The Technium

Making the Inevitable Obvious

You Are Not Late


Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 1985 when almost any dot com name you wanted was available? All words; short ones, cool ones. All you had to do was ask for the one you wanted. It didn’t even cost anything to claim. This grand opportunity was true for years. In 1994 a Wired writer noticed that was still unclaimed, so with our encouragement he registered it, and then tried to give it to McDonalds, but their cluelessness about the internet was so hilarious it became a Wired story. Shortly before that I noticed that was not claimed so when I gave a consulting presentation to the top-floor ABC executives about the future of digital I told them that they should get their smartest geek down in the basement to register their own domain name. They didn’t. 

The internet was a wide open frontier then. It was easy to be the first in category X. Consumers had few expectations, and the barriers were extremely low. Start a search engine! An online store! Serve up amateur videos! Of course, that was then. Looking back now it seems as if waves of settlers have since bulldozed and developed every possible venue, leaving only the most difficult and gnarly specks for today’s newcomers. Thirty years later the internet feels saturated, bloated, overstuffed with apps, platforms, devices, and more than enough content to demand our attention for the next million years. Even if you could manage to squeeze in another tiny innovation, who would notice it?

Yet if we consider what we have gained online in the last 30 years, this abundance smells almost miraculous. We got: Instant connection with our friends and family anywhere, a customizable stream of news whenever we want it, zoomable 3D maps of most cities of the world, an encyclopedia we can query with spoken words, movies we can watch on a flat slab in our pocket, a virtual everything store that will deliver next day — to name only six out of thousands that could be mentioned.

But, but…here is the thing. In terms of the internet, nothing has happened yet. The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning. If we could climb into a time machine and journey 30 years into the future, and from that vantage look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2044 were not invented until after 2014. People in the future will look at their holodecks, and wearable virtual reality contact lenses, and downloadable avatars, and AI interfaces, and say, oh, you didn’t really have the internet (or whatever they’ll call it) back then.

And they’d be right. Because from our perspective now, the greatest online things of the first half of this century are all before us. All these miraculous inventions are waiting for that crazy, no-one-told-me-it-was-impossible visionary to start grabbing the low-hanging fruit — the equivalent of the dot com names of 1984.

Because here is the other thing the greybeards in 2044 will tell you: Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 2014? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category X and add some AI to it, put it on the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh, “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”

So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2014 is the best time to start something on the internet. There has never been a better time in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside, than now. Right now, this minute. This is the time that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh to have been alive and well back then!”

The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. However the coolest stuff has not been invented yet — although this new greatness will not be more of the same-same that exists today. It will not be merely “better,” it will different, beyond, and other. But you knew that.

What you may not have realized is that today truly is a wide open frontier. It is the best time EVER in human history to begin. 

You are not late.

Platforms Trump Products

The general trend in the technium is a long-term migration away from selling products to selling services. Jeff Bezos has long said the Kindle is not a product, but a service selling access to reading material. That distinction will be made even more visible very shortly when Amazon introduces an “all you can read” subscription to their library of ebooks. Readers will no longer have to purchase individual books, but will have the option to subscribe to all books (600,000 to begin with), like you do to movies on Netflix. As a paying subscriber you get access to any book in print (eventually). Amazon books is a service not product. Verb not noun.

Screen shot 2014 07 16 at 10 14 46 am1 e1405522383435
Test page for Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited book subscription service

In this migration the ultimate vehicle for selling a service is not a store (which is for selling products) but a platform. A platform allows you to sell services which you did not create, just as a store allows you to sell products you did not create. If you are trying to sell services and you don’t have a platform, then you have to make them all yourself, and it won’t scale.

Jeff Bezos has turned Amazon into a platform that sells services that others provide. Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook all also see themselves as platforms. All these giants employ third party vendors to make use of their platform. All employ APIs extensively. Sometimes platforms are called ecosystems, because in true ecological fashion, supporting vendors who cooperate in one dimension may also compete in others. For instance, Amazon sells both brand new books from publishers, and it sells — via its ecosystem built of used books stores — cheaper used versions. Used book vendors compete with each other and with the publishers. The platform’s job is to make sure they make money (add value) whether the parts cooperate or compete. Which Amazon does well.

