If you’ve been following along in this series we’ve been discussing the progression of modern software. We’ve tracked the progress of how software has been created and developed over the course of the last 50 years and we’ve dug in deep on some key philosophies behind this journey. If you haven’t read the previous posts I’d highly recommend you read, Exploring the Progression of Modern Software Part 1, and Exploring the Progression of Modern Software Part 2 before continuing in this post. Trust me, it will help make the following sections far more relevant and interesting.
Now, I know you have been on the edge of your seat (or at least I imagine many of you have been) waiting to hear how I conclude the cliffhanger where we left the last post. Before I answer those mysteries and resolve the questions in what I suggested to be an extremely elegant manner it is important to recap what we’ve learned up until this point.
First, in Part 1 we discussed the software vehicle. In this regard I refer to the idea that there are several tools by which software could be accessed, this was on a single machine, on a server (or cloud) environment, and lastly in a decentralized manner. These methods are the vehicle by which software could be carried to the user.
In Part 2 we explored the next important concept around the evolution of software and we called it the software engine. This engine was how software was powered and we identified three engine-types: closed source, open source, and blockchain. I know to some the third engine is an interesting one because it is not often perceived as different from closed or open source but there are some unique properties of blockchain which I believe warrants the label of a unique software engine.
Part 3: The Driver
This means so far we have covered the software vehicle, and the software engine. Both of these aspects focus on what the software company has created or envisioned for their software. But there is an extremely important part of the equation we have not yet addressed. The driver. There must be someone behind the wheel of the software. This is the software user and although the user has been previously overlooked in the software development process (relatively) they are the focus for this third and final post in this series. Let me explain why the user is so critically important.
The purpose of software
The user implements the software and dictates the purpose of the software. In essence the software should service the needs of the driver, carrying them to their destination in the fastest possible way. Software was created to serve the user. This was the original intent and yet with each iteration this goal became a bit more obscure. In fact, we quickly lose site of the original goal of software and instead we witness the pursuit of a variety of sub-goals. As our technology has improved from a hardware perspective (which is an interesting side study) we have shifted our software focus from the primary objective. But let’s continue our study now regarding this user aspect of the progression of modern software.
The No Data Era
This is the era where it all began, just as with the other posts in this series it is important to keep in mind the overlap between this era and the others (in relation to all three components: the vehicle, the engine, and the user). It is also important to remember the purpose of software as we go through this journey and as we consider the use (or misuse) of data throughout each era. If we hearken back to the earliest days of software we are also hearkening back to the earliest days of hardware as well and thus the hardware of the day is of equivalent importance. These early computers were physically incapable of storing information. They were simple functional machines. Then we witnessed the migration to tape-based programming and the concept of punch-cards. During this period as well the concept of in-memory storage or the stored-program computer was non-existent.
If we stop and think about it for a second what we can easily understand then during this era there was no data storage. This was the No Data Era. As the hardware became better and improved over time we slowly saw the incorporation and creation of stored-program software. These computers held on-board memory which was capable of recalling specific protocols or routines and executing them (let’s not forget to mention the size of these beasts either! Large refrigerator all the way to large rooms were the norm.)
During the No Data Era there was no thought (or rather no mainstream thought) surrounding the storage of personal data. The focus was purely on stored procedures and the ability to store functional information. The no data era was in essence completely private, held no concept of singular vs multiple storage locations, and as a result infinitely secure given there was nothing to secure!
But things move fast in tech and the No Data Era didn’t stay devoid of data for long. Soon the hardware was ready for the software to progress. And progress it did - rapidly. Soon software could be written to perform vast and complex functions and eventually multi-routines and finally completely software systems to carry out all manner of tasks. These tasks required data entry by the user in many cases and then the software would store this data locally in-memory to be used in later computations. Throughout all of this proliferation of software a few of the core tenets remained. This era can be summed up easily with the following three words.
Three Word Takeaway: Single, Private, Secure
The Social Data Era
As I alluded to, this software progressed quickly. Very quickly. At times I can’t help but wonder if this progression occurred more quickly than we anticipated or prepared for. Moore’s Law defined the rate at which the hardware could be improved and the software was quick to accommodate this frenetic pace of development.
Along this software progression the data collected continued to grow. In fact, due to the improvements in storage capacity the software expanded its data storage as well. Soon we reached an inevitable tipping point. I’d suggest this tipping point occurred when the cost for data storage became so inconsequential many neglected to even consider the amount of space their data might consume. Software companies formed to create advanced software systems. These software tools were light years more advanced than their predecessors from a previous era. This mass data consumption became the sole focus for larger companies as they began to correlate the value of data consolidation with direct monetary benefit.
In this era, software became once again the vehicle but in this instance, a vehicle for a different cause. Rather than a vehicle by which the user could move faster to accomplish a task, the software became a vehicle simply to collect and return as much data as possible to the company providing the software. These companies soon learned if they were to give away the software they could raise adoption rates and increase the data collection. They began to place the value of the software in the data collected rather than a monetary fee for usage. But the user was unaware of this subtle shift in philosophy. Instead, the user merely saw the monetary cost of the software decrease until in many cases the software was free of all fiscal cost.
Do not let the subtle nuance of that previous sentence escape you. Fiscal cost is the key word. You see, the cost never left the software, it merely changed forms to a currency the user didn’t recognize. The user paid with their data instead of their dollars. (Or Euro etc…I use dollar for the alliterative effect alone.) This is the Social Data Era. We live still for the most part in this era.
In this era we see three key principles which as you may now begin to imagine correlate to others in previous eras. They are as follows:
Three Word Takeaway: Many, Semi-Private, Semi-Secure
I’m being highly generous, too, with the notion of semi-private. In essence this is the era of public data. The progression of modern software has led into an era where the user has relinquished their potentially most valuable and yet misunderstood asset - their personal data.
The Personal Data Era
All of this leads us into what I believe is the most exciting era we’ve ever known. There’s certainly much required for us to fully realize this era and see the true value come from this time in modern software but the rewards are many. A veritable plethora of opportunity awaits us, a type of utopia where the user and the software company are both capable of finding success.
I’ve hinted at what this era holds in both previous topics as well as in the previous section in this post. The answer sounds simple but the progression to achieve it may be far more complex. The answer is personal data. Privately held data by the user with a true understanding of the value and worth of this data as it should be properly attributed. There are a few reasons why this next era in modern software progression may be seen as a difficult progression to be made. Allow me to articulate on them briefly here:
The User Learning Curve
Humans are sometimes a stubborn creature of habit. We form opinions or hold beliefs about things and then obstinately refuse to re-evaluate until we are obligated to do so by some external force. This is the situation we find ourselves in when considering the value and use of personal data. Although I would suggest recent developments, such as GDPR, have served well in encouraging this transition in our internal thought processes, there is still a long way to go before the awareness and realization of the true wealth found in personal data is recognized by society as a whole.
This learning curve is steep and fraught with difficult points. Items such as the continued availability of “free software” where software is void of fiscal cost yet provides powerful features and addictive appeal make this acknowledgement of the true cost difficult to reconcile. The user doesn’t want to sacrifice the supposed free dopamine delivery system for the sake of data. I think of this challenge similar to the detox treatment a drug addict must undergo when they desire to “get clean”. Users must begin to recognize they are paying with their digital lives each time they seek another “high”.
The Software Company Profitability
The second struggle which occurs when attempting to shift thinking into a new software era involves the software companies. These companies, as outlined in the previous section, have built their profitability models around the consumption of user’s data. They have employed every trick possible, some even dipping into “dark patterns” in their attempts to maximize data collection.
Interestingly enough the software companies have deemed the data to be the valuable asset to be collected while the user has dismissed the same. Ironically, the data is far more valuable to the user than it is to the software company! I know there will be some who would disagree with this point but rather than belabor the point in detail I’ll provide a very short explanation for my stance on the subject.
Software companies have long held data to be the pinnacle by which they measure their success and their profitability. They suggest the larger the dataset the better their ability to maximize a positive sales outcome. One need only look at the weak value provided by machine learning, the increasing troubles regarding signal vs noise and the concept of dirty data to see this perfect picture is marred with the practical reality of the situation.
My coup d'etat in this argument lies in the recent news shared by Google regarding their Alpha Go project. After many successful and increasingly intelligent implementations they have arrived at a software variant exponentially more powerful than every predecessor. And the most damning revelation to those data-whoremongers lies in this single revelatory discovery: The software performed at these superior levels with zero pre-defined datasets. The conclusion is simple, the data was not the key for the software company, the algorithm was the solution.
I find this a fascinating and beautiful twist of fate, the very thing first explored during the creation of software, the algorithm and functionality, has once again come back in this perfected modern software.
The Future of Personal Data
From here the conclusions are easy to draw. The writing on the wall is clear: when the data is owned by the user and used by the user they are able to leverage their personal data for their own wealth and success. The data is truly the means by which an individual can increase their worth. And this can be done without negatively impacting the software companies who now find their true value to be in the algorithm and software functionality. They are able to charge appropriately fiscally for access to their superior algorithms, processing capabilities and functionality.
How poetic that the same data which is now hoarded, unused, and inefficiently manipulated by the software company and neglected in value by the user is actually the perfect currency when the roles and positions are reversed. What a beautiful juxtaposition.
This journey in modern software progression doesn’t end here. There are definite outcomes and results from these findings which lend itself to identifying the means by which modern software progresses. The direct implications of this understanding lends directly to what the future of software looks like. Even more exciting, I believe this defines the future of our digital economy as well. And that idea is world-changing.