The Digital World Remaking the Analog One

I got a taxi at Heathrow in the UK recently to go from one terminal to the other. I know, there are buses and trains, but it was late, I had my wife with a lot of luggage and I was worried the restaurant in the hotel would close before we managed another method of transport. As we were making our way over the driver noted there was a £5 charge to drop off at a terminal. That sounds silly, but I saw a billboard noting this and there is a link that this charge applies to almost all vehicles entering the airport terminal areas.

You might agree or disagree with the charge, or concern yourself with whether the airport authority or local government can (or should) add this as a little tax to those that drive to terminals. That isn’t my focus today. Instead, I thought this was a somewhat amazing, DevOps experiment of how the digital world is remaking the real, analog one.

Making this decision in the past would require a lot of infrastructure, some gates, people to man them or automated systems to take payment. In this new world there cameras needed, and software that must be built, but this can also re-use payments systems online and take advantage of computing power to assess this charge. The costs might even be lower as the government might absorb some of the camera cost and maintenance as a part of their security concerns.

Maybe more importantly, adjusting the charge or eliminating this is a decision and a small software or data change. We can remake the way the world works without much effort at all, similar to how we might remake the digital one when we change code. The world of software is only limited by the imagination of developers. That seems to be bleeding into the physical one.

I find more and more places where software is changing and affecting the physical world. We saw digital menus replace physical ones during the pandemic. While some places have returned to physical ones, others have used hardware tablets to not only present menus, but take orders and payment. In a recent trip to the UK, many places allow complete self service where a patron enters a table number and someone brings their order without any other interaction. I don’t know I think this is better, but it is changing the way the physical world works.

It’s not just payments and charges, but there are more and more places where software helps manage traffic flows (people or vehicles) without infrastructure. Just directions that people follow, and perhaps get fined when they don’t. I see live translations of text changing the need for producing signage in multiple languages.

There are plenty of examples, especially as AI/ML systems can help adjust our interactions in the physical world with less hands-on coding from human developers. Something that becomes more important as we are struggling to find developer talent in the modern world.

Whether you like this or not, the world is changing. We might not like it, and we might try to convince others to build software we prefer, but we will be interacting with software more in ways that change how we interact with the physical world.

Steve Jones

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