Software Is Reorganizing the World

Software Is Reorganizing the World

  • 11.22.13
  • 9:30 AM


The tech industry has created cloud communities that are taking physical shape. Photo: Simon / Flickr


For the first time in memory, adults in the United States under age forty are now expected to be poorerthan their parents. This is the kind of grim reality that in other times and places spurred young people to look abroad for opportunity. Indeed, it is similar to the factors that once pushed millions of people to emigrate from their home countries to make their home in America. Our nation of immigrants is, tautologically, a nation of emigrants.

These emigrants weren’t Going Galt or being unpatriotic by leaving.

These emigrants, our ancestors, didn’t bear enmity towards the countries they left — quite the contrary. They weren’t “Going Galt” or being “unpatriotic” by leaving, as they often left out of sadness and melancholy, not anger. In many cases they remained homesick for the rest of their lives, leaving only because they had to, not because they wanted to.

Yet while our ancestors had America as their ultimate destination, it is not immediately obvious where those seeking opportunity might head today. Every square foot of earth is already spoken for by one (or more) nation states, every physical frontier long since closed.

With our bodies hemmed in, our minds have only the cloud — and it is the cloud that has become the destination for an extraordinary mental exodus. Hundreds of millions of people have now migrated to the cloud, spending hours per day working, playing, chatting, and laughing in real-time HD resolution with people thousands of miles away … without knowing their next-door neighbors.

The concept of migrating our lives to the cloud is much more than a picturesque metaphor.

The concept of migrating our lives to the cloud is much more than a picturesque metaphor, and actually amenable to quantitative study. Though the separation between our bodies is still best characterized by the geographical distance between points on the surface of the earth, the distance between our minds is increasingly characterized by a completely different metric: the geodesic distance, the number of degrees of separation between two nodes in a social network. Importantly, this geodesic distance is just as valid a mathematical metric as the geographical. In fact, there are entire conferences devoted to cloud cartography, in which research groups from Stanford toCarnegie Mellon to MIT present the first maps of online social networks — mapping not nation states but states of mind.

Perhaps the single most important feature of these states of mind is the increasing divergence between our social and geographic neighbors, between the cloud formations of our heads and the physical communities surrounding our bodies. An infinity of subcultures outside the mainstream now blossoms on the Internet — vegans, body modifiers, CrossFitters, Wiccans, DIYers, Pinners, and support groups of all forms. Millions of people are finding their true peers in the cloud, a remedy for the isolation imposed by the anonymous apartment complex or the remote rural location.

Yet this discrepancy between our cloud subculture and our physical surroundings will not endure indefinitely. Because the latest wave of technology is not just connecting us intellectually and emotionally with remote peers: it is also making us ever more mobile, ever more able to meet our peers in person.

And so these cloud formations of mind are beginning to take physical shape, driving the reorganization of bodies. In the technology space, we have already seen this transpire at small scale: a cloud formation of 2 people coming together for 10 years facilitated by, a formation of 10 people for a year in a hacker house, a formation of 100 people for a few months at a startup incubator, and a formation of 1000 people for a few days at an open-source gathering like RailsConf. More recently we saw the thousands that occupied Wall Street for a month, the ten thousand Redditors involved in Jon Stewart’s Rally, and the tens of thousands that took Tahrir Square at the height of the Arab Spring. Those trivial photo-sharing apps seem far less trivial in this light.


Balaji Srinivasan

Balaji S. Srinivasan holds a BS, MS, and PhD in Electrical Engineering and an MS in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University. He taught data mining, statistics, and computational biology at Stanford; was an NDSEG, NSF, and VIGRE fellow; and was cofounder and CTO of Counsyl, one of the largest clinical genome centers in the world. Srinivasan was named to the MIT TR35 and Founders Fund F50 lists. He currently runs the Stanford Bitcoin Group and teaches a popularMOOC on startups. Follow him on Twitter @balajis.

But while these large rallies command deserved attention, something else of significance is happening more quietly: Cloud formations are starting to take physical shape in the form of long-term friendly communities that are geographically colocated, likeCampusEmbassy Network, and the Rainbow Mansion. In some ways this isn’t anything new — the twin ideas of co-living in the same house or co-housing with separate houses in a shared community have been around in Denmark since the 1960s and the U.S. since the 1860s. What is new is the ease of finding compatible peers via web search, online forums, and social networks. And so the concept is spreading around the world, with hundreds of co-living and co-housing locations now accessible through the internet in the U.S.CanadaUnited Kingdom, and across Continental Europe.

