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<nettime> Interview with Scott Rosenberg about Dreaming in Code
Geert Lovink on Thu, 25 Sep 2008 10:41:39 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Interview with Scott Rosenberg about Dreaming in Code


Interview with Scott Rosenberg about Dreaming in Code
By Geert Lovink

“Software is a heap of trouble.” Scott Rosenberg

Scott Rosenberg has written an excellent book on software and open  
source culture called “Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three  
Years, 4,732 Bugs, and one Quest for Transcendent Software”. In it he  
writes:  “Our civilization runs on software. Yet the art of creating  
software continues to be a dark history, even to the experts. Never in  
history have we depended so completely on a product that so few know  
how to make well.” West coast IT journalist and Salon.com cofounder  
Scott Rosenberg produced a very readable study on the internal  
dynamics of the Chandler open source calendar project. Chandler was  
supposed to “grow up into a powerful ‘personal information manager’  
for organizing and sharing calendars, emails and to-do lists.” It  
would be cross-platform and open source, officially realized by  
Kapor’s Open Source Applications Foundation.

The book is chocking and boring at once. Many would recognize  
themselves in the stories about ‘slippage’, the delays and struggles  
to gain conceptual clarity amongst the drifting team members. Software  
is never ready and mal-functionality rules. Rosenberg spent three  
years as a member of the software developers team, financed and led by  
Lotus 1-2-3 creator and EFF cofounder Mitch Kapor, designing the  
Chandler calendar application that was meant to challenge the  
proprietary market leader Microsoft Outlook. At some point the reader  
gets lost in the level of detail but exactly at that moment the book  
takes a turn and puts the collective frustration in a wider historical  
perspective. Because I really enjoyed the non-academic style of this  
interesting contribution to the emerging field of software studies, I  
decided to contact Scott Rosenberg and see if he wanted to do an email  
interview. In between his work on his new book on the history of  
blogging, Scott sent me back his answers.

GL: Just to bring everyone up to date. A while ago the 1.0 version of  
Chandler has been released. This must have been a milestone. In your  
PostScript to the paperback edition from September 2007 you expressed  
mixed feelings about the entire project. You wrote: "For now, Google  
Calendar does the job for me." You mustn't be the only one. Before  
having read your book I hadn't heard from Chandler. With 1.0 release,  
would that change?

SR: Chandler 1.0 is a pretty interesting piece of software in its own  
right -- between the "preview edition" that was where the project was  
when I wrote the paperback epilogue and 1.0, the developers did a lot  
more work, and began to flesh out parts of the program beyond the  
calendar. It's definitely worth a look. I'm not using it now because  
I'm in the middle of a big book project and don't have much free time.  
But when I'm done with that project I definitely want to spend more  
time with it.

As far as getting more attention, Chandler faces the same problem as  
any project that started out with really grand -- and loudly  
proclaimed -- ambitions; whatever it does achieve now is overshadowed  
by the original high hopes and later dashed expectations. So it will  
be very hard for Chandler to be "heard from," at least in the media,  
unless they can grow a base of users slowly and organically over the  
next year or two. Which is what they're trying to do, I think.

GL: Maybe I missed something. Could you explain us what people need a  
collaborative (open source) calendar for? What is larger culture of  
use of such calendar software? Mitch Kapor must have understood  
something about that in the early-mid 1980s when he ran his successful  
Lotus 1-2-3 business.

SR: I think there are at least two markets for this sort of thing. The  
first is pretty obvious: there are tons of companies with small  
workgroups (or relatively small, up to a couple of dozen people or so,  
I'd imagine) that need to schedule together and share stuff together.  
They were served poorly by Outlook (which also didn't work on Macs or  
Linux systems), and Outlook cost too much for them, and Kapor hoped to  
serve them.

The other market, which is more diffuse but in some ways bigger, is  
just for any smaller group of two, three, four people -- a family, a  
couple of cofounders of a small company, a professor and her/his  
teaching assistants, and so on. One use case that kept coming up at  
OSAF was the simple one Kapor faced, as a busy guy who had a personal  
assistant who needed to be able to access and edit the calendar, and  
who also wanted to share it with his spouse.

It's important to remember, too, that Chandler didn't start out as a  
calendar -- it began as a much more ambitious project for organizing  
personal information and sharing all sorts of stuff. The calendar was  
what emerged when the ambitions had to be scaled back.

Don't forget, too, that when OSAF started out there was no Google  
Calendar, no Basecamp, pretty much nothing like we have in the way of  
web-based scheduling today.

GL: In the book you have carefully avoided to speak about Web 2.0. You  
haven't even mentioned the term once. Still, in your analysis of what  
went wrong with Chandler, the choice between the operating system  
style calendar and the lean Web application is being played as the  
central dilemma of the Chandler development community. How do you  
judge the countless failed Web 2.0 applications that were either  
bought up and killed by one of the big players or that are still out  
there, waiting for users and a buyer?

SR: I've always been ambivalent about the term "Web 2.0" -- indeed the  
people who created the term were, also, at first. It's an ungainly  
label for an important phenomenon. Before it was coined, we often  
called it "web services" or "web apps," and what happened was that  
between 2002 and 2004 or so a set of common features coalesced, and  
then the label "Web 2.0" just became a really convenient handle to  
refer to the whole bundle of phenomena. (This is the same thing that  
happens in programming when you add a layer of abstraction!)

So I didn't use the term in the book, but I did write about the  
phenomenon, which I watched evolve out of the earliest exemplary  
applications -- Flickr, Delicious, et al.

I'm not sure what exactly you mean by the "countless failed Web 2.0  
applications" -- how do you define failure in this context? The entire  
Silicon Valley economy is built around the notion of R&D being done  
not inhouse by big companies but externally by little startups. Most  
of them flop, some end up being acquired by bigger companies who  
cannibalize their code and/or their teams, and a tiny few grow into  
big companies in their own right. That's the way the Valley has always  
worked; it's just doing so on a bigger scale this time around because  
starting companies is so cheap. So the existence of all these  
"failures" may look bad, and of course for people who worked on them  
it can be painful; but it is pretty much how most of the people  
involved expect the whole system to work. Now, whether you think this  
is a good model for an industry or not is a different question; but  
the mere presence of all these little failures isn't in itself viewed  
by people in the Valley as a sign of some larger failure. Quite the  
contrary.

GL: Should we, in retrospect, judge Chandler as a historic one off, or  
should we rather see it as ordinary collaborative open source project,  
which had its ups and downs? Is it fair to compare it to, let's say,  
Modzilla, Linux or Debian?

SR: I don't think anyone involved would consider Chandler as a typical  
open source project. It really was and is unique, for all sorts of  
reasons the book chronicles (Kapor's involvement and money, the way  
the team functioned more like a small startup company than a  
distributed open source project, the hugely ambitious design agenda  
and effort to put design on par with engineering, etc.). But also, as  
Andy Hertzfeld kept reminding me, "Every software project is unique."  
There really isn't a "typical" open source project.

If you look at Mozilla's history and compare it to Linux's or  
Apache's, they all have had hugely different stories shaped by their  
origins and goals and the people who got involved. And each of those  
stories is fascinating in its own right. Chandler is just the one I  
ended up telling. Even those little Web 2.0 companies that are "out  
there waiting for users or a buyer," they're like books that haven't  
yet found an audience, and maybe never will -- each one of those has  
some sort of creative story behind it, the dreams of the people who  
built it and their conflicts and excitement and despair and little  
triumphs.

GL: If we follow Nicolas Carr in his latest book The Big Switch, the  
IT industry is moving to cloud computing. The implication of this is  
an unprecedented centralization of software, and, if you wish a  
further step away from the PC dominance. Chandler doesn't quite fit    
into that picture and tries to uphold the central role the (partly)  
offline, stand alone PC is still playing in the collective imaginary  
of the Silicon Valley engineers. Google is playing a pivotal role in  
this process. Should we speak of a paradigmatic clash here?

