An Event Apart: Everything the Network Touches

by Luke Wroblewski March 30, 2011

In his Everything the Network Touches presentation at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2011 Tom Coates reminded everyone how awesome and exciting the Web is by illustrating the power of networks of people, objects, and places. Here are my notes from his talk:

Darius the Great ruled over a vast empire created the Persian royal road that united much of his empire. It spanned several thousand kilometers and had a tower with a messenger and a horse every hundred kilometers. When an army was quite far away, this network allowed a message to reach them in just one day. This was not just a road network but was one of the World’s first communication networks.

A new piece of infrastructure can transform a culture but an infrastructure is not an end to itself. Darius’ road network was used to build a communications network on it and a trade network on top of that. We develop infrastructures then boot strap new networks on top of old ones. Human history can be looked at as a series of building infrastructures on top of each other.

Today, networks of links and pages are built on top of physical networks of server and cables. Social networks on built on top of link networks. And there are more layers to come.

Trade and transport have been some of the most transformative elements of our history. Before trade and transport you had to build from local materials –what could be found around you. Trade has connected our world and constructed everything around us.

We’ve made extraordinary achievements in the past 15 years on the Web. Books, content, maps, satellite, etc are available instantly to billions of people. Originally, each service on the Web had to develop their own data. But now APIs and Web services connect the pieces for us. We get to use these (no-local) materials to build on it and make new things. With APIs and Web services the range of potential things we can make as a species rises and the creative possibilities just explode.

We are operating at the earliest stages of this network. As a result, we are just seeing how this could work. Twitter spreads everywhere –it is a source of just about every kind of data you can describe. If they had built everything from scratch it would have taken a lot longer. Recombinating data expands what you can do.

The network is now extending to objects.

LCD clocks were pretty expensive when first came out. Then the cost of making them became absurdly inexpensive so now LCD clocks appear everywhere and anywhere. Though they only provide an incremental improvement –once in a while you want to know the time- they get included because it costs nothing to do so.

Network technologies are moving in a similar direction. The cost of connecting a device to the network is dropping. The Kindle is a device that can connect to the Internet forever for about $150 dollars. Many more devices like this are coming. Many will work like spimes that can report and record their exact location in space and time. You can create a personal history for every object in the world and where it has been, plus much more.

Muji is a Japanese company that makes simple, designed products for little cost. The Mujicom philosophy is that their products need to be invited into their customers’ lives. This is a great design objective for networked objects –they can become part of our lives.

Objects on the network provide a whole new set of interesting opportunities for integrating their data with your service through APIs and Web services. But it is not just about networked objects. It’s about cities and places integrated with the network as well. Bicycle services in cities already connect to the network to report on where they are and who is using them. They are essentially spimes.

Parking meters in San Francisco track where parking spots are being used and increase the price when there is a lot of activity. Where there is less use of parking spaces, the prices go down. You can find where there are avialbale parking spots on your laptop or iPhone. We will instrument streets, walls, cars, etc. Our very environment is becoming network aware. And this is an opportunity for all of us. As this data becomes accessible, we can integrate it into our services. Sites can talk to one another and soon physical objects will be able to write/read to the environment. We’re building an instrumented, responsive, and connected planet.

This World is already here in its earliest forms. It is a new network of new sites & services that lets things be built on top of it. The browser is the most important, flexible interface we have to integrate things together.

What happens when ideas, buildings, objects, networks, and more have sex with each other? The Web of data is important because it belongs to all of us. We need to have real word identifiers for objects, houses, streets, etc. Rising tides lift all ships.

Trade and transport has not always been distributed evenly. But have faith in the Web community. Connecting things transforms the World. We collectively connect more things everyday. We are the road-builders of the future. The planet and everything on it is our canvas and our brush.