The ‘Mod’ Ecology and the ‘App’ Ecology

SPOILER: I talk about how mobile platforms make significant/deep creative construction of a shared communication space more different. I enthuse about grassroots technology. I define a ‘mod ecology’ of remaking (mobile) hardware and an ‘app ecology’ (should be obvious). If  you want to hear more or ask questions, please comment or come and see me at OKCon in Berlin on June 30.

Innovation and the Internet

What’s so significant about innovation on the internet? I’ve been thinking about grassroots tech development and hacker culture of various types for years.  Most recently, my thinking has been oriented around the extension of open-sourcing and hacker practice beyond software, to hardware and design.  All of this is making me consider why the internet is so signficant. I’ve concluded that it’s because of the very recursivity of the internet as a platform for making: when you work on the internet to find the solution to a coding problem related to the internet, this contributes to rebuilding the internet itself. A bit more broadly, this is the open-source philosophy, and the driver for FLOSS movements.  That’s where things start to get interesting.

Open innovation: community, creativity, crowdsourced R&D

The generalized principle of working together to rebuild a system that is helpful to its builders is also what drives community innovation and (to an extent) other grassroots technology projects. These are activites that emerge out of experiences in particular places (or social contexts) and allow people to be expressive using technology – in ways that solve local problems but that are also a lot of fun. Like community WiFi, for example.

Similarly, open hardware hacking and the emerging DIY market ecosystem expand the possiblity to use technology creatively, to work beyond the confines of the device as a commodity or product.  Media theorists like my colleague David Gauntlett (whose excellent book will be reviewed here soon) argue that there is a deep social need to do this – and in fact craft or making is at the heart of our humanity.  So, if the raw materials be wood, stone, or easily modifiable Linux software and solderable boards, we take apart and remake because that’s partly how we want to remake our world.  This is at the heart of the ‘mod ecology’ where people take on, take apart, put back together hardware.  As we move towards mobiles, and as less of our creative innovation is directed at making and remaking the internet platform, ‘modding’ mobile devices will be a bigger part of engaging with technology. But so far, it’s still supported by the internet.

The scale of the ‘mod ecology’ is far broader than local network-building, which is bounded by the physical and social contours of a particular place, but somewhat narrower than rebuilding the internet. Building a local network means getting all the bits to work together technically, but also socially.  You have to get permission to hang antennas, speak to the government, argue with the operators as well as communicate online.  Similarly, hanging out in a local hack lab does imply spending time with other people who share the same day-to-day scenery as you, but with whom you might want to share plans as well. The broader ecology, like the broader DIY movement, is solidified by videos and photos of projects being uploaded, and communities of practice (including both tech companies and individuals) who answer each other’s questions.  It’s all online, but still so far, not recursive in the same way as hacking the internet was imagined to be (by Chris Kelty, among others).

Modding hardware means breaking warranties.  It’s disruptive to the hardware industry –  but not necessarily only in a negative way.  Samsung recently delighted the modding community who have been developing CyanogenMod, a custom ROM for Android, by giving a free sample device to the head of the dev community.  This could be seen as a symbolic acknowledgement of the R&D that open-source communities create.

The ‘App Ecology’ – a shallow form of engagement

The ‘mod ecology’  can be an immersive, creative and collaborative endeavor – but needs high technical knowledge, social capital, financial capital, time and interest (like most other forms of open-source innovation). What if you don’t want to nullify your warranty or solder a circuit board?  Well, then make an app. It seems that this would solicit the same kind of creativity and innovation. But to what extent?

Open systems like the internet are fantastic for innovation. They are based on open standards and protocols, and have helped to support the kind of localized creation and innovation I discussed above. But our converged devices are much more likely to be built on closed protocols: thus the need for open ROM like CyanogenMOD.  And unlike making a local network from scratch,  or modding a device based on open plans available on the internet, building an app does not necessarily contribute to the stock of knowledge held in common. The SDK Terms and Conditions for the major app building platforms are based on Apache licenses rather than GPL, so if you read carefully you realize that the finished app is the property of Google or Apple.  Furthermore, as my colleague Tarleton Gillespie is investigating, if you’re submitting an Apple app, the company submits it to its internal vetting program – so no apps that might facilitate drunk driving, but equally no apps that Apple reckons go against its core values.

The desire to make and create is in all of us. I’ve been delighted to see how it’s flourished in the tech world, and how the internet has created a platform that can be modified and improved by the people who meet upon it and innovate it. I’ve also seen how innovating and remaking systems in local places has a similarly beneficial recursive effect as systems come to be built into the places they come from (although their value is most obvious to the people who build them). As we move increasingly towards mobiles, the possibility for this creativity seems more significant through the ‘mod ecology’ and much less through the ‘app ecology’. The implications of this trend towards more closed platforms and, paradoxically, more corporate involvement in orienting the direction of modding (in order to crowdsource some R&D) are unfortunate. I think they are pointing towards a more shallow form of creative making, one that means we don’t contribute to the platform we create on in the same way as the internet made possible.

Maybe you disagree. What do you think? Was the internet such an incredible exception that we can’t expect collective creativity to work the same in the mobile era? Or can we? Is there a future for open mobiles? And most importantly, will anyone buy me a beer in Berlin?