The internet contrives


In a little border town, it doesn’t matter where, there once lived a man. He crossed the border every day, like clockwork. Each morning the guards would see him wend his way to them, pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure. And each morning, like clockwork, they would put gloves on and sift through the manure. And find nothing. Each morning they would, reluctantly, let him cross. And each evening he would return.

This carried on for decades. They were sure he was smuggling something. But they couldn’t, for the life of them, figure out what. And then one day it was all over. He retired. Hung up his boots. Told them he was calling it a day. And they never saw him again.

Except that this isn’t a real story. So a few weeks later they did see him. He went to say hello. And over a warm cup of tea the guards begged him to tell them what he was really up to, what he’d been smuggling. He smiled at them and said “Wheelbarrows”.

For the past few weeks I’ve been putting forth the idea that 2013 is the Year of the Platform. Particularly the open adaptive platform, modelled upon the mother of all such platforms, the internet.

Yesterday I spent some time explaining why I continue to be optimistic about the internet. It went something like this. More and more people are getting connected to the internet every day. Devices are getting smarter. Costs are going down, availability’s going up. We’ve moved past post and telegraph and radio and TV to everything multimedia. Open source software is now in use everywhere and in everything. Open source hardware is now an affordable reality. And open source specifications are now a force to be reckoned with, as 3D printers head towards affordability. As Steven Johnson reminds us in his book “Future Perfect”, the world as we know will just come to a juddering halt if everything open source disappeared overnight.

And there’s a lot of magic happening as a result. As I said yesterday, everything’s getting disrupted. Everywhere. All the time.

Yet people remain concerned. And rightly so. Because disruptions affect the status quo.

And affecting the status quo just won’t do. Not if you’re a powerful incumbent. So there’s a lot of SOPAing and PIPAing that’s still to come, some ACTAing out, some real WCIT deeds.

During the financial crisis we started hearing that some banks were “too big to fail”. Having observed events in technology for the past thirty-odd years, I’ve realised that some of the incumbents really think they’re “too big to change”, and that they can use their market muscle and lobbying power to put the changes off indefinitely.

They’re wrong.

The internet really does route around obstacles.

The internet contrives.

When I lived in India, I used to marvel at just how the local car mechanics would keep vehicles in working order, usually with no access to spares, often with no access to documentation. They contrived.

The Maker Generation is here to stay. Armed with connectivity and smart devices. Able to use open source software and hardware, open specifications and open data. Able to contrive.

Human beings can do incredible things when they’re given the opportunity and the tools.

Let’s take communications. Do you remember a time before Skype? A time when you needed a mortgage to make a long-distance call? I’m old that way. I do remember those times. People in India needed to make international calls without having to enter some form of bankruptcy. So what did they do? They made person-to-person international calls, then referred to as PP calls. When you made a PP call, the operator would call the other number, ask for the person, and only put you through if the person you were calling was present to take the call. If the other person wasn’t there, then you weren’t put through, and there was no charge.

So what did many Indians do? Simple. They contrived. They used the name-space for the called party to send messages. So you’d call your son, visiting friends a zillion miles away, but instead of asking for him by name, you’d use the space to get a message to him. A call for Dartmouth Smith meant that the boy Smith had received a scholarship place at Dartmouth. And so on and so forth. Today it doesn’t matter any more, international calls are affordable to most places.

More recently, the same thing happened with mobile phones. Prices were too high. So what did people do, in India, in Africa, even in parts of China? They “gave someone a missed call”. Called, and then hung up the phone before the calling party answered. A painless way of letting the other party know to call back. The Missed Call feature had been subverted to make it possible to get over the affordability barrier.

It’s not just about affordability. Connected people with access to tools do the strangest things. Like using Product Reviews to pen literature, satire, humour. Or adopting digital conventions into everyday speech. [I’m still getting over my then 13-year-old daughter looking at me and appending something she said with “hashtag justsayin”.]

People will contrive. The internet will route around obstacles. And every now and then I will share the stories. Feel free to add to that store here, let others know of the routing-around-obstacles stories you’ve come across.




9 thoughts on “The internet contrives”

  1. This is one of the true beauties of human ingenuity – our knack of recognising opportunities to bend situations, technology and systems to our unanticipated advantage. I coin a term for this: misuseful.

  2. Rohit, thank you for letting us know about Zipdial. And yes, you make an important point about feature requests and bug reports.

  3. I have long had a principle which says ‘you solve a problem by ignoring it’ – which isn’t as simplistic as it sounds. Its more about not banging your head repeatedly by using the same strategy. go off and do something else then return with fresh strategies, or perhaps new perspectives, and then see what works…
    Nice post :-)

  4. I think we share the same vision for how the Internet (and everybody on the planet using it) *should* work, and many of the same themes of open access and justice come up in today’s defacement of the MIT web site by Anonymous with their R.I.P Note for Aaron Swartz (

    Whilst we continue (and must continue) to fight the good fight for an open Internet the forces of oppression seem to ratchet up. I’m thinking of China, and Iran, and countless other places (including the UK) that only see a filtered Internet. Of course the Internet contrives against this with its VPNs and tunnels and proxies, but there’s a depressing numbers imbalance here. For every school kid that breaks past the filters, every employee that circumvents something to get work done, and every citizen that evades their government’s censorship there are hundreds more who are too ignorant or poorly motivated. The rebel alliance might be winning battles against the Empire, and evil is inefficient (, but there are many fights in front of us before we see the New Republic of open Internet.

    Over dinner with a friend the other day I asked what the world would be like if the Internet was universally like it is in China (and I invoke Godwin’s law on myself before going deeper into that)? I for one don’t want to be part of an underground resistance. I want my contrivances, anybody’s contrivances, to be part of free speech, shared culture and open trade. That’s what an open Internet can deliver, and we will (almost) all be better off with that.

    PS I once heard a variation of the wheelbarrow story where a dockyard worker was stealing mercury by pouring it into the tubes of the wheelbarrow. I think he got caught when one of the guards noticed that the wheelbarrow was unusually heavy even when they’d taken everything out as part of their search.

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