System thinking is goal-oriented: there are always pre-defined goals and objectives, which system must achieve, and there are always prescribed requirements and criteria, which system must satisfy. As the achievement of any goal happens always in the future, system thinking is obsessed with prediction and generating plans, blueprints, time-schedules and scenarios.
Complexity and chaos focus their attention on the present, because even tiny perturbations in the process of self-organization occurring at present can have enormous impact on the further development of this process. It is an impossible task to make the ‘butterfly effect’ follow any goal-oriented strategy and any targets’ setting anchored in the future.
Source: Dr. Vladimir DimitrovComplexity, Chaos and Creativity: A Journey beyond System Thinking
Kids don’t waste time thinking about limitations.
“I write, therefore I think.”
During a break at EMWCon, I participated in a conversation with several people about the relative advantages and disadvantages of requiring people to use wikitext markup in MediaWiki (instead of providing them a visual editor). During the conversation, Lex brought up examples of documents with their content locked up as binary files compared to wiki pages with the text readily available and accessible. I mentioned the idea of “thinking in bits” as part of the conversation.
Reflecting on the conversation later, I realized that I have written here and there about the concept, but don’t really have anything pulling all the thoughts together. So here you go.
I first came across the idea of thinking in bits in Nicholas Negroponte‘s 1995 book Being digital. In the book, Negroponte talks about the limitations, the cost, of moving information around as atoms – paper books, CDs, DVDs, snail mail, you get the idea – and how information would soon be converted from atoms to bits. The immediately obvious implication is that it now becomes essentially free to move and share information as bits.
The less obvious, but much more important, implication is that bits change the way you can think about the information. How you can manipulate and repurpose the information. How you can do things that were impossible with the information locked up in atoms. The obvious applications have come to fruition. Email instead of snail mail. Music downloads instead of CDs, and now streaming instead of downloads. The same with video.
And yet, the way this digitized information, these bits, is handled is still in many ways tied to the way atoms were handled. Some of this, such as in the music and movie industries, is purely for commercial reasons. Digital rights management systems are deployed so that the company can benefit from the freedom (as in beer) of distributing their content while at the same time restricting the freedom (as in speech) of the consumers of that content. They are shipping in bits, but they are not thinking in bits.
Even from a creative perspective, as opposed to the commercial, this thinking in atoms prevents them from seeing new possibilities for providing engaging and individual experiences to their customers. For example, consider how labels distribute music, how they release the same tracks in the same order on both CD and on services like iTunes or Google Play. This is thinking in atoms at its finest (worst?).
Imagine if they were thinking in bits instead. They could offer an “album” that includes songs from the setlist the band played in your town, or edit the songs at the disc-breaks so they didn’t fade out / fade in. Along those lines, for the individual song downloads they could edit the track so you didn’t catch the introduction to the next song at the end of the song you’re listening too.
The same is true, albeit for different reasons, inside many organizations. Yes, nearly everything is in bits, stored on shared drives, in Sharepoint or email, or whatever system your orginzation uses to “manage” documents.
And yet most of these bits are locked up in digital representations of atoms. We are using bits, but again we are not thinking in bits.
Part of the challenge, of course, is a need to accommodate the lowest common denominator. In the case of many corporate processes that lcd is the requirement to print. So, the templates and processes are designed based on what is expected in the final, printed outcome. Of course, once something is printed, there isn’t a whole lot you can do with it except read it and manually extract the info you need. If you have the digital file that was printed, you can at least search the content. But this is really just a faster way of “reading” the document to get to the “good part”.
What if, on the other hand, the document (whatever it might be) was designed and created based on the expectation that it would be used primarily in a digital format, with the printed product a secondary feature. Or that you don’t even know what the final format needs to be.
As an example (since I was inspired to write this by a conversation at EMWCon), creating your contract proposals as semantic wiki entries. The proposal can be collaboratively developed and reviewed and when ready can be exported into the end format that you need. This will likely be some sort of MS Office or .pdf file that can be easily sent to the potential client, but it could just as easily be shared with them as bits and negotiations conducted against that.
I say “just as easily”. This isn’t to say that work wouldn’t be involved, there would be a lot of work required. Designing, implementing, transitioning, executing. Cultural challenges galore. But, as Lex explained in his story about bikes, cars, and messenger services, the marginal cost of making this change can be far exceeded by the benefits you can gain from the change.
I enjoy reading, so like many people I have set a goal for myself to read at least 50 books a year for the last couple of years. I read 45 last year, you can see my list on GoodReads. As I was getting ready to publicly commit to another year of 50-in-52, though, I realized that I’m not really ready to move on from the books I read in 2011 2010.
