Bicycles and dishwashers

*With* you, or *for* you?

There’s a useful analogy I come back to regularly. It goes something like this:

A given technology tends to be useful in one of two ways: Either it’s like a dishwasher, or like a bicycle.

A bicycle accomplishes something with its user. It has no particularly useful function without a person operating it. But together, the person and the bicycle are able to do something more than a person alone – in this case, traveling longer distances, and expending less energy.

The dishwasher’s value, on the other hand, is in doing something by itself. One can simply start it, and receive clean dishes a while later. It takes a task entirely off your mind and schedule.

The bicycle is also entirely subservient to the person’s will. It has an intended purpose, but one may as well use it for daily commutes on bike paths, or go on to make a career out of performing some sweet tricks. Its intended purpose doesn’t create a lot of limitations to how it can be used in the end.

The dishwasher, on the other hand, is built for automation. That means it does not supplement its user. It accomplishes something autonomously, in their place. Instead of empowering, it frees one’s time and mind to be dedicated elsewhere.

The trade-off, as I briefly wrote about last time, is that automation is primarily a rigid process: the decisions are already taken, and the actions will be the same next time. When we automate, we close off the opportunities for repurposing creatively.

Of course, with physical products, it is ultimately possible to break them down (probably against the creator’s will) to understand or reuse their parts. Digital things, on the other hand, only expose what they are made to expose. There is no malice behind this, it’s just the nature of software – any option or functionality that’s available to the public has been intentionally made so.

I have a personal preference for small, focused digital products for this reason. A tiny product can realistically expose its entire capabilities, and its restricted scope means it has to play well with others to be useful in the real world. For example, IFTTT (IfThisThenThat) initially launched to be a “digital duct tape”, to bind small services together.

Other services (like Glitch) are helping build this ideal: to allow most people, should they want it, to disassemble digital things and give them new, unexpected purpose.

I think we should really nurture this. We need more of the digital world to be open to disassembly and exploration.

See you soon!


❤ Loved lately

The Metrics of Backpacks, by Victoria Gannon. The prose alone is great enough for me to wholeheartedly recommend it.

Drug trade creatively remains at the bleeding edge of technology. Here is a great article by Jonathan “smuggler” Logan on how dropgangs operate as mutually anonymous drug distribution networks.

And the two links in the text above are great! The first is street trials biker Danny MacAskill’s Imaginate Video, and the second is Linden Tibbet’s manifesto-slash-release-announcement for IFTTT back in 2010.