In the network economy platforms trump products. For the consumers, this translates into: access trumps ownership. Products induce ownership. But “owning” a service doesn’t quite make sense conceptually, or practically. So if companies aren’t really selling products and are instead selling services, then what customers need is access. And increasingly they prefer access over ownership. (See my Better Than Owning)

People have traditionally subscribed to services that entailed a never-ending stream of updates, improvements, versions, that forced a deep interaction and constant relationship from the producer to the consumer. To ease that relationship, a customer committed to a product (phone carrier, cable provider) and was promised uninterrupted quality. The first standalone product to be “servicized” was software. This mode is called SAS, software as service. As an example of SAS, Adobe no longer sells it’s software as discrete products with dated versions. Instead you subscribe to Photoshop, InDesign, Premier, etc, or the entire suite of services. You sign up and your computer will operate the latest best versions as long as you pay the monthly subscription. This new model entails are re-orientation by the customer who may be used to thinking of software as a product her or she owns.

TV, phones and software were just the beginning. The major move in the upcoming decades will be XAS — X as service, where X is anything, and maybe everything. You don’t buy specific products; instead you get access to whatever benefits you need or want. Take TAS, Transportation as Service. You would not own a car. To get from point A to Point B, you would use a robot car to pick you up at your home, take you to the high speed rail station, which takes you to your general destination area, let’s you out at the subway, which you take to meet another robot car to take you the final few miles. You pay some monthly fee for this access to the transportation platform run by a private/public consortium. Other possible XAS:

Food as Service

Health as Service

Clothes as Service

Shelter as Service

Entertainment as Service

Vacation as Service

School as Service

Hotel as Service (AirBnB)

Tools as Service (Techshop)

Fitness as Service

Toys as Service

And so on. Yes, even physical things can be delivered as if they were digital.

The Least Resistance to New Ideas

California Clipper 500

Many years ago the San Francisco Chronicle published a short column in which the writer mentioned that he had been traveling in India, and when he told the clerk at his hotel in New Delhi that he was from the San Francisco Bay Area the clerk responded, “Oh that is the center of the universe” Um, mumbled the traveller, and why do you say that? “Because the center of the universe is wherever there is the least resistance to new ideas.”

I have not been able to come up with a better description of San Francisco’s special relation to futurism. In my experience this is true: more new ideas per person bubble up in the Bay Area than anywhere else on Earth — at this moment.

But why? The best explanation I’ve heard is from the best historian of California, J. S. Holliday, who argues that it began in the gold rush days, when hundreds of thousands of young men came stampeding into the Bay Area to start their fortunes. It was the era. There was no adult supervision. No one to tell you No. You just headed into the hills with your wits and either came back rich or poor. And if you came back poor, you sold shovel and jeans to the next wave of dreamers, and got rich in a new novel way. The Bay Area collected these young free spirits and retained them. As Holliday points out, no where else in the world was gold territory left to individuals and not the state. In part this was a matter of the great distance from Washington, which made control impossible.

Others argue the same distance from Washington and the establishment of the East Coast is what caused Stanford professors to turn to entreprenurial investments instead of grant money and corporate buyouts to go into business. That spirit of self-funding would avalanche into the start-up culture that now infuses the place. Mistakes are not only tolerated, unlike in Old Places, but even these days, mistakes are embraced as the best teacher. Bay Area VCs are more likely to give you money if you’ve already made a few disasters yourself.

John Markoff, the venerable New York Times tech reporter who also grew up in Silicon Valley, wrote an under-appreciated book called What the Doormouse Said, tracing the hippy origins of the current digital industry. Not just Steve Jobs, but many of the earliest personal computer pioneers were acid-dropping dreamers who were trying to augment human potential rather than create a new industry. They were the most recent incarnation of free thinkers that began with the 49ers, then the beatniks, and later the hippies, and now the hipsters. It is not hard to see the connection between free love and communes with open-source software and wikipedia. That’s why I agree with the urban sociologist’s Richard Florida’s notion that bohemians = innovation = wealth, and that any city or region that wants to encourage innovative wealth creation has to encourage bohemians. That’s what San Francisco has inadvertently done by the acre.

