Sunday, December 14, 2008

Social Engineering > Hard Engineering

I saw a talk by Clay Shirky on YouTube about the coolness of Perl (a programming language). Now, I am not a programmer. I follow hackers and programmers the way some people follow sports; I like the game, I can even commentate, but really, I've never played. So rest assured, the geek level of this post will be moderate to low.

Shirky's talk is about the community that Perl has; if you program in the language and are confused, you can go online and talk to other programmers who use Perl and get pretty reliable help. This is not surprising to me, but I get the feeling this is a talk aimed at people who haven't had google search for literally half of their life. In any case, the point is that a community of people who love a Thing is a better predictor for success of the Thing than, say, the existence of a corporation selling the Thing.

What all this is really saying is that, gee, I guess people did have a way to work together before capitalism. Huh. In his defense, he argues that this isn't a new thing, just something that has been given new life and breadth via the internet, but I think that is even a bit much.

The pyramids weren't only a feat of civil engineering, but social engineering. The Egyptians and the Mayans had to convince enough people to show up for it to happen; otherwise, all the math in the world would have been useless. They convinced them through a combination of religion and force; the carrot and the stick. The medieval cathedrals in Europe are similar; built over hundreds of years by generations of archetects and laborers, they were complete money and resource-sinks- unless you count the "spiritual" benefits, the "squishy" stuff Shirky refers to towards the end.

I'm quibbling over details; I know people matter and devoted people matter even more, and so does Shirky. (A darker example would be terrorist organizations- capable of great chaos more thanks to the fervency of their beliefs than the strength or legitmacy of their backing). I simply want to point out that none of this is new, unless that's what he needs people to believe to get on board ;)


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