In today’s Rebooting the News podcast, Dave Winer talked about “paving the cowpath”.
This is a quote we used frequently around IBM. It essentially means that you take an existing process or technology and improve upon it. You often start with manual processes and automate them, then improve the automation. You iterate until you end up with something pretty cool and sophisticated.
The problem, as we’ve seen before, is that user feedback and empirical study of any existing “thing” usually gives you only incremental improvement. Revolutionary change often happens when you jump onto a whole new path heading in the same general direction.
But there is another influence at work that Winer also mentions: people who have a stake in the complexity of a certain “status quo”. This is what could be referred to as “fencing off the cowpath”. Pave it all you want, but you’re still on the same path because that’s where “they” want you to stay. “They” are the consultants, programmers, and industries that make a living from “enabling” the average person to use a technology. Winer talked about Jon Postel‘s brilliant contributions to the early Internet; brilliant because they were simple. Postel believed that you should never invent a new protocol if you can build off an old one in a simple way. Winer mentions SOAP and I laughed to hear an industry pundit say what I’ve been saying for years: Simple Object Access Protocol is anything but simple. (I usually say that in the same breath as I talk about the simplicity of a RESTful approach — but I am fully aware that there is a segment of the industry doing what they can to “complexify” that too.)
What was really cool in the podcast was hearing Winer and Rosen agree that when a real solution for “the new journalism” is found, its success will be based on its simplicity. After all, as Rosen points out, simplicity allows for more participation. And that’s got to be a win.