All this looseness leads to the “least resistance to new ideas” and the role of being the pivot of the world. I know this directly. Wired magazine could not have started anywhere else except in the Bay Area. When Conde Nast bought Wired they were wise enough to let it stay in SF, the only magazine they own not operated in NYC.

While the Bay Area is currently the center of the future, I sometimes have the feeling the center will slowly drift to Shanghai and other parts of China. In many ways the future is no longer so fashionable in the US. It is harder and harder to imagine a future — either via Hollywood, or business scenarios — that anyone wants to live in. All the futures are broken. Even the most techy and utopian futures are suspect and not believed. We’ve been burned too many times and know that all those inventions will bite us back. China does not have that problem and the acceleration of their desires into the future is palpable.

Of course China is still learning how to embrace its inner bohemian, and so I suspect the Bay Area will remain the center of the universe for at least a few more decades. It is one of those auto-catalytic things that feeds off itself. The more success it gains, the more newcomers with talent and ambition it attracts. In this way, success exhibits network effects, which makes it difficult to reproduce a “silicon valley” elsewhere. There will probably be only one “center of the universe” per universe at a time. (But there will be more universes!)

But this auto-catalyzing process needs to be managed. Success kills it. This is the curse of bohemian way: how do you maintain the loose reins, the cheap rents, the no-rules opportunities, when you are also creating one thousand under-30 millionaires every year? The one sure thing limiting the success of the least resistant place in the world is its success. Eventually no one can afford to make mistakes anymore, and then the center moves. You get to remain in the future by keeping loose, letting the young drive, staying hungry and foolish, ignoring success, embracing new mistakes, and having the least resistance to new ideas.

The Technium Test

Beyond our tiny blue planet, the universe is filled with 100 billion galaxies, each containing 100 billion suns, and each of those stars some vast but unknown billion of inhabitable planets. Let’s say we had some means to inspect at least one other planet in the universe that sprouted sentient creatures who also developed their own advance technology. If we could see a complicated artifact on that planet do we have any test to determine whether that thing was alive or created? Could we tell whether a particular example was an organism born, or a supremely advanced machine made by ones who were born? What framework would we use to discriminate between a product of “natural” evolution and one of technological evolution? If we knew nothing of the origins or even nature of this planet’s original lifeforms, is there some special thermodynamic or informational giveaway of how its technology would be different from its life? I don’t think there is such a test.

Biogenesis 448 2

Now, let’s switch the lens and let that intergallatic investigator look at things here on Earth. If they were ignorant of what system our planet used for natural life, would they be able to identify what things were biological and which were technological? Is there an all-purpose distinction in thermodynamics, or complexity, or information flow that says “this evolved without minds” or “this was invented by a mind”? Could it make the further distinction between something that was self-evolved vs evolved from a system created by a mind, by a sort of artificial evolution? Say we set up a system that would self-evolve new organisms based on an alternative DNA-like molecule. If the investigator looked at Earth today the difference in complexity between self-evolved and mind-designed among small things might be a telltale clue, but what would it make of our largest creations, like the internet? How about in 100 years? I suspect there is no fundamental physical difference between “natural” and “artificial” organisms, and that the only way to distinguish the two will be to investigate their history.

There is no physically detectable vital spirit in living things that can not be found in manufactured things of a certain type. This continuity between the born and the made is not obvious nor very important right now, but it will become more important, valuable and troublesome in the future.

[Image of mechanical life generated by William Latham ]

Soured Quotes 18

In terms of GDP, user-generated content involves unmeasured labor creating an unmeasured asset that is consumed in unmeasured ways to create unmeasured consumer surplus. — Erik and Andrew, The Second Machine Age, 2014, p. 114.

