Archive for Engelbart

Enterprise 2.0 versus the truly social

Posted in RSS, Uncategorized, Xenos with tags , , , , on May 10, 2008 by xenosrssblog

I have this problem recently. Or maybe it’s not a problem. It’s hard to tell sometimes, and that is actually a part of the problem. I’m referring to the notions that have clustered around this idea of Web 2.0, and specifically to the aspect of this now known as Enterprise 2.0.

(Did you notice that sound? It seems every time I utter that phrase or write it down I hear faint and far away, like the tolling of distant bells in a country not my own, a murmur of cash registers opening. Enterprise 2.0. There it is, again.)

It’s not that I think it is a fraud. Not entirely. It seems very likely that certain kinds of social networking will migrate into common business usage in the future, and improve effectiveness in all kinds of ways. It’s just that I feel … well, the best way I can put it is that when I read some Enterprise 2.0 writing I find myself reminded of a movie directed by Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre. Do you know it? There are only two main characters: Andre who is a patrician, elegant refined intellectual of the theatre, and Wally who is a playwright/actor of humble means. They meet in a fancy New York restaurant for dinner. I hope you will forgive me for quoting a long passage from the movie’s transcript (legend has that it was mostly ad libbed).

ANDRE: You see, Wally, there’s this incredible building that they built at Findhorn. The man who designed it had never designed anything in his life; he wrote children’s books! And some people wanted it to be a sort of hall of meditation, and others wanted it to be a kind of lecture hall, but the psychic part of the community wanted it to serve another function as well. Because they wanted it to be a kind of spaceship which at night could rise up and let the UFOs know that this was a safe place to land, and that they would find friends there? So, the problem was–’cause it needed a massive kind of roof–was how to have a roof that would stay on the building but at the same time be able to fly up at night and meet the flying saucers? So, the architect meditated and meditated, and he finally came up with the very simple solution of not actually joining the roof to the building! Which means that it should fall off, because they have great gales up in northern Scotland. So, to keep it from falling off, he got beach stones from the beach, or we did, ’cause I worked on this building, all up and down the roof just like that, and the idea was that the energy that would flow from stone to stone would be so strong, you see, that it would keep the roof down under any conditions, but at the same time if the roof needed to go up, it would be light enough to go up! Well, it works, you see. Now, architects don’t know why it works, and it shouldn’t work, ’cause it should fall off, but it works, it does work: the gales blow and the roof should fall off, but it doesn’t fall off. [Pause. Coughing in the background.]

WALLY: Yep. Well, uh. D’you wanna know my actual response to all this? I mean, do you want to hear my actual response?


WALLY: See, my actual response, I mean…I mean…I mean, I’m just trying to survive, you know. I mean, I’m just trying to earn a living, just trying to pay my rents and my bills. I mean, uh…ahhh. I live my life, I enjoy staying home with Debby. I’m reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, and that’s that! I mean, you know, I mean, occasionally maybe Debby and I will step outside, we’ll go to a party or something, and if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful. And I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays that other people have written, and reading the reviews of those plays, and what people said about them, and what people said about what people said, and…. And I mean, I have a list of errands and responsibilities that I keep in a notebook; I enjoy going through the notebook, carrying out the responsibilities, doing the errands, then crossing them off the list!

And I mean, I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, or, you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, still there for me to drink in the morning! And no cockroach or fly has died in it overnight. I mean, I’m just so thrilled when I get up and I see that coffee there just the way I wanted it, I mean, I just can’t imagine how anybody could enjoy something else any more than that! I mean…I mean, obviously, if the cockroach–if there is a dead cockroach in it, well, then I just have a feeling of disappointment, and I’m sad.

But I mean, I just don’t think I feel the need for anything more than all this. Whereas, you know, you seem to be saying that it’s inconceivable that anybody could be having a meaningful life today, and you know, everyone is totally destroyed. And we all need to live in these outposts. But I mean, you know, I just can’t believe, even for you, I mean, don’t you find…? Isn’t it pleasant just to get up in the morning, and there’s Chiquita, there are the children, and the Times is delivered, you can read it! I mean, maybe you’ll direct a play, maybe you won’t direct a play, but forget about the play that you may or may not direct. Why is it necessary to…why not lean back and just enjoy these details? I mean, and there’d be a delicious cup of coffee and a piece of coffee cake. I mean, why is it necessary to have more than this, or to even think about having more than this. I mean, I don’t really know what you’re talking about. I mean…I mean I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about.

[Excerpt sourced from here .]

