I recently re-read What Screens Want by Frank Chimero. It’s an essay about the spirit and function of software in our lives.
In it, Chimero introduces this analogy that has stuck with me for a long time - that software is like plastic. More accurately - software has become ubiquitious in our daily life, in the same way plastics did in the 50’s and 60’s. I wanted to dig into and stretch that analogy.
From the History and Future of Plastics by the Science History Institute:
World War II necessitated a great expansion of the plastics industry in the United States, as industrial might proved as important to victory as military success. The need to preserve scarce natural resources made the production of synthetic alternatives a priority. Plastics provided those substitutes. Nylon, invented by Wallace Carothers in 1935 as a synthetic silk, was used during the war for parachutes, ropes, body armor, helmet liners, and more. Plexiglas provided an alternative to glass for aircraft windows. A Time magazine article noted that because of the war, “plastics have been turned to new uses and the adaptability of plastics demonstrated all over again.” During World War II plastic production in the United States increased by 300%.
The surge in plastic production continued after the war ended. After experiencing the Great Depression and then World War II, Americans were ready to spend again, and much of what they bought was made of plastic. According to author Susan Freinkel, “In product after product, market after market, plastics challenged traditional materials and won, taking the place of steel in cars, paper and glass in packaging, and wood in furniture.” The possibilities of plastics gave some observers an almost utopian vision of a future with abundant material wealth thanks to an inexpensive, safe, sanitary substance that could be shaped by humans to their every whim.
Plastic products started by mimicking their natural counterparts (e.g. wood grain, leather) - but soon products were created that could only be made in plastic. Early software created metaphors to mimic familiar objects.
Now software is something in it’s own right. The 4 biggest companies by market cap are all software companies. And software has now replaced so many products - ironically, many of them made of plastic.
But what happens next? What happens when software has eaten everything? There are a few questions swirling around in my head.
- What might that world look like? When software becomes a part of everything, it will probably become invisible. When plastic became everything, it also became nothing. It didn’t disappear - it just fell out of the limelight as a new technology that offered boundless potential. It just became a part of our everyday lives.
- Will we even recognize that software? Software is moving to a point where it’s becoming harder to decompose. AI is making it effectively impossible to understand how software does what it does. The future of software may just be interactions with AI models, making it out of reach for craftspeople to decompose and remix.
- Who will create it? Will software be made by many or the few? When plastic became popular, production consolidated to a few companies. Two of the biggest - Dow Chemical and DuPont, merged in 2017 and formed the largest plastics company in the world. The rise of 3D printing is bringing plastics manufacturing to the masses, but nowhere near the scale of industry. Software has always been available, and accessible to all to create, but power has also consolidated in the industry. The trend towards decentralization might change this.
- Will there ever be too much software? Plastic has become synonymous with consumer culture - excess and environmental damage. The victim is our physical environment. In the same way, software is becoming synonymous with attention-seeking and addictive behaviour - and the victim is our mental environment. The irony is both plastic and software might cause more harm to the very things it originally helped. Plastic started with promise - as a helpful substitute to natural materials - and is now the cause of so much natural destruction. Software started with a promise - as a bicycle for our minds - and could be the cause of a collective societal breakdown.
These are incomplete thoughts - and I’ll be revisiting them later.