John McCann

Participation Architecture

In Architecture, Internet, Technology on March 19, 2007 at 1:25 pm

An article in the RosenblumTV blog gave a very succinct description of the problem established industries have when presented with a new technology. It is the mismatch between a technology and the appropriate architecture for deploying that technology.

“That is, a specific technology demands a specific architecture. Not the architecture of a building, but rather the architecture for the implementation of that technology. As lazy humans, however, we get the technology first; the architecture takes us time.”

When I first read the article, I was reminded of a story I read 50 years ago about how a very primitive tribe reacted to the arrival of a Coke bottle, which was a new “technology” to the tribe. A plane crashed in the jungle and the natives found coke bottles among the wreckage. Having never seen such an object, they wondered what to do with it. One person put a bottle onto a stick and created a club that could be used for hunting and battle, which were the very activities that consumed the time of the men in the tribe. They were hunters and warriors and they used their hunting and war architecture to implement the new technology of the Coke bottle.

Back to the blog entry. Rosenblum, a participant in the videojournalist revolution, tells the story of how AT&T bought the patents to the first wireless radio technology because the company thought that radio would compete with its wired telephony business. AT&T did not implement the radio technology and used the patents to prevent others from doing so. They only allowed Marconi to use the technology for communicating with and between ships. But then a strange thing happened: the Titanic sank while sending hours of messages from its wireless transmitter. Sixteen year old David Sarnoff heard those messages while working for Marconi and communicated to a crowd outside his building by yelling out a window.

Alas, broadcasting was invented. More broadly, the “architecture of radio” was invented. AT&T saw the world through the telephony architecture and thus totally missed the role that radio would play in the broader communication ecosystem. It took a kid to recognize the potential, and that kid went on to be a pioneer of the broadcast industry.

Rosenblum applies this story to today’s world.

“All too often, we also take new technologies and plug them into an architecture that we already understand. All too often we take the Internet and see it as an alternative platform for broadcasting. Take a look at NYTimes.com. What do you see? A newspaper. A newspaper put on the web. That is because that is what newspapers understand. That is the architecture they understand. As video comes to the web, broadcasters will also see it as a way to do what they do now – one signal to many people, but on-line. This will be a classic mistake.”

This is so true in all walks of life. Librarians see the world through their library architecture and thus see the Internet as a massive, global library. Educators use an education architecture when approaching the Internet. Microsoft seems to have seen it through the desktop computing architecture.

As was the case with wireless technology, it is people who operate outside traditional architectures who see the possibilities of a new technology and thus invent new architectures. Perhaps we should think of the Internet and associated technologies as forming an Architecture of Participation.

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  1. Really thought provoking!

  2. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Mendicancy.

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