Trickle‐down technology and why it doesn’t work.

Just as the unprecedented global wealth gap between the super rich and everyone else proves that trickle‐down economics doesn’t work, the glaring lack of open source adoption in the consumer space indicates that trickle‐down technology isn’t working either. (7 minute read.)

Raindrops on a leaf. Photo by Mark Vegas.
It doesn’t always trickle down.
Photo courtesy of Mark Vegas.

Trickle‐down economics

In economics, there is a theory espoused by conservatives called ‘trickle down economics’1. It is the belief that if we give incentives to the wealthy to get even richer, the additional wealth they accrue will trickle down to the poorer members of society and improve the economy as a whole.

Does trickle down economics work? Given that 1% of America has 40% of the nation’s wealth, the answer is no, it doesn’t. A system focused on meeting the needs of a certain demographic usually ends up meeting only the needs of that demographic.

What does this have to do with technology?

In technology, some of us share a similar philosophy to trickle‐down economics. We believe that when a technically‐savvy elite of enthusiasts build tools and technologies for themselves, that technology will eventually trickle down and help less technically‐savvy members of society.

I call this the ‘trickle‐down technology’ theory.

And, just like trickle‐down economics, it doesn’t work.

Trickle‐down technology

We cannot create solutions for enthusiasts and magically expect them to also fit the needs of consumers.

Just like trickle‐down economics, trickle‐down technology expects a system of production that is focused on meeting the needs of a certain demographic to also magically end up meeting the needs of a very different demographic. So we expect products created by enthusiasts (who we lazily and colloquially refer to as ‘geeks’ or who I like to call ‘über geeks’) to also eventually meet the needs of consumers (in other words, regular people; or as Steve Jobs used to call them, ‘mere mortals’).

While I will not deny that geeks solving their own problems has resulted in great advances (see, for example, a little thing called the Internet), I believe it is naive to expect solutions created by enthusiasts for enthusiasts to also work for consumers. These are two very different demographics with very different levels of knowledge, and perhaps more importantly, very different goals in their uses of technology.

Enthusiasts love to tinker. The harder a piece of technology is to use, the bigger the challenge. It’s a puzzle, a game. The technology itself is usually the means as well as the ends.

Consumers, on the other hand, rarely care about the technology itself but focus instead on what the technology enables them to achieve.2

The important point, however, is this: We cannot create solutions for enthusiasts and magically expect them to also fit the needs of consumers. Experimentation by enthusiasts is of great value and usually results in the creation of great infrastructure. However, we also need people and companies focused on meeting the needs of consumers. These people are easy to find in the world of closed technologies and are, unfortunately, currently a rare species in the world of open source.

The value of enthusiasts

It is normal for problems in the area of technology to be identified by enthusiasts who live and breathe technology and for the first solutions to those problems to be created by enthusiasts who are, in effect, scratching their own itches. The issue of privacy and ownership of data and the means of production, manipulation, and transmission of data, for example, were important problems that were repeatedly tackled in the technology community decades before the Snowden leaks made them topics of household conversation.

Richard Stallman launched the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, for example, in the early 80s to try and safeguard our digital freedoms. In the thirty‐odd years since, both have produced a plethora of solutions that meet just those needs. For enthusiasts. They have created a wealth of important products that make the world a more open and freer place and yet have had almost no adoption whatsoever in the consumer space. How many non‐enthusiasts do you know who use Linux (and who don’t live with an enthusiast who set it up for them and fixes it for them when something goes wrong?) How many non‐enthusiasts do you know that manage their own PGP keys and communicate via encrypted email? How many non‐enthusiasts do you know that run their own web servers and have the knowledge to sign in to web sites using IndieAuth?

These are all real problems that trickle‐down technology does not solve.

Beyond trickle‐down technology: evolving solutions with Experience-driven Open Source

I have already written about how we need to create a new category of technology: Experience‐driven Open Source (XO) using development processes that are led by design and driven by the goal of producing open products that compete successfully in the consumer market. This category of technology needs to exist if open products are to achieve mainstream adoption. And it is essential that open products achieve mainstream adoption if we want to live in a world where we own our own data, tools, and derived intelligence — what I call our digital selves — and avoid becoming a society of digital serfs.

IndieWebCamp and Indie Data

Just as there has been with the GNU project for decades, and in the open source community for about a decade less, there is currently great work being done by enthusiasts for enthusiasts in the IndieWebCamp initiative to tackle the problem of owning your own data. The work being done there is creating both solutions that enthusiasts can use today as well as some valuable infrastructure that can be built upon to create consumer solutions for tomorrow. However, just as with the GNU project, and with free software and open source in general, we cannot magically expect the solutions created there to trickle‐down to consumers without a persistent focus on meeting the needs of consumers. This is why we need a separate, complimentary initiative, with the central objective of meeting the needs of consumers.

That initiative is Indie Data.

We will, of course, work alongside our IndieWebCamp friends and support the IndieWebCamp initiative3 and yet our focus is squarely on fostering the development of consumer solutions and carving out a hitherto non‐existent category of technology (experience‐driven open source) with the goal of empowering regular people to own their digital selves.


1 The economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted that ‘trickle-down economics’ is what an older and less elegant generation called the horse-and-sparrow theory: ‘If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.’ (Source: Wikipedia: Trickle‐down economics)

2 Needless to say, enthusiasts and consumers are not necessarily mutually exclusive demographics. We can also view them as modes that people subscribe to at different times. Even if you are a technically‐savvy hardware hacker or programmer, for example, you may be an enthusiast when playing with your Raspberry Pi and a consumer when you just want to talk to your boyfriend over FaceTime.

3 I am helping organise IndieWebCamp UK on September 7/8, 2013, and sponsoring the venue as part of my upcoming Lighthouse residency. Sign up on the Wiki to attend (unfortunately, you need to be an enthusiast to figure out how to sign up via IndieAuth or ask an enthusiast for help). I am also holding a screening of the film Terms and Conditions May Apply on the first day (September 7th) at 4PM with a discussion afterwards. You may sign up for that separately (no technical knowledge required).

Further reading