Mind / Matter
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This paper discusses the moment when the reality of a point of view is `realized', both in the sense of being understood, and in the sense of `becoming real'.

There are some particular moments when the cumulative facts which describe a situation suddenly get internalized by a realization. Something which may have been appreciatiated intellectually suddenly becomes real. This note discusses some such events with respect to the net. We will start by giving some examples, and then turn to see if we can draw any principles from these events.

Examples There are a number of situations which represent moments of realization. These situations have some general characteristics that are worth understanding. Let's start by looking at some of these in greater detail.
A Visit to Borders' This all started with a trip to my local Borders'. While I had understood that the market for computer books and magazines had declined, and had been watching that decline over several years, it all `came home' when I found that they had cut the amount of shelf space devoted to computer books by about 50%. Even more interesting, they had replaced this with nothing. This suggests that computer books had moved from a source of profit to a source of loss.

This represents a very visible step in a process which began well before the `dot com' boom had busted. For example, magazines like PC World and PC Week had hundreds of pages of advertising. Some of the magazines even began to publish twice a month. The large format Computer Shopper was often many hundreds of pages, sometimes almost 1,000. Then a noticable decline ensued. The number of pages dropped each month, and the advertising became thinner and less informative (`Call for Price') ads. While this was all quite noticable, nothing seemed to so chrystalize the view of the situation as seeing the dramatically shrunken display space for books at the Borders'.

Of course, it is possible to argue that this may just represent a decline in the book business in general. While some of that may be true---Amazon's earnings still seem to be holding up reasonably well---it is worth noting that we haven't yet seen a similar shrinkage in the area of display of other kinds of books at the bookstore. This suggests that the fall in demand for computer related material is differential, and is on top of any drop that might affect other areas.

Old Strategies When old strategies are called back into play, this is a sign of trouble. When the strategies are strategies that have perviously failed, this is particularly the case. Once in a while, things have changed sufficiently, and a previously tried strategy may have failed simply because it was `too early'. But these situations are very rare. If things were tried and if they failed, then it is quite unlikely that re-cycling them will prove to be successful. This is the case, for example, with Apple's return to the `retail store' distribution channel. Stores were a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s. By the time the 1990s rolled around, the strategy had proven to be unsuccessful enough that severe market consolidation took place and only one or two chains and a scattering of mom-and-pop single site stores remained. This all happened prior to the development of the web, which has accellerated this kind of consolidation in both computer areas and in other domains where un-differentiated goods are sold. Just how investing in square footage in expensive malls will prove to be effective remains startlingly unclear---to me at least---and I expect the strategy to be an obvious failure in a very short time.
Old Problems `Old Problems' are another sign of difficulty. Certain problems seem to have been around for 30+ years, and they remain
  • unsolved; and
  • recurrent.
They seem to be proof of the fact that some kinds of learning are increadibly slow at best. An example might be the `calendar' problem which has been kicked around for a long time. We first worked on it in the middle 1970s and came to the conclusion that it was not likely a productive place to invest systems development efforts. So far, after tens---probably hundreds---of thousands of man-hours continue to have been invested in the area, our original guess still looks quite reasonable. Back in the middle 1970s we wrote some papers that suggested why this was likely to have been the case. However, each successive generation of software designers since that time seem to have missed understanding any of the results of their predecessors, so this kind of software continues to
  • be developed;
  • be distributed;
  • be enthusiastically accepted for about 20 minutes; and
  • then return to oblivion,
waiting for the next cycle of develpers to `discover' it.
Wouldn't it be nice if ... Another real-ization is associated with the `... wouldn't it be nice if ...' remark. This is generally used to introduce some facility or capability which has not been requested by demand rising from the user community, but rather because it is some pet idea of the designer/implementor of the software. Examples abound. A simple one might be to take a look at the technology advanced for `mapping' ideas into pseudo-three-dimensional maps that show `interrelationships' between ideas, people, etc. This often looks `neat' at first glance. But I have yet to see even one single substantial claim that any such map has helped anyone develop new insights about anything. It appears to me that the problem, to put it simply, just doesn't happen to exist.
Apple Stores Another real-ization has something to do with the seeming inconsistency between Apple's description of what is going on with their stores and what seems to me to be the case. I haven't done any careful survey of the Apple Stores, and I haven't seen any per/store data that might help me understand what is going on, I can say that I have visited stores all across the country (East Cost, Upper MidWest and West Coast) and I haven't seen anything like the kind of demand that seems to be a central part of all of Apple's press discussions of the subject.
Blogs Blogs represent another domain which is just being real-ized. While I find it difficult to believe, there are estimates that there are up to half a million blogs. Any number such as this would have to be very generous about the definition of the notion of blog, but it can't be doubted that there are now quite a number. Blog hosts, using Antville as one example, quite rapidly generated a few thousand blogs. However, and while Antville doesn't publish any specific statistics, it is perhaps reasonable to estimate that only 3-5% of these sites are modified on any given day. This would seem to square with the fact that there are observably lots of relatively inactive and/or moribund sites.

