When thinking about technological change, there are two kinds of people, or rather, people with two kinds of maps of the world — radial, and Cartesian. Radial maps are circular, and express position in relative coordinates — angle and distance — from the center. Cartesian maps are grids, and express position in absolute coordinates. Each of the views has good and bad points on their own, but reading danah on Wikipedia has made me contemplate the tendency of the two groups to talk past each other.
Radial people assume that any technological change starts from where we are now — reality is at the center of the map, and every possible change is viewed as a vector, a change from reality with both a direction and a distance. Radial people want to know, of any change, how big a change is it from current practice, in what direction, and at what cost.
Cartesian people assume that any technological change lands you somewhere — reality is just one point of many on the map, and is not especially privileged over other states you could be in. Cartesian people want to know, for any change, where you end up, and what the characteristics of the new landscape are. They are less interested in the cost of getting there.
Radial people tend to think more about change than end state, and more about local maxima (are things getting better?) than about a global maximum (are things as good as they could be?) Cartesian people think more about end state than change, and more about global than local maxima.
I am a radial person; danah is a Cartesian person. Cory Doctorow is a radial person; Nicholas Negroponte is a Cartesian person. Richard Gabriel is radial; Alan Kay is Cartesian. This is not a question of technology but outlook. Extreme Programming is a radial method; the Capability Maturity Model is Cartesian. Open Source groups tend towards radial methods, closed source groups tend towards Cartesian methods. It’s incrementalism vs. planned jumps, evolution vs. directed labor.
When we make mistakes, radial people tend to overestimate the value of incrementalism, and to underestimate the gap between local and global maxima. When they make mistakes, Cartesian people tend to underestimate the cost in moving from reality to some imagined alternate state, and to overestimate their ability to predict what a global maximum would look like.
This is, plainly, an overstatement of the Everyone is a Pirate or a Ninja sort, but I think there is a grain of truth to it — when Negroponte rails against incrementalism, there’s an interesting discussion to be had about how big he thinks a change has to be before it no longer counts as an increment, but there’s no denying that he is advancing different idea about technological improvement than Gabriel is in his Worse Is Better argument. There’s a similar difference in the way danah or Matt Locke talk about Wikipedia vs. the way Cory or I do. There are lots of blended cases, but the basic impulse is different.
This has been an era of radial triumphs, because radial maps tend to be better guides to large, homeostatic systems. When thinking about change on the internet, the tools that have been driven by a thousand tiny adoptions and alterations have tended to be more important than the tools designed in advance to change the landscape. However, radial vision requires that someone, somewhere, have pushed through a large, destabilizing change, in order for the radial people to be playing in new terrain with lots of unexplored local maxima. Shawn Fanning could only change the world in 1999 because Vint Cerf changed the world in 1969.
Bob Spinrad, who used to run PARC (an echt Cartesian organization) said “The only institutions that fund pure research are either monopolies or think they are.” Cartesian development is economically draining, and never pays for itself in the short term, so it’s no accident that R&D happens outside traditional profit maximizing institutions, whether governmental, academic, or monopolists.
You can see the differences in the two worldviews most clearly when we argue across that gap. I literally cannot understand danah’s complaints; I read “The problem that i’m having with the Wikipedia hype is the assumption that it is the panacea for it too has its problems”, and I wonder who she’s talking about. The radialists praising the Wikipedia are not saying it’s perfect, or even good in any absolute sense — we don’t ever talk about absolute quality.
Wikipedia interests us because it’s better, and sustainably better, than what went before — it’s a move from a simple product (“Pay us and we’ll write an encyclopedia”) to a complex system, where a million differing, internal motivations of the users and contributors are causing an encyclopedia to coalesce. How cool is that? (The radialist motto…)
But danah and Matt cannot understand our enthusiasm. From the Cartesian point of view, the thing that would excite you would be dramatic change to a new state. Radialists never say things like ‘panacea’ or ‘utopia’, but the Cartesians hear us saying those things, or think they do, because otherwise what would the fuss be about? Mere incrementalism is nothing more than a Panglossian fetishization of reality, and excitement about a technological change that doesn’t create a dramatic new equilibrium is simply hype, from the Cartesian point of view.
And so, when they see us high-fiving over Wikipedia, the Cartesians think we’ve taken leave of our senses, and, more to the point, they think we’ve misunderstood what is happening. They then launch a corrective set of arguments, pointing out, for example, that Wikipedia still leaves unanswered questions about social exclusion. But this, from a radialist point of view, is no more meaningful than pointing out that Wikipedia doesn’t cure skin cancer — no one ever said it would. Anything that was bad at Point A and is still bad at Point B gets factored out of the radialist critique. Any change where most of the bad things are still bad but a few of the bad things are somewhat less bad seems like a good thing to us, and if it can happen in a way that requires less energy, or better harnesses individual motivation, that seems like a great thing.
And so we go, back and forth, tastes great, less filling. We want to ask them why they aren’t excited about Wikipedia, since it is, to us, so obviously progress, but they want to know “Progress towards what?” They can’t even read their map without a posited end state. And they want to ask us why we’re not concerned about where all this is going, but we don’t have an answer to that question, because our maps only show us the way up the next hill, not what we’ll see when we get there.
There’s no answer to any of this — as Grandma used to say, “Both your maps are nice.” But after months of cognitive dissonance — I both admire and love danah; what she’s saying about Wikipedia simply confuses me — I think now have a way of understanding why the current conversation seems so unmoored.