Designing IT in the Age of Obama
This page describes a meeting discussion that I moderated. While the meeting has already occurred, the topic is of general interest (start with "Here is where I want to start the conversation") and the planning material for it can be used as a starting point for other discussions. A podcast of the event and other material is available and listed at the bottom of this page.

Next Wednesday morning, April 1, 2009, we are having another event for the Open Source cluster of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council. It will be a 2-hour open discussion titled "Designing IT in the Age of Obama" and will be held at NERD (Microsoft's New England R & D facility) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can sign up on the event page (readers of my blog who aren't MassTLC members can get the member price, $40, by using code "guest09" -- students are free: contact Vanessa at MassTLC).

The idea for the discussion came out of a brainstorming session we had several weeks ago. In President Obama's inaugural address he touched on some particular themes about change. He also mentioned use of technology. I thought that if we could get some people who are used to thinking about changes in how we do things in the room we could have an interesting discussion.

For "panelists" we were able to get Doc Searls, one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto and now at Harvard's Berkman Center and senior editor for Linux Journal, as well as Susie Adams, Microsoft Federal Civilian and IGO Chief Technology Officer, Tim Yeaton, the new CEO of Black Duck Software who has a background that includes Red Hat and Macromedia, and Tom Kincaid, Executive Director of Sun's Application Platform organization and part of the original Java EE architecture and management teams.

Since this will be much more of an open, un-panel discussion than a traditional go-down-the-line panel presentation, these four are there to be part of a discussion that includes everybody else who attends. Attendees who have already signed up include senior people from major software companies, lawyers with a corporate as well as industry-wide perspective, and students. We will definitely have in the room a wide range of experiences and views for discussion.

This is not about Open Source vs. proprietary development but rather about issues common to all. I believe, though, that the exercise in thinking that went into the concept of Open Source is helpful here.

We will be discussing topics for which the full background of each person participating should come into play, not just their current job or company. They will not be speaking in any official capacity on behalf of their company and nobody should construe it as such. Knowing their affiliations and positions within those entities, if people make those known to us, are helpful in order to judge their perspectives and biases, but not for attributing the specific statements they make to those entities, unless they state otherwise at the time. We will be discussing new topics for which companies are still making up their minds where they stand, and open brainstorming is needed. Participants need to be able to bring up and investigate ideas that they may later not choose to endorse.
Here is where I want to start the conversation:

The traditional IT industry grew up around the physical restrictions of working with people within the walls of your company or institution. Until widespread use of the Internet, collaboration outside of physical proximity was difficult and expensive. Corporate legal structures emerged that were based on those restrictions, using tradesecret, anti-trust, copyright, patent, and other existing legal regimes.

The Internet brought about an inexpensive ease with which people can work with others and share data with little regard to location and distance. Moore's Law has moved many forms of communication and expression into computer data, making it subject to such sharing, mixing, and collaboration. Legal innovations such as Open Source licenses have made possible new collaboration structures that were not previously possible in the old "stops at the corporate wall" days. Other legal innovations such as Creative Commons have cut down the friction that holds back sharing and collaboration by removing the need to negotiate anew for each access. Open standards and open source building blocks have removed many of the barriers to making use of the data that is now being shared. All of this has enabled the individual to participate in many of these endeavors without the need to be part of a formal entity or have special, expensive equipment and permissions.

President Obama said the following in his inaugural address about a new foundation for growth, inclusiveness, and the duty of responsibility:

"But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift. And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together."

"The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."

"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world . . ."

The next day, President Obama issued a memorandum on "Transparency and Open Government". That document starts out with (emphasis added):

"My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government."

"My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use."

"Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information."

"Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector."

This call for transparency, participation, and collaboration are amazingly in tune with some of the theses set out in the 1999 Cluetrain Manifesto with regards to companies, such as:

Markets are conversations.
The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.
Human communities are based on discourse-on human speech about human concerns.
Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.
Companies make a religion of security, but this is largely a red herring. Most are protecting less against competitors than against their own market and workforce.
Paranoia kills conversation. That's its point. But lack of open conversation kills companies.
Don't worry, you can still make money. That is, as long as it's not the only thing on your mind.
We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.
We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.

In my recent essay, "The Meaning of Transparency in Today's Data-Centric World", I explain how people should be able to ask and answer their own questions without you doing it for them or even anticipating the questions. Unlike the days of when you needed to ask for a "report" that summarized data about transactions and events, you want to be able to drill down yourself on all the raw data.

Another, perhaps useful piece of background material is my "Software That Lasts 200 Years" essay that discusses the special needs of software that serves as the infrastructure for society. We are building crucial social, commercial, and health care systems on a structure that is completely digital -- there is no "paper backups" nor is there a need to model it on old systems encumbered by old physical constraints.

I will be moderating the discussion. We'll see where things go based on the discussion. To start off and to get people thinking in advance, here are some possible discussion areas I've come up with. They should be looked at with respect to government as well as general commercial IT and personal-use technology, in the areas of transparency, participation, and collaboration with an eye towards a duty of responsibility to more than just ourselves as we build a foundation for growth that is inclusive:

From a structural viewpoint, what are the things we want to do now easily and inexpensively that used to be way too hard and prohibitively expensive?
What new legal frameworks do we need to create and adopt widely to make this easy so each participant doesn't have to be a pioneer and incur those costs?
How does the duty to responsibility to more than just ourselves come into play?
What are the issues with being inclusive of people who have challenges with respect to financial resources or physical abilities, or don't live near population centers? What duties do we have to use technology to enable individuals?
What are factors that relate to being a foundation for growth? What do we mean by growth? What makes it inclusive?
What basic infrastructure, as usable reference implementations, standards, and tools need to be created? Who will do these and how will they be paid for?
What rights does this imply we are giving citizens? How do we make sure that the affordances are there so that these rights may be exercised?
What new protections do we need? How do we enforce them?
How will these change affect things like FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests? What is the appropriate level of transparency with corporate data? With personal data?
How will we know if we are being successful? How will we know if we are going off in a direction we will regret?

I will attempt to record this conversation for the benefit of those who can't attend (and as a memory aid for those who do), but given the format I can't be sure of the quality of the sound. I'll post any links here after the event.

-Dan Bricklin, March 26, 2009

The event was this morning. You can find a 2-hour podcast recording of it on my podcast page. The sound quality is very good even though many people participated throughout the room.

The handout consisted of a reprint of the post above as well as some background on the panelists. The panelists provided much of that information on the recording when they are introduced.

We had one of the attendees write some of the points we covered on the whiteboard as they were made. Here are photos of that:

This is the illustration Doc Searls made to explain some points:

-Dan Bricklin,April 1, 2009

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