Reg comments35

Connectivity's value is almost erased by the costs it can impose

The internet made information flow on the cheap, but making it anti-fragile will cost plenty

I spent the first half of my career coding and while I don't miss the day-in-day-out grind of coding, but do still enjoy the computer-as-infinite-toy. So from time to time I try to spend a few days with my head in the machine, playing, exploring and learning.

Lately I've done that with Glitch, a browser-based programming environment running the newest hot language (Node.JS), making it easy to share Glitch programs with everyone – everywhere.

I’ve had a lot of fun playing with Glitch but toward the end of my first day using it I encountered - well, a glitch. My browser window froze up. Glitch reported a connection error, and asked me politely to reload the page. When I did, I discovered Glitch had lost everything I’d typed in the previous two hours.

The great advantage of a browser-based programming environment is that nothing gets lost - it’s all saved to the cloud as you type it in. But what happens when the link dies, or the cloud chokes?

Thankfully, my code reappeared within a few minutes. But my faith was shaken, and I’ve since taken to saving my Glitch programs into a text file on my local machine - once burned, twice shy.

Which got me thinking about the increasingly fragile nature of our connected culture.

Twenty-five years ago almost nothing was connected to the Internet. Today, many things are - at least some of the time - and it’s only when connected that they realise their full capacity. A smartphone shorn of network access cannot be an object of fascination. The network activates, piping intelligence into our toys, making them irresistible.

That intelligence comes with some costs; the most obvious is our increasing dependency on that connection. People get lost on hikes as they fall out of mobile range and lose the mapping apps that keep them oriented. We've come to expect intelligence with us all the time. Losing connectivity is coming to feel like losing a bit of our mind.

Another cost - and the bigger worry - is that this connected intelligence isn’t entirely benevolent. Every connection is a way into a device that may have something of value - credit card numbers, or passwords, or Bitcoins. The same intelligence that activates can also try to harvest that information, or even poison those devices, turning them against their owners.

We’ve reached a very delicate point, where the value of connected intelligence is almost entirely countered by the costs it can impose. If things become just a little more hostile out there (with four billion people using the Internet, that’s pretty much assured) the scales could tip in favour of disconnection, isolation, and a descent into a kind of stupidity we haven’t seen in many years.

There’s no easy answers for any of this. It’s unreasonable to expect that businesses will turn the clock back on the productivity gains made from connectivity, but it’s equally unreasonable to assume any of those businesses are prepared for an onslaught of connected hostility.

In this sort of high-pressure environment, where the wrong decision quickly becomes a fatal one, we have no choice but to evolve our responses, rapidly. It feels as though we got the benefits of connected intelligence for free; it’s only just now that we can see that bill is being presented - and it’s a whopper. We have to learn, keep learning, share what we’ve learned while putting it to work, learn from what others have shared, and keep doing this at an ever-increasing rate, forever.

This is the new heartbeat of business, and it’s going to drive the evolution of a new generation of ‘hummingbird’ businesses - 21st century organisations designed to be light, fast, there and gone before any predators can get a lock on them.

Can the big, slow, sclerotic businesses of today survive connected hostility? That’s the biggest question before us, and the one that every business at scale needs to ask, and needs to keep asking – forever. ®


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