Since we here in Ireland, are increasingly beginning to carve out a place for ourselves in the digital world, I decided I would write this when I got some time. Enjoy. Though it will raise more questions, than present answers for most of you.
Nicholas G. Carr reckons that software will become a commodity - that portable and object oriented writing tools like Java, will accelerate the commoditisation of software. To be honest, we already witness a dazzling array and choice of utilities, programs and tools for the windows platform. But it still doesn't provide the experience of computing I need. Because, every month it appears to me, people are using the latest online mail service, or the latest something else. I am told I have to upgrade, in order to 'stay with it'. It is impossible to get uniformity - and you do lose lots of information and stuff, in transitions from one system to another. As Brewster Kahle has pointed out - the internet still has no memory. Christine Finn, an archaeologist working at the University of Bradford in England, has spent some time looking at the archaeology of the digital world. Working with school kids who understand how fast things become outdated in electronic and digital products. She says, it allows them to understand quickly the aims of archaeology, by understanding the shorter timespans of digital things.
Carr argues that software has no natural wear out cycle - that it will just continue forever and ever. I recently listened to an interview with software pioneer Steve Wozniak. Steve said, software seemed great to him, because he could create a control panel, a dash board or whatever mechanism he wished - and the great thing was - it was more durable than mechanical, physical objects, because it was built in software. But Martin Campbell Kelly also explains in his book about the software industry, that even the best selling software had a life span of maximum ten years. That was even longer than most software firms hoped for.
I don't buy into the over simplified analysis, that software doesn't wear out. I do like Wozniak's observation, that software doesn't experience wear like an intricate time piece mechanism. But software does wear out eventually in terms of its functionality and place within the world and events that surround it. This is what I mean about archaeology time scales, and their relevance for software history too. It took several thousand years for homo sapiens to change gradually from one form of tool and material usage to another. The old tools persisted out of ignorance, lack of movement of ideas, or perhaps the old tools were 'good enough'. With software, we have already seen the stone, bronze and iron age in the short space of 50 years. But have we advanced that much?
Xerox PARC Laboratories began with the vision of a computer on every desktop. PARC started that notion, and the office automation concept at a time when hardware was still hugely expensive and rare. Unfortunately, I think, this notion of needing individual computers for each person got out of control. Nicholas G. Carr is right about the waste involved in such a paradigm. Because in a windows world, no two desktop are alike. Each has a slightly different configuration. Sure you can do the XBOX thing and seal the box shut.
But, if you read Martin Campbell Kelly's analysis of game consoles, and particularly about Ninetendo, you will understand something crucial about consoles. That at one stage, the Americans ruled this market with products from Atari and Commodore. Then the whole industry collapsed and suddenly Ninetendo realised they had to tighten up standards, in order to keep the industry from melting down again. That is also where Sony are coming from, and possibly where XBOX is coming from. It is not so much about a wish to keep everything seal shut and secretive - but a necessary measure one must take, if one wants to ensure quality and uniformity across your whole console product experience - while still allowing independent developers to make new software products.
I am only using software in my work since the late nineties. I converted from a manual process of designing buildings and architecture, to a digital system. In his book, Nicholas G. Carr observed, that software products do have best practices built into them. For instance, people who buy Siebel customer relationship management software are also buying Siebel's way of managing customers. This is what becomes out-dated first, not the software in my experience. Software product users are coaxed into thinking and operating in the way the software wants them to. One learns a certain way of working and suddenly that way is out of date. The only reason for going to update tutorials, is not to learn new software tools at all - but to try and do a refresher course, in new ways of how to conduct your business!
People who are collaborating a lot online, and using the web as a platform - have a very different and contemporary way to do business. Compared that is, to myself and older fellows who began using isolated computers or working small workgroups in the nineties. Suddenly our perception of how to do business, which appeared new and innovative a couple of years ago, is now a dinosaur! I really feel sorry for the guy next to me, who began using version 1.0 of the software. Or worse, the guys who have lived through multiple platform changes, every couple of years, or business cycles, to be more tech-savy. It is not like the homo sapien are adapting their tools anymore, their tools are adapting them. How sustainable is this, in the hostile environment of modern business?
This washing-machine like feature of the modern workplace, is directly related to software and software alone. It presents people with a world that changes from ice age to temperate, to a mediterranean climate. Long term capital management learned how unpredictable stock markets were. Benoit Mandlebrot has written a new book about Chaos and Economics lately. Just as we need to monitor climate change in the real world, we will need to observe changes in the digital world too. Because at present, is not a useful space in which to grow and develop ones character and make a homestead. Much needed talent is leaking out of industries, prematurely and at regular intervals, because they haven't the wish to keep abreast of change.