I am not trying to bring down the NSA, I am working to improve the NSA. I am still working for the NSA right now. They are the only ones who don’t realize it. — Edward Snowden, Edward Snowden Says His Mission’s Accomplished, Washington Post, December 24, 2013

Netflix has created a database of American cinematic predilections. The data can’t tell them how to make a TV show, but it can tell them what they should be making. When they create a show like House of Cards, they aren’t guessing at what people want. — Alexis Madrigal, How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood, Atlantic, Jan2. 2014

You can always make more ideas, but you can’t make more time. If you decide to work on an idea, make sure you’re serious about it. Sleep on it, think about it, share it with other people. If you’re still crazy passionate about it, then do it. — Nick Pettit, Treehouse, February 24, 2014.

In 2013 you do not get brownie points for using servers. You only get brownie points for serving users. –- Jeff Lawson, DevBeat 2013.

The only thing stronger than your imagination is your imagination connected to the billions of other imaginations all over the world, connected to smart machines that continue to get smarter, faster.– Rita King, January 8, 2014, LinkedIn

Once, when Bahat reported on LinkedIn that he was leaving a job by changing his status to “Doing Nothing,” his New York friends fretted, and promised to let him know if they heard of any openings. His Bay Area friends, meanwhile, congratulated him on his exit. — Nathan Heller, Bay Watched, New Yorker, October 14 2013

Ssbkyh captcha tweet 01 Image from CAPTCHA TWEET , a service that shifts your tweet into a captcha.

Rules for Cyberwar

Having rules for harming and killing people and destroying things seems weird, but not as weird as not having them. We do have some rules about harming and killing in the physical world, but we don’t have any for the intangible digital world. We need rules for cyberwar badly.

These will require some uncomfortable acknowledgements, some unlikely agreement across cultures, and probably some disaster to happen first.

Like all things digital, it’s a knotty, complex, tricky problem. Boundaries in cyberspace are inherently blurred to non-existence. Motives matter more and are harder to screen apriori. The list of difficulties goes on and on.

But I am sure of two things: having rules of cyberwar will make ordinary life online more secure, and it will also increase peace in the physical world.

The best first start I’ve seen in creating rules for cyberwar are outlined in this IEEE article: “It’s time for Rules of Cyberwar

Bypassing Sold Out

My Cool Tools book has been a big hit. It’s been a personal delight to find so many fans enjoying it. However, I underestimated how many would sell on Amazon, and so now it is sold out for Christmas. While there is another boatload that will unload copies in the first week of January, that will be too late for Christmas gifts. This snafu has really bummed me out since I worked so hard to get the books on Amazon in time for the holidays. So I offer a plan B.

BooksingarageI have a personal stash in my garage of books I’ve been sending to friends. If you are a fan of Cool Tools and really want one by Christmas, I may be able to mail you one. Here is the deal.

Fill out this Google form by Wednesday, December 18, and we will email a request for payment via PayPal. Once payment is received, we will begin mailing out books on Wednesday afternoon via Media Mail, which is the only affordable way. In our experience they will reach the west coast in a few days, and the east coast in a week. We CANNOT guarantee they will get to you before Christmas. For the book and shipping we charge $35 by PayPal, which is still $5 less than the list and bookstore price. (I have no idea how Amazon sells shipped books as cheap as they do. I suspect they don’t make any profit selling books.) This is for US addresses only.

If that is too uncertain for you, some bookstores have it in stock, but I’d call before you went, since relatively few copies of Cool Tools made it to bookstores; most went to Amazon.

I really do think that this Cool Tools book is an ideal gift, particularly for the young at heart, and it upsets me that we sold out at the peak of the gift season. There will be lots of copies available in the new year, but I will do my best to get one out to fans right now if at all possible.

To do that: Fill out this Google form and we will email a request for payment via PayPal for $35 per book. If you have any questions, email

Or wait for the next round on Amazon in early January.

Sourced Quotes, 17

Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats. — Howard Aiken, as quoted in Portraits in Silicon by Robert Slater, 1987, p. 88.