I am just utterly in sympathy with Wally. I’ve spent close to the past year working on a software application, Xenos, which I believe does some very useful things and could really assist people using information in an organization. This is my equivalent of “and if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful”.

“I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about.” That pretty much sums up my reading of many Enterprise 2.0 texts. To give you an example, here is an extract from Jeff Nolan’s blog Venture Chronicles.

Basically the entire RSS market has been built around a use mode of subscribe-then-read, and that is likely to continue as an exclusive model for many users or in parallel to other use modes. The weakness in this approach is that you only know what you know, as in you have [to] know about a feed before you can subscribe to it… and I generally work off the approach that it’s far more likely that the best content on any keyword is not necessarily found in my OPML.

There are an increasing array of companies that are working on a next generation of feed consumption use model, built not around the explicit subscribing of feeds and chronological consumption of content. In order for RSS to get to the next level of mainstreaming we have to think in terms of behavioral filtering of content and discovery of new content sources based on explicit preferences or inferred preferences derived from behaviors. This is exciting for me as a user.

I think one of the reasons why Techmeme has proven to be a consistent favorite is that this next generation model is partly how Gabe built the system. Through using Techmeme I am essentially outsourcing feed discovery to the service and consuming content not based on subscriptions but topics. As a users [sic], ordinary or power, I would like to have a personal Techmeme that delivers content based on my consumption habits, or put another way, my attention streams.

To further develop this model, I would like to see a social dimension develop that pushes up/down content based on a collaborative filter that takes into account my social graph and what they are consuming and rating, explicitly or otherwise. The problem with rating that we need to overcome is that a very small percentage of people will actually score content, so that’s why the attention streams become valuable, through activities they are effectively scoring content.

[Venture Chronicles: The Future of RSS]

Let me state clearly here that I am really not disparaging Mr. Nolan’s thoughts or writing. I do think, however, that we could express most of what is said above like this:

People are often unaware of good sources of information and good information. One way of ameliorating this would be to link them indirectly to the information used by people with whom they have close associations. This can be done both through overt links, such as tags placed by individuals, and by tracking what these associated people actually view and make use of.

These are truly useful thoughts, and I think that if most of us could access something like this today, we would make some use of it. However, I don’t think it is tremendously revolutionary. It’s a useful addition to the way people already work.

What is lacking from this specific text, and from many other Enterprise 2.0 texts (and this is a criticism) is some idea about how to implement such changes. Often there seems to be a kind of “Darwinian” suggestion: people will change/adopt new technologies, because if they don’t they will be left behind and their careers and livlihoods will suffer.

Anyone who has had any involvement with organizational change knows that is not the way it happens. Change happens because the people affected by the change manage at some stage in the process to start saying “yes” instead of “no”. For people managing and implementing change, getting to that “yes” is what their work is all about. You only get to “yes” when you have truly considered everything that the change will affect, which includes the practical, the emotional and the social. Sometimes you have to be tough, too, but that toughness is meaningless without a background of reasonableness.

Most of Enterprise 2.0 concentrates on the capabilities offered by a set of tools. It’s a little ironic that even as it pursues “the social” in terms of how these tools work, it seems to pass over “the social” in terms of how they are implemented. I think Douglas Engelbart had a far better idea (in the late1970s) of what Enterprise 2.0 might really be when he wrote:

A useful metaphor, “hill climbing.” Each knowledge organization has to relocate itself, upwards through gradient lines of new skills, knowledge, methods and roles; struggling against the constant gravitational drag of uncertainty, the reaction to newness, the fatigue from unusual new exertions and postures, the false starts and wrong turns — AND THE CLIMBING ENERGY CAN ONLY COME FROM WITHIN THE ORGANIZATION.

In my view, the only feasible approach involves an explicitly chartered, full-time, internal organizational unit whose main work is to facilitate the organization’s self-development. It provides planning, coaching in hill-climbing techniques, guiding, and general facilitation; but each of the other organizational units has to do its own scrambling and sweating to get its membership into a coherent new grouping up on the next level place.

There will have to be exploratory groups that are the first to establish themselves at new levels on new parts of the hill; theirs will be much more difficult transitions than for the following groups, and the larger organization has to subsidize these exploratory probes as a general expense within its whole-organization evolutionary costs.

“Prototype” efforts seem so important; and they can’t be done using minimal service systems. They have to be considered as an exploratory investment. And, consider that the process of conducting the first such prototype activities will constitute an exploratory investment in learning how to conduct prototype activities.

