The Technium

Two Kinds of Generativity

[Translations: Japanese]

The nature of every invention is to start out vague, incomplete, and open to change. A new invention or device is born primed for hacking, and for re-definition. The new half-baked thing is many things to many people. At this stage, the device is in the hands of tinkerers, nerds, fans, and hacks who will make it do all kinds of things no one had thought of. This skeletal generality enables generativity — the ability to generate new goods and services and ideas — because the tool itself is being invented, which is the highest kind of genesis. In this mode a newborn device or invention or idea is thrilling. Its naked open-ended potential appeals to a set of early adopters (who are often called an elite) who explore the glorious incompleteness of a new tool in many ways.

But for many others (who are often called the masses), this very openness, this ill-defined thing requires too much expertise, or control, or knowledge, or care, or time, to use productively. To them its skeletal generality is a turn off. The fact that the invention is incomplete and has not discovered what it wants to be is a negative. One has only to think of the early days of automobiles, or windmills, or radios, or the internet, or cell phones, and how unappealing most people found their incompleteness (“they hardly work and are hard to use”).

But the masses usually don’t have to wait long for the natural history of an invention to kick in. A device become more specialized and “complete” as it evolves. As it does, it becomes more specific in what it does, more closed in its identity, more clear in what it is. It becomes more powerful in evolving its identity. As it matures it becomes more completed, more approachable, more understandable, more able to do things for more people.

We see this in all walks of technology. For instance the first cameras gave great latitude to the first nerdy photographers. Since you had to make your own film, you could create it do all kinds of things — favor the infrared spectrum, or embed it in fabric, or make it three feet wide. The hacker-photographer had great latitude. But as the outlines of popular photography became clearer, the camera honed in one a certain specific design: film was manufactured to an emerging standard, and equipment more certain what it was for. The result were cameras that anyone, not just photo geeks, could use, and the result was an incredible generativity as millions and eventually billions of people started photographing EVERYTHING. As the craft became more specific, it became more ubiquitous, and the levels of creativity unleashed by this easy to use device vastly exceeded the amazing creativity of its founders.

Almost every technology follows this lifecycle, starting out with fantastic hackability at first and maturing into dependability. Many of the qualities that early adopters love — the way it can be modified, tweaked, owned, and directed into all manner of directions — and its unlimited potential — are also the same reasons why many others shy from trying to use it. In the same way, the very hardening and convergence that draw the masses to a technology also turn off those who like its earlier kind of generativity, when things were lose.

We’ve seen this shift happen many times in the past, such as in early personal computers when 12=year olds in their bedrooms were writing programs (hurray!), that often did not work well (boo), but later became huge projects that took hundreds of folks to code (boo), but that actually were easy to use and worked all the time (yeah!). Then the web came along, and it was newborn enough that it was easy for kids to make stuff, but later standards and expectations evolved and it took a lot more to keep folks returning. Then apps came a long and anyone could play, but sooner or later, these too will mature and not be so hackable. Ditto for genetics, robotics, and so on.

Occasionally these mature products enable entirely new inventions. These new inventions are again open to the first kind of generativity, and the cycle of technology continues. Naturally hacker and nerds and tinkerers flock to the immature zone, where they can help define the new new thing.


So, the same story is told over and over again. Once upon a time the early adopters made their own electrical parts — capacitors, resistors, crystals, etc. — from which they cobbled together radios and other equipment. But once it was clear what a crystal and capacitor were, the frontier moved on to making the radio — but not with the old guard complaining about the loss of the joy of making your capacitors. Then as radios became more defined, hams did not make radios, they bought them in hundreds of varieties. So they began making their own Altair computers. For a while. The same migration ensued. What you don’t make your own computer? No, but I wrote the operating system. What you don’t write your own OS? No, but I wrote my own program. What you don’t write your own programs? No, but I code my own website. What you don’t code your own website? No, but I write my own apps. What you don’t write your own apps? No, but I weave my own lifestreams…..

There is a natural arc by which each invention moves from the generative openness in a new-born to the refined generativity of a well defined idea. Some folks mistakenly believe that the modern regime of manufacturing and consumerism inevitably closes off all cool inventions to the first kind of generativity, but this maturity has always happened, long before the industrial age. Technology’s natural cycle is merely being accelerated now.

New-borns with infinite potential but low-productivity become middle-agers generating great productivity and unleashing fantastic creativity; in turn the mature keep the frontiers expanding by generating more new borns. I speak here, of course, of ideas and devices.

Each new unformed, hackable, potential invention is quickly refined by use, and this use makes a technology more specific, more conditional, more open to use by know-nothings. Therefore each technology eventually becomes less malleable, less powerful in undefined ways but more powerful in defined ways. It moves from the margins to the center.

The good news is that there will always be a margin where things are uncertain, ill-defined, and totally open, and even better news for hackers: the margin is constantly expanding relative to the center.

Update: Here’s a confirming bit from Steven Levy’s article on Hackers Revisted in Wired:

Unlike the original hackers, Zuckerberg’s generation didn’t have to start from scratch to get control of their machines. “I never wanted to take apart my computer,” he says. As a budding hacker in the late ’90s, Zuckerberg tinkered with the higher-level languages, allowing him to concentrate on systems rather than machines.

For instance, when he played with his beloved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Zuckerberg wouldn’t act out wars with them, like most other kids. He would build societies and pretend the Turtles were interacting with one another. “I was just interested in how systems work,” he says. Similarly, when he began playing with computers, he didn’t hack motherboards or telephones but entire communities — manipulating system bugs to kick his friends off AOL Instant Messenger, for instance.

Big business may stumble upon and commodify their breakthroughs, but hackers will simply move on to unexplored frontiers. “It’s like that line in Last Tango in Paris,” O’Reilly says, “where Marlon Brando says, ‘It’s over, and then it begins again.'”


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