Alex Wright

Situating Shirky

March 31, 2004

While Iíve been known to take exception with Clay Shirky in the past, I found myself agreeing with almost every word of his latest essay, Situated Software.

Drawing on his recent experience directing student projects at ITP, Shirky muses on how small group software development differs positively from what he calls the "Web School" of instititionalized application development.

Making form-fit software for a small group of users has typically been the province of banks and research labs -- because of the costs involved, Web School applications have concentrated on getting large-scale audiences. And by privileging the value that comes with scale, Web School applications put other kinds of value, particularly social value, out of reach.
Shirky does a good job articulating the virtues (and pitfalls) of small group software development, though I wish he had stretched his gaze beyond the walled gardens of academe.

For example, in the early days of the Web at IBM (circa 1995-1996), we used to see all kinds of ad hoc development happen among small grassroots teams. Someone would spot a problem - e.g., sharing product data sheets, or documenting sales pitches - and pull together an informal team to solve the problem. The result was a sprawling array of wobbly but serviceable little Web tools, usually developed at minimal cost. They were throwaway applications. But they worked.

At IBM, these small group-directed applications signaled a quiet revolution. This was, after all, the original "green screen" IT company; employees had relied forever on unwieldy mainframe applications centrally managed by a vast IT politburo. When the Web happened, it was like springtime in Berlin: all these little Web applications started popping up like wildflowers. Suddenly, people were able to do for themselves what previously had been the province of remote and imperious IT apparatchiks.

As the Web surfaced on the radar of the IT organization, that dynamic changed - for the worse. Sensing a threat to its authority, the IT octopus began asserting control over the Web, aggressively squashing these grassroots initiatives: wresting control over servers, instituting formal requirements-gathering processes, and redirecting lavish green-screen IT budgets on grandiose and overplanned solutions that noone wanted to use. The result was a more controlled and surely a more stable I/T environment, but a far less productive one.

That same dance - between self-directed groups and the forces of hierarchy - plays itself out every day inside any number of organizations. While the future may ultimately belong to small groups - as Adam Smith predicted - we will continue to see entrenched organizational hierarchies resisting that change and grasping for control. It's a central tension for our time: what Francis Fukuyama called "the disintegration of hierarchy."

File under: User Experience

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