The ODF - Microsoft face off is good theater, but it's also an excellent example of how the Web and the Internet allow a range of opinions to emerge, become synthesized, and then result in action and innovation: a process one might call "SuperIntegration/Creation"
This entry needs a bit of an introduction, but it really does come back to ODF, so please bear with me.
Last summer I dedicated the June issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin to the future of the Web. The article that continues to have the biggest audience, not surprisingly, was a long interview with Tim Berners-Lee on the prospects for the Semantic Web. My principal thought contribution to that same issue was an effort to contrast the historical process of knowledge acquisition with the radically new synthesis enabled by the Web. That article was called The Web and the Advent of “SuperIntegration/Creation”. (The CSB is free, by the way. All you need to do is fill in a few words on the subscription form).
What I suggested in that piece was that the process of acquiring knowledge as a society derives from the following:
The base dynamic was (and continues to be) the ability to build upon the information, discoveries and ideas that were acquired and developed by others, and particularly of those that have come before. This process depends upon the following steps:
– Learning something new (acquiring new information, and reaching new conclusions)
– sharing the new information and discoveries (rather than hoarding it for personal advantage)
– Integrating that information with other information and/or newly acquired information to a purpose
– Archiving the information, in accurate form, for future generations
– Reacquiring that archived information (i.e., knowing it exists and how to find it)
– Learning something new as a result, and repeating the cycle
From this, I concluded:
Each time there has been an important advancement in our ability to perform one (or more) of these process steps, there has been a commensurate advancement in our ability to build upon information, discoveries and ideas more productively and rapidly.
I then gave examples of how developments in individual steps have had profound consequences (e.g, the acquisition of language enabled a quantum leap in the ability to share information, while the invention of writing not only allowed knowledge to be shared in a singled generation, but to be transported accurately over long distances and archived for future generations as well). By the Renaissance, there had evolved a primitive version of the Internet and the Web, in that all scientists in the Western World were fluent in written Latin, and could therefore share and build upon each other’s ideas. But the sharing process was extremely slow before the advent of telecommunications, and the evolution of thought was therefore more linear than neural.
The Internet and the Web, of course, changed all that, and enable what I called “SuperIntegration/Creation,” a concept that I introduced as follows:
I have purposely left integration until last, because it is at this level that the revolutionary aspect of the Web is most manifest, and at which historical labeling becomes inadequate, requiring a new term to describe what is happening in a multitude of new peer-to-peer, collaborative, on-line communities. Let us adopt “SuperIntegration/Creation” as that term. SuperIntegration/Creation may be thought of as being simultaneously both a verb and a noun, and can be defined as follows:
The democratic, merit-based, neural, real-time, ongoing, evolving, sharing, integration and archiving of all information, discoveries and ideas that, on a Web-wide basis, represents our entire understanding of a subject at any point in time.
I’ll spare you the rest of the article, but here’s where we come back to ODF. As I reviewed a selection of what the media and the blogs of the world had to offer on ODF this morning, I thought that selection presented a perfect example of the SuperIntegration/Creation process, whereby myriad views are being expressed, and significant events are occurring in a constant flood of data and perception, from which emerges the consensus upon which action and understanding evolve (which consensus, of course, continues to change).
For example. At one end of the spectrum we have Microsoft, which obviously has a self-interest in avoiding wide adoption of ODF, but also represents a more traditional way of thinking about how the IT infrastructure should be conceived and should evolve. And at the other end, we see an interesting piece by John Udell titled Beyond Office Document Formats, in which Jon suggests that ODF itself is a traditionalist tool that represents archaic thinking. Jon would like to leapfrog past formats to a world where the same issues ODF was created to resolve are addressed instead through more cutting edge means:
Both [Office and ODF] are conventional applications that, whether free or not, impose a heavy download, installation, and support burden on the people who use them….The format debate also presumes an archaic mode of information exchange: e-mail attachments. We work this way because it’s a habit our Web technologies don’t yet enable us to break. There’s no doubt in my mind, however, that online forms will continue to transform our means of gathering information, that hypertextual XML will make page-oriented technologies such as PDF obsolete as a means of publishing it, and that blogs, wikis, and their successors will become our primary means of collaborating around shared information.
In between these extremes, of course, there are a multitude of perceptions offered that have different entry points, and therefore their own discrete bits of wisdom that can be incorporated into the Noospheric understanding of Where We Should Go Next. To give just one example, here’s a piece by Bernard Golden at SearchOpenSource.com, called Golden’s Rules: The real story behind the Massachusetts ODF flap. Golden, like me, likes to look to the past for a context within which to guess the future, and offers the following, after asking how you and I should be thinking about the Microsoft vs. ODF face off and (impliedly) how much we should care about who win:
What of the rest of us? When I think of this situation, I’m reminded of two words: Token Ring. Twenty years ago TCP/IP and Ethernet weren’t the obvious solution for networking as they are today. IBM, which had a default monopoly for computing, offered a complete technology solution based on its proprietary architecture….What TCP/IP and Ethernet had going for them was that they were simple, open standards that anyone could create products for. We all know how the story turned out. The simple, cheap solution defeated the complex, expensive one, because organizations like to save money and implement infrastructures that are easy to manage.
But there’s more to this story than cheap and simple beating expensive and complex — and that’s why the ODF situation is important to everyone.
Because TCP/IP are simple, cheap standards, it meant that many players could innovate in many different places within the network infrastructure….Without the victory of TCP/IP, things we take for granted today would never have been possible — Ebay, Itunes, VoIP. None of them could have been price competitive enough to achieve adoption. And none of them could have been predicted at the time of the TCP/IP vs. Token Ring shootout.
Similarly, standardized file formats like ODF will enable applications and services we can’t predict….
The excitement of our times, as illustrated by the current ODF conceptualization process, is that there are thousands, if not millions, of nodes (us) in this conceptualization process, all interacting in real time to imagine the future, and by acting on that imagining, literally make that future so — an immeasurably strong force that even the marketing muscle of Microsoft cannot necessarily deflect, let alone stop.
To me, this process of SuperIntegration/Creation seems to be one of the most profound evolutionary steps in the history of knowledge and society. Or, as I concluded in the article that I first described above:
Perhaps, this latest revolutionary leap in how we acquire knowledge, as with our acquisition of the gift of language so many millennia ago, may even change what it means to be a human being.