[“Evolving the Organization of the Future: A Point of View,” Douglas C. Engelbart, Proceedings of the Stanford International Symposium on Office Automation, March 23-25, 1980 (AUGMENT,80360,). ]

“Social” tools will likely be an important feature of future enterprises. But they are not a deus ex machina solution to any problems. The only “solution” is ongoing thoughtful consideration of problems, and the knowledge that persistent difficulties can only be solved by trying something new, and climbing that hill.

Where Xenos fits into this is that it is designed to augment the very good skills of key information workers who are employed, right now, in critical information tasks. It is an attempt to help them start climbing the next hill. And it’s my earnest hope that if I can encourage them to do this, they will assist me, indirectly or directly, in climbing my next hill.

That’s pretty much it, really. That, and the odd cockroach-free cup of coffee, and I’ll count myself lucky.



A genesis for the ideas behind Xenos

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2008 by xenosrssblog

The Engelbart legacy

A significant part of the development of computer technology has consisted of people either ignoring and passing over great ideas, or completely forgetting the lessons of the past. Looked at from that viewpoint, the last fifty years or so seem not unlike the battle of the Renaissance during the fading years of the Dark Ages. Small islets of advanced technology have sprung up here and there, like tech-centric city-states, and been consistently overwhelmed by a kind of ox-like, obdurate failure to understand.

Today’s feudalism is fueled not by adherence to a religion that taught The World was essentially a form of training for purgatory and Hell, but by an enthusiastic belief in outmoded business processes and market structures. It’s an enthusiasm most often driven by two things: the comfort of the familiar, and the need by individuals to retain existing power relationships. (Curiously, the principle of power conservation extends not only to people wishing to retain the power they have over others, but also to maintain the current relationship with those who have power over themselves. The paradigm of “the boss” is just as persistent as the paradigm of “the worker”.)

The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) run by Xerox was one place of enlightenment during the 1970s. It brought forth much of the technology that we accept as being almost commonplace today: laser printers, high-speed networking and the display of high-quality graphics on computer screens. Indeed, much of what we now think of as “personal computing” was born there. But the business world was not yet ready to accept these possibilities, and that bright star eventually faded, though many of the ideas, isolated from a grander, coherent vision, found fertile soil and flourished.

Yet there was an even earlier islet of enlightenment created by Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute during the 1960s. His achievements were demonstrated for the world to see at what has become known as “the mother of all demos” in San Francisco in 1967. Dr. Engelbart sat at a desk in front of a packed hall, a giant 40 foot screen behind him displaying wonders only a little less fantastic than those of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey released the following year. You can see a recording of that day here.

Dr. Engelbart invented the computer mouse; indeed, he invented much of the modern language of computer interaction, such as windows that integrated text, pictures and even video. Yet how many high school students in the USA even know his name, let alone the litany of his achievements — including the invention of email? To read more about his work and fascinating life, please visit

Dr Engelbart has been driven throughout his life by a sense of mission, a kind of dogged purpose from which he has refused to be diverted. As Dr. Engelbart saw it, one of the central problems facing the world was that increasingly important, increasingly complex decisions would have to be made as society and civilization itself continued to develop. Remember, the 1960s had looming over it the shadow of the atomic and the hydrogen bomb, devices which seemed to grant mankind almost god-like control over the immediate universe — albeit only power to destroy, not create. Dr. Engelbart believed the only way we could possibly survive would be to better develop our capacity for dealing with complex problems. (The best introduction to his ideas is likely found in one of his papers Toward High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware.)

That meant, for him, two primary human faculties had to be better developed. The first was the way we deal with information. He saw a vital need for systems that would make it possible for us to absorb vast quantities of information by categorizing it and storing it in systems of retrieval that worked primarily through the paradigm of the outliner. Secondly, he worked hard to develop systems that would enable easy collaboration, even over considerable distances, so that the very best minds could be put to work together on solving the most difficult problems.

The third element of his thinking was that to enable these developments and changes it was critical to concentrate on what he termed “C activities”. Dr Engelbart divided business activities into three groups, A, B and C. “A” activities are those that relate directly to production, including product R&D, accounting, sales and so forth. “B” activities are those which enhance the performance of “A” activities, for example the introduction of an email system. “C” activities are those that enhance the way both “A” and “B” activities are performed. A “C” activity might be to determine the best way, sociologically, to introduce a new email system.

The hope was that every improvement made would eventually drive improvements in the improvement process itself. Introducing email to an environment which had previously not had such a form of communication would improve its functioning. But email would also help people developing email itself to develop better email. And that “better email” would help to produce an even better email. In other words, there is the potential to match the exponential development of complexity in world society with an exponential increase in human capability.

