Old Stack, New Stack: Opportunities and Threats

Musing on a piece I saw the other day by Venkatesh Rao, wherein he postulates that the Covid pandemic has forcibly, unexpectedly and violently shifted humanity off (what Rao terms) the Old Tech Stack onto the New Tech Stack, with all due caveats about the lack of testing, the inadequacies and dubious scalability of some bits of the New Stack. I mostly-agree with his characterisation of the discontinuity, and this is an attempt to divine within it the opportunities and threats than come along with any disaster. It’s half-baked thinking, so don’t read it as Finished Goods, rather an attempt to start some conversation.

The New Stack — with which I am more familiar than most (perhaps too familiar) — is quite significantly underbuilt. Whether we’re thinking of missing bits of functionality, whether we think of bits that should work a lot better, whether we think about scalability or deployment or whatever,.. it still needs quite a lot of work. Therein lies a whole bunch of opportunity.

My Inner Philosopher would like to think about that, write about it, finds it a source of interest and amusement. My Outer Financial Manager wants to make some money out of it. That latter is more urgent.

So where? Where do/will those money opportunities lie? Hard to say. I think Rao gives us a clue when he writes, “Full rollback is impossible, but we’ll do a lot of local, partial rollbacks/reverts to the old stack while we fix this in production.

As the lockdowns get eased and lifted there will be lots and lots of effort and energy expended in getting back to the way things were before. A hell of a lot of money is being lined up to throw at just that problem. That’s not the interesting bit. The interesting/informative bit will be watching where and how effort is expended in coming months and years in trying to go back to The Way Things Were. Those, it seems to me, will be the most fertile places to look for improvements to the New Stack. Where the New Stack works well — or well enough for now — people are less likely to want to return to the Old Stack. Even if some parts of society do try a Return To Normal, it’s difficult. How much energy/money do you want to spend on returning the way things work to something when it’s already been replaced, superceded by something that works quite well, perhaps even better than the old way. For example, WFH: For many people in information-processing jobs (i.e. much of what goes on in First World economies) working from home is a significant improvement over the way things were before Covid-19 came along. At the very least everybody has recovered a couple of hours a day in no-longer-necessary commute. More usefully, many of them are finding (and their bosses are finding!) that they can complete the real work in far less time than they could in an office. (Reasons left to the reader as obvious.) Why would you want to return to an office? And everybody wins. The employer can now think about offloading a bundle of cost-of-office-space expense, a very small amount of which can then be redirected to providing better tooling/infra to their home-based workforce. Profit!

So in several places there’s no real reason or incentive to “go back to how we did things before”.

But in other places, it’s pretty compelling. Any industry where peoples’ physical presence is absolutely required. Most manufacturing, for example. Customer-service (the front-desk folk at McDonald’s). Harvesting vegetables.

Look for medium-to-longer term effort to automate those jobs.

What else?

  • A shedload of “government work” — the issuing/renewal of licenses and permits, due diligence, inspections, compliance monitoring, enforcement.
  • Personal care work. Care-givers, home-nursing, personal grooming, home- and garden-maintenance. Not sure where or how the New Stack can help in that space.

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. –William Gibson

The point is: Nobody can see/foresee all those “attempts to return to Eden”, but,.. Keep watching. It is that very effort itself that will flag the opportunities, that will stake out the territory where the New Stack is not measuring up to the New Demand. And remember that the gaps, the opportunities, may not be in the missing functionality. It may well be in the usability/slickness of already-implemented functionality. It may be in the scalability of the new ways of doing stuff. Or the robustness, or accessibility/global-patchiness.

Another signpost to watch: Look in the margins, on the fringes, for the stuff where even a shitty solution would be an improvement for some people (not necessarily everybody, or even a lot of bodies). Peer into the shadows, the liminal spaces, the transition zones.

Obvious gaps:

  • Online platforms to support education and learner-collaboration. The current offerings are dismal.
  • Local manufacture/3-D printing. Composite/Multi-material seems an obvious gap right now. (I might be wrong/ignorant.)
  • Hyperlocal/neighbourhood collab/facilitation.
  • Last-mile everything. (And, no, delivery drones are not a generally-useful answer in any foreseeable near-future.)

What have I missed?