Life Online: The Biology Is Different

[Editor’s note: In a world where tags like “visionary” and “big thinker” get tossed around too frequently, J.P. Rangaswami is the real deal. He’s a fantastic storyteller and has lived an incredibly adventurous life. Trained as an economist, J.P. has been CIO of an investment bank in London and has won acclaim as one of the most forward-thinking and influential people in tech. He lives in London and is now the chief scientist at Salesforce.com. His blog, Confused of Calcutta, should be on every techie’s reading list, along with his feed on Twitter, where he is @jobsworth. I’m thrilled that J.P. has agreed to write articles for ReadWrite. This piece, his first for us, leaps from a description of buying tickets online to a meditation about the billions of previously disenfranchised people who soon will come online. J.P. promises to explore these ideas in future articles. I cannot wait. - Dan Lyons]


I woke up early this morning; I tend to wake up early most mornings, but today was special. I knew I had to get ready to do something important, something very important. Something many people would find hard to understand.

Cricket. I planned to go and queue for tickets for the Saturday and Sunday of the fifth and final “Ashes” Test between England and Australia, to be played at the Oval on August 24th and 25th 2013. Because that’s the kind of person I am.

Not just the kind of person who looks forward to spending a couple of days watching 22 men in white (or “flannelled fools,” as George Bernard Shaw called them) amble around, the occasional sound of willow on leather rudely disturbing the reverie of moustachioed majors as they snored gently into their tea and crumpets. But the kind of person who enjoys actually going to see stuff “live”: plays, concerts, musicals, opera, and sport. In all shapes and sizes.

So I woke up, got ready, made sure I had my membership details and credit card with me, and went along to buy my ticket. Queued patiently as they started serving bang on time. Waited my turn. Bought the tickets I wanted.

It was altogether a thoroughly satisfying experience. I was warm and dry throughout; there was plenty of decent food and drink on offer; the environment was peaceful and comfortable, the company friendly and worthwhile, no noise, no crowds. They even had a notice telling me how the queue was progressing.

I was at home.

While I queued, I was greeted with a notice that the website was experiencing high demand, and that I'd been placed in a queue where "the flow of members accessing the site is monitored and adjusted accordingly depending on the number looking to purchase at any one time." There was an estimate of how long I would have to wait before entering the site.

Speeding Up Evolution

Even though I’ve bought tickets online many times, I felt a real sense of wonder at how technology had improved the whole process. I was particularly taken with how the size of the “waiting room” could be adjusted to reflect the number of people “queueing” in the room. Kevin Kelly, in What Technology Wants, suggests that we should look at technology as a means of speeding up evolution. In similar fashion, whenever I look at a digital process, I am particularly interested in how it improves on the analog. (And that is why I detest “region coding” on DVDs and games, where technology was used to pave cowpaths rather than build roads.)

The “physics” of the digital world is different from that of the physical world. I remember Richard Bartle making this point very elegantly in October 2005, in a comment on Terra Nova:

“Virtual space is not like real space, and the users of both have different criteria by which they judge it a success. People want to feel they’re in the world, and that means the architecture has to be faithful to genre. Exciting new architecture is possible, but if it intrudes then it must do so for a reason. I expect it will be a long while before the architecture award goes to a building in a contextualised (ie. game-like) world, rather than a less themeful one such as SL.

“Also, because each virtual world is physically different, architecture that is successful in one may not be successful in another. Does the virtual world need staircases? Does it require structures to self-support under gravity? Are there materials that you can see through from one side but not the other? How about materials that change what they look like depending on who’s looking at them? What’s possible in one virtual world may not be possible in another - unlike the real world, they don’t all use the same physics.”

When The Constraints Of The Physical World Are Removed

What Bartle spoke about is what excited me about digital infrastructure in general and virtual worlds in particular. The idea that people who were otherwise constrained from movement or speech or action could have those constraints removed made my heart sing. The possibility that ubiquitous affordable access to connectivity, computing power and storage could soon become a reality fascinated me. The implication that billions of disenfranchised people could have their lives transformed, particularly when it came to health, education, welfare, filled me with glee.

So I was very taken with this “physics is different” idea ever since I came across it. This, despite the fact that digital landscapes and virtual worlds tended to attract a lot of criticism, particularly of the “people who are in Second Life don’t have a First Life” class.

That was over seven years ago. Since then, I’ve spent considerable time observing, and participating in, social networks of one form or another, in business as well as in society in general. Over time, some themes became more important to me than others. One particular theme, that of how trust could scale, not just scale but scale at speed, has intrigued me deeply.

When it comes to the physical world, biology plays a key role in how we trust, both in nature as well as speed. The “biology” of the digital world is different; over the next few posts, I plan to look at how this affects us, in our personal lives as well as in our professional ones. I am particularly interested in identifying, understanding and sharing with you the class of person who was disenfranchised in the physical world, and who is now empowered to trust and to be trusted, reliably and at speed, in the digital world.

And I’m looking forward to learning from the dialogues that ensue.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.