It’s not that I don’t want to read anything new, I do. I’ve got several new books on my list, including David Siteman Garland’s Smarter, Faster, Cheaper, Neal Bascomb’s story of FIRST Robotics, The New Cool, and Hal Needham’s Stuntman! I’m also looking at some older books that I’ve never read.
But well over half of the books I read last year are still bouncing around inside my head.
In a blog post last October, Harold Jarche expressed a similar sentiment in the context of conferences that he attends:
One thing missing in these discrete time-based events is that there is little time for reflection. … This presentation is followed by some immediate questions & discussions and a coffee break. Then it’s off to see the next presentation. Reflection, if it occurs, comes much later, and usually after the participants have gone home.
Replace “presentation” with “book”, and that his how I am feeling about the books I read last year.
Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.
All of this is my overly long way of saying that I’m not committing to 50-in-52 this year. Instead of moving on to the next conference, in my case a new year of reading only new books, I’m also going to spend some time quality time reflecting on the books I read last year.
What are your reading plans for 2011?
Update: Check out my 2010 Reading List lens on Squidoo.
“Do you really think George bothered to ask for f***ing permission?”
This was Kevin Spacey’s response to a question from the audience during the Q&A following the St. Louis premiere of George Hickenlooper’s movie “Casino Jack” at the St. Louis Film Festival. This specific question was related to getting legal clearance for the music used in the film, but it reflected a general theme of the evening as friends and family honored George – a high school classmate of mine – following his sudden death only two weeks before this hometown premiere.
In addition to numerous stories of guerilla filmmaking on the set of Casino Jack (like the scene filmed at the Capitol), friends old and new described George’s lack of concern for obtaining permission to do things. My favorite was a story told by Mike Beugg about the making of George’s first, sadly long lost, feature length movie. As the roller coaster (Screaming Eagle) pulled into the station, and passengers were screaming because of the knife and the blood, George was calmly reassuring everyone that “it’s OK, we’re making a movie.”
When asked, “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”, he responded, “I wanted to get real reactions.”
Not only had George not asked permission to do this, he wasn’t even asking forgiveness.
A few days later I came across Chris Guillebeau’s book The Art of Non-Conformity. With the above thoughts about George still fresh in my mind, I picked up the book and read it (devoured it?) in a couple of hours. What Chris had to say made sense to me on an intellectual level, but it was my recent evening with the legacy of George Hickenlooper that really brought it home, really made an impact.
As Chris tells us, and George showed us, it may be better to ask forgiveness than permission, but most of the time you don’t need either.
Something to think about as we head into the new year.
Early in my life, my mentor explained to me the three paths that lead to the creation of knowledge. The analytical path, where philosophers reflect, meditate, and make sense of objects and events; the empirical path, where scientists manipulate variables and conduct controlled experiments to validate reliable principles; and the pragmatic path where practitioners struggle with real-world challenges and come up with strategies for effective and efficient performance.
Each of these paths can be taken in isolation from the others, we see that every day. It is also common to see these paths taken one after the other: analyze -> experiment -> implement.
More challenging, and much more powerful, is to integrate these three trails into a single path that allows you to go from trail to trail as needed to get you where you want to go.
This meme crossed my desk on Facebook last weekend, and I thought my response was worth sharing here as well.
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Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.
Where to start…? Let’s start with fiction.
I love Stephen King‘s work, though I haven’t read much recently. (As you’ll see, I read more non-fiction these days.)
I’ve come to appreciate the work of William Gibson (@GreatDismal), and would have to say that my favorite fiction author these days is Neal Stephenson. (I re-read either Cryptonomicon or Anathem every year.)
On the non-fiction side, in no particular order (except the order in which they came to mind):
From his first book, the masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid to his latest, I Am a Strange Loop, he is the instigator of much of my interest in how our minds work.
Daniel Pink (@danielpink)
His latest Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and his earlier A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future are outstanding. And every parent should give their high school senior The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.
Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson)
His latest, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, is the book I wish I had written. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter are required reading if you want to understand how our culture ended up the way it is (and why that isn’t really so bad.)
Not so much an author as a story teller, but oh what stories he had to tell.
Atul Gawande (#atulgawande)
I’m not a doctor, and after reading his books I don’t understand why anyone would ever want to be. But he has some great insights on what it means to walk the master’s path.
Speaking of the master’s path, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment has a permanent place on the shelf on my desk.
Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation gave me my first real understanding of the potential of the digital age, everything else is just gravy.
She has helped me understand autism better, and what it must be like for autistics to make their way in this society of ours. If you are the parent of an autistic child, run (don’t walk) out and pick up Emergence: Labeled Autistic and/or Thinking in Pictures.
OK, OK, that’s 16. So, I got a little carried away….