Dr. Engelbart referred to these ideas and the environment they created as “augmentation”. Augmentation, importantly, places the human at the center of decision-making activities. In this it differs significantly from its close cousin, “automation”. Automation is largely about discovering consistent patterns of interaction, and developing responses to these patterns. Augmentation is more interested in “the novel iteration”, the pattern that is not a pattern.

Consider one of the classic cases of automation we face in the modern world. Type a number, a tab, followed by some text, and press Return in Microsoft Word, and the program will automatically format that line as part of a numbered outline. This is handy if you were starting an outline, and a bit distressing if you were not. The same sequence, for example, might be for the heading to a chapter.

So, how would an augmentation system handle the same scenario, which comes down to making commonplace tasks more easy to achieve? Where automation typically matches patterns to statistical likelihood ([a] 95% of the time people are seeking to create a bulleted outline list and [b] 85% of users have no idea how to do that kind of formating), augmentation seeks to find insights of connection instead. In fact the two examples, a bulleted item in a list and a chapter heading, are very much the same thing. For example, in a table of contents, a chapter heading is basically an item in a bulleted list. The difference is immediate context.

Instead of number-tab-Return meaning “format as bullet”, the same sequence in augmentation could mean “form a data-order point”. How that dop gets formated would depend on specific context.

So, under augmentation what is happening is that an artifact from the “dead” analog world, formating to communicate intent, is being transformed into something in the “live” digital world, a semantic gesture that indicates structure and meaning.

This is very much the basis of the system that Dr Engelbart developed, which he called NLS (for oNLine System) and demonstrated that day in San Francisco. In NLS, everything functions as a kind of dop. This “outlining” system (and, yes, Dr Engelbart invented online outlining) enabled not only the ordering of information, but instant navigation to any dop.

From our modern, post-1995 perspective, it is necessary to develop this system slightly further. The hierarchical order of an outline document is really only one possible view of what is really a set of related nodes. Hierarchy specifies that the meaning of the connections between the nodes is essentially “parent-child”. Other views of these connections might be “equality”, “association”, or “relatedness”. Thus if we have two dops or elements that are related to each other, we have four possible entities being defined: each element, the connection, and the entity formed by the elements and the connection in combination.

Outlines and RSS

What has all this got to do with RSS?

Each RSS file is a form of recorded outline. The channel is the top order element, and each RSS item is subordinate to this – it’s a classic “parent-child” relationship. In the sense outlined above, an RSS feed is a single nodal element, containing other nodal elements, in a relationship that is defined in the channel element.

One of the people responsible for the early development of RSS, Dave Winer, made great use of this outline relationship in the programming environment he developed, Frontier. Frontier was based on outlining; its scripting language was expressed in outlines (similar to the indentation system used in the Python scripting language, which is also a form of outline), and the object database at the center of all Frontier activity was also expressed as an outline in the interface. In Frontier it was relatively trivial to read RSS feeds into an outline, and manipulate its contents.

Mr. Winer also developed the OPML file format, which today is commonly used to provide lists of RSS feed subscriptions/references, known sometimes as “blogrolls” (when they involve blogs), which function somewhat like playlists in iTunes. OPML, however, was originally a means of rendering in OPML the state of an outline element in Frontier.

Frontier, and the content management system built on its base, Manilla, are yet another islet of brilliance that somehow got passed over. Frontier is now an opensource project. You can get a good taste of how it functions by using Mr. Winer’s OPML editor, which he has generously made available here .

Enter Xenos

At the core of Xenos is the rather simple thought: what would happen if we joined together OPML files and RSS files fairly directly? We would have the content provided by each RSS node, which could be hierarchically organized in the OPML format.

The native format in which Xenos saves files is exactly that: a root element that contains OPML elements that contain RSS elements that contain RSS items. This is also the experience of using Xenos: it is essentially an outliner that enables users to import RSS feeds, and then freely rearrange their elements across this hierarchy.

Additionally, however, Xenos seeks to re-integrate the final element of the hierarchy, the web pages to which the items point, back into consideration. Thus, when viewing the individual details of each RSS item, Xenos also summons up the web page to which the detail points.

Xenos departs fairly radically from existing systems for manipulating RSS feeds in that it is based on augmentation, rather than automation. Its goal is not to automatically present a reader with a set of relevant news items (through active searches or filtering), for example, but rather to make it as simple as possible for a user to make and break the connections between items.

It is strongly focused, in Dr Engelbart’s terms, on enhancing B and C activities. The hope is that it will provide a base system on which further developments can be built, in particular those that involve the social possibilities of RSS, and the development of socially based knowledge management within organizations.