How old media dissolved the essence of Joi Ito’s NYT story

December 7th, 2011 by Chad Dorsey

I recently fawned over Joi Ito’s NY Times story about how openness and the Internet change the way we approach innovation and daily life. However, the unabridged version he posted to his blog is actually much better. It’s interesting to think for a moment about this episode.

First, the simple fact that this had to be shortened is reflective of old/new media constraints. Clearly, the costs and space of paper itself drive this need at least partially. Electrons are cheap, and Joi has no problem posting something of any length he wants on his blog. Any new media does not live by these constraints. And the collision of the two is befuddling many in the industry right now. The NY Times online version of this story is the same as the print version as far as I can tell, though it does include a link to the MIT Media Lab. And, in fact, the Times’ forward-thinking hyperlink system is what enabled me to link directly to a highlighted sentence in Joi’s story online.

Now, I understand the necessity of editing things down. The vote-with-your-mouse Internet has made that all too clear. And I benefit significantly from the editing of others. But I think this piece suffered at the hands of old media constraints. Let’s look into it a bit.

First, the description of the creation of X.25 in the NYT article has it as a “standard that seemed to anticipate every possible problem and application.” When I first read that, I questioned why we ended up going with IP after all. Reading Joi’s phrasing, however, tells a different story. He states, “The X.25 people were trying to plan and anticipate every possible problem and application. They developed complex and extremely well-thought-out standards that the largest and most established research labs and companies would render into software and hardware.” The subtleties here describe quite a different proposition. “Trying to plan and anticipate every problem” and developing “complex” standards is not exactly the same thing as “seeming to anticipate every‚Ķproblem.” From an Agile development point of view, one might in fact become increasingly skeptical of any solution that strives to anticipate every problem. This is part of the point I think Joi is trying to make here, and it is blurred in a subtle, but important, way by this edit.

A second edit that removes important concepts comes in the loss of the reference to the RFC process. To the NY Times’ credit, they have weighed in admirably on this in the past, and it is certainly a bit obscure, so I understand the change. However, for anyone familiar with the story, this nuance shows some of the depth behind how openness triumphed in this case. Not by pure magic, but as a product of carefully managed process and group dedication in equal measure.

Though the Times article captures many of the nuances of argument that the Maker movement parallels much about the early days of the Internet, a subtle change loses meaning here, too. Joi describes 3D printers and the related ecosystem as ” cheaper, standardized and connected via the Internet,” three essential elements to the core of the innovation happening here. While the Times’ description of this tightens this up nicely and gets the basics right, it is interesting to note the nuances that are missed.

New platforms and new media permit new messages and new opportunities. That is some of what the story of the Internet’ birth tells us. In the same way, it’s what we also see playing out in educational technology today. Let’s look closely as we go forward, and try not to miss the nuances.

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