Tim Berners Lee Keynote in World Wide Web Conference 2012

Tim Berners Lee Keynote in World Wide Web Conference 2012

Distributed, Collaborative Decision Making? Music to my ears – we should be doing more of that

On the opening day of www2012, Tim Berners Lee gave an inspirational keynote. I found it to be inspirational because it focused on what matters most, imho: the social and political aspects of technical design and decisions and the interplay among them.

Personally, i needed that inspiration as in the research community the focus is all too often on being geeky and solving problems and much less on what the ways one chooses to address a problem represents. Not to mention the even more important questions: choosing problems to address and reflecting on the way the solutions are used.

Even though the keynote was streamed live at the time, so far i have not been able to find a video. There is this pretty good unofficial transcript, but here i would like to mention the key points of this “Values of the Web” keynote from my own perspective and in relation to the work we did with Adam Westerski and my IMC colleagues and was presented in Semantic Web Collaborative Spaces.

Technical design and social context are closely related. Evidently, technical infrastructure structure reflects the structure of the organization that produces the software: if you have an organization with 3 divisions, you will most likely end up with a platform with 3 modules. Why? Because it’s easy to communicate and share variables with people in the same room, while for the ‘outside world’ you have to think it through and define cleaner interfaces.

Standards also reflect the background and affiliation of the people involved in them and the context: IP protection, market domination and so forth. Technical design is rarely neutral: not only is it connected with the past and present social context, it also affects the future one.

A distributed architecture enables and opens possibilities, monolithic structures do the opposite. Limiting, insufficient infrastructure makes people’s lives hard as it does not enable them to operate according to their needs, so someone somewhere along the line will have to put energy into changing that.

Taking a stance is important. When someone asks you to do something or claims they know what’s best for you, reflect. And react. If somebody asks you to build a proprietary mobile application, tell them you’d rather do a mobile web app based on standards.

Get involved in the standard definition procedure and make sure that standards are formed in a consensual way and enable everyone to achieve their goals. When a government tells you your access should be limited and your data should be retained and analyzed, react. Inform others, sign petitions, take to the streets. Nothing will change unless you do and it’s all up to you.

Consensual, meritocratic decision making is important. Communication is hard work. Take pair programming for example – statistics say that people who code on their own are generally more productive. Of course they are – they don’t have to talk to anyone, they just code. However, that’s not necessarily a good thing: they could be very fast in building the wrong thing, the wrong way.

A lot of energy goes into debating and reaching decisions. Anyone who’s ever seated in a (w3c) committee knows how much hard hard goes into decision making. You have to listen to others, you have to understand where they’re coming from, you have to learn from them, just as much as you have to expect (to demand, in fact) that they do the same.

Now, since all of that is not only closely related to my research, but also close to my heart, i wanted to ask Tim’s opinion on Distributed, Collaborative Decision Making in the QA session. Not surprisingly, he was enthusiastic about it: “This question is music to my ears – i could go on about it for hours”.

He did in fact give an extended reply, mentioning among others the principles the w3c decision making process operate, based on meritocracy and reflecting the distributed structure of the web itself, how exposure to diversity helps people broaden their perspective and how the decision making processes should reflect the fact that we are moving away from centralized and hierarchical structures towards decentralized and ad-hoc ones.

He also saved the best for last: “Let 1000 flowers bloom. Let us try different organizational modes and different approaches for decision making, let us see what works in what context. Absolutely, we should be doing more of this research”. Enough said.

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