Friday, August 26, 2005

The chasm from Engelbart to Jobs and Gates

While reading John Markoff's excellent history of Silicon Valley's contributions to computing and the Internet, What the Dormouse Said, I was struck by the yawning chasm that separates Doug Engelbart's original vision of augmented collaboration from the notably personal computing visions elaborated by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Early on, Gates produced MS-DOS, a fragile little operating system that hardly worked unless you bought more software from other companies. Remember memory management? NetBIOS? Novell's Netware?

Jobs then took the highly networked visions created at Xerox PARC and somehow turned out a brilliant, but completely isolated little anthropomorphic machine. For some time, he didn't want it to have a hard drive, a network or a larger/color monitor. Sheesh.

Gates then copied that. A mere decade later. (Windows 3.1 doesn't really count; Windows 95 achieved parity, but only because the Mac OS had somehow become frozen in time.)

We're still stuck with the (my) desktop metaphor, and on top of that, with mere personal productivity applications. We ship one another bulky Word and PowerPoint files, praying the versions don't get mixed up in transit. Those documents are too large for collaboration, and their proprietary formats don't allow the linking and remixing needed for creativity.

Other people? Other places? They're over there, on the H: drive or in the "collaboration" application.

Why have these magical platforms neglected our social nature for so long? Why are these features still being glued on as afterthoughts, like antlers on a jackalope? Can't we loosen up, move things around a bit so that collaboration, annotation, search and linking are always at hand, for every object, as native functions of every window?

Doug had a fantastic vision, one he may have clung to too tightly as implementation details mounted (this Markoff's book points out well). But the social nature of work was implicit in the vision. That little essential bit got ignored.

Now, happily, social software is in. Doing things together is cool. Emergent crowd behavior gets oooohs and aaaaahs and some decent research funding. About time.

By the way, a similar cognitive gap opened when Marc Andreessen and his buddies at NCSA added images and other media capabilities to their Mosaic browser, but didn't implement the writeable side that Tim Berners-Lee had intended the Web to have. So the Web became something browsable, more like TV and magazines, rather than writable.

Wikis in particular are helping make the Web writable again, which makes me smile.

It really is time we rethink the computers we're using. They spend way too much time churning to do things we don't need them to do -- don't get me started on the many lovely DRM features being built into the next generation platforms -- and not enough just doing what we really need.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

More Monderman stories

I'd like to find more stories like Monderman's: situations where the removal of structure, rules or technology improves the situation. I'm collecting.

I can think of two others.

When he tells the story of the birth of the Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales describes the seven-step editorial process he and a professional researcher put in place for the original Nupedia. They were going to solicit articles from qualified experts, review them properly, then publish them. And 18 months later, they had only a handful of finished articles.

Then Wales heard about wikis, switched the platform, and removed the structure he had thought necessary. Participation shot up, articles began to pour in -- and their quality was great.

The other story is about Harrison Owen, who spent a year producing a technical conference with keynotes, panels, white papers and poster sessions, only to fall into a funk after it was over, when he realized that the coffee breaks had been more stimulating than the structured sessions. Taking that instinct seriously, Owen designed a conference format that self-organizes, called Open Space.

Open Space sometimes freaks people out a bit, because it trusts participants so much. What do you mean, you're running a conference and you haven't laid out who is going to say what? You haven't put the leading experts on a dais?

Strangely, it works. Sort of like my favorite line from Shakespeare in Love: "It's a mystery."

So I'm looking for more such stories. More cases where structure removed equals process improved. Please write me with suggestions. (and thanks!)

Rethinking traffic lights and structures

Wired recently ran an article -- Roads Gone Wild -- about Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer who has been doing something pretty radical with local roads. By thoughtfully removing traffic lights, signs and other affordances we take for granted, and by softening the distinction between road and sidewalk, or between pedestrian and vehicular paths through squares, he has improved traffic.

Drivers now slow down naturally, instead of ignoring the 25-mile-an-hour speed limit (ok, 40 kph); they make eye contact with other drivers and pedestrians, instead of blowing past them, sure of their rights-of-way. Accidents go down; flow doesn't get stopped up.