Machines will do what we ask them to do and not what what we ought to ask them to do. — Norbert Wiener, 1949, published in John Markoff, NYTimes May 21, 2013

The shortcut that’s sure to work, every time: Take the long way. Do the hard work, consistently and with generosity and transparency. And then you won’t waste time doing it over. — Seth Godin, Seth’s Blog, May 13, 2013.

Most people doubt online meetings can work but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either. – Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants, p. 42, September 2013.

It’s total chaos. But out of that chaos will come some really amazing things. And right now there are amazing opportunities for young people coming into the industry to say, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to do this and there’s nobody to stop me.’ It’s because all the gatekeepers have been killed! — George Lucas, The Verge, June 13, 2013.

If the NSA released their heaps of prying spycode as open-source code, Silicon Valley would be all over that, instantly. They’d put a kid-friendly graphic front-end on it. They’d port it right into the cloud. — Bruce Sterling, The Ecuadorian Library, August 3, 2013.

I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love. — Laurie Anderson, Farewell to Lou Reed, Rolling Stone, November 21, 2013

The question [in Hollywood] used to be: How do we top ourselves? The new one seems to be: How do we stop ourselves? — Damon Lindelof, The New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting, Vulture, August 14, 2013

If you take someone to lunch you just get each other’s stories, but if you set up folding chairs together, you find out what people are really like. — Anne Herbert, The Whole Earth Jamboree Wasn’t Worth It Once, CoEvolution Quarterly, Winter 1978.

People are bad at looking at seeds and guessing what size tree will grow out of them. The way you’ll get big ideas in, say, health care is by starting out with small ideas. If you try to do some big thing, you don’t just need it to be big; you need it to be good. And it’s really hard to do big and good simultaneously. So, what that means is you can either do something small and good and then gradually make it bigger, or do something big and bad and gradually make it better. And you know what? Empirically, starting big just does not work. That’s the way the government does things. They do something really big that’s really bad, and they think, Well, we’ll make it better, and then it never gets better. — Paul Graham, Building Fast Companies for Growth, Inc. September 2013

Simple answers
Simple answers from xkcd

The Self-Publishing Route

[Translations: Italian, Japanese]

Like the Whole Earth Catalogs of yore, my new Cool Tools book is self-published. I’ll tell you how the economics of my book work and the 3 reasons why I went the route of avoiding a mainline publisher.

First benefit was speed. I finished writing and assembling the book in September and in October I had the book listed on Pre-Order status on Amazon. It will be available to customers (in bookstores, too!) the first week of December. If this book was being published by a New York publisher I’d still be in negotiations to maybe have it available next summer.

Second, control. The book is unorthodox. It doesn’t fit the mold for a serious book. It is kinda of a catalog. Even the size was off-putting for pros. A big floppy book doesn’t travel well, doesn’t fit well into bookstore shelves. The publishers want to know can I perhaps change that? Then there’s the commercial aspect. The book is a shopping guide that tells you where to buy things. It points readers to Amazon a lot. Publishers and bookstores hate that. They perceive Amazon as the enemy and one chain even refused to carry it because of this. My solution was to bypass them.

Thirdly, in my recent experience with established publishers I wound up doing most of the work myself anyway. For my last book with Viking/Penguin, I hired the editor to edit my book; I hired the illustrator to make the illustrations; I turned in cover design concepts, some of which they used; I did the most effective marketing and publicity (via social media). The only things I did not do — which were significant! — was the financing and distribution. On this book, I decided to tackle these as well, since I would still be doing all the rest.

[Me working on the Cool Tools book at my stand/sit station; outside the chicken coop.]

Self-publishing means I have full control, but also full responsibility. Since I was paying for the paper and ink myself, I didn’t waste any pages. There are no blank pages or white spaces in this book. Even the inside covers are printed –with the table of contents! Every inch is doing some work. The book is incredibly dense.