It is not yet clear how widespread this phenomenon will become, but few humans are truly so solitary that they would shun the very idea of shared communities — and from email to mobile phones, what technologists experiment with on the weekends has frequentlyforeshadowed what everyone else will be doing during the week in ten years.

And from there?

It is simultaneously straightforward and radical to note that when cloud formations take physical shape, neither their scale nor duration has an upper bound. There is no scientific law that prevents 100 people who find each other on the internet from coming together for a month, or 1,000 such people from coming together for a year. And as that increases to 10,000 and 100,000 and beyond, for longer and longer durations, we may begin to see cloud towns, then cloud cities, and ultimately cloud countries materialize out of thin air.

At first this sounds rather implausible. Perhaps the internet will spur a wave of internal migrations as online communities begin gathering in person — but could this process really lead to a new city, or country?

The future of technology is not really location-based apps; it is about making locationcompletely unimportant.

Yet the technical prerequisites are already well underway. Machine translation of signstext, and speech brings down language barriers and facilitates ever more cross-cultural meetings of like minds. Immersive headsets, input devices, andtelepresence robots further collapse space and time, allowing us to instantly be alongside others on the other side of the globe. Mobile technology makes us ever more mobile, increasingly permitting not just easier movement around a home base butpermanent international relocation.

Technology is thus enabling arbitrary numbers of people from around the world to assemble in remote locations, without interrupting their ability to work or communicate with existing networks. In this sense, the future of technology is not really location-based apps; it is about making location completely unimportant.

When physical goods themselves can’t be digitized, our interface to them will be.

But could everything really become that mobile, that portable? What about transportation, infrastructure, food, shelter, the clothes on our backs?

Consider transportation first: Car ownership is already declining, and the combination of Uber, Lyft, their public-transportationanalogs, and new shareable car fleets will greatly reduce traffic and emissions. On-demand rental will ultimately become more convenient than the burden of outright ownership, especially in an autonomous car world, and will make us vastly more mobile as a result. And many more things can be transported on-demand once we have the on-demand car.

With respect to infrastructure, projects from neighborhood pothole repairs to bridge changes are being crowdfunded or driven through private-public sector partnerships (in fact, entrepreneurs built roads for most of American history). And with autonomous cars coming, technologists are going to need toreinvent roads again. Google’s Vannevar is moving construction to the cloud, much of shippinglogistics and the supply chain is going there as well, and robots can already build small buildings and operate autonomous mines. The net result is that both core infrastructure and many of the mechanisms for building and funding it are becoming computerized, and thus deployable in new locations.

The ‘reverse diaspora’ is a totally new phenomenon: one that starts out internationally distributed, finds each other online, and ends up physically concentrated.

And from the road we turn our eyes to the sky: next up will be acarbon-friendly computerized infrastructure for safer air traffic control, to guide the emerging fleets of drones doing everything from photography to surveying to delivery.

As for the physical items used in daily life — the present, let alone the future, is already a time where everything from food toshelter to clothing to transportation to your very wallet andkeychain can be accessed on demand from your mobile phone, in more cities every day.

So when it comes to the constraints on mobility imposed by the physical world, the rule is simple: when goods themselves can’t be digitized, our interface to them will be.

The benefits of such high mobility are much more than convenience to the people who supply these goods. For example, with online food ordering, an owner of a small restaurant is finally able to prepare meals in batch, order ingredients in bulk, and reach repeat customers without wasting valuable, limited resources in guesswork. With the advent of mobile microtasks, we are seeing the emergence of new digital assembly line jobs that offer greater flexibility, less risk of injury, and hourly wages comparable in some cases to those of new hires at GM. And with autonomous mines, workers can extract needed minerals without risking black lung disease.

This is why location is becoming so much less important: technology is enabling us to access everything we need from our mobile phone, to find our true communities in the cloud, and to easilytravel to assemble these communities in person. Taken together, we are rapidly approaching a future characterized by a totally new phenomenon, the reverse diaspora: one that starts out internationally distributed, finds each other online, and ends up physically concentrated.

