Fri 24 Oct 2008
Apparently, I use words with too many syllables when comparing design trade-offs for network-based applications. I use too many general concepts, like hypertext, to describe REST instead of sticking to a concrete example, like HTML. I am supposed to tell them what they need to do, not how to think of the problem space. A few people even complained that my dissertation is too hard to read. Imagine that!
My dissertation is written to a certain audience: experts in the fields of software engineering and network protocol design. These are folks with long industry careers or graduate degrees, usually Ph.D.s who have spent decades learning about their field, identifying an untrodden path to pursue advanced research, and eventually becoming so familiar with that path that they are (hopefully) able to learn something that nobody else in the world has revealed before. In the process, they become specialists, because it is only through specialization that a human being can become sufficiently knowledgeable to find what has yet to be known in a field as large as computing. It is only by becoming specialists that we can understand each other when we explain what we have learned, and thereby grow the field of knowledge over time.
James Burke described the problem of specialization in the final episode of his first series on BBC, Connections. If you are having a hard time following my work, then I strongly suggest you go find a copy of the old episodes somewhere and watch them, bearing in mind that it was first broadcast in 1978, when the folks who brought you the Web were at their most impressionable early age. Mr. Burke would appreciate that connection, I think. What he said deserves a bit of transcripting on my part:
The other, general thing to be said about how change comes about through innovation, and especially about the rate in which that change occurs, is that: the easier you can communicate, the faster change happens.
I mean, if you look back at the past, in that light, you’ll see that there was a great surge in invention in the European Middle Ages, as soon as they had reestablished safe communication between their cities, after the so-called dark ages. There was another one, in the sixteenth century, when these [books] gave scientists and engineers the opportunity to share their knowledge with each other, thanks to a German goldsmith called Johannes Gutenberg who’d invented printing back in the 1450s. And then, when that developed out there, telecommunications, oh a hundred-odd years ago, then things really started to move.
It was with that second surge, in the sixteenth century, that we moved into the era of specialization: people writing about technical subjects in a way that only other scientists would understand. And, as their knowledge grew, so did their need for specialist words to describe that knowledge. If there is a gulf today, between the man-in-the-street and the scientists and the technologists who change his world every day, that’s where it comes from.
It was inevitable. Everyday language was inadequate. I mean, you’re a doctor. How do you operate on somebody when the best description of his condition you have is “a funny feeling in the stomach?” The medical profession talks mumbo jumbo because it needs to be exact. Or would you rather be dead?
And that’s only a very obvious example. Trouble is, when I’m being cured of something, I don’t care if I don’t understand. But what happens when I do care? When, say, the people we vote for are making decisions that effect our lives deeply, `cause that is, after all, when we get our say, isn’t it? When we vote? But say the issue relates to a bit of science and technology we don’t understand? Like, how safe is a reactor somebody wants to build? Or, should we make supersonic airplanes? Then, in the absence of knowledge, what is there to appeal to except our emotions? And then the issue becomes “national prestige,” or “good for jobs,” or “defense of our way of life,” or something. And suddenly you’re not voting for the real issue at all.
[James Burke, "Yesterday, Tomorrow and You" (19:02-21:30), 1978]
Still timely after all these years, isn’t it?
As scientists go, I am a generalist: the topics that I care about range from international politics to physics, with most applications of computing somewhere in between. However, when I send out a message to API designers, I expect the audience to be reasonably competent in the field. I have to talk to them as a specialist because I want them to understand, as specialists themselves, exactly what I am trying to convey and not some second-order derivatives. Most of the terms that I use should already be familiar to them (and thus it is a waste of everyone’s time for me to define them). When there is a concern about a particular term, like hypertext, it can be resolved by pointing out the relevant definitions that I use as an expert in the field.
I don’t try to tell them exactly what to do because, quite frankly, I don’t have anywhere near enough knowledge of their specific context to make such a decision. What I can do is tell them what isn’t REST or that doesn’t fit my definitions, because that is something about which I am guaranteed to know more than anyone else on this planet. That’s what happens when you complete a dissertation on a topic.
So, when you find it hard to understand what I have written, please don’t think of it as talking above your head or just too philosophical to be worth your time. I am writing this way because I think the subject deserves a particular form of precision. Instead, take the time to look up the terms. Think of it as an opportunity to learn something new, not because I said so, but because it will do you some personal good to better understand the depth of our field. Not just the details of what I wrote, but the background knowledge implied by all the strange terms that I used to write it.
Others will try to decipher what I have written in ways that are more direct or applicable to some practical concern of today. I probably won’t, because I am too busy grappling with the next topic, preparing for a conference, writing another standard, traveling to some distant place, or just doing the little things that let me feel I have I earned my paycheck. I am in a permanent state of not enough time. Fortunately, there are more than enough people who are specialist enough to understand what I have written (even when they disagree with it) and care enough about the subject to explain it to others in more concrete terms, provide consulting if you really need it, or just hang out and metablog. That’s a good thing, because it helps refine my knowledge of the field as well.
We are communicating really, really fast these days. Don’t pretend that you can keep up with this field while waiting for others to explain it to you.