Monderman's thesis, which I love, seems to be that traffic signs make us less careful.

I'd love to reach Monderman to interview him, but Google isn't turning up any useful leads. Anyone know how to find him?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Rumors into reality: Google Talk rocks!

OK, so at midnight East Coast time I got a ping from Judith asking if I'd tried Google Talk yet. Of course, they'd blogged it already, so off I went to to install it.

It's such a small app that it installs and is running before you fully realize it. It feels lightweight, with an economical interface that includes brilliant multi-conversation windowing. Your conversations tile together vertically, with idle conversations folding small. I had six running concurrently and didn't feel overwhelmed. It's easy to see who's talking to you.

No bits wasted.

Another great touch: If you've populated your Gmail address book, it's insidiously easy to invite those people to Google Talk. I spent the evening watching some of those invitations turning into live users, then chatting with them. Very cool.

The voice feature is super simple and high quality. If I were Skype, I'd be plenty worried.

Well done, Google!

Now for multi-party chat and audio, audio recording and a few other goodies...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


At Cecily Sommers' PUSH conference in June, I debuted a talk that has been bouncing around in my head for a few years now. I called it "Outside-In," because in it I describe a half-dozen outsiders -- people whose ideas have affected the way I see the world (and act in it), but who have largely been marginalized in their different disciplines.

Since June, I've given the talk twice more, once as a performance-y piece mashed up with my software Brain at the Hillside Club here in Berkeley (thanks, Jeff and Sylvia!), then later in the week at Sun (thanks, Richard!), as a lunchtime provocateur.

It's a funny talk, in that I really enjoy the drama it builds, but explaining the point of the talk saps that drama. Not knowing the punchline makes it more engaging.

Some of the punchline is online (plot spoiler warning), because Ethan Zuckerman blogged my PUSH talk, and Chris Carfi blogged the Hillside version. I love what they wrote, and am working their recommendations in.

This is also a pretty negative talk for an optimistic guy like me. Stacy Kozakavich made a great recommendation: I should treat the first segment as an Act I, to be followed by others, forming a larger dramatic arc.

Now to piece those puzzle bits together.

If you'd like to hear the talk, I'd like to perform it. Please get in touch.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Back to public relationships, via Joho and Tim Bray

Recently, David Weinberger pointed to a Tim Bray post and elaborated on a theme he's been presenting for some time: companies need to stop thinking about public relations as the function that shelters the company and buffs its outward-facing veneer, and should instead think of that function as a way to build better public relationships. David describes the two kinds as Spinners and Connectors.

I couldn't agree more, and wrote a while back in a similar vein. David nicely posted a link to my post to his marvelous JOHO blog.

Several Connectors posted great comments to David's latter post. Would that all PR people thought like that.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Andrew, Luddite slayer -- sez Friedman

Andrew Rasiej breakfasted with Tom Friedman last week, a fact I noted wistfully (man, that'd be fun!), then forgot.

Well, when you wake up this morning, take a gander at Friedman's column, which tags Andrew as one of "a new generation of politicians" who gets it that "the world is moving to an Internet-based platform for commerce, education, innovation and entertainment. Wealth and productivity will go to those countries or companies that get more of their innovators, educators, students, workers and suppliers connected to this platform via computers, phones and P.D.A.s."

Not only that, but Friedman nicely captures an important piece of what's going on here:

Message: In U.S. politics, the party that most quickly absorbs the latest technology often dominates. F.D.R. dominated radio and the fireside chat; J.F.K., televised debates; Republicans, direct mail and then talk radio, and now Karl Rove's networked voter databases.

The technological model coming next - which Howard Dean accidentally uncovered but never fully developed - will revolve around the power of networks and blogging. The public official or candidate will no longer just be the one who talks to the many or tries to listen to the many. Rather, he or she will be a hub of connectivity for the many to work with the many - creating networks of public advocates to identify and solve problems and get behind politicians who get it.

It's about getting out of the way and helping people's energy converge, more than it's about being at the center and solving all the problems.

As background: I mentioned a little while ago that Andrew's campaigning for Public Advocate of New York City. Go, Andrew!

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