The Real Paul Jones

Accept no substitutes

NCSU CSC talk script draft

Paul, · Categories: General

W00t! W00t! is the Merriam-Webster’s top new word of 2007. Like it or not what we have been shouting by way of typing while playing video games, chatting or posting on our friends’ walls is now part of standard American English.

Computing culture has become more and more mainstream and accepted. How did this happen? Here’s one personal tale.

In 1991, we had been working on distributed searching and got some email from a researcher in Switzerland. He had a hypertext project that a few folks in high-energy physics were using. He thought more people would want to use it. He especially wanted to know if we could work on a gateway between our Wide Area Information Servers and his servers. We worked with him a bit and he used our servers for some demos there in Europe.

Then the big news came. He was coming to the US to do a presentation at Hypertext 91 in San Antonio. Almost immediately, he wrote disappointed. His paper had been turned down for being too simple. He would be allowed to do a poster and a small demo. But he was coming any way and would drop by North Carolina for a visit.

I called a local, not NCSU, computer science department and spoke to the folks there who were working on hypertext. They had seen the paper and rejected it.

Tim’s ideas were too simple. Anyone could implement such a server in an afternoon. And any graduate student could write a browser in a week! It was obvious from his description that he didn’t much understand hypertext markup languages. There were other objections.

But to me simplicity was the point, its elegance. That others could and did work on the code was a big plus. There was a community of developers that you could talk to. Even as a user you could make suggestions — and better they would often implement those ideas if you couldn’t do it yourself.

Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web was running on my desktop – okay more a workstation than a desktop – a new NeXT computer from Steve Jobs.

And I was learning something about computing that I hadn’t been taught directly at NCSU — as told in three recent book titles:

The Wealth of Networks, how social production and sharing made great products and created opportunities and even new markets (thanks Yochai Benkler for writing a book describing the process in 2005 – his book is free or you can buy it from Yale Press, you can make translations on a wiki that Benkler supports).

I watched and participated in the process of Democratizing Innovation (thanks to Eric Von Hippel for naming and describing that process in his book which you can download or buy from MIT Press)

Through a series of events, I became perhaps overly involved in copyright and legal issues. I was also learning the power of Free Culture (thanks to Larry Lessig for writing that book which is free for download or you can buy it from Penguin Books)

I started comparing the Laws of Computing:

Moore’s law – processor speed doubles
Metcalf’s law – potential network connections grows by squaring the number of connections
But David Reed’s law — utility of a network grows exponentially, particularly in social networks, by the number of connections used.

I hope you’ve noticed that most of my story, the books mentioned and Reed’s law have been dependent on the social not just the technical. Indeed one of the surprises of computer science is not that it has social impact – technology usually has some sort of social impact – but the impact that our social selves have on technology.

“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us” (Marshall McLuhan)

Our need to network, to have friends, to involve others in our work, our need to listen to and to be affected by our users – all of this is embedded in our work and in our creations.

No successful company sees Research and Development as a place that develops ideas separate from the rest of the company or from their customers – and then tosses those ideas, patents, and projects over the wall to others to use or to abandon.

Computer science is not done just by teams with roles, but by a constant flow of social interactions that never seems to end. Well, for successful projects at least.

Most software projects of size involve if not open source, then an SDK or API or other interface that allows social production and innovation that was not imagined by the original developers.

Every project has a user group, a mailing list, etc to encourage involvement.

Every project has impact as the social uses of that project grow.

And afterwards the experience helps us grow and changes us.

If not “w00t!” wouldn’t be word of the year. Dilbert and to some degree Foxtrot wouldn’t be funny to those outside the tech industry.

We who were kept in the basement and fed pizza and power drinks are creators of our common culture through our social contributions. Our software is global. Within the code is contained law and a social contract and to some degree our joint futures.

We are not just the people that our parents warned us about (Jimmy Buffet) as more and more we become “the ONES we have been waiting for” (June Jordan “Poem for South African Women”)