Self publishing an ebook is one thing. Self publishing a gigantic book that weighs 4.5 pounds is another. I knew I was in trouble when the overseas printer called to ask me if I had a loading dock at my warehouse. Warehouse? I hardly have a garage. “Ummm, how much room do I need?” I asked. She said, “Well, you should expect a shipping container and a half.” That’s a big pile. So I signed up with a book distributor, Publishers Group West, that caters to small publishers and most of the books will be shipped to their warehouse in Tennessee.

The books were printed in Hong Kong. I tried to get bids in the US, but because of the oversize of the book, no US printer would even bid on it. One large printer recommended by the distributor told me, “I hate to say this but you need to go to China to get this printed.” So I did. They did a fantastic job, quickly and at a good price. The Hong Kong printing plant is high automation. Think robots not coolie labor. The books are now on a container ship going across the Panama Canal and up the Mississippi River to Tennessee. I am awaiting three pallets of books that were diverted to the West Coast, and that will arrive at my home. I am praying they will fit into my garage.

Economics of self-publishing will decide this book’s fate. There will be about a total of 8,500 copies for sale on Amazon and in bookstores. The unit cost to print the book is $6. Shipping is about $1 per book. The cover price is $39.99. Amazon immediately discounts it to $25 (I set the book price anticipating Amazon’s discount) and Amazon take something like 40%. The book distributor takes their cut. I’ll take about $10 per book, and then of course, I have to deduct the cost I incurred in creating the book — the editors, designers and proofers I hired to create those 472 pages. (I am not counting the years I’ve put into it). Plus I am mailing a lot of copies out to reviewers and contributors. I was stunned to learn that the absolute cheapest way to ship this book to England or Canada (no matter how slow) was $60 and $38 respectively! No other choice!

I have much more respect for commercial publishers in making this precarious publishing machine work. It is not easy to make money publishing paper books. It is very much like making art. In fact I think of this large beautiful book as an art work. Cool Tools really is remarkable art.

If you want your own piece of art, pre order here.

The Pleasures of a Paper Book

My blog is now a book!

I took the best of my Cool Tools blog and printed it as a huge oversized book.

Yes, I know. Paper is old. You can’t search it, you can’t easily share favorites, you can’t instantly click to get items, you can’t haul it in your virtual library device. The web and Kindle are so much better that way.

But I remember the power that the old Whole Earth Catalogs had on me as I came of age. The paper books were magical. There is something very powerful at work on large pages of a book. Your brain begins to make naturally associations between tools in a way that it doesn’t on small screens. The juxtapositions of diverse items on the page prods the reader to weave relationships between them, connecting ideas that once seemed far apart. The large real estate of the page opens up the mind, making you more receptive to patterns found in related tools. There’s room to see the depth of a book in a glance. You can scan a whole field of one type of tool faster than you can on the web. In that respect, a large paper book rewards both fast browsing and deep study better than the web or a small tablet. Long live paper!


So that’s what I did. I printed Cool Tools as a paper book. I sifted through the thousands of tools reviewed in the past 10 years, and with the help of other Cool Tool teammates, selected more than 1,000 evergreen tools that have stood the test of time. I modeled the design and style on the old Whole Earth Catalogs; the book is printed on identical oversized paper pages, bound into the same thickness of almost 500 pages. The result is a hefty book that will seem to some people of a certain age to be a modern incarnation of the old Catalogs. (To new readers of a younger age, it will look like no other book they have seen.)

This Cool Tools book is the ultimate guide to do-it-yourself. The book covers how to self-publish a book, rent a bulldozer, print 3D objects, run for local office and win, design a logo, grow edible mushrooms, read all the classics, get an online degree, cut your cable TV, build a log cabin, and so much more! Really, I tried to cover all the ground this blog covers.

The result is a one-volume alternative education in making things happen. I assembled this collection so that my three children would see a thousand other possibilities in life that are opened when you pick up a tool. It works the same with adults who’ve seen it. I really think you’ll be amazed by it.

Despite the date currently listed on Amazon, the book will be available during the first week of December. You can pre-order it now.