Technology Time Out


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My address to 100 Orion Health employees who were embarking on a hackathon. My goal: to inspire them about their role in the future, and to point them in a positive direction.

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Technology Time Out

  1. 1. Time Out Nat Torkington nathan@torkington.comTuesday, 20 September 2011Hi folks, I’m honoured to be asked to speak to you all as you kick offyour hackathon. I’m also, I have to say, rather intimidated: I have anhour. An HOUR! I’m reasonably confident that there’s no topic uponwhich I need an hour to say all that I know or, more importantly, all thatyou want to hear.
  2. 2. Parental Advisory: Contains Strong LanguageTuesday, 20 September 2011
  3. 3. The MessageTuesday, 20 September 2011But there is something that I do want to tell you, and I’ll use howevermuch of this time I need to get my point across. And that is,
  4. 4. You will make the 21C better.Tuesday, 20 September 2011I don’t know if you remember the ads for BASF. They were a Germanchemical company, and when they advertised they talked about a wholepile of things and said “we don’t make the things you use, we makethem better.” I think that everyone in this room has the spirit of BASF.You won’t make the 21st century, but you’ll make it better.
  5. 5. Tuesday, 20 September 2011I’m sure you’re all ‘no wait, hold up dude, whatever you’re selling, Idon’t want it.’I’m not selling anything, I don’t have a god I want to talk to you about,and I can’t make anyone’s penis larger in ways that I want to talk abouton stage. Let me explain what I mean by “you will make the 21stcentury better” ...
  6. 6. Tuesday, 20 September 2011The 21st century is the Information Age. Every website, book, andmagazine tells us so. What does this MEAN, this “Information Age”?
  7. 7. Stone Bronze Iron Industrial InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011Historians like to look at, well, history. And they can spot a couple ofclear divisions in human society. It turns out that the technology wehave changes the society we live in.
  8. 8. Stone Bronze Iron Industrial InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011 When you’re banging sharp edges onto rocks to cut down trees, there’sa limit to the size and complexity of the society you can build. Despitethat, historians say the Stone Age rocks. Well, their bumper stickers saythat. Anyway.
  9. 9. Stone Bronze Iron Industrial InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011When you start to use metal, then things take off for your civilization.Bronze is pretty hard to get right, though: it’s an alloy of copper and tin,harder than either of them, and ores of these aren’t found together, andyou need an enclosed fire (like for pottery) to get to the head where themetal melts and comes out of the ore. Metals travelled huge distancesbecause they were useful, because societies found them useful enoughto transport thousands of kilometers. You could make weapons andtools that were better than those available to stone and woodmanipulators. People were making swords, cups, shields, brooches, andaxes. They were growing their farms and making languages.
  10. 10. Stone Bronze Iron Industrial InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011Iron ore is more abundant than bronze and iron is even harder. But it’sa bugger to make! You must get it super hot, add charcoal to get rid ofoxygen in the ore, then heat and bang and reheat and bang to get rid ofbrittle impurities in the metal. I’m astonished anyone ever figured itout, but when they did it changed society again. The swords, cups,jewelry, and whatnot that were rare enough to be signs of privilegebecame ubiquitous. You could have big armies with swords and shields,you could plough the earth, you could make nails and build ships andexplore the world. All this, of course, happened.
  11. 11. Stone Bronze Iron Industrial InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011The next age we’re told about is the industrial age, but there’s nogovernment panel deciding the name of these things. The previous agewas all about the transformation of matter: chipping sharp bits off,melting and casting and forging. But the industrial age doesn’t add anynew techniques to manipulating matter so much as it was a new way oftransforming energy.
  12. 12. Stone Bronze Iron Energy InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011So I like to think of it as the energy age. People took the heat fromburning things and, through the steam engine, turned it into mechanicalmotion: things spinning, hitting, pumping. The steam engine was avaluable invention in the decades after it was created, not becauseeveryone rushed off to invent steam electricity generators and steamcars, but because it produced regular motion. One of the firstcommercial applications were pumping water out of mines, so you couldextract more coal and ore from them.This transformation of energy got us machinery, standardizedcomponents, mass production, city-wide electricity, national powergrids, tractors, automobiles, and all the other trappings of civilization.And they changed life, every aspect of it. I’m not talking about thegrowth of cities--we’ve had cities for thousands of years, and they’vealways vacuumed people up. In Shakespeare’s day, more people died inLondon than were born in it, and that was true for centuries asimmigration and disease fought it out.I’m talking about everything from what we did in a day to when we didit: the idea of a standardized day only got started with the factory. Ifyou lived in the countryside and there’s no clock but the sun, youworked with the sun and maintain an individual schedule. If there’selectricity and clocks, you live on a non-biological schedule, andmillions had to adjust to this.All because we learned to transform energy.
