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October 10, 2013

Everything’s a network, even bookmobiles

A few times in the course of Derek Attig’s really interesting talk on the history of bookmobiles yesterday, he pointed out how the route map of the early bookmobiles (and later ones, too) resembles a network map. He did this to stress that the history of bookmobiles is not simply a history of vehicles, but rather should be understood in terms of those vehicles’ social effect: creating and connecting communities.

I like this point, and I don’t mean to suggest that Derek carried the analogy too far. Not at all. But, it is an excellent example of how we are reinterpreting everything in terms of networks, just as we had previously interpreted everything in terms of computers and programs and information, and before that in terms of telephone networks, and before that…and before that…and before that….

Cultural paradigm shift? Underway!

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May 13, 2012

[2b2k] The Net as paradigm

Edward Burman recently sent me a very interesting email in response to my article about the 50th anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. So I bought his 2003 book Shift!: The Unfolding Internet – Hype, Hope and History (hint: If you buy it from Amazon, check the non-Amazon sellers listed there) which arrived while I was away this week. The book is not very long — 50,000 words or so — but it’s dense with ideas. For example, Edward argues in passing that the Net exploits already-existing trends toward globalization, rather than leading the way to it; he even has a couple of pages on Heidegger’s thinking about the nature of communication. It’s a rich book.

Shift! applies The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to the Internet revolution, wondering what the Internet paradigm will be. The chapters that go through the history of failed attempts to understand the Net — the “pre-paradigms” — are fascinating. Much of Edward’s analysis of business’ inability to grasp the Net mirrors cluetrain‘s themes. (In fact, I had the authorial d-bag reaction of wishing he had referenced Cluetrain…until I realized that Edward probably had the same reaction to my later books which mirror ideas in Shift!) The book is strong in its presentation of Kuhn’s ideas, and has a deep sense of our cultural and philosophical history.

All that would be enough to bring me to recommend the book. But Edward admirably jumps in with a prediction about what the Internet paradigm will be:

This…brings us to the new paradigm, which will condition our private and business lives as the twenty-first century evolves. It is a simple paradigm, and may be expressed in synthetic form in three simple words: ubiquitous invisible connectivity. That is to say, when the technologies, software and devices which enable global connectivity in real time become so ubiquitous that we are completely unaware of their presence…We are simply connected.” [p. 170]

It’s unfair to leave it there since the book then elaborates on this idea in very useful ways. For example, he talks about the concept of “e-business” as being a pre-paradigm, and the actual paradigm being “The network itself becomes the company,” which includes an erosion of hierarchy by networks. But because I’ve just written about Kuhn, I found myself particularly interested in the book’s overall argument that Kuhn gives us a way to understand the Internet. Is there an Internet paradigm shift?

The are two ways to take this.

First, is there a paradigm by which we will come to understand the Internet? Edward argues yes, we are rapidly settling into the paradigmatic understanding of the Net. In fact, he guesses that “the present revolution [will] be completed and the new paradigm of being [will] be in force” in “roughly five to eight years” [p. 175]. He sagely points to three main areas where he thinks there will be sufficient development to enable the new paradigm to take root: the rise of the mobile Internet, the development of productivity tools that “facilitate improvements in the supply chain” and marketing, and “the increased deployment of what have been termed social applications, involving education and the political sphere of national and local government.” [pp. 175-176] Not bad for 2003!

But I’d point to two ways, important to his argument, in which things have not turned out as Edward thought. First, the 5-8 years after the book came out were marked by a continuing series of disruptive Internet developments, including general purpose social networks, Wikipedia, e-books, crowdsourcing, YouTube, open access, open courseware, Khan Academy, etc. etc. I hope it’s obvious that I’m not criticizing Edward for not being prescient enough. The book is pretty much as smart as you can get about these things. My point is that the disruptions just keep coming. The Net is not yet settling down. So we have to ask: Is the Net going to enable continuous disruption and self-transformation? If so will it be captured by a paradigm? (Or, as M. Knight Shyamalan might put it, is disruption the paradigm?)