So I think, this churning of talent, and leakage of talent from industry is something software, as we currently know it, is responsible for - and something which software is going to have to learn to solve, if software wants to play a real part in our lives. I think Nicholas G. Carr's arguments are short-sighted, in speaking about the cost of IT infrastructure upgrades. The cost of the leakage of innovative people from industry, is several times more. Because that represents a loss to humanity as a whole.
As I have said, no two personal computers are entirely the same. That fact is witnessed, when you have to change desks for a day. The first half of the day gets spent organising the desk, your biros and your computer to suit your personal needs. That is within the same office! The person whose workplace you have just altered, return to find things are different, and need to spend time re-adjusting everything back to suit them. This cycle continues on a daily basis, in workplaces all around the globe. Unlike your talent, your computing environment doesn't move with you. Maybe when the clothes we wear start to become intelligent this might change. I don't know. People cannot understand the lack of pace of development of technology during the bronze age. But at least you could walk across a whole continent and experience uniformity in the technology.
Take the web services model of computing then, what happens when someone changes the central server and effects your desktop or working environment? Like the Sioux nation waiting for a buffalo herd that will never show up. What about that extra 5 minutes you had to spend looking for some icon that has changed its appearance? Yesterday you aimed your spear at a buffalo, today it looks more like a kangeroo and hops along the ground! Homo Sapiens are meant to be versatile, but give me a break.
If the road I take to work each day were suddenly closed, I might quickly throw my hands up and say 'why even bother'. Software providers must be careful they aren't giving out this message to their consumer base. I stopped posting at an online forum a while back, because something got screwed up with my profile, which locked me out of my own profile. I asked the system admin was I banned for some reason. He said no, but, he didn't have time to fix it. It is bad enough being locked into a platform, but getting locked out is just as easy. With my mobile phone, I am always getting phoned up and asked if I wish to subscribe to some new multimedia messaging, online mail, or voice mail service. I cannot absorb as much 'functionality' into my life as technology wants me to. I received a multi-media tutorial today, to my phone, showing me how to use this stuff - as if I had time to learn this tutorial!
The trouble with all of this computing utility business, buying the applications off the network as you need them - is the lack of a decent equivalent for money - in the network environment. We still do not have a suitable alternative to credit cards, and banking. Every week or month, some new system emerges to approximate the usefulness of money. Basically, you end up with several different online credit cards, several different equivalents for online money! In the real world, would you have a pocket full of euros, dollars and yen all mixed up together? You thought changing your mail service was bad! Bob Kahn said he is doing work at the moment, into trying to find a way that people can own a universal passport online. Time will only tell.
Someone will have to invent a useful standard for online money, before we can see a real computing utility. What happens if the digital money I used last week to pay for my utility service, doesn't work this week, or has deflated in value, relative to some new upstart money definition, which uses a different algorithm. Every time Google change there search algorithms, to beat the spammers right now, it effects online businesses around the globe like a hurricane or other 'natural' disaster. It seems as if the 'Chaos' of Mandlebrot has been suitably captured in the digital world, if nothing else. As poor people in the real world build on fault lines or natural flood planes, in the digital world, businesses continue to build their strategy around the state of the Google search engine, at a specific point in time.
At the moment, I hate the fact, that as I wander around the Noosphere, I might as well just be a refugee from some foreign land. I don't feel I belong, I don't hold any form of currency, address or citizenship. The longer I spend online, the more this becomes apparent to me. I feel like that character played by Kevin Costner in 'Waterworld', roaming around a wide ocean. Except he was more advanced, he could use soil as currency. As soon as I begin to get used to a certain landscape or behaviour of things, it all gets ' upgraded'. Just like in the physical world, if someone builds a highway ontop of your home you might get annoyed. Yet in the Noosphere anything goes, and you might as well get used to this itinerant, sort of post-holocaust existence.
So perhaps games like Stalker aren't an exaggeration, but a true reflection of the state of our digital world. A world void of civilisation, urban settlement or architecture. Sure, the physical world does have its problems. In the real world, we often observe old factories and whole industrial landscapes that are left redundant. You will often come across an old sea ports with big huge walls for goods which don't arrive anymore. All over Europe, there are great defensive walls built around cities to keep out non-existent attackers. Part of the training I received in architecture, was to observe these various fragments of the urban landscape and to wonder as to their future use. Or possible amenity value for inhabitants of the city. Without trying to erase the memory of what has gone before. But that is the trouble, the Internet still has no memory.
Brian O' Hanlon.