  13. 13. Stone Bronze Iron Energy InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011Well, now we’re in the age when we transform information. Computers,directed by programmers, gather, manipulate, and extrude informationto be acted on. The great things of the next century, and the terriblethings, will be done by computers manipulating information.
  14. 14. Tuesday, 20 September 2011I used to work for the computer book publisher O’Reilly Media. We makeall the books with the animal covers, though rarely with titles asawesome as this one. I wrote one, the Perl Cookbook, and on thestrength of that got a job as editor and then conference chair.
  15. 15. UnixTuesday, 20 September 2011Tim got his start on Unix and X Windows books. He was a classicsmajor, but got into the techwriting business and took to it like a duck towater. [Greek story]
  16. 16. The Internet and the WebTuesday, 20 September 2011In the early 90s ...“Internet in a box”first advertising on the InternetCongress
  17. 17. Open SourceTuesday, 20 September 2011Programming Perl, which we published in 96. 1st edition was in 1991was one of the top 100 books in any category in borders for all of 1996.Started Perl Conference, which became Open Source Convention.
  18. 18. O’Reilly’s Business ModelTuesday, 20 September 2011So then we started to figure out what O’Reilly’s business model was. It’snot publishing books on random bits of technology. We figure outwhat’s going to be big in 18-24 months, then build things around those.
  19. 19. O’Reilly’s Business Model ClairvoyancyTuesday, 20 September 2011This obviously qualifies me to talk about the future to you, because Isuccessfully did it.Tim and I built the Where 2.0 conference, about Internet mapping, at atime when Mapquest’s static maps were the state of the art. Weannounced in November and in February Google Maps launched. Win!
  20. 20. Information AgeTuesday, 20 September 2011So what I’m going to do is point you at some interesting technology,some tools and mindsets that’ll shape the 21st century.But first, you have to understand four basic principles.
  21. 21. 1. Moore’s LawTuesday, 20 September 2011Hands up who knows what Moore’s Law is.
  22. 22. Moore’s Law SHIT GETS BETTERTuesday, 20 September 2011It turns out that Moore’s Law is a crock of shit. Everyone thinks thatback when Dinosaurs ruled the computing center, Gordon Moore(founder of Intel) said “holy shit, these things are doubling in speedevery 18 months!”. Or maybe he said that transistor numbers doubleevery 18 months. Or maybe he said that transistor density doubles every18 months. Because what he says he said, and what people report hesaid, and what people report has actually happened, changesperiodically as they revise the truth.So I prefer to think of this as Moore’s Law of General Relativity: shit getsbetter year after year. And not just slowly better, exponentially better.Technically speaking it ought to be dull stuff like the number ofcomponents, but practically speaking it translates to a steady stunninggrowth in the capability of computers and stunning drop in price ofequivalent computational power.
  23. 23. Shit doubles every 2 yearsTuesday, 20 September 2011So what does it mean to say that your shit doubles in 18 months?When my son was born, I was using a shiny new 300MHz Pentium andIntel were just launching 100MHz mobile CPUs. Fast forward to todaywhen my laptop has 5.6GHz in it (two cores, though) and his phone hasa 1GHz ARM in it.Moore’s Law is what makes smartphones possible. For the longest time,phones were very low CPU, stuck in the long slow start of exponentialgrowth. I knew we’d left the gutter when my Nokia had a C64 emulator(“holy shit, we’re up to 1981 already!”) and it’s been up up and awaysince then.It’s not just CPU speed, it’s storage (I had 300M back then, now I canbuy a terabyte for less than $100).Moore’s Law is hitting the limits of what’s possible with current physicaltechniques but we’re moving into new techniques and learning to workwith multiple cores.Ben Hammersley said something profound:
  24. 24. “anything that is dismissed on the grounds of the technology-not-being-good- enough-yet is going to happen” —Ben HammersleyTuesday, 20 September 2011It’s like scifi determinism: if you tell me something outrageous couldhappen if only we had the computational power, I can tell you that it willhappen.
  25. 25. 2. End of scarcityTuesday, 20 September 2011Copies are free. Different from every other age.Ending era of scarcity.Breaking our copyright laws, all built around regulating copying and tiedup with the fundamental economics of copies.
  26. 26. 3. Connectivity changes everythingTuesday, 20 September 2011bacon makes everything better. bacon or chocolate.Internet is technology baconnetworks make client-server possible, which is (at its heart) “the cloud”I wanted to say “improves” but bad things always come with the good.
