On platforms and sustainability

A few years ago, I read this disturbing Rip van Winkle post by Hossein Derakhshan.

He’d been incarcerated for six years, and wrote about how the Web he’d left had changed while he was away. One phrase stood out for me. A departure from a books-internet to a television-internet. It resonated. Deeply.

I’ve believed in the idea of being connected rather than channelled for many years now. Not surprisingly, that phrase occurs repeatedly in the “kernel” for this blog, written as I launched ConfusedOfCalcutta a dozen or so years ago. [Until then my blogging was “closed”, a constraint placed by the nature of the work I was doing at the time].

Hossein’s web-we-have-to-save piece began to gnaw at the Cluetrainer in me. If you haven’t read that yet, do so as soon as you can. Messrs Searls, Locke, Weinberger and Levine are well worth revisiting, not just visiting. I do so pretty much every year.

The Cluetrain Manifesto told us that we weren’t meant to be seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We were meant to be human beings, and our reach was meant to exceed the grasp … of those who would control us, channel us. If digital advertising revenues are anything to go by, and if the linear nature of streams is anything to go by, it looks like we’re heading firmly back into seats and eyeballs territory. The bait of book-internet was being switched into television-internet, aided and abetted by the “appy” world of the smart mobile device. Words like content and audience were back in favour.

The Cluetrain Manifesto also told us that hyperlinks would subvert hierarchies. Again, in reading Hossein’s piece, there was something that resonated in me about the channelling nature of the hashtag culture in comparison with the connecting nature of the hyperlink culture. Folksonomical in origin, when embedded in streams, the essence of the hashtag ran the risk of becoming a channel identifier.

The Cluetrain Manifesto said markets were conversations. Ah yes. Conversations. I remember conversations. When people could discuss ideas, write “provisionally” as Doc Searls used to say, where (if I remember his metaphors correctly) the blogosphere was souk-like, as described to him by an African pastor on a flight somewhere. I think he also referred to a conversation with George Lakoff where a blog post became a snowball, gathering a momentum all its own as it was cross-linked and commented on. Our moves towards shorter-form posts, towards soundbites and tweets, towards channelled streams, towards video, towards “live”, all of these moves militate against conversation.

So is that it? Back to seats and eyeballs, channelled not connected, “audiences” sucking up linear “content”? Back to a time where discourse wasn’t possible, where law-of-the-jungle-might-was-right, and visceral emotion was the preferred means of communication?

If Hossein Derakhshan had “woken up” in 2017 he may well have assumed so.

Platforms used to be things that we built on, not in.

If platforms are to be built sustainably, that’s principle 1. You build on a platform, not in it. Those that build on the platform should be able to interact with each other independent of the platform if they so choose.

Platforms are not just big business in themselves, they do generate employment. But the on- part of the business must be significant in relation to the in- part. A sustainable platform will create ecosystems that are orders of magnitude larger than the platform itself. That’s part of what makes a platform sustainable. I think that’s principle 2 of platform sustainability.

A part of me wants to evoke Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander when it comes to building sustainable platforms. The platform “community” needs to be cared for and looked after, the living spaces they inhabit need to be designed to last. Multipurpose rather than monoculture, diverse rather than homogeneous . Prior industrial models where entire communities would rely on a single industry need to be learnt from and avoided. We shouldn’t be building the rust belts of the future. We should be looking for the death and life of great platforms, for a pattern language for sustainable platforms. Principle 3 of platform sustainability looks at the diversity of the ecosystem.

I think there’s a need for a fourth principle, something to do with the right to repair.

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Photo courtesy Rama Sangye, an old classmate from Calcutta

The lungi-clad moustachioed gent above is unlikely to see his job taken by a robot anytime soon. He repairs gramophones. The ones that work off-grid, with bloody great horns, with steel needles eking out sound from lacquer records operating at 78rpm.

That was the India I left. Where anything that could be repaired was repaired. Everything came with a right to repair, and people learnt to do that repairing. Sometimes with official spare parts, sometimes with sensible cannibalisation, sometimes with sheer ingenuity when something else at hand was suitably repurposed.

There is no such thing as digital-only. That which is digital exists in and forms part of the world we inhabit. And we need to know how to fix things that break in that construct. Bias in AI systems may be an area where the “right to repair” will manifest itself most powerfully.

Principle 4 of sustainable platforms is the right to repair.

This is, by its very nature, a provisional post. I’m sharing things I’m thinking about, in the hope that a number of you get in touch with me and help me learn about this space. The blogosphere is not what it used to be, and people don’t necessarily comment any more.

We need to be thinking about sustainable platforms. On-platforms rather than in-platforms; platforms that create ecosystems many orders of magnitude larger than the platform itself; platforms designed for sustainable growth rather than digital coal mines, rust belts and hollowed-out precincts, downtowns that die every night; platforms where the right to repair is universal.

More to follow. Maybe. If anyone still reads stuff like this. If markets are still conversations.

A coda:

 

I had the joyous experience of finding, and acquiring, this timepiece a little while ago. it cost me less than 0.001% of what Paul Newman’s Rolex went for.

 

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It’s a Station Master’s watch from a century ago. Swiss movement, casing ostensibly from Britain, distributed in Calcutta through the esteemed name of Garrard.

It’s lasted well. Works like a charm today.

It lasted well because it was designed and built to last. And it was taken care of.

For something to be sustainable it needs to be designed and built as sustainable.

That’s necessary but not sufficient. Sufficient happens when due care is taken.

Incidentally, one of the recent books I’m reading (and enjoying) refers to time as “the engine of interaction”. I think that time and place and identity are all engines of interaction, and that sustainable platforms have this at their core.

Maybe this coda contains principles 5 and 6. Let us see.

 

 

3 thoughts on “On platforms and sustainability”

  1. Nice to see you back again JP, missed your words.
    I think things aren’t repaired today because time is money. Cheaper to throw away stuff.
    I mend things though. Anything I can mend I will. And I agree, if you look after stuff it lasts.
    keep the faith

  2. Loving it, JP. Especially the references to Christopher Alexander and to the souks… I have been mulling myself on some sort of research on structural change, with plenty of architectural metaphors. Like the souks, i am referring to the kasbahs. Like Alexander, i am looking at pattern languages, at coherence between narrative – motives – governance (as per Jean Russell). I believe your piece covers part of the narrative, you may wish to dig into motives and governance as well. Warm regards, Petervan

  3. Was it a deliberate decision to stop publishing the full post in your RSS feed? Or maybe it just happened during a site upgrade*. Anyway, it introduces a small barrier to reading your posts which might account for part of the drop-off in commenting.

    I think the act of writing something down is sufficient reward in itself. For me it clarifies what I think and it stops me rehearsing the internal discussion over and over again. Actual people reading a post are an added bonus. A conversation is nirvana.

    * There’s only one blogger in my feed who publishes his full posts to RSS now: Diamond Geezer (http://diamondgeezer.blogspot.co.uk/)

Let me know what you think