A conversation with some folks here at the Open Education Conference (#ocwc2009global) just connected in a wonderful way with another conversation on Twitter about what Douglas Hofstadter calls Ob-Platte puzzles, like this one:

Q: What is the Atlantic City of France?

A:Monaco. (Not a city in France. But borders France, is coastal and casino-oriented).

These come from my favorite of Hofstader’s books, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies.1 The thesis is that recognizing and extrapolating from patterns is a core aspect of — maybe the core of — intelligence.

Here’s the connection. To the exent that technologists fetishize innovation and newness, we risk overwhelming people with churn. “Forget what you thought you knew,” we tend to say. “This new thing changes everything.” Except, of course, it usually doesn’t.

For example, we’ve done a terrible job of explaining to the world that Twitter is, among other things, a recapitulation of the pub/sub pattern that most people first encountered in the blogosphere. The packets are smaller, the activation threshold is lower, but the same principles apply. You can extend what you know from the blog domain into the Twitter domain. And the two are complementary.

We aren’t getting that message across. Yesterday’s NY Times — featuring Maureen Dowd’s encounter with Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone — makes that painfully clear.

Analogies are crucial. The elmcity project boils down to this Ob-Platte puzzle:

Q: What is the RSS feed of calendars?

A: The iCalendar (ICS) feed.

We need to help people focus much less on fast-changing applications, protocols, and formats, and a lot more on constant underlying patterns and principles that they can learn and then extend by analogy.


1My review of the book, for BYTE, is now gone too, I see, along with my InfoWorld archive. More proof, if proof were needed, that we need to take control of our lifebits.