Welcome to the Darwinian Disco

I was down among the hairies and the smooths in Brighton today, at Ivan’s Widgety Goodness. I was test marketing my new catchphrase: ‘the Darwinian disco’. It went over large and I expect a book deal within the month. Anyway, a few people (well, two), asked for the words I read out, so here they are, more or less.

The term ‘widget’ stands for the output of the industrial-era manufacturing economy. It’s about uniformity and flawless repetition: Ford and Sloan and mass production. It comes in any colour so long as it’s black.

‘Widget’ in the networked era stands for something different.

I’m going to characterise the first wave of the web – the first ten years or so – as the Newtonian period. Let’s call it the ‘Newtonian Nexus’. An era of massive software entities: web sites and applications, floating in a space uniform in all directions, doing their predictable gravitational thing.

Widgets usher in a new era and a new kind of web. It’s not Newtonian: it’s Darwinian. Let’s call the post-widget web the ‘Darwinian Disco’, a more chaotic, less predictable environment: more like a forest ecology than the vacuum of space. Hot, not cold. Lumpy, not uniform. Frenetic, not static (look: it’s a long time since I went to a disco, OK?).

Web sites (those Newtonian objects) are pretty easy to understand because they usually reproduce the structures and processes of their parents: the businesses that built them. Home pages map neatly onto brands and business units: tabs to departments, pages to products.

Widgets are harder to interpret. They don’t helpfully duplicate the businesses that built them. They’re creatures of the undergrowth and the canopy. Species of widget will probably bloom (like bacteria or algae) and then crash spectacularly.

At the Darwinian Disco (catchy isn’t it?), we’ll see clouds of these things, dumped into the environment like chaff: shiny and temporary. Helpful or playful. We’ll see some businesses whose only visible expression is an shimmering mesh of widgets.

Widgets will be optimised to return value to their owners from wherever they run. They’re just code, after all, so if you can think it, you can build it and it will find its home at the Darwinian Disco.

Also, here’s a story I wrote for Marketing Week back in the Summer on a similar topic: a bit more about the contrast between the industrial-era and network-era definitions of ‘widget’.

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eBay widgetised

I’m sitting with Jonathan Gabbai from eBay at Olympia and he’s just told me about eBay To Go, which is a pretty nifty way of embedding practically any eBay object in a web page. That’s what I call widgetisation.

Jonathan’s telling me that this is a great way to expose the company’s API to users who may not know what an API is. It’s an example of a business making use of its own API to package services for partners. The widgets are a bit wide for your sidebar right now but will work fine in a blog entry. Jonathan reckons there’ll be a more flexible version along soon. Can’t wait.

I’ve chosen to embed a search term (‘Nikkor’) but you can embed individual auctions and you can even specify a fall-back for when the auction expires (after 3 months). I expect a wave of blogs featuring stuff that’s happening at eBay right now, especially once users can earn an affiliate’s commission for carrying the widget (which is also coming, Jonathan says). People will ‘curate’ eBay in much the same way we’re ‘curating’ Radio 4 over at Speechification.

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Defining ‘widget’

Widget: an American word, a potent metaphor from another era. Widgets are those nameless mechanical devices used in stories and undergraduate text books to stand for the output of equally nameless old-fashioned factories. In this definition, a widget is a complex item, made from multiple smaller parts, with an undefined function, itself part of a larger manufactured thing. A widget is not the final product, nor is it the raw material. It’s something in between.

The widget is the fundamental unit of industrial-era economics. It’s a symbol for the wonders of mass production. It’s a word that conjures up images of mighty factories, smokestacks and warehouses stacked to the horizon with identical manufactured items. ‘Widget’ stands for the epic physicality of industrial production, for flawless repetition and for uniformity of demand.

It stands also for the value added in manufacture: the work done to turn raw materials into parts and parts into a finished widget is capitalism’s primary process. The word is as old as mass production itself. It’s a sepia-toned word from the era of the Model-T and it comes in any colour you like so long as it’s black. Incidentally, modern industrial marketing – a set of disciplines evolved by men of the machine age, men who were the servants of mass production’s inventors Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan – was made to shift widgets.

And it’s a durable image. It’s jumped neatly into the vocabulary of the new economy where it’s become symbolic of different forces: the atomisation of business processes and applications. Not the repetitive logic of mass production but the exploded, distributed logic of the networked economy.

Widgets, in this new world, are still manufactured things (people still make them) but they’re not physical things any more: they’re proper post-industrial objects: nothing more than lines of text, slugs of code that call other slugs of code. They’re tiny pieces of software, mini-programs that you can velcro into your blog or onto your computer’s desktop.

They have limited, well-defined functions: like displaying photographs from your flickr account or fetching the latest forecast from Accuweather but there’s no real limit to the richness and usefulness of a widget: if it can be coded, it can be delivered in a widget.

Software, whose evolution to date has been all about, well, size, is exploding into a million tiny pieces. Application functionality is being subdivided and distributed around the network. It’s a kind of software devolution: functions will execute where they’re needed instead of where they happen to have been written.

Much of this is driven by the geek passion for efficiency and reuse, for driving wasteful duplication out of the system. In this they’re like those widgets from the industrial era: they’re about making the best use of resources, squeezing the maximum value from your assets. Out of this trend will grow an economy.

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