Laying down the law - relevant rules of engagement for today and beyond

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee February 7, 2023
The evolving nature of the 'laws' of the digital age explained, by Peter Coffee of Salesforce.


When people call something a 'law', it might describe a limitation; it might aspire to be a prediction. Either way, it’s supposed to be a statement of timeless truth – but as situations change, different 'laws' are important at different times.

If you’re on your way to Mars, the Law of Gravity is probably top of mind; if you’re still designing the rocket engine for the flight, you might be more concerned about the Laws of Thermodynamics.

The 'laws' of diginomics are likewise of changing importance – and if you’re still marveling at the sixty-year exponentiality of Moore, or betting your start-up’s business plan on the quadratic math of Metcalfe, you’re playing by the rules of previous decades’ games.

The laws that held the spotlight from the 1980s through the 2010s are now, increasingly, statements of context rather than drivers of disruption. I’d like to share here some laws that may be less familiar, but may be the more relevant rules of engagement for the rest of the 2020s.

A difference that makes a difference

Most people in our itty-bitty world can quote Moore’s Law, but most of them misquote it in the same way. The law is usually cited as predicting that computers will get faster and cheaper on exponential curves, but Intel co-founder Gordon Moore said nothing of the kind. Intel’s business was (and still is) putting ever-tinier transistors onto ever-more-complex chips, and all Moore said was that the number of transistors on an optimally priced integrated circuit would grow at a predictable rate of doubling – and yes, six decades of device-count redoubling have taken us from the novelty of pocket calculators to the supercomputing power of the latest Apple Silicon.

Do note, though, that when people talk about Apple’s new M-series chips, they rarely mention transistor counts (or register complements, or clock rates); they talk about memory architecture and capacity for data movement, because those have long since become the most limiting capacities for the tasks in which people notice inadequate speed. Moore’s Law remains an important enabler, but it is no longer the most important rising tide lifting digital boats. What matters is connection, often more so than computation, both on-chip and in the larger world.

Connection becomes controlling

Even before the turn of this 21st century, it was clear that getting work done—and creating value in networking of workers and machines—had become more likely to be limited by bandwidth than by clock speed or device count. Fortunately, even while people marveled throughout the 1980s and 1990s at their PCs’ 30% annualized growth rate of processor speed, bandwidth—on and off the desktop—was growing even more quickly. We experienced, and quickly took for granted, a data throughput growth rate of roughly 40% per year.

With fast connections soon becoming almost 24×7 available, almost everywhere, the most relevant law became Robert Metcalfe’s statement (or George Gilder’s, depending on your source) that the value of a network grows with the square of the number of participants. Consider a pivotal moment of the movie “The Social Network”: what’s the number that has the whole crew of Facebook cheering and applauding? “One million users!” The computational power of users’ devices was not the exciting thing: as Time magazine observed when it named Mark Zuckerberg as its Person of the Year in 2010, “earlier entrepreneurs looked at the Internet and saw a network of computers; Zuckerberg saw a network of people.” (Remember when Mark was considered a benevolent visionary? Don’t let what happened to him, happen to you.)

Magic for the masses?

As Facebook crossed its million-user threshold in 2004, with other mass-market digital experiences keeping pace, technology had to become discoverable and usable by what the digerati used to call “mere mortals” – so the leverage of laws changed again. Success would thenceforth demand acknowledging Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – and abiding by Barry Gehm’s less well-known corollary that “any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.” Users didn’t want command lines or exposed file systems: they wanted magic black glass, as the iPhone showed them they could have in 2007.

Collateral damage, though, of living in a world of magic is already becoming apparent, as college computer science professors now find students weak in fundamental “computer literacy.” As one educator shared with colleagues, “In spite of years of teaching this material, I am always surprised when a student cannot tell me what directory he or she is in, nor link the idea of a directory to some sort of metaphorical location. Our so-called techno-natives have real difficulties with this, since phones and taskbars hide directory structures almost entirely.” It’s possible to carry abstraction to a point where people can only know what others choose to show them. I’m not a fan.

Things got Strange

Moving into the 2010s, the maxims of Clarke and Gehm regarding smartphones needed the added warning of Dr. Stephen Strange (on a bigger screen) in 2016. I may be the first, here and now, to cite as 'Strange’s Law', that Marvel character’s statement that, “The warnings come after the spells.” 2010 showed us the need for that awareness with Stuxnet, a weaponization of malware, followed by notable failures of caution and prevention including the Sony PlayStation hack in 2011; the Target data breach in 2013; the Heartbleed vulnerability of 2014; the Ukraine power grid hack of 2015, and the Cambridge Analytica revelations of 2018 (when Mark Zuckerberg became less of an idol).

Next up, Hooton and Chapman

I’m not saying that the laws I’ve cited so far no longer hold – but rather, saying that they should no longer be considered transformative, any more than Newton’s Laws of Motion should be viewed as novel concepts of physics. Whether or not a person can state those three laws in formal terms, they’re a necessary (if often unconscious) context for safe and intentional movement in the real world. Ditto, in the digital world, the dicta of Moore, Metcalfe/Gilder, Clarke/Gehm, and Strange.

What’s needed now and next, though, are digital laws that can lead to greater confidence; less distraction; and more trust in the custody and handling of data, and in the fairness and transparency of the algorithms that increasingly manage our lives. I’ll end here, then, with the admonition credibly traceable back to engineer Gordon Hooton: “simplicate and add lightness.” At Lotus Cars, engineer Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman extended this with the comment, “Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”

Going into 2023, and perhaps for years to follow, we must expect that the cost of capital (nearly zero for most of the period from 2008 through 2021) will return to at least the fringes of the neighborhood that we used to consider normal; that anyone financing technology purchases, or launching startup companies, will consequently face stiffer headwinds of justification and higher bars of required return. Inspired by Hooton and Chapman, while not neglecting any of the lawgivers who got us from the 1980s to today, we’ll therefore do well to look toward “adding lightness” with more effective integrations and simplifications – with emphasis on agility, combined with information assurance, as our diginomic goals.

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