I spent a fascinating day on Monday as a guest at Twiliocon at the Inmarsat Centre on Old Street Roundabout. If you’re not familiar with Twilio, it’s a set of services that allow programmers to easily access telephony services – text messages, calling, conference calling and wotnot. It’s a clever set of APIs and they’re seeing some fascinating uses – both very business focused, and also some more in the arts (including the wonderful http://www.hellolamppost.co.uk/ project in Bristol).
The start of the day saw Twilio’s CEO Jeff Lawson give a keynote. As you would expect as such an event, with such a (developer-focused) audience, it was a big rah rah for the power of software. At one point, Jeff stated that “it’s the flexibility of software that defines our age”. I wonder whether, actually, it’s the ephemerality of software that will be looked back upon when historians try to understand this era.
On the face of it, we don’t make things to last any more. In built obsolescence is a crucial factor in much technology innovation, as anyone suffering iPad Air Envy this morning after yesterday’s announcements by Apple will know all too well. The flexibility of software makes it ephemeral like never before – agile methods means we never finish anything, everything is in a constant state of change.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t necessarily think that that is a bad thing. It’s just it doesn’t seem to be a very human thing, because we are creatures of habit who generally in our own little ways will resist change if we can. Change is hard work. Change is effort. And change that is out of our immediate control is stressful.
And here is the counterpoint to the idea that our times are ephemeral – the loudest round of applause during Jeff’s keynote was that Twilio now supports text messaging being delivered to mobile phone numbers. To explain that a bit – until now, if you wanted to use Twilio in the UK to provide a phone number that people could send SMS messages to, you would have to use a geographic number one beginning “01” or “02” (actually, technically beginning “1” or “2”, but the general population’s lack of understanding of phone numbers is a subject for another day). As of Jeff’s announcement, Twilio now supports “07” numbers – and that’s what got the applause.
Why? Well, it turns out that people in the UK have become accustomed to SMS messages being sent to and from mobile phones. Mobile phone numbers all begin “07”. So many people when asked to text to a number beginning “01” or “02” don’t like it because they don’t think it will work. We as a population have learned a common yet incorrect assumption about the technology we use.
So whilst the software might be flexible, the people using it aren’t so much. And software designers who ignore that point will find themselves making a mess of things because a “system” is the sum of the parts of the technology and the people using it. And the “best” technology might not necessarily create the best overall outcome when combined with the high specification biological computers called humans needed to make things work.