Malone's Fourth Law of Technology


At various times over the last three decades I’ve proposed – based upon having worked in, or reported upon, the high tech world for more than thirty years – one new law or another  to describe the forces at work in the modern world. 

It’s a natural human tendency to come up with some overarching rule that takes a bunch of largely inchoate experiences and gives them a simple coherence . . .whether it’s entirely true or not.  We are wired to like the surprise of seeing disorder suddenly have meaning, especially when the spin it gives is slightly sardonic.  It enables us to say, when something goes wrong, “Well, everybody knows that blah-blah-blah.”

The classic example of this is Murphy’s Law.  It’s not really a law, of course, but more like a talisman to protect us against bad luck.  “If anything can go wrong, it will” is just accurate enough as a description of daily life – making us chuckle ruefully even as we wince – that we keep it in our back pocket to pull out as needed to make the world a little less painful.

Murphy’s Law has, of course, provoked hundreds of imitators, from the Jelly-Side Down rule to arcane descriptions of recurring disasters in the far reaches of scientific research.

The technology world seems to provoke a lot of Murphy-like laws. One possible explanation is that the world of electronic engineers and code writers is so precise and so empirical, the belief so strong that you can precisely quantify ‘luck’ and failure rates, that when things do go haywire, when the program crashes or the device self-immolates, the only answer is to shrug and blame yet another pseudo-scientific law.  It beats admitting that the world is irrational, chaotic and awash with plain old bad luck.

Of course, there are some real Laws in high tech, from the chilly perfection of Maxwell’s equations down to the odd world of quantum mechanics.  And, of course, there are those two celebrated “Laws” to describe the behavior of high tech as it interacts with the world of human beings. 

The first, and most famous of these, is Moore’s Law of Semiconductors.  As I’ve written many times before, Moore’s Law is the single most important predictive tool in the modern world.  The pace it sets – the doubling of performance at the chip level every 24 months – defines the world we live in better than any demographic or other sociological measure.  Trillions of dollars have been made betting on Moore’s Law (including billions by Dr. Moore himself at Intel Corporation), while no one has ever won betting against it.  Meanwhile, all of us are likely to live under the regime of Moore’s Law for the rest of our lives.

Interestingly, Moore’s Law, as Gordon Moore himself has often reminded us, is not really a Law at all, but an implied contract between the semiconductor (and now the entire electronics) industry to keep pushing technology forward at that breakneck pace forever – or until it crashes into the limitations of physics.  And so far, so good.

The other, increasingly important law is Metcalfe’s Law of Networks, which states that the value of any network increases by some large factor with the addition of each new node.  Interesting, it is a real law, and the explosive growth of the Internet is its proof – the problem is that nobody seems to agree on what that ‘factor’ is.  Bob Metcalfe thought each new node doubled the value of the network.  Others who have followed have argued that it might not be that much.

So, of the two defining technology laws of the modern world, one is very accurate but isn’t a real law, and the other is a real law but nobody is sure what it says.  This could in fact be another example of Murphy’s Law.

My ‘Laws’ are neither very precise, nor very serious.  Yet, if you do a Google search you might be surprised how many times they are cited.   In listing them, I find myself looking back at the trajectory of my career and that of high tech itself over the last quarter-century.  Here they are:

Malone’s Law No. 1 – Whenever a company builds a new corporate headquarters, short the stock. 

This first one dates to the early Eighties when I was writing for newspapers.   It was provoked by the construction of Hewlett-Packard’s headquarters in Palo Alto.  What I noticed at the time, and which was confirmed over and over again in the years to come, was that whenever a company finally reaches the point that it needs a fancy new headquarters, it has usually lost track of the lean and mean style that made it a success in the first place.  And if that doesn’t do it, then the months company executives spend pouring over the design of the new facility, jockeying for the best offices and lobbying for an executive dining room, inevitably distracts them from the real job of making money.

Malone’s Law No. 2 – Any true technology revolution has its own underlying Law.

This one dates back to 1992, when I was covering high tech for business magazines.  The world was just catching on to Moore’s Law in those days and it became the big thing for companies to announce that they were the leaders of a tech revolution in their particular industries.  PR departments loved the world, as did ad agencies.  But the truth was that even in our day, true scientific, technological or business revolutions are pretty rare events.  You know when you’re in one – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the Internet revolution – because society itself is turned upside down.  And when that happens, you typically can identify some kind of engine – a Law – at the heart of that revolution setting the new pace.  Everything else is just fast (and often short-lived) growth.

 Malone’s Law No. 3 – Every technology breakthrough takes twice as long as we expected, and half as long as we are prepared for.

 I introduced this ‘law’ in my ABCNews column in 2003, right smack in the middle of one of the biggest consumer electronics booms ever – and have used it as clever explanation for just about everything ever since.  It has the nice characteristic of also being true:  every day we read about some new technology that supposed to show up at any moment – digital music, smart phones, handheld computers, digital television, nanotechnology, etc., etc. – but always seems to take forever to arrive.  And then, suddenly, one day it’s here, destroying entire industries, creating new companies and new tycoons, disrupting everyday life – and despite years of warnings, we always seem to be totally unprepared for it.

Okay, it’s now been six years since that last law.  What’s happened in the intervening years should be self-evident to everyone:  the rise of online social network, the so-called Web 2.0 – MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and hundreds more.  Everywhere you look in places like Silicon Valley, start-up teams are racing to create products – applications — not just for these communities, but even more (in the hundreds of thousands) for that defining Web 2.0 personal portal of our time, the Apple iPhone. 

It is the dream of every one of these teams that their product will take flight and become a world of its own, filled with millions of customers linked together in their own social network.  But the truth is that for nearly all of them – let’s say 99.99 percent – a dream is all that it will remain.  But that doesn’t keep them from pretending that they are a community, nor from deluding themselves that this is so.

Hence my latest law, designed to puncture some pretensions and provide a devastating comeback to anyone being pelted by a little too much Web 2.0 PR.  I came up with it while writing to a very promising new start-up.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I was helping Qik, a fast-growing service that enables people to port videos from their cell phones directly to the Web.  Qik was growing exponentially until it got blind-sided, like everyone else, by the Crash.  Still, it is testimony both to the company and the tenacity of its management that, against all odds, Qik just closed a new round of venture capital investment.  A few days ago, I wrote to congratulate the management team – and as an afterthought, added a P.S. with a warning.  I only realized later that it is my Fourth Law: 

 Malone’s Law No. 4 – Until you’re a community, you are only an app.

 Just because you call yourself a social network doesn’t mean you are one.  Building Web 2.0 communities is hard work, and it requires close-up dealings with your customers and learning their needs – not to mention continuous maintenance of the site.  If you aren’t doing that, you are just a tool.

I’m thinking about making t-shirts . . .