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Thursday, November 18, 2004Adam Bosworth at his best in the address that he made at the ICSOC04 . The theme was essentially a reminder to a group of very smart people that their intelligence should be used to accomodate really simple user and programmer models, not to build really complex ones. Excerpts from this wonderful address:
KISS -keeping it simple and sloppy and its effect on computing on the internet is the need of the day. There is an eternal tension between that part of humanity which celebrates our diversity, imperfectability, and faults, as part of the rich tapestry of the human condition and that part which seeks to perfect itself, to control, to build complex codes and rules for conduct which if zealously adhered to, guarantee an orderly process. It is an ironic truth that those who seek to create systems which most assume the perfectibility of humans end up building the systems which are most soul destroying and most rigid, systems that rot from within until like great creaking rotten oak trees they collapse on top of themselves leaving a sour smell and decay. Conversely, those systems which best take into account the complex, frail, brilliance of human nature and build in flexibility, checks and balances, and tolerance tend to survive beyond all hopes. That software which is flexible, simple, sloppy, tolerant, and altogether forgiving of human foibles and weaknesses turns out to be actually the most steel cored, able to survive and grow while that software which is demanding, abstract, rich but systematized, turns out to collapse in on itself in a slow and grim implosion.
Eg: - Spreadsheets : Consider the spreadsheet. It is a protean, sloppy, plastic, flexible medium that is, ironically, the despair of all accountants and auditors because it is virtually impossible to reliably understand a truly complex and rich spreadsheet. Lotus built Improv "to fix all this". It was an auditors dream. It provided rarified heights of abstraction, formalisms for rows and columns, and in short was truly comprehensible. It failed utterly, not because it failed in its ambitions but because it succeeded.
Eg: - Search : This started with complex screens for entering search criteria and their ability to handle Boolean logic. Access had the seemingly easier Query by Example. Yet, today half a billion people search every day free text search. The engineering is hard, but the user model is simple and sloppy.
Example -User interface. When HTML first came out it was unbelievably sloppy and forgiving, permissive and ambiguous - Microsoft Office people said in 1995that HTML would never succeed because it was so primitive .HTML is today the basic building block for huge swathes of human information.
Eg: - XML This faced similar criticisms - slowly, but surely, we have seen the other older systems, collapse, crumple, and descend towards irrelevance. Two diametrically opposed tendencies in the model for exchanging information between programs today: On the one hand we have RSS 2.0 or Atom. The documents that are based on these formats are growing like a bay weed. Nobody really cares which one is used because they are largely interoperable. Both are essentially lists of links to content with interesting associated metadata. Both enable a model for capturing reputation, filtering, stand-off annotation, and so on. There was an abortive attempt to impose a rich abstract analytic formality on this community under the aegis of RDF and RSS 1.0. It failed. Instead RSS 2.0 and Atom have prevailed and are used these days to put together talk shows and play lists (podcasting) photo albums (Flickr), schedules for events, lists of interesting content, news, shopping specials, and so on. There is a killer app for it, Blogreaders/RSS Viewers. Anyone can play. It is becoming the easy sloppy lingua franca by which information flows over the web. On the one hand we have Blogs and Photo Albums and Event Schedules and Favorites and Ratings and News Feeds. On the other we have CRM and ERP and BPO and all sorts of enterprise oriented 3 letter acronyms.As I said earlier, I remember listening many years ago to someone saying contemptuously that HTML would never succeed because it was so primitive. It succeeded, of course, precisely because it was so primitive. Today, I listen to the same people at the same companies say that XML over HTTP can never succeed because it is so primitive. Only with SOAP and SCHEMA and so on can it succeed. But the real magic in XML is that it is self-describing.
Eg:- RSS :RSS embodies a very simple proposition, namely that every piece of content can be addressed by a URL. In the language of RSS we call these “PermaLinks”. This idea has profound value. one of the values of being able to reference every element is that now comments about elements can be distributed over the web. The web becomes something like a giant room in which people comment on other people’s thought via posts in their own Web Logs. In so doing they put their reputation on the line. These are hardly cheap and anonymous posts. They take up real estate in a place that is associated with your own point of view and reputation. And thus the comments tend to be measured, thoughtful, and judicious.
On Web 2.0:- Many seem to assume that the “second” web will be about rich intelligent clients who share information across the web and deal with richer media (photos, sound, video). There is no doubt that this is happening. Whether it is Skype or our product Hello, or iTunes, people are increasingly plugging into the web as a way to collaborate and share media. You want to see the future. Don’t look at Longhorn. Look at Slashdot. 500,000 nerds coming together everyday just to manage information overload. Look at BlogLines. What will be the big enabler? Will it be Attention.XML as Steve Gillmor and Dave Sifry hope? Or something else less formal and more organic? It doesn’t matter. I find this deeply satisfying. It says that in the end the value is in our humanity, our diversity, our complexity, and our ability to learn to collaborate. It says that it is the human side, the flexible side, the organic side of the Web that is going to be important and not the dry and analytic and taxonomical side, not the systematized and rigid and stratified side that will matter. In the end, I am profoundly encouraged and hopeful that the growth on the web is one which is slowly improving the civility and tenor of discourse.
Adam's conclusion is wonderful : -“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible”. I encourage all of you to act your dreams with open eyes. I encourage all of you to dream of an internet that enables people to work together, to communicate, to collaborate, and to discover. I encourage all of you to remember, that in the long run, we are all human and, as you add value, add it in ways that are simple, flexible, sloppy, and, in the end, everything that the Platonists in you abhor. Indeed, a powerful,insighful and well thought out address by Adam Bosworth.
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