Friday, November 11, 2005

Accidental vs. Essential – When is the Web a Silver Bullet?

Brooks wrote his classic The Mythical Man Month 30 years ago (in 1975). His “No Silver Bullets” essay, written in 1986 and included in the current edition of the book, explains both why software development productivity had increased dramatically since the original book, and why it wasn’t likely to increase as dramatically in the future. His central idea is useful as we think about how the Web changes everything things.

Borrowing from Plato, Brooks describes two types of tasks necessary to create software – accidental tasks like feeding syntactically correct code to the computer, and essential tasks like decomposing complexity into appropriately-sized units and layers. The accidental is very amenable to automation, and has indeed improved dramatically from the days of punch cards and batch printouts. The essential is much less automatable, and has improved much more slowly.

The Web has tremendously reduced many of the accidental costs of life and business, and is continuing to do so. Connecting people and information has never been easier. Therefore, any activity that used to be bottlenecked on those connections (and there are a huge number of them) is being transformed. But – there are new essential bottlenecks lurking just behind the old accidental ones. These include time, complexity, and attention – now that information is at my fingertips, I need to choose which bits I’m actually going to use. (An aside – do you know why bottles have necks? It’s to limit the flow – with no neck, we could be flooded when trying to pour. As physical flow limits in the network go away, we need to replace them with new bottlenecks at the endpoints.)

So is the Web a silver bullet? It obviously depends on your target (as many people learned after the pre-millennial days), but yes. Information friction continues to plummet, and that is still rippling its way up many food chains built on outdated or soon-to-be-outdated assumptions. First-order, the Web continues to improve things we’ve done for centuries (e.g. look up reference material, comparison shop, find people with similar interests). Beyond that, the Web is starting to let us do new things (blogging by thousands feels qualitatively different than watching Walter Cronkite). And beyond that, we’re just starting to discover the new information equilibrium, with its own new needs.

1 comment:

Joseph said...
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