What might these reverse diasporas be like? As a people whose primary bond is through the internet, many of their properties would not fit our pre-existing mental models. Unlike rugged individualists, these emigrants would be moving within or between nation states to become part of a community, not to strike out on their own. Unlike would-be revolutionaries, those migrating in this fashion would be doing so out of humility in their ability to change existing political systems. And unlike so-called secessionists, the specific site of physical concentration would be a matter of convenience, not passion; the geography incidental and not worth fighting over.

Silicon Valley is nothing special. The geography of physical concentration is incidental and not worth fighting over.

Today, one of the first and largest international reverse diasporas has assembled in Silicon Valley, drawn by the internet to the cloud capital of technology; in fact, an incredible 64% of the Valley’s scientists and engineers hail from outside the U.S., with 43.9% of its technology companies founded by emigrants.

But the geocenter of this cloud formation is only positioned over Silicon Valley for historical reasons, as the semiconductor manufacturing that was made easier by the temperate clime of the South Bay has long since moved away. Nothing today binds technologists to the soil besides other people. In this sense Silicon Valley is nothing special; it is best conceptualized as just the most common (x,y) coordinates of a set of highly mobile nodes in a social network whose true existence is in the cloud.

And this global technology cloud truly stretches over the whole earth, touching down at various locales both in the U.S. — at Sendgrid in Boulder, Tumblr in New York, Rackspace in Austin, Snapchat in L.A., Zipcar in Boston, Opscode in Seattle — and outside it — at Skype in Estonia, Tencent in Shenzhen, Soundcloud in Germany, Flipkart in India, Spotify in Sweden, Line in Tokyo, and Waze in Israel. Cultural connections forming between people in this cloud are becoming stronger than the connections between their geographic neighbors. Palo Alto’s Accel invests in India’s Flipkart, Estonia’s Skype isfolded into Seattle’s Microsoft, Israel’s Waze is merged into Mountain View’s Google, and the SoundCloud engineer on a laptop in Berlin builds a deeper relationship with the VC in New York than the nearby Bavarian bank.

It took almost 170 years to go from Jamestown to America. At Internet time, things could happen more quickly than that.

Today, the geocenter of the global technology cloud is still hovering over Silicon Valley. But in a world where technology is making location increasingly less important, tomorrow the reverse diaspora may well assemble somewhere else.

Of course, it would take some time for a reverse diaspora assembled in a new location to advance from small communitiesin existing buildings to the infrastructure for towns and cities, let alone to starting new countries. If history is any guide, it took almost 170 years to go from 1607 (Jamestown) to 1776 (America), 90 years to go from 1857 (Sepoy Mutiny) to 1947 (India), and 52 years to go from 1896 (Herzl) to 1948 (Israel) — though at Internet time, things could happen more quickly than that.

Will this ultimately end in a cloud country of our own, as Page, Thiel, and Musk propose in different ways?

And we can’t know from today’s vantage point where that first reverse diaspora might assemble outside the U.S., or what those cloud cities or countries will be like. They could be countries formed by internationally recognized processes similar to the ones that created 26 new countries over the past 25 years, a pattern noted by Marc Andreessen. They could be regions of the world set aside by global agreement for experimentation, asdiscussed by Larry Page. They could be floating cities in international waters as put forth by Peter Thiel, or one of the more ambitious 80,000 person colonies on Mars desired by Elon Musk. The specific location is still unknown; in a real sense it matters far less than the people there.

What we can say for certain is this: from Occupy Wall Street and YCombinator to co-living in San Francisco and co-housing in the UK, something important is happening. People are meeting like minds in the cloud and traveling to meet each other offline, in the process building community — and tools for community — where none existed before. Those cloud networks where people poke each other, share photos, and find their missing communities are beginning to catalyze waves of physical migration, beginning to reorganize the world.

Will this ultimately end in a cloud country of our own, as Page, Thiel, and Musk propose in different ways? We can set this as a long-term goal, like the kind of dream that propelled so many millions toexit and come to America in the first place, but it’s unclear what the future holds. We do know this, however: as cloud formations take physical shape at steadily greater scales and durations, it shall become ever more feasible to create a new nation of emigrants.

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