  27. 27. 4. People don’t changeTuesday, 20 September 2011Technology changes how we do it, but we are basically the same eating,drinking, fornicating, reluctantly working, music-making, socialcreatures. We’ve built new political structures, but everywhere it’s theelites against the commoners. Some things just never change.Facebook doesn’t create the urge to stalk, to marry, to chat, to show off,to waste time--those things have always been in us. Technology justgives these drives a new outlet and a new shape.No prediction that says we’ll magically become better people because oftechnology is going to come true.
  28. 28. DataTuesday, 20 September 2011The first idea is data. It comes from the Enlightenment, exploring howwe know what we know given we could be tricked by our senses. So weneed to measure, and the modern world is full of metrics. We measureso we can answer the question “what works?” When Amazon want toknow whether dancing penguins on the home page will lead to moresales, they test: show a thousand people the dancing penguins and seewhether sales for those thousand are higher than for a thousand whovisited at the same time but didn’t see the penguins. This is A/B testing,something the web makes easy but which is almost impossible on theold world of CD-distributed software or any other physical artifact.
  29. 29. Big DataTuesday, 20 September 2011More particularly, though, the 21C will be characterised by LOTS of data.We can capture far more information that we ever could before, and wecan use it because (thanks to Moore’s Law) we have massive computationin data centers. Google, Amazon EC2, and other virtualization are allpossible because Moore’s Law has turned a CPU from an expensiveprecious resource into a commodity. Google’s MapReduce tool is nowavailable as an open source tool, Hadoop, for anyone to use.My favourite stat is that, *last year*, logs from Twitter were *growing* at12Tb a week last year. We can only analyze that volume of data withmassive computational power.
  30. 30. Sensor NetworksTuesday, 20 September 2011We’ll also get data from sensors. At the moment we see things like Nike+ (shoe + ipod to track your running), Botanicalls (plant tweets you tosay “water me”), GPS and similar smartphones (see Nathan Eagle’s MITresearch), and RFIDs (tracking locations and presence within anenvironment).This ties into the Quantified Self phenomenon. We are being measured,studied, and tracked. There can be good as well as bad to thismeasurement, so let’s use this information to improve ourselves. The21st century will see huge amounts of data from and about us, gatheredby us for our own self-improvement.(Quantified Self makes me think of Douglas Adams’s invented planetBethselamin, where you’re weighed entering and leaving and differentialunaccounted for excretion is surgically removed from your body as yougo.)
  31. 31. Social NetworksTuesday, 20 September 2011Activity and attention data are everywhere. Here it’s not for our ownuse. Every company here is funded by advertising: “if you don’t pay forit, you’re the product not the customer”. This explains Facebook’sconsistently decreasing approach to privacy.Even when Facebook hasn’t made a page public, “like” or add an app,and you’re giving the info to advertisers and other companies. Not justcompanies, too: the US govt mine and monitor it actively. You mightthink this is good or bad, but it’s happening.We’re putting our social networks online for good or bad, our network offriendships and our communications. This is data for analysis, by goodor bad actors. The 21st century will see the apps built as a result ofthis.
  32. 32. Tuesday, 20 September 2011The old institutions of Media are changing, trying to find dollars inonline world. This is a consequence of digital’s ease of copying: the oldbusiness model for journalism was to wrap it in crosswords and ads,then slap onto dead trees and sell to the customer. Take away the adsand the dead trees, and you’ve not got nearly so much money to fundjournalists.Clay Shirky: old institutions are destroyed before the new things comealong. 21C will see the old change, some die, and the new replacementsarrive. They’ll be built by people familiar with software and what it cando.
  33. 33. CrowdsourcingTuesday, 20 September 2011Computers can’t do it all, though: crowdsourcing and the augmentationof humans with computers is massive. Shirky says we have all thiscognitive surplus, spare brain time that we can now choose to deploy ingood ways.Wikipedia: notable because there’s an invisible culture which ensuresthat revisions make the encyclopedia better: naming system, editors,hierarchy, reviews, discussion. It’s not perfect, but without it you’d havethe other blank space that everyone can write on: a toilet wall.FoldIt: game based on protein folding. It’s a tricky biological problem,but one that you can turn into a game as addictive and simple asminesweeper. Recently hit the news when an HIV-related protein whichhad defied analysis for years was folded by gamers in a matter of weeks,yielding promising drug targets.GalaxyZoo: telescopes generate terabytes of data taking photos ofspace. Famous for Hanny’s Voorwerp. Hanny van Arkel is aschoolteacher, Dutch, found a new thing. “Voorwerp”=”thingy”. Turnedout to be something unknown to science, about the size of our MilkyWay, she’s now an author on a paper. AND more have been found.21C won’t be just about software, it’ll be about software and humansworking together.
