Kronos in the Bluesky

An alternative future of Twitter's Bluesky Project could lie in the history of magnetic recording tape. Let me try to explain.

In the early 1930's, Clarence Hickman, a Bell Labs engineer, was developing magnetic recording tape. This was what would be the underlying technology of answering machines, cassettes, video tape, and soon after the hard drives of computers. So what happened to this invention? Tim Wu explains in The Master Switch:

What's interesting is that Hickman's invention in the 1930's would not be “discovered” until the 1990's. For soon after Hickman had demonstrated his invention, AT&T ordered the Labs to cease all research into magnetic storage, and Hickman's research was suppressed and concealed for more than sixty years, coming to light only when the historian Mark Clark came across Hickman's laboratory notebook in the Bell archives.

Knowing the importance of the magnetic tape now, why did AT&T stop all research? Because, as Wu explains, they saw it as competition to the telephone:

More precisely, in Bell's imagination, the very knowledge that it was possible to record a conversation would “greatly restrict the use of the telephone,” with catastrophic consequences for its business [...] In sum, the very possibility of magnetic recording, it was feared, would “change the whole nature of telephone conversations” and “render the telephone much less satisfactory and useful in the vast majority of cases in which it is employed.”

Magnetic recording tape was thought to undermine AT&T's entire foundation as a business. No wonder its development had to be stopped dead in its tracks. So this makes me wonder about Bluesky, Twitter's attempt to create a decentralized protocol that the platform would adopt as the flagship client. On the surface, it's quite different than Bell's magnetic recording tape. Twitter has been quite public about it (Jack Dorsey and other Twitter execs publicly announcing the project and fielding questions/feedback) as AT&T were not. But that publicity is shrouded in vagueness. We don't know how far ahead the project is, let alone if it has left the vaporware stage of abstraction. This leaves one much to wonder about the future of this project. I can't help but think of an alternative timeline based on the principles of AT&T's decision to neuter the potential of Hickman's magnetic recording tape. Wu, again, sees this as the double-edged sword of centralized innovation:

[...] AT&T, as an innovator, bore a series genetic flaw: it could not originate technologies that might , by the remotest possibility, threaten the Bell system. In the language of innovation theory, the output of the Bell Labs was practically restricted to sustaining inventions; disruptive technologies, those that might even cast a shadow of uncertainty over the business model, were simply out of the question.

On the surface one can see, even on a minuscule level, how a decentralized protocol would undermine a centralized platform's business model. Of course that leads to speculation of Twitter pivoting from social infrastructure to algorithmic curation. But part of me cannot shake what Wu calls the Kronos Effect – a company devouring anything that could lead to its own usurpation, whether from internal or external sources. So an alternative reality of Bluesky could be that it stays permanently in vaporware limbo. If Bluesky becomes a reality in this alternative reality, it may just be a neutered version of the initial vision – something that safely reinforces Twitter's business model without the potential disruptive power a decentralized protocol would have in an open system.

Who know's what will happen, but if reading The Master Switch has taught me anything so far, it's that the Kronos effect can work in many ways and know no bounds.