Friday, January 19, 2007

Technology and Crowds, or See, Here's the Gist

Snarkmarket's got a good discussion going about the iPhone. Well, it's not really about the iPhone; it's about Iraq. Or it might be about Alexander Hamilton, or Wikipedia. I'm not totally sure any more.

What it's really about is secrecy vs. openness, and the comparative appeal and danger of each. The iPhone was secret, ComputerWorld (convincingly, I think) argues it should have been secret longer, and despite some legitimate concerns and sad haters, looks totally awesome. This seems at least in part because it was designed in secret. As Robin Sloan says: "The iPhone was most definitely made by professionals. They were locked in a room. No one blogged."

iRaq, on the other hand (or as Matt Thompson calls it, "Desert W. Storm") was likewise cooked up in secret by a cabal of cooks, and it's a total disaster. And -- perhaps more tellingly -- many of us are troubled in principle by the idea of secrecy, even if the end result is something we would applaud. After all, even Mussolini claimed that he made the trains run on time.

Technology, I would argue, poses another problem, especially when it comes to design. We're pretty much willing to accept a certain amount of mystery when it comes to the production of art on the one hand and, in many cases, the workings of mechanical devices like cars or appliances on the other. But computers, and especially the information on computers, seems different. Information seems like it should be open to public scrutiny, or at least expert scrutiny. The greatest moral strength of open-source projects, whether they're encyclopedias or software, is that information is subject to review, critique, and revision. It's often their greatest practical strength as well, but I'd say its primary appeal is that it squares with our already-formed ideals as users about how information in general should work. I deliberately add "as users" because many people who produce or deal in information often think about this differently.

I was the first commentor on this thread at SM, but lots of other smarties have picked it up. (I secretly suspect Robin has edited his original post since I first commented on it -- I remember it being shorter and only slightly less awesome.) Since not everyone who reads Short Schrift also reads Snarkmarket, here's the gist of what I've already said about this topic over at that blog. I'll fill in some of the gaps with parenthetical commentary.

1. God, I'd have been willing to trade a little openness if the war in Iraq had been run monolithically and near-secretly but executed as well as an Apple product.

I'm serious. Not only was the war cooked up by some pretty misguided (and misguiding people), but the more you find out about it, the more it seems like an open-source project gone all wrong, dragged into too many directions by people with opposed goals, beliefs, principles.

Rumsfeld wants to win the war with a third of the troops; Bremer decides to dissolve the Iraqi army. The army can't decide (or figure out) whether it's on the way out or staying for good. Part of the government rushes to put Iraqis in charge of everything, while another wants to run the place like a colony and give all the jobs to Halliburton and Bechtel. Some misguided idealists decide to start the plumbing and oil infrastructure from scratch, bypassing the people who know the most about the system and blowing millions on software programs the Iraqis don't know how to use. I mean, the stories you hear are just crazy.

And now you hear people like Richard Perle or John McCain essentially arguing that if they war had been fought in their way -- if the software and the hardware had been designed to work together from the start -- then the situation would have been much better than it is today. I don't know whether that's true -- even if we'd gotten Colin Powell's war, or John Kerry's. (Both of which, paradoxically, involved bringing more people into the process.)

Maybe I'm confusing the transparency/secrecy distinction with a pluralistic/monolithic design scheme. There are plenty of hybrid forms. There's no reason why a group of people can't be secret about their activities even as their contradictions pull them apart, and no reason why a single designer can't be open and transparent about his/her actions, even while maintaining the unity of what's created. Likewise, a collective can be very restrictive on what end-users do with their product, and a single integrated design can allow for a lot more customization and alteration. It's all about what works, and to a certain extent about what you really value: efficiency, beauty, universality, a chance to contribute something yourself...

(Robin introduces a note about diffusion/unity, order/chaos, introduces the idea that what's important is leadership. Also note that Robin dropped the F-bomb in his original post -- that is, he quoted the Federalist papers.)

2. Come to think of it, Hamilton might be the perfect instantiation of a different model of transparency: the deliberative executive. For Hamilton, his best argument against executive-by-committee is that the ability to diffuse blame "tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility." (Fed 70) An executive needs to be able to explain what he thinks, the meaning of his actions, and to accept praise or blame for them. It might be a model of transparency more sympathetic to notions of noblesse oblige than say, the socialist hive mind -- but does that make it necessarily less transparent?

(Saheli says that I'm awesome, but gadgets, eh. I heart you too, Saheli.)

(Robin gives the example of Gmail as a especially well-executed form/function synthesis probably designed by a single user.)

(Howard distinguishes between great products and great experiences: Apple provides the latter even more so than the former.)

3. Gmail's a good example, because at least part of the success of Gmail has been in exceeding our expectations for what proprietary internet mail [can do]. This isn't just true in terms of storage and search, but also price and accessibility. The killer innovation of Gmail might be the fact that you can access your Gmail account from any mail reader, or forward your mail from the account for free (neither of which you could do w/most free web-based mail accounts). It's just that Gmail's interface is so perfect that the circumstances are rare in which you'd want to. If I could forward my Yahoo! mail to my Gmail account, I would never use my Yahoo mail again.

What we really want, I would say across the board, is for a single designer, or small group, to provide innovative and distinctive experiences and objects. Then we want the right to do whatever we want with them.

I think this last paragraph summarizes my position as well as I can state it. I would go further and argue that this is the position of most people whose idea of a sexy good time is not keeping people from knowing the history of the civil rights movement, drinking Mountain Dew while writing code for a killer disk management app, or preserving the virtue of the "Thundercats" entry on Wikipedia. (Virgo Intacta.) Am I wrong?


Robin said...

1. We need to update Snarkmarket's useless categories. You have a category called 'The Polis' and I am totally, totally jealous.

2. I most certainly did not edit my blog entry! I mean, it did change a bit in the first hour of being posted, but I consider that a fair grace period. Usually the first iterations of my posts contain at least one stupid line that, immediately after being seen for the first time in the harsh light of digital publication, is struck from the record.

Tim said...

I very well may have hit the entry right after you posted it. There are a few great lines that I think I would have remembered. Just to be clear, I applaud you for revising your posts: I'm a writing teacher now, so not only do I believe in making good writing even better, I have to believe that now. I just wanted to explain why it didn't seem like I addressed everything in your first post.

I don't think Snarkmarket's categories are useless at all. One of my favorites is "Braaaaiinnns." I have "Academia," which is a more apt tag for me, but not nearly so cool.

I hit on "the polis" as a shorthand way to categorize posts about politics AND posts about cities. I didn't think it would wind up being my largest category. I guess I talk about cities at least as much as I talk about Politics, and I talk about both more than I talk about anything else.