When I first learned about the Strange Loop developers conference here in St. Louis, I had a strong – you might say strange – urge to attend. Strange because I am not a software developer; it’s been a long time since I’ve done any serious coding. What caught my eye was how conference organizer Alex Miller (@puredanger) tied the ideas of one of my favorite books of recent years, Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, to The Loop here in St. Louis and the idea of building an identity for St. Louis based developers.
More importantly, at least for me, it was not a conference focused on any one topic or language, but was like a survey course of the latest and greatest in many areas of development theory and practice. Here’s a quick summary of some of the sessions I attended at Strange Loop 2010:
The first non-keynote talk I attended, Brian Sletten’s (@bsletten) talk Semantic Web: Hot or Not? looked at big-S Semantic Web, providing a bit of history about how it has failed to catch on in the past and why he thinks that its time has come. In case you are wondering, Brian voted for “hot”.
Towards the end of the second day, Scott Davis (@scottdavis99) presented Hidden Web Services: Microformats and the Semantic Web, a look at what I would call small-s semantic web. Using some (not always cooperative) live examples along with his presentation slides, Scott showed RDFa and microformats in action.
Of all the talks, these two provided me the most practical information that I can make use of. As soon as I finish this review (and catch up on a couple of other things I need to blog), I will be diving into RDFa and microformats and seeing how I can put them to use on this blog and a couple of other sites with which I’m involved.
Readers of this blog know that complexity is an idea that is never very far back in my thoughts, so I obviously made the time to attend Tim Berglund’s (@tlberglund) talk Complexity Theory and Software Development. He covered a lot of ground that I’m familiar with, but also gave me many new things to think about. And a couple of new ways to look at things.
Not taking anything away from any of the other presenters, Tim was one of the best presenters I had the pleasure of seeing. He was in one of the “small” rooms, but the quality of both the content and the presentation would have made this talk well suited to the main room at the Pageant.
When I saw the NoSQL track on the Strange Loop schedule, I assumed that this was a specific database implementation, along the lines of mySQL. (I told you it’s been a while….). Over the course of the two days, I came to understand the concepts of NoSQL and how these concepts can be, and are, being used.
Eben Hewitt’s (@ebenhewitt) talk Adopting Apache Cassandra provided me with a nice theoretical understanding that would serve me well through later talks, and Kevin Weil’s (@kevinweil) provided some lessons in implementation in his talk NoSQL at Twitter. The engineer in me really enjoyed Kevin’s frank discussion of the challenges and solutions – some successful and some not – as Twitter addressed the challenges presented by huge data sets.
Next to the semantic web discussions, Ted Neward’s (@tedneward) talk Busy Java Developer’s Guide to Android: Basics provided me the most practical value. My Droid gives me a reason – and opportunity – to use Android as a platform to get back into some development (however small scale it may be), and this talk gave me enough to get started. A quick overview of the SDK, some talk about the NDK, and then some runthroughs of ideas were great. Ted also had a wealth of knowledge which he freely shared during the extended Q&A that the session eventually turned into.
It’s tough to say which talk was my favorite, but if you pushed me to choose I would have to go with Android Squared from Bob Lee (@crazybob) and Eric Burke (@burke_eric) from Square. The talk focused on the engineering and software challenges related to using the Square in the mic port of an Android phone, including some detailed waveform and signal analysis and some tricks to deal with the wide variety of Android implementations out there. (It didn’t hurt that they handed out some hardware at the end of their talk.)
Bob and Eric took turns talking about specific aspects of the challenges and the solutions. Like Kevin Weil, they held no punches in terms of talking about successes and failures along the way. They not only showed the final product, but provided some great insights into the process of figuring things out.
There are a couple of talks I attended but haven’t mentioned, and then their are the keynotes and the panel discussions that were worth the price of admission (a low $190) all on their own. I’ll try to get back to those, and maybe even the above talks, in more detail over the coming weeks.
Summary (of my already too long summary)
At the top of Alex Miller’s favorites list on Twitter is this tweet from Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror):
“it’s better to be safe than sorry” is such crap. You know what’s better than being safe? Being AWESOME.
Alex most definitely didn’t take a “safe” path when he put together Strange Loop. The venue was spread across three venues, including a club typically used for concerts, the hotel next door, and a couple of rooms from the Regional Arts Commission across the street. Some of the rooms got overcrowded, and there was a general dissatisfaction with the wi-fi availability. And then there is the cross-discipline (cross-language?) nature of the conference, which may not have provided the depth that some wanted but made up for it with breadth.
I can’t speak for Alex and whether or not he is sorry about any of it, but I can say that he – and his cadre of assistants and volunteers – definitely hit awesome.
I’m already looking forward to next year.