Beyond the Web

Doc Searls

Metaphors have power, they frame how we think about things, sometimes rather insidiously. We talk blithely about ‘the web’ as if it were a thing and as if that thing were well described as a web. But just as the cloud is somebody else’s computer, so the web is everybody else’s computers, and the connections between them are much less a web than a tangle or, as Searls puts it, a haystack.

Searls is one of the original cluetrainers, and so has been thinking about this for a long time. His metaphor is, of course, no more an accurate description of anything tangible than the conventional one we are all familiar with. But changing the metaphor changes some of the questions in some challenging and important ways, and eleven rather good ones are listed in his post.

The web we all currently experience is a set of points – points which may be linked together, but still points. It is driven by a client-server architecture which takes our data and scatters it around in ways were cannot control, but which is structurally incapable of delivering integrated experiences in return. That’s so normal that we barely recognise it – but it’s not the only possible way for systems to be connected and for data to flow.

So yes, the Web is wonderful, but not boundlessly so. It has limits. Thanks to the client-server architecture that prevails there, full personal agency is not a grace of life on the Web. For the thirty-plus years of the Web’s existence, and for its foreseeable future, we will never have more agency than its servers allow clients and users.

It’s time to think and build outside the haystack.

How Government Learned to Waste Your Time

Annie Lowrey – The Atlantic

Time is rarely the central measure of bureaucracy, and where it is considered at all the focus tend to be on total elapsed time rather than the time cost of complying with the process.

But time (which is also a proxy for complexity and cognitive load) is a massive, and sometimes deliberate, barrier to accessing services. That matters for the obvious reason that an impenetrable service is not a good service, and this article is a reminder that even now, as Lowrey puts it, ‘little attention is being paid to making things work, rather than making them exist.’

But there is also a more insidious effect, a dark pattern of dark patterns:

The time tax undercuts public confidence in government, turning people away from civic life. People think that government cannot work, because government does not work. So what reasonable person would trust government to work?

This article draws on US examples, but many of the points made are more general. As Vicky Teinaki has pointed out, in the UK the service standard at least has the intention of taking some account of the first problem, ensuring that things work as well as exist. But that doesn’t really address the underlying complexity of individual services, still less the fact that the interaction, or lack of one, between different services can be the greatest time sink of all.

Time always has a cost. But it is too often treated as an externality.

10 Things I Learnt in Government … not without pain

Anthony Finkelstein

This is a beguilingly simple list of ten things necessary to understand in order to get things done in government. It’s the best list of its kind I have ever seen, with a great deal of insight captured in remarkably few words.

It is, more particularly, a way into understanding how the policy and ministerial end of government works, with insights which are not only valuable for people coming into that world, but also, I suspect, are useful reminders for those familiar with it.

Unintentionally, it also provides an answer to common cries of despair from people whose work brings them close to but not quite into that world. Recognising these ten points will not be (and perhaps should not be) a cure for that frustration, but has the potential to navigate more effectively within the world they describe.

Performing a Project Premortem

Gary Klein – Harvard Business Review

Projects of every kind go horribly wrong in a bewildering variety of ways. Despite that, the instinct to assume that the act of planning is sufficient to ensure that assumptions are borne out and that delivery follows a smooth path can be overwhelming. But there is great power in assuming the opposite: if we examine early on some of the ways in which the project might have gone horribly wrong, in time to think about how the risk might be mitigated, the chances of successful delivery are enhanced.

That’s the idea behind a premortem – not waiting until the project is dead before performing the autopsy. At root it’s a simple risk management technique, its power is in making it easier for people to liberate themselves from optimism bias.

This is not a new article, it is the definitive account of the method, and having tracked it down to share with a colleague, thought it worth sharing here too. I was first introduced to it by Naomi Stanford, who has an interesting blog post contrasting premortems with devil’s advocacy – the former is a distinctly (if curiously) more positive approach.