  34. 34. BiologyTuesday, 20 September 2011One of the big promises of all this computational and storage excesshas been computational biology. Central dogma of biology: DNA to RNAto proteins. Original conception is that it’s a computer program, so let’sreverse engineer it. Race to human genome: 725M or 1 CD raw, butpeople compress to 4M. 2.9B base pairs, 23k protein-coding genes.Turns out it’s more like an operating system, interacting, with services.Need shitloads of data to find correlations and track back. C. elegans =100M base pair, 20k genes.23 and Me with surveys, for example. Unclear that this model is right,though: disproving the neat hypothesis may be the best contribution.Complex systems everywhere, chaotic systems.Evolutionary algorithms: antenna design that won’t compromise apatent.
  35. 35. SecurityTuesday, 20 September 2011I’m not a technological utopian: technology is, and people use it forgood and bad ends.No such thing as absolute security, so can only talk about your posture:what you’re ignoring, what you’re defending against.Every new technology will face attacks and be twisted in new ways tobad ends.“Every complex system has parasites”Horrors committed: join the Risks Digest, read Bruce Schneier.Privacy, destruction, control, cyberwarfare are all things to worry abouthere.Also powered by Moore’s Law: breaking passwords ridiculously easycompared to a decade ago.
  36. 36. Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earths surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. —Bertrand RussellTuesday, 20 September 2011Russell knew all about avoiding matter relocation, he was a philosopherand mathematician, two jobs famed for their lack of heavy lifting.
  37. 37. MakersTuesday, 20 September 2011We haven’t left physical behind: we still build countertops from stone,statues from bronze, nails from iron, and machines to transform energy.But the information we manipulate can inform and control themovement of matter. The software guys are moving into hardware.This is an artificial muscle made in Auckland at the Bioengineering Lab.Hacked Prius: braking, fuel efficiency, safety. Team in NZ working onelectric car, open source drive train. Ian Wright, former Cisco, Tesla,own car, funded.DIY quadracopter. DIY Drones. Military, billions, hundreds, home.Hardware is becoming a matter of software.
  38. 38. StartupsTuesday, 20 September 2011One of the things people are creating are startupsMore fun to work for yourself than for someone elseLarge companies have large barriers to creativityInnovator’s DilemmaLean Startup: hardest part is finding the customer, use data to tell youwhen you’ve got it rightStartups important for New Zealand
  39. 39. Tuesday, 20 September 2011Sir Paul Callaghan, New Zealander of the YearEverything he talks about is powered by software: milk powder auction.Tourism won’t make a better country. Food manufacturing won’t make abetter country. We need tech heavy 21st-century startups.
  40. 40. Stone Bronze Iron Energy InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011So, let’s bring this home. We’ve got these ages.
  41. 41. Stone Bronze Iron Energy InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011You’ve got the Stone Age of cavemen who learned to farm.
  42. 42. Stone Bronze Iron Energy InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011You’ve got Bronze Age people who made Stonehenge-like sites, andfinished Stonehenge.
  43. 43. Stone Bronze Iron Energy InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011The Romans conquered the world with iron, conquered and civilized.
  44. 44. Stone Bronze Iron Energy InformationTuesday, 20 September 2011The Victorians did amazing stuff with the transformation of energy:railroads, the tunnel, London’s sewers.But who’s the icon for the Information age?
  45. 45. Tuesday, 20 September 2011At the moment it’s BIll Gates. But that’s just an artifact of today’s news.Soon he’ll be a name, like the Rockefellers, and nobody will be too surewhat he did or when he did it (was Rockefeller oil, railroads, property, orstocks?)
  46. 46. Tuesday, 20 September 2011The power to change the 21st century for the better is in your hands.You are a programmer, you make computer programmes, you can buildthe things that shape the 21st century.Will they be tools of exploitation and oppression?
  47. 47. Do stuff that mattersTuesday, 20 September 2011Work on things that will make the world better. Work on healthcare, oneducation. Help parents be better parents, help keep government honestand help governments to govern more wisely.
  48. 48. The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. —Jeff HammerbacherTuesday, 20 September 2011This is so true. Don’t join the waste of brainpower and potential.
  49. 49. The Future If computation can make it happen, it will happen End of scarcity Connectivity is key People Don’t ChangeTuesday, 20 September 2011So, to recap: the 21st century will be shaped by these forces and by you.
  50. 50. Do stuff that mattersTuesday, 20 September 2011You wield the power of the 21st century. You, programmers, will buildthe things that change our world. Build things that make life better, notfor advertisers but for ourselves. Go build something that’ll make yourgreat-grandchildren proud.
  51. 51. Do stuff that matters Nat Torkington nathan@torkington.comTuesday, 20 September 2011Thank you.