Last evening during the weekly Duke FOCUS cluster meeting we enjoyed a talk from Duke OIT AVP and Croquet principal architect Julian Lombardi. Julian is also aligned with ISIS at Duke which is where I enjoy the opportunity to teach on occasion. I can’t say enough how much of a neat guy Julian is, or how his presentation on Croquet was absolutely fascinating. Suffice it to say he had my head nodding in agreement and his ideas were controversial enough to get the Freshman in the room to make smart-alecky remarks. If that’s not a positive sign of innovation I don’t know what is.

I promised that this would be a note, and it will be a note. I promise.

Julian asked those attending his presentation last evening why we use computers that are overpowered and undercollaborated (to coin a word), why we use machines with seemingly prehistoric interface tools like a mouse and keyboard. Further he asked why we don’t have better technologies that work better with the way we work. I’m not sure how he answered this question except to say that we need to engineer software that supports “deep collaboration,” as Julian called it. I think Julian was suggesting that we were sort of stuck in our ways and that we just weren’t picking up available technologies, sticking instead to old guns.

I don’t think the problem is that simple. In fact I suspect there are two significant problems, one intellectual, the other sociological.

The intellectual problem is that I suspect few if any actually understand what “deep collaboration” really is. It appears to me that we are only starting to understand collaboration as a phenomenon, and then only a phenomenon of a digital variety, and then only through data about how people use collaborative technologies. That type of understanding seems to be a sort of cart-leading-the-horse phenomenon.

I don’t think (but I certainly do not know for certain) we have very good understanding of phenomenae such as tacit knowledge, communities of practice, activity theory, and so forth. Do we possess a very good grounding insofar as understanding how people work together?  How they have worked together?  How people might work together?

Funny that Julian called the web pages “brochures.” He’s right, they are brochures. I love that perspective he shared as it made me laugh and then blush.  It also appears to me that we’re a pamphlet-publishing culture in general so web-publishing activities seem to actually comprise an adequate reflection of the way we seem to work. After all, where in our culture are we not engaged in this sort of pamphlet-publishing work mode?  You’re going to have to go far outside information technology in order to respond (e.g., construction). It appears to me that knowledge workers of all sorts work in a rather linear fashion and this is perhaps not surprising since our concepts of ourselves as subject arises from engaging in linear tasks such as writing, reading, watching, all coded in terms of first-person perspective.

Collaboration at least in US technoculture seems to find its apex of sophistication in the assembly of multiple independently-produced pamphlets. We can see this even in open-source software development projects where repositories are open to collaboration. With tools like CVS we lock out as we write to a file and resolve conflicts with any other code-pamphlets that have been written concurrently.

So the intellectual problem appears to have at least three components each of which should be explored independent of computational technology: knowing how we know how to work together; knowing how humans have worked together in the past; and divining how we might expand on the combination of past collaboration modes and knowledge of tacit knowledge to innovate new collaborative paradigms. I think this is an area ripe for intellectual innovation, and I don’t think such an effort should be limited to software engineering.

If this sort of intellectual problem has already been conquered then I admit I just completely missed it.  But I currently see that there is a huge gap between our understanding of the cognitive dimensions of collaboration and the understanding of how people use, say, Facebook, to collaborate with one another.  What is the biology, the phenomenology, and the behavior of human interaction?

The sociological problem is that simply such innovative interfaces have lacked, for a huge number of reasons, crossover to early adopters. Who are early adopters? The cool hip techies to whom the masses look for what’s hot, what’s cool, those who bellwether their intellectual and geographic locales. Those of us who are into inventing are not very good at engineering social transitions and we don’t make early adopters at all. And when we lack early adopters we lack, well, adoption itself, don’t we?

Was this just a note?