Open-endedness and bedrock

I’ve been inspired and captivated by Gordon Brander’s exploration of open-ended systems, and was reminded of a concept that we developed a while back when working on the Web Platform: the bedrock. My old colleague and friend Alex Russel and I wrote and talked a bit about it back then, and it still seems useful in considering open-endedness.

Generally, the way I want to frame bedrock is as an impenetrable barrier, the boundary at the developer surface of a platform. It acts as the attenuator of capabilities: some are exposed to the developers (the consumers of the platform) and others are hidden beneath. In this sense, bedrock is a tool, whether intentional or not. When intentional, it is usually the means of preserving some value that becomes lost if fully exposed to developers, like the Web security model. When unintentional, it’s just where we decided to settle. For example, if I wanted to build my own developer surface that sits on top of multiple other platforms (see any cross-platform UI toolkit or — yes, the Web platform itself), the bedrock will likely be defined for me as the lowest common denominator of capabilities across these platforms — rather than something I intentionally choose.

Through this lens, the open-endedness of a system can be viewed as a degree to which the bedrock is used as the attenuation tool. When attenuation is minimal, both developers of the platform and consumers are likely working above the bedrock. As I write it, I reminisce of the early days of Firefox. Being written mostly in Javascript and easy to hack, tools like Greasemonkey sprouted from that fertile ground, with their own vibrant ecosystems. Sadly, the loss of value in the form of security vulnerabilities showed up pretty early and with that, the push to move some capabilities under the bedrock.

When the attenuation is high, the bedrock becomes a more pronounced developer boundary: on one side are the developers of the platform, and on the other are its consumers. Platform developers rarely venture outside of the bedrock and platform consumers treat the stuff beneath the bedrock as a mythical “thing that happens.” Ecosystems around platforms with high bedrock attenuation can still be thriving and produce beautiful outcomes, but their generative potential is limited by the attenuation. For example, there are tons of dazzling Chrome themes out there, yet the bedrock attenuation is so high (API is “supply pictures and colors”) that it’s unlikely that something entirely different can emerge on top of it.

Platforms that want to offer a more generative environment will tend to want to move capabilities in the other direction across the bedrock line, exposing more of them to the consumers of the developer surface. One thing to look out for here is whether the platform developers are coming along with these capabilities: do they mingle with the surface consumers, building on top of the same bits? If so, that would be a strong indicator that the bedrock attenuation is diminishing.

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