Second, after listing the three areas of development over the next 5-8 years, the book makes a claim central to the basic formulation of the new paradigm Edward sees emerging: “And, vitally, for thorough implementation [of the paradigm] the three strands must be invisible to the user: ubiquitous and invisible connectivity.” [p. 176] If the invisibility of the paradigm is required for its acceptance, then we are no closer to that event, for the Internet remains perhaps the single most evident aspect of our culture. No other cultural object is mentioned as many times in a single day’s newspaper. The Internet, and the three components the book point to, are more evident to us than ever. (The exception might be innovations in logistics and supply chain management; I’d say Internet marketing remains highly conspicuous.) We’ve never had a technology that so enabled innovation and creativity, but there may well come a time when we stop focusing so much cultural attention on the Internet. We are not close yet.

Even then, we may not end up with a single paradigm of the Internet. It’s really not clear to me that the attendees at ROFLcon have the same Net paradigm as less Internet-besotted youths. Maybe over time we will all settle into a single Internet paradigm, but maybe we won’t. And we might not because the forces that bring about Kuhnian paradigms are not at play when it comes to the Internet. Kuhnian paradigms triumph because disciplines come to us through institutions that accept some practices and ideas as good science; through textbooks that codify those ideas and practices; and through communities of professionals who train and certify the new scientists. The Net lacks all of that. Our understanding of the Net may thus be as diverse as our cultures and sub-cultures, rather than being as uniform and enforced as, say, genetics’ understanding of DNA is.

Second, is the Internet affecting what we might call the general paradigm of our age? Personally, I think the answer is yes, but I wouldn’t use Kuhn to explain this. I think what’s happening — and Edward agrees — is that we are reinterpreting our world through the lens of the Internet. We did this when clocks were invented and the world started to look like a mechanical clockwork. We did this when steam engines made society and then human motivation look like the action of pressures, governors, and ventings. We did this when telegraphs and then telephones made communication look like the encoding of messages passed through a medium. We understand our world through our technologies. I find (for example) Lewis Mumford more helpful here than Kuhn.

Now, it is certainly the case that reinterpreting our world in light of the Net requires us to interpret the Net in the first place. But I’m not convinced we need a Kuhnian paradigm for this. We just need a set of properties we think are central, and I think Edward and I agree that these properties include the abundant and loose connections, the lack of centralized control, the global reach, the ability of everyone (just about) to contribute, the messiness, the scale. That’s why you don’t have to agree about what constitutes a Kuhnian paradigm to find Shift! fascinating, for it helps illuminate the key question: How are the properties of the Internet becoming the properties we see in — or notice as missing from — the world outside the Internet?

Good book.

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April 23, 2012

[2b2] Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 50 years later

The Chronicle of Higher Ed asked me to write a perspective on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions since this is the 50th year since it was published. It’s now posted.

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August 28, 2009

My arms too short to box the Internet

Doc’s got an excellent, provocative post about how our thinking about the Internet hems us in. I find myself nodding my head but also holding back just a little.

My head nods up and down to Doc’s overall point. We hear “Internet” and we think an infrastructure of cables and radio signals, when in fact the Internet is a set of protocols that can be implemented over anything from copper wires to carrier pigeons. We shouldn’t be surprised. We reify stuff all the time. For example, somehow bits themselves went from a measurement of difference to the “stuff” inside a computer. So, it’s practically inevitable that we’ll think about the Internet in overly concrete terms. It’s what we do. At least in the West.

And I certainly nod my head at Doc’s conclusion that we need to “re-think all infrastructure outside all old boxes, including the one we call The Internet.”

And I’m at 100% nod-RPMs when Doc talks about Erik Cecil “thinking out loud about how networks are something other than the physical paths we reduce them to.” In fact, I find myself understanding issues ever more frequently in terms of traditional structures becoming networks or taking on the properties of networks. E.g., news is a network, not a set of stories. Businesses ought to view themselves more and more as networks. Expertise is a property of a network. Leadership is a property of a network. Markets are networks within which conversations take place, natch. Networks are very much becoming our new paradigm. And, as Erik says, a network is not its physical path.

So, where do I diverge from Doc? I’m not entirely sure I actually do. But I think Doc feels we need to come up with a new framing of the Internet, whereas I see networks as a growing paradigm that will naturally reframe it.

The reframing is here; it’s just unevenly distributed?

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