SR: This whole conflict has been playing out in the industry for  
decades, between centralization and decentralization. Kapor had his  
start in the early days of the PC, which was one of the huge pendulum  
swings toward decentralization, as people put their CPUs on their  
desks and didn't have to work through the guys (they were usually  
guys) in the mainframe (or minicomputer) back room. So one view is to  
say, cloud computing is real, it's big, but it's a pendulum swing, and  
eventually, as people become unhappy with its down sides, and as  
technology keeps changing, the pendulum will swing back in some way we  
can't anticipate. The other view is to say, no, this is a permanent  
"paradigmatic" change, a Kuhnian paradigm shift. I'm always reluctant  
to proclaim that, because it seems to me those changes can't even be  
seen until a couple of generations have passed. So if I had to I'd bet  
on the pendulum. But we really don't know.

GL: Most IT books you can buy are propped-up business show cases that  
only talk about success. Dreaming in Code is so radically different in  
this respect. The project drags on, and at times, the text is amazing  
honest, up to the point of straight out European negativity. How did  
you manage to do this? You wrote the book in San Francisco, not in  
Berlin.

SR: I'll take this as a compliment :-) I started my career as a  
theater critic. I prize honesty. I can't imagine working on a book for  
3-4 years if I didn't set out to be honest. When I hear "how did you  
manage it?" it sort of sounds to me like, "how did you get away with  
it?" But in fact my publisher and editor were always behind the  
project. My book proposal was really clear about what kind of book it  
was going to be.

I guess it helps that I have a record as a writer on technology going  
back to the early '90s, and it's all out there on the Web, and I've  
been writing professionally since the early '80s. I've never been a  
booster or a promoter, and I'm not a knee-jerk negativist, either. I  
like to look into new things that I don't fully understand and see if  
I can explain them well enough to myself that a reader will be  
interested, and end up understanding, too. It's the same approach I'm  
taking with my next book, which tries to trace the story of blogging  
from its beginning nearly 15 years ago to the present.

Some readers were disappointed that Dreaming in Code didn't give them  
more bullet points about how to improve their development projects. I  
had hoped that it was clear from the first page that this just wasn't  
going to be that kind of book. If I knew how to solve these problems  
I'd be busy solving them, not writing about them! But writing about  
them has value, nonetheless, I hope. Just serving witness to the  
incredibly difficult and uniquely problematic work that software  
developers do -- that was my aim, in the end.

GL: At two-third of the book, you leave the inner dynamics of the  
stagnating project and turn to history of software to show that it's  
always been like this. In the chapter on Engineers and Artists you  
show a lot of the historical continuity between now and forty years  
ago. There are efforts under way to build up Software Studies from a  
critical, humanities perspective. Would you mind to be called a  
software anthropologist? Software rules the world, but the research  
into its modes of becoming is rare. What directions would you  like  
something like software studies to take?

SR: I'd be happy to be called a software anthropologist -- in some  
ways that's exactly the approach I took -- with the caveat that my  
anthropology "degree" is strictly honorary. I actually studied history  
and literature and can't claim too deep a knowledge of anthropology.  
And it's been nearly 30 years since I spent much time on campus so  
it's hard for me to know what the best route for pursuing a sort of  
humanistic software studies field would be. There are fascinating  
perspectives coming in from the law schools, and analogies from  
biology, there are sociological and philosophical lines of inquiry --  
there's tons of work that could be done once we accept that software,  
and the people who make it, are worthy of study. I'd hope that that is  
an uncontroversial attitude by now, but I'm not sure it is.

--

Scott Rosenberg, Dreaming in Code, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2008
Scott's blog: http://www.wordyard.com/
The book's website: http://www.dreamingincode.com/






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