I spent last weekend in DC at Transparency Camp, which turned out to be one of the best cultural mashups I’ve attended in a long time. If we can get federal policy wonks and Silicon Valley tech geeks working together in the right ways, there’s good reason to hope that our government can become not just more transparent, but also more effective, more collaborative, more democratic.
A central theme was access to the operational data of government. What kinds of structured or narrative data exist, or could exist? When government doesn’t publish the stuff, how can activists extract it? When government does publish it, how can that be done most usefully? When the information is made available, one way or another, how can citizens, journalists, and government itself make use of it?
In my own work, I’ve been asking and trying to answer these questions. The event validated my efforts, and connected me to a flood of relevant people, ideas, tools, and techniques. That’s what you hope to get out of a conference, and it’s what this one delivered in spades.
But it also brought something else into sharp focus. To explain, I have to revisit 1994. In that seminal year, Microsoft famously “got” the Web. As BusinessWeek reported two years later:
The Web-izing of Microsoft begins in February, 1994, when Steven Sinofsky, Gates’s technical assistant, returned to his alma mater, Cornell University, on a recruiting trip. Snowed in at the Ithaca (N.Y.) airport, he headed back to the Cornell campus. That’s when he saw it: students dashing between classes, tapping into terminals, and getting their E-mail and course lists off the Net.
The Internet had spread like wildfire. It was no longer the network for the technically savvy — as it had been seven years earlier when Sinofsky was studying there — but a tool used by students and faculty to communicate with colleagues on campus and around the world. He dashed off a breathless E-mail message called “Cornell is WIRED!” to Gates and his technical staff.
Fifteen years on, the Net is as pervasive as air, as fundamental as gravity, as nourishing as sunlight — at least for the billion of us lucky enough to be online.
But while the architecture of the Net is firmly established, the architecture of communication and collaboration enabled by the Net is still very much up for grabs. Key principles, best practices, and effective patterns are still emerging.
For many years I have been a discoverer, early adopter, and explainer of those principles, practices, and patterns. And I’ve wondered: What would it would be like if you didn’t have to discover, adopt, and explain this stuff? What would it be like if you could just take it for granted, and just use it, in an environment where everybody else was using it too?
It would be like Transparency Camp 09.
This wasn’t the first event I’ve been to where Twitter was pervasive. But it was the first I’ve been to where tech geeks weren’t the only ones Twittering. The policy wonks were too. Everyone was tuned into the #tcamp09 channel. And, in fact, everyone still is. The conference “ended” on Sunday, it’s Thursday, but a half-dozen new items appeared on that channel since I started writing this essay. I particularly like this one:
Funny. Someone from #tcamp09 lives in my building. She says, “Didn’t we meet this weekend?” “No.” “You’re…cheeky something?” “OH…yes”
That’s a nice example of manufactured serendipity. I coined the phrase in another era. Back then, the new phenomenon called blogging was the realm in which we were discovering, adopting, and explaining the crucial principles, patterns, and practices. Now the action has moved to Twitter. But they’re the same principles, patterns, and practices:
- The principle of conserving keystrokes
- The pattern of publishing and subscribing
- The practice of narrating your work
In 1994 Steve Sinofsky saw the arrival of the Net, and sent email to tell Microsoft about it. In 2009 I see the emergence of a transformative way of using the Net. I could try sending email to tell Microsoft about it, and that would still be the preferred method. But email is no longer the engine that will drive radical improvement. What’s more, it often subverts the right principles, patterns, and practices.
So how does Microsoft, or any large enterprise — e.g., the government — embrace a new architecture of communication and collaboration? Slowly at first, but inexorably, and with profound effects in the long run. I can’t alter the timetable. But this is an interesting moment, and I simply want to observe, mark, and note it.