I’m trying to remember what it was like before software went away. Seems like a long time ago, and yet very immediate. It’s like the Steinberg New Yorker cover: the West Side Drive, the Hudson, New Jersey, the Rockies, Big Sur. One day we thought in the context of applications, the next in downloads, and now in updates. There is no single application, just iterative features flowing in realtime across social networks.
It of course is all software, just like Office and Notes and links and RSS aren’t really dead. But to some of us, the deltas between the updates are what we notice, not the interfaces or the algorithms or the constructs we think of as spreadsheet or maps or OS. Instead, we admire the evolution of the fabric, the back and forth of competitors catching up and falling behind each other. It’s a different model from the heyday of new this, new that, Best Of, and Top Tens.
What are the ten best things we can do today with our computers? Try as I might, it keeps collapsing into one thing: Discover. IM, yeah that’s cool; I can reach out to someone across time zone and distance with a click or two. Effortless and utilitarian, grab a second of attention or share a gossip or two. Less social pressure than an email (if you want to get a letter, send one) and an adequate replacement for the phone. Voice becomes something you save things for, enough items to make the exchange time-worthy.
One to many is the next phase, the ping-pong Twitter gambits, the FriendFeed Rolling Thunder revues, the video swarms that combine the immediacy with the excitement of the frontier. Volatile as hell, you betcha. The constant drumbeat of explanation only ephemerally covering the nervous stabs at finding some comfort level without destroying the vibrancy. Serious business indeed, whatever the disclaimers.
Funny how we push back against the subtle, when all we crave is the deltas, not the big shifts. We are terrified of the rollercoaster of innovation, but too little of the hint of it drives us into depression and anger. It’s a balance we can only monitor by indirection, through the absence of indications to the contrary. The only thing we’re sure of is what it isn’t.
I don’t miss the software like I thought I would. Truth be told, I like the space opened up by ignoring the different takes on the same idea, the sleight of hand designed to reach critical mass before it’s noticed, the politics of religion and the religion of not invented here. Even the standards guys are humbled by the easy rolling swell of the waves of iteration. The intersection of multicore, broadband, and XML has produced a platform so broad and malleable that the lawyers are unable to keep up or track of where the value is moving.
In one of the interviews for his new record (?) Bob Dylan talks about how he and his band use mathematics to drive what they are doing. The discussion references the changing rhythm patterns of the constantly reworked songs of the Bard’s canon. But his answer is not precisely mysterious but confident in its transparency. And yet, somehow, he preserves the room to create without the meth-fueled exhilaration of the hunt with which he brought his early work forward. I come nowhere near his clarity but that doesn’t mean I’m not onto something.
Discovering is something worth nurturing, whether it’s by searching or listening or running silent and deep. My top ten is really 30 or so, constantly shifting and lapping and taking fiery pit stops, but always in balance in their aggregate instantiation of the stream. As new tools develop to honor this turbulence, we will briefly see them as software, then watch them blend into the delta flow.