The Street Finds its Own Uses for the Law of Unintended Consequences

My latest article for the O’Reilly Network is up, all about the magnificent power of innovation.

Constraint is the enemy of innovation. Blocks (and high-tech blocks, like Legos) are the darlings of educators and child-development specialists because they encourage open-ended play (likewise, the profitable trend to license Lego kits is bemoaned by the same educators because it constrains children’s imaginations). Tamper-resistant seals and proprietary connectors discourage innovation through constraint.

The technological equivalent of the humble block is the Universal Turing Machine. Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, revolutionized computers with his realization that it was possible to replace all the special-purpose electronic computers of his day — one device for calculating one function, another to calculate another — with a single, meta-machine.

This Universal Machine — the foundation of the microprocessor in your watch, alarm clock, VCR, laptop and singing greeting card — is capable of performing any task that can be expressed mathematically. The Universal Machine ushered in an era of unprecedented innovation. It was the protean, primordial goo that was stretched and deformed and smooshed into every corner of human existence.

Turing’s Machine gave us an aesthetic of mutability. Our world is increasingly full of configurable artifacts. The Transmeta chip changes its computing characteristics in response to software instructions, software-defined radio opens the possibility of a single card that can emulate a cell phone, an 802.11b card, or a digital TV receiver. Nanotechnology promises a world of Utility Fogs and smart matter that dynamically reconfigures meatspace as we move through it, optimizing reality to suit our needs.

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