So blogs are beginning to die. Only time will tell what the relative rates are, and whether this is a transient phenomenon or a move to a new steady-state.

Political Prospects Another example is the claim of importance of the web with respect to politics. In some very narrow circles much was made of the web as a potent political force during the last election. Only a few candidates paid much attention to the web, but even this scant representation was cause for considerable discussion in blogging circles. When the results came in, however, they were less than salutary. In one of the much touted races the `web friendly' candidate got less than half of the votes of the one running in another state who was actually in jail on federal racketeering charges. Not very useful data for making the case that the web is much of a way to influence the political process.
Newsgroups (and other things) Stall Newsgroups are one place where we can possibly get some activity measures that might indicate the development of interest in the area covered by the newsgroup. Traffic is public, and we can count the ebb and flow of the messages. And it has been interesting, particularly in some areas that are of particular concern here. As recently as five years ago there only limited traffic in the areas that are discussed here. Then, in steps that might have been quite parallel to the explosive growth in Silicon Valley and in dot com companies, we entered a period of high growth. Of course during this period there were many `arrivals' and few `departures' from the scene. As the pools of readers and correspondents grew larger, however, departures became more and more common. First, we reached the inflection points where the rate of growth begin to slow. Then growth became ever slower, and in many cases essentially stopped.
Summary: Examples So there are manifold examples of some of the realization that indicates a less and less important role for this technology in many different kinds of organizations. While these trends might, of course, reverse again, it is likely that we are establishing new levels of the (un)importance of the tecnology to the outcomes.
Principles Perhaps there are some things that we can learn if we try to draw some general principles from the data that is presented by the examples that we have been discussing. We can at least try to see if there are some generalizations that can be made.
Seeing Inflection Points Sometimes we are able to detect a real change in an underlying phenomenon if we can see the `inflection points' in some measure. At inflection points we see a shift from an increasing rate of growth to a decreasing rate. It is not that growth stops, but rather than it only begins to slow down. This is often a harbinger of a later shift in the absolute growth rate into negative territory.
Shrill (out of place) Response Another sign that might help us realize a shift from growth to decline is to look for shrill responses. The pundits regularly issue their most agressive predictions just when the circumstances indicate that we might be shifting to less favorable circumstances. One example might be the lackluster announcements of this year's Apple World were preceeded by absurd predictions on the part of the pundits that this show was going to be full of dramatic surprises.
Self-Aggrandizement The tendency towards self-aggrandizement is particularly obvious if you read the regular bloggers. `Nails it', `... gets it exactly right ...', are common phrases in the web. The archetypical remark might be `X gets it exactly right when he complemented me for ...'. And self-aggrandizement may be the last refuge of the otherwise unimportant.
Signal / Noise Ratio A sign that a major shift has taken place in a system is a shift in the signal / noise ratio. An example might be when humor takes over from `adding spice' to the exchange of information, to become the major substance of the exchange. Similarly when discussion dissolves into trolls and responses, then the signal/noise ratio drops precipitously, and unless things get righted quickly, oblivion might not be far away.
Generalization from Transients An important lesson has to do with the notion that generalization from early experience often leads to erroneous conclusions. The early stages of any phenomenon may well be a transient phase which is very untypical of the longer-run behavior the same system. It is very easy to draw the wrong conclusions from these transients. For example, we originally thought that our early E-Mail experience was the wave of a `new future'. It turned out instead, that EMail proved to be just another effective form of mail.
Summary: Principles So there are at least a few generalizations that might be worth considering. Of course, some data would be helpful, but that wanting at least some principles are indicated.
Conclusions There's a lot of writing on lots of walls. Most of it is neglected. When we pay attention to it, however, the messages are often clear. In this case they suggest that while we may have lowered our expectations with respect to the net,

© Copyright 2003 David Ness.
Last update: 2003-03-05 10:46:25 EST