A New Mental Model for Computers and Networks

It is hard for computing to comprehend this, but not for the minds of people programming and using computers.

Computing and programming require that we think of both in explicit ways, and in explicit terms. Yet our knowledge of the world is mostly tacit. "We know more than we can tell", Michael Polanyi says, and that's a near absolute understatement. It applies to everything we think and say. For example: even if I've made full sense to you in this column so far, you probably won't be able to repeat it back to me verbatim. And if you could, it would owe more to memorization than comprehension. Short-term memory is an amazing grace of human nature. It forces us to communicate meaning more than words. Consider how often, in the midst of explaining something, we don't remember exactly how we started the sentences we are now speaking, or exactly how we will finish them, yet somehow we'll say what we mean, and others will understand it, even though they can't repeat exactly what we said.

That's because, when we communicate with each other, we don't deliver an explicit cache of words. Instead we cause meaning to form in the mind of another person. Meaning is most of what we take away from any conversation. The same goes for any course in school, any book or any experience. The meaning we take is mostly tacit. It is also mostly unquestioned, once we make it our own.

Here's how I put it many years ago in a chapter of Open Sources 2.0:

Several years ago I was talking with Tim O'Reilly about the discomfort we both felt about treating information as a commodity. It seemed to us that information was something more than, and quite different from, the communicable form of knowledge. It was not a commodity, exactly, and was insulted by the generality we call "content".

Information, we observed, is derived from the verb inform, which is related to the verb form. To inform is not to "deliver information", but rather, to form the other party. If you tell me something I didn't know before, I am changed by that. If I believe you and value what you say, I have granted you authority, meaning I have given you the right to author what I know.

Therefore, we are all authors of each other. This is a profoundly human condition in any case, but it is an especially important aspect of the open-source value system. By forming each other, as we also form useful software, we are making the world, not merely changing it.

So now look at authoring as something all of us do—or should be able to do—all the time, in many more ways and contexts than our pyramidal centralized systems would allow.

Consider the possible purposes of both our heterogeneousness and our enormous capacity to communicate and learn, throughout our lives. Why are we that way? Are those very human natures not insulted by systems built to subordinate individuality to categories in databases? Is the full promise of heterarchy not a price we pay for making nothing but hierarchies, over and over again, because that's what our tools and mental models are biased to do?

That we come in many colors, sizes and body shapes—all with different faces that also change as we grow and age—is a grace meant to help us recognize every person as distinctive and separate. Not just so we can typify each other by any one of those characteristics. None of us is just black or white, male or female, tall or short. We are sovereign selves with complete souls that cannot be reduced to any one characteristic, no matter how easy it is to do that, especially with research and computers.

I bring this up because I believe it is also worth considering that the best case for distributed systems and networks is that they take advantage of the countless differences and originalities among us. Distributed systems, more than any other kind we can name—make possible recognizing that our greatest resources are each other—and ourselves.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal