Building a bridge to the future

Facebook's Woodstock of mashups reminds us that tomorrow's infrastructure may well be born of today's youth

1:55 p.m. today. Landed at JFK, headed north on I-678. Sweltering. I turn on the radio and crank it -- hot Latin tunes followed by Michael Jackson. The East Coast urban edge comes flooding back. Guys playing basketball inside chain-link fence. Cars up on blocks. You can fry an egg on the sidewalk.

But the greatest thing is the infrastructure. The biggest legacy systems collection in the world. Huge bridges they don't even bother to keep painted. Massively parallel apartment buildings. Sleek, silver elevated trains cruising above concrete-and-steel jungles from the 1920s and '50s. A spaghetti of highways and rail yards and warehouses, then off in the distance, the shining, towering city it all exists for.

Infrastructure, let's face it, is beautiful. In all its messy glory, when you can see it, like you can in NYC, in temporal cross section, it rocks. It's what our fathers and grandfathers built (and some grandmothers, too), what they lived for, dreamed about, died for. I wish there was a better way to visualize the virtual infrastructure that wraps the world and everything we do in equal majesty, because it doesn't get the same respect. And it should. It's amazing … just invisible.

OK, IT infrastructure's got the permanence issue. Even the worst overpass hangs around for 50 years, whereas a complex, state-of-the-art app might outlive its usefulness in five. So how can you really be in awe of something that was originally coded overnight by some teenager, not built with hard hats and lunch pails, and lives lost?

I recently met such a teenager, a Web developer PHP coder wunderkind who's as adventurous as they come. He goes to the Web and grabs pre-fab tools such as CodeIgniter and SimplePie and Mint, puts them together with a MySQL database, and is off and running with a seemingly impossible Web app in a matter of hours. No VCs or legions of MBAs involved. He knows all his open source vendors personally (virtually), as well as quite a bit about business models and user interfaces.

This teenager told me last week that the coolest thing he'd done in a long time was attend a nighttime app dev fest for Facebook, the social networking site that has recently opened its platform to third-party developers. "It was amazing," he said, "all these supersmart young people crammed into a big room with their laptops, writing code. You wouldn't believe some of the apps people came up with."

What was the top app that emerged from this Woodstock of mashups? Apparently one that takes the bands you and your friends like, reminds you when they're playing locally, and suggests whom you might want to go see them with. The user load was presumably so heavy that Facebook had to bring in a truckload of new servers over the first week to keep up with demand.

What's my point here? It's that those same adventurous and masterful genes that built the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s and the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s are still alive and well, just working in a different medium. The Internet and its billion-plus users are their green field now, and though you won't see their masterpieces from an airplane, they'll be just as crucial to our futures.

If all this sounds too grandiose and obvious, go drive into a big city like New York on a hot shimmering day and think about the energy it really takes to build platforms and infrastructures that tens of millions of people will use for decades. Then, if you're in IT, think about how you can get some 17-year-olds involved in your business ASAP. I guarantee you, they're the ones who'll build the next most impressive pieces of the future.

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