Last week, i had drinks with Ian Rogers and Kareem Mayan and we were talking about shifts in the development of technology. Although all of us have made these arguments before in different forms, we hit upon a set of metaphors that i feel the need to highlight.
Complete with references to engineering, technology development was originally seen as a type of formalized production. You design, build and ship products. And then they’re out in the wild, removed from the production cycle until you make Version 2. Of course, it didn’t take long for people to realize that when they shipped flaws, they didn’t need to do a recall. Instead, they could just ship free updates in the form of Version 1.1.
As the world went web-a-rific, companies held onto the ship-final-products mentality in its stodgy archaic form. Until the forever-in-beta hit. I, for one, love the persistent beta. It signals that the system is continuously updating, never fully baked and meant to be organic. This is the way that it should be.
Web development is fundamentally different than packaged software. Because it is the web, there’s no vast distance between producers and consumers. Distribution channels cross space and time (much to the chagrin of most old skool industries). Particularly when it comes to social software, producers can live inside their creations, directly interact with those using the system, and evolve the system alongside the practices that are emerging. In fact, not only can they, they’re stupid to do anything else.
The same revolution has happened in writing. Sure, we still ship books but what does it mean to have the author have direct interaction with the reader like they do in blogging? It’s almost as though someone revived the author from the dead . And maybe turned hir into a kind of peculiar looking Frankenstein who realizes that things aren’t quite right in interpretation-land but can’t make them right no matter what. Regardless, with the author able to directly connect to the reader, one must wonder how the process changes. For example, how is the audience imagined when its presence is persistent?
I’m reminded of a book by Stewart Brand - How Building Learn. In it, Brand talks about how buildings evolve over time based on their use and the aging that takes place. A building is not just the end-result of the designer, but co-constructed by the designer, nature, and the inhabitant over time. When i started thinking about technology as architecture, i realized the significance of that book. We cannot think about technologies as finalized products, but as evolving architectures. This should affect the design process at the getgo, but it also highlights the differences between physical and digital architectures. What would it mean if 92 million people were living in the house simultaneously with different expectations for what colors the walls should be painted? What would it mean if the architect was living inside the house and fighting with the family about the intention of the mantel?
The networked nature of web technologies brings the architect into the living room of the house, but the question still remains: what is the responsibility of a live-in architect? Coming in as an authority on the house does no good - in that way, the architect should still be dead. But should the architect just be a glorified fixer-upper/plumber/electrician? Should the architect support the aging of the house to allow it to become eccentric? Should the architect build new additions for the curious tenants? What should the architect be doing? One might think that the architect should just leave the place alone… but is this how digital sites evolve? Do they just need plumbers and electricians? Perhaps the architect is not just an architect but also an urban planner… It is not just the house that is of concern, but the entire city. How the city evolves depends on a whole variety of forces that are constantly in flux. Negotiating this large-scale system is daunting - the house seems so much more manageable. But 92 million people never lived in a single house together.
 Note to Barthes scholars: i’m being snippy here. I realize that the author’s authority should still be contested, that multiple interpretations are still valid, and that the author is still a product of social forces. I also realize that even as i’m writing this blogpost, its reading will be out of my control, but the reality is that i’ll still - as author - get all huffy and puffy and try to be understood. Damnit.