. It's an opportunity that didn't exist before. Or think of Amazon Web Services and how many startups, sometimes just one person, were enabled with on-demand compute technology that was previously only available to the biggest tech companies. If these are too trendy, just think of how many opportunities were opened up by cheap automobiles and later the Interstate Highway System.

In contrast, imagine a world without technology. Where we were incapable of making any sort of technology, including hunting tools, fire, or language. We as a species would probably not survive nature.

So it seems in general, the force of technology is a Good Thing. Toolmaking is what makes us human. It helped establish humanity. And from there it allows us to find new ways to meaningfully exist as individuals and thus as a species.

By definition, generative technology creates far more opportunities and possibilities than its sterile counterpart. Generative technology is more aligned with the basic trend of technology than sterile. Perhaps you could say it's a more potent form of technology. I'm not saying there isn't a place for sterile technology. But understanding the value of technology and generativity, it makes sense some of us would reject a world filled primarily with sterile technology.

Generativity is important to me. I think it's important to hackers, creators, and producers at large. I think it's worth fighting for, even if to just achieve a better balance between the two. We should at least have a choice of whether our technology is sterile or generative. But it seems that a dominantly consumer-driven society will unfortunately always be biased towards sterile technology.

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