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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