Widespread machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is bringing about the Internet of Things — or ‘the trillion-node network’, as the authors of this book put it. Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology, which is written by the three principals of MAYA Design (a Pittsburgh-based design consultancy and technology research lab), addresses the problem of how to cope with an internet comprising trillions of nodes, the majority of which do not have a person directly controlling them. Peter Lucas, Joe Ballay and Mickey McManus warn of the chaotic complexity that’s in danger of developing, and offer suggestions as to how to design a digital future in which “The data are no longer in the computers. We have come to see that the computers are in the data“.
The book is built around a mountaineering analogy, with ‘PC Peak’ — encapsulating the personal computing era and the human-centric internet/web — having been scaled. But looming above is the far larger ‘Trillions Mountain’, where, the authors contend, “the design techniques that have served us well on PC Peak will be wholly inadequate for the problems of scale we will soon face”.
The early chapters summarise the route to the post-PC era, including a cautionary tale about a once-great company (DEC) that failed to adapt to an imminent (PC) revolution and paid the ultimate price within a decade of its peak revenue year. The inference here is clear: there will be some notable fallers in the foothills of Trillions Mountain. The next-generation computing landscape, comprising trillions of nodes, is discussed, with the authors stressing the importance of ‘fungible’ devices and ‘liquid’ information — terms borrowed from economics. Fungibility — the free interchange of equivalent goods — is not a widespread feature of today’s IT landscape, with its numerous walled gardens, they say. Liquidity — the free flow of value — is variable: low-level packet switching flows efficiently enough, but higher levels of the information infrastructure are stickier. The third key requirement of the trillion-node computing landscape, say the authors, is a ‘true cyberspace’ comprising persistent digital objects, in contrast to today’s hypertext-based web.
In fact, according to Lucas, Ballay and McManus, quite a few components of today’s IT landscape are poorly architected for the trillion-node future. This includes computers that are platforms for data-siloing applications rather than pure information, the web browser — even the web itself and cloud computing. What we’re heading for, they say, is Complexity Cliff (there’s that mountaineering analogy again) — cascading unforeseen failures in ill-designed complex systems that, for example, “could easily ‘brick’ all the lights in a next-generation skyscraper that uses wireless systems to control illumination. Or the elevators. Or the ventilation”.
Around this point in the book, the authors expound their vision of cloud computing, which turns out to be a pervasive information store built on peer-to-peer networking — they call it the GRIS (the Grand Repository In the Sky), and contrast it with today’s essentially client-server ‘corporate Hindenberg’ clouds that could one day, like the airship, explode along with your data. There are also some rather curmudgeonly digs at the software development community in this chapter, which may not meet with universal approval. For example, a perceived lack of organised professionalism in software engineering (compared to codes of practice for the likes of builders or electricians) is largely laid at the door of the open-source community: “the Internet era has now passed into the hands of a pop culture that is neither formally trained nor intellectually rigorous, and doesn’t particularly care whether its ‘solutions’ have a rigorous engineering basis — as long as they accomplish the task at hand”.
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