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news and thoughts on and around the development of the iCite net
by Jay Fienberg

Not for busy-ness first software

posted: Jun 23, 2003 10:11:00 PM

This is a slight (though larger than expected) detour on my path to write about "why blogs matter" as a sequel to my post on what is a blog.

Without getting too deep into the matter, and with respect to the needs we do have for business activities and the ideals of business interactions, business activity and the ideals of business have, in many ways, become the central defining measure of our lives—and there is something wrong with that.

When I say that business has become the central defining measure of our lives, I realize that could be taken in many different ways and that a lot could be considered about it. I am only really going to focus on software development in this post, but in general what I am getting at is that we less and less have ways of informing and validating our creative endeavors other than through the structures and ideals of business.

I think, like many people, the Internet does offer an alternative to the primacy of business-dominated structures and ideals in our lives, in particular in the ways in which the Internet can be said to serve or be the basis of personal and/or community structures and ideals.

But, the Internet that was created and became an exciting feature in our lives did so largely before being thought of a strategic business tool or asset. Now, in some ways even primarily, the Internet is looked at as a strategic business tool or asset.

(I think that Doc Searls' and David Weinberger's essay, World of Ends: What the Internet Is and How to Stop Mistaking It for Something Else is relevant to this observation about the Internet.)

So, my motivation in writing about this is that, with the iCite net, I am trying to develop some software and Internet services that are first and foremost for individuals and communities. In trying to do this, I realize how infrequently I have been able to do this in the past: I have almost always had to put the priorities of one business or another first.

It is not that most of these business projects weren't end-user or customer focused, but simply that the assumption was that the business itself was the necessary, essential, and even primary component of the system architecture. And, I now question this assumption, or I am concerned that, at least with regards to software / systems, that the questioning of this assumption is not a widely considered topic.

For example, with the Internet, given that there are authors, publishers, and readers, why is necessary? I am not saying that it, or some part of it, isn't necessary. But, I believe that we have all been creating software that keeps as it is in place, and that maybe we don't need to any longer. (And, to give Jeff Bezos and crew credit, they ultimately may be willing to allow or even push parts of what they currently do back directly into the hands of authors, publishers, and readers.)

I think that we are so inundated with the idealism of business—at the very least that business is what makes the world go round, that we don't question its assumptions enough. I am not advocating eliminating business, but questioning the degree to which business ideals intermediate our relationships—and, specifically, the degree to which we are designing software / systems that reinforce that intermediation.

In our world, we are pervaded by business idealism in most every corner. We have examples like various governments seeming to act first and foremost as businesses (see The Onion's parody: GOP Reports Record Second-Quarter Profits). To one degree or another, we are each under a lot of pressure to work for businesses and to make better business.

Getting more specific to software, what software do we use day by day that was not or is not now made to meet business priorities, and more and more promoted for its business features? The various Office softwares are or have become business software. Even many of the operating systems have become significantly business operating systems. What happened to the PC—personal computer?

I think much of the software / systems we use are designed to keep us in busy-ness. Architecturally and functionally, they emphasize business activities.

Perhaps someone with more experience than I can suggest a more accurate common cycle, but it seems that soon after people find creative and interesting uses for software / systems, those software / systems are more and more re-tooled to serve business priorities. And, the transition from personal to business priorities is continuing to get more and more businesslike and efficient!

With regards to significant non-business movements like the GNU Project / Free Software Foundation, I take it as a sign how much people are concerned with whether or how businesses will use open source / free software. Many people didn't believe Linux was a real thing until businesses started taking it seriously. And, are the majority of open source software developers designing non-business oriented software?

But, I think the most interesting example I see right now is the recent business interest in blogs and, to a lesser degree so far, wikis. Web log and wiki software was not created for business first and, I believe, the real success of blogs and wikis is that individuals and communities have been succeeding in using them for non-business activities.

With the growing business interest in blogging and wikis, I see a clear shift in the priorities of many of the creators of blog and wiki software. Now, making their software work for businesses is important.

In general, what parts of the Internet and our day-to-day computer experience that we know and love were created first and foremost for non-business uses? I think there are some things to see about this, so I made a chart with my best answers to this question:

  created for non-business use created for business use now business-use dominated
word processor   X yes
spreadsheet   X yes
database   X yes
Windows OS   X yes
MacOS X   yes?
Linux X   yes
domain names X   yes
email X   ? (spam = business use)
HTML X   no
websites X   ? (the most-viewed sites are business sites?)
IM X   no
XML   X yes
semantic web   ? ?
web services   X yes
blogs X   no
RSS   X? no
wiki X   no

My chart has some question marks. In general, a lot of it is a matter of interpretation. The main thing I hope to show with it is that a lot of what is good about software was created in response to non-business priorities, and much of that is being re-tooled to suit business priorities.

I also sense, in looking at this chart, that a lot of the efforts around the semantic web and web services will fail to achieve the pervasiveness of HTML and websites because those efforts are so largely business oriented. Of course, the idea that blogs can jump-start the semantic web and web services suggests that non-business priorities might be what makes a difference.

I actually have met a lot of people who are creating software that is not for business first. I think Marc Canter's WebOutliner is one good example. I am sure it will have good business uses, but when Marc talks about it, he talks about having a tool for non-business uses like planing his kids' birthday parties, etc.

Personally, I am interested to see what can happen when any single person can easily create a personal information system that, when plugged-in with other individuals' systems, is beyond the features and means of many business systems. I think some signs of what is possible have already appeared with blogs and their connection to one and other.

I know some of what I have written here is vague or too general, and some may be inaccurate or wrong. I am really curious what others think about this, and hope this maybe is a useful thing to have said.

But, the main thing I am trying to say with all of this is: thank you to everyone who has created software not dominated by business priorities. I think we need to do more of that. I think what is really important about software / systems is when that has been done, especially with regards to the Internet.

And, I think we need to remind some of our friends whose priorities are shifting to serve business needs that they have made an impact by being creative beyond business priorities, and we would love to see more of that.

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trackback from: the iCite net development blog
posted: Jul 14, 2003 3:57:01 PM
title: Why blogging matters (more than blogs)

This is the conclusion to my two-part series on blogs

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