The Jig Is Up: Time to Get Past Facebook and Invent a New Future

We've maxed out our hardware. No one even tries to buy the fastest computer anymore because we don't give them any tasks (except video editing, I suppose) that require that level of horsepower. I remember breathlessly waiting for the next-generation processor so that my computer would be capable of a whole new galaxy of activities. Some of it, sure, is that we're dumping the computation on the servers on the Internet. But the other part is that we mostly do a lot of the things that we used to do years ago -- stare at web pages, write documents, upload photos -- just at higher resolutions.

On the mobile side, we're working with almost the exact same toolset that we had on the 2007 iPhone, i.e. audio inputs, audio outputs, a camera, a GPS, an accelerometer, Bluetooth, and a touchscreen. That's the palette that everyone has been working with -- and I hate to say it, but we're at the end of the line. The screen's gotten better, but when's the last time you saw an iPhone app do something that made you go, "Whoa! I didn't know that was possible!?"

Meanwhile, despite the efforts of telecom carriers, cellular bandwidth remains limited, especially in the hotbeds of innovation that need it most. It turns out building a superfast, ultrareliable cellular network that's as fast as a wired connection is really, really hard. It's difficult to say precisely what role this limiting factor plays, but if you start to think about what you could do if you had a 100MB/s connection everywhere you went, one's imagination starts to run wild. 


LESS MONEY, MO PROBLEMS

But more than the bandwidth or the stagnant hardware, I think the blame should fall squarely on the shoulders of the business model. The dominant idea has been to gather users and get them to pour their friends, photos, writing, information, clicks, and locations into your app. Then you sell them stuff (Amazon.com, One King's Lane) or you take that data and sell it in one way or another to someone who will sell them stuff (everyone). I return to Jeff Hammerbacher's awesome line about developers these days: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." 

Worse yet, all this stuff is dependent on machine learning algorithms that are crude and incredibly difficult to improve. You pour more vast amounts of data in to eke out a bit more efficiency. That's great and all, but let's not look at that kind of behavior and call it "disruptive." That is the opposite of disruptive.

The thing about the advertising model is that it gets people thinking small, lean. Get four college kids in a room, fuel them with pizza, and see what thing they can crank out that their friends might like. Yay! Great! But you know what? They keep tossing out products that look pretty much like what you'd get if you took a homogenous group of young guys in any other endeavor: Cheap, fun, and about as worldchanging as creating a new variation on beer pong.

Now, there are obviously exceptions to what I'm laying out. What I'm talking about here is the startup culture that I've seen in literally dozens of cities. This culture has a certain logic. There are organizing principles for what is considered a "good" idea. These ideas are supposed to be the right size and shape. There is a default spreadsheet that we expect ideas to fit onto.

But maybe it's time that changed.

So what's the future hold then? I have a couple of ideas, even if I'm not sure they're the right ones. One basic premise I have is this: More money has got to change hands. Free is great. Free is awesome. Halloween, for example, is my favorite holiday. I love free stuff. But note this chart from the Pinboard blog, comparing what happens to free sites and paid-for sites/services when they experience growth. 


Free Paid
Stagnantlosing moneymaking money
Growinglosing more moneymaking more money
Explodinglosing lots of moneymaking lots of money


The point is that every user of a free service costs the service money. Whereas every user for a paid-for service generates money. What that means is that a growing free site is an acquisition waiting to happen because its developers are burning through ever more cash. 

Free applications and services get driven to do other things, too. They must grow quickly and they must collect vast amounts of data and they must acquire your social graph somehow. Even if those things were all good, they would still reduce the variety of startups that seem possible. The only metric that seems to matter with startups is the number of users it has been able to skim from the masses. (Partially because so many can't get anyone to visit them and partially because so few of them make money.)

It's not that I think paid software and services will be necessarily be better, but I think they'll be different.

Speaking of hardware, I think we all better hope that the iPhone 5 has some crazy surprises in store for us later this year. Maybe it's a user interface thing. Maybe it's a whole line of hardware extensions that allow for new kinds of inputs and outputs. I'm not sure what it is, but a decently radical shift in hardware capabilities on par with phone-->smartphone or smartphone-->iPhone would be enough, I think, to provide a springboard for some new ideas.

I have some of my own, too. The cost of a lumen of light is dropping precipitously; there must be more things than lightbulbs that can benefit from that. There's vast amounts of databases, real-world data, and video that remains unindexed. Who knows what a billion Chinese Internet users will come up with? The quantified self is just getting going on its path to the programmable self. And no one has figured out how to do augmented reality in an elegant way.

The truth is, though, I'm a journalist, not an entrepreneur. I know that my contribution is more likely to be distilling a feeling that is already broadly felt rather than inventing the future. Still, I want us to get back to those exciting days where people were making predictions about the affordances of the future that seemed wonderful and impossible. No doubt the future remains unevenly distributed but now, when you get your bit, it seems as likely to include worse cell reception as it does seemingly magical superpowers.

This isn't about startup incubators or policy positions. It's not about "innovation in America" or which tech blog loves startups the most. This is about how Internet technology used to feel like it was really going to change so many things about our lives. Now it has and we're all too stunned to figure out what's next. So we watch Lana Del Ray turn circles in a thousand animated gifs.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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