Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Digital/Dirt Differences – Loose Ends

I’m not happy yet with my first attempt at a list of digital/dirt differences. It didn’t reflect the rigidity and fragility of computer systems; the intangibility of digital media, particularly their intrinsic non-rivalry and non-excludability; or the effortless copyability of digital stuff. There’s also the tension between the promise of personalization in software, and the fact that most extant code is, in fact, largely one-size-fits-all-with-a-little-slack-at-the-edges.

If I just added them, the list would grow to seven – which may be George Miller’s Magical Number, but is too many for me to remember:
  1. Persistence
  2. Findability
  3. Opacity
  4. Mutability
  5. Scale
  6. Brittleness (rigidity, fragility)
  7. Abundance (intangibility, copyability, non-rivalry)
One can make three pairs of intriguing oppositions, with one left over:
  • Persistence <> Mutability
  • Findability <> Opacity
  • Scale <> Brittleness
  • Abundance
Better, but not quite there yet.

A few loose ideas that I’m still mulling, and that my dear readers may have opinions on:

Abundance is an important attribute of digital media. Economics is often defined as “the study of choice under scarcity.” If scarcity exists in digital systems (human attention, perhaps) it’s of a relatively novel kind in evolutionary terms. As I remarked in Why are virtual worlds so real?, synthetic worlds suppress much of the abundance of digital environments in order to be intelligible and enjoyable.

I’m not proposing that any of these attributes are brand new in human experience. I do claim, though, that individually and collectively they represent a phase transition in the situations we have to cope with. Each individual attribute gains its power from an amplification beyond what we’re used to:

Persistent artifacts aren’t novel. The pyramids have been around a while and will probably outlast most buildings in Second Life; and even intangibles like conversations last in people’s memories. However, the precision of recall and the volume of digital items that be recorded is sufficiently novel to drive a phase change.

On brittleness: We’re used to things breaking. However, the closest we’ve come to the brittleness of software until now has been legal documents where a misplaced comma can be very significant. However, in the legal case the “application” is “executed” in a court of law, where human concepts like intent and reasonableness can provide some resilience.

On scale: “The moment programs grow beyond smallness, their brittleness becomes the most prominent feature, and software engineering becomes Sisyphean.” – Jaron Lanier, Why Gordian Software has convinced me to believe in the reality of cats and apples.

Information overload can be seen as the consequence of combined excesses in Abundance, Findability, Persistence and Scale.

Another weakness in the analysis so far: it’s essentially descriptive, and to some extent explanatory. I have yet to demonstrate that it has predictive power. If I were a social scientist I’d try to extract normative prescriptions, but I’m still too much of a geek for that.

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