Defrag: Bigger Networks of Smaller Things

Believe it or not, I try to approach the Defrag content by thinking through a thesis for the event. It isn’t always a stated thesis, but thought goes into it. And it informs how I structure the agenda. Of course, doing this is isolation is nearly impossible, so the process usually follows a familiar pattern: a) Phil Becker (long-time conference partner-in-crime) and I flesh out some broad thesis; b) I begin to socialize said thesis in private conversations; c) eventually, I blog a bit about it, as it comes to shape the agenda. This is not to say that I require speakers to some how “fit in” to the thesis, but I do look for presentations that enhance, expand, debate, knock down, or otherwise add to the overall conversation.

Last week, Phil and I begin to chat in depth around some things, and, for whatever reason, some phrases from an email Phil wrote have just *stuck* in my brain. As such, I’m going to do things a bit differently this year. Namely, I’m blogging the thesis early (i.e., before it’s fully formed). It’s a bit of a tenuous position, if only because I can’t claim to have thought through things…in effect, it’s thinking aloud. But enough caveats….

If one piece has stuck in my head over the last few months, it’s been Marc Andreesen’s “Why Software Is Eating The World” piece. If you haven’t read it, go do so immediately.

With that as a foundational setting, Phil and I begin to kick back and forth the transitional phase that everyone knows that we’re in (I say that because I think everyone can feel — in ways technological, economic, political, etc — the liminality, or “in-between-ness” of it all). My first jump was that software isn’t just eating the world, it’s networking the world (“networking” as in the architecture of the internet, not “networking” as in wires and servers and routers). The “software eating the world” component has moved us past “traditional industries” and “the internet” (which was the sharp division of the dotcom boom/bust), and into a transition where the software efficiencies and network effects of technology (the internet, the cloud, mobile, etc) are now moving through all parts of society, industry, government, personal interaction, etc.

I don’t *think* that any of what I’ve said above is new, per se. Author upon author (upon futurist upon futurist) have posited how the network effects of the internet are changing society. In fact, I *hope* everything above isn’t new; I’d consider that an incredible starting point for Defrag 2013.

But then, a phrase in one of Phil’s emails just hit me. Phil was talking about how the large, centralized structures of the industrial revolution were all breaking, and he said that he thought we were transitioning to “bigger networks of smaller things.” In essence, the industrial revolution had used centralized models (of business, banking, government, etc) to build a huge wave of prosperity, as it built out infrastructure (electricity, roads, transportation, etc), but now — because of software eating and networking the world — we were transitioning into something where “bigger networks of smaller things” drove the next wave of value creation.

And so, I began to chew on this…

The centralized structure of government transitions into the city (or local region) as the node in a network of cities.

The centralized IT infrastructure becomes the public/private/hybrid federated nodes of the cloud — networked across organizations, resources and even companies.

The centralized development model of software becomes a distributed, node-based, networked model — driven by APIs.

The centralized workplace becomes mobility.

….and on an on…

In each instance, though, it wasn’t the “centralized to distributed” characteristic that struck me (or Phil), it was the fact that the nodes (the individual pieces of the network) get smaller, while the network itself gets bigger. The nodes are no longer IT departments federated with other IT departments. They’re *individuals* inside of a company (on their own mobile device) networked to hundreds/thousands/millions of other individuals in other companies (or not).

It’s as if the ability to see the fractal units increases, while the effective ability of the network expands. Bigger Networks of Smaller Things.

So, what do I think “bigger networks of smaller things” covers at Defrag? Oh, the enterprise, cloud, mobile, big data, collaboration, and APIs — for sure (it’s easy to see those things through the “bigger networks of smaller things” lens), but also drones, robots, the internet of things, cities and startup ecosystems, identity, the quantified self, education, healthcare, etc.

If we assume that drilling down to smaller units/nodes/things, while expanding out to bigger network effects is the engine driving the next transitional wave, then the question becomes: how does technology not just drive the change, but also create (or help to create) the value that comes of out that change? That’s something I’ll be blogging about in the coming weeks.

And that is the beginning of this year’s Defrag agenda. I hope you’ll join us.

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