IT doublethink

[ Tue. Jan. 8. 2008 ]

Even IT gurus have the right to think twice.

This year the online salon Edge.org has drawn a lot of attention for the annual question it put out to a mixture of scientists and artists: What have you changed your mind about?

Contributors range from actor Alan Alda to folk singer Joan Baez, but some of the real gems came from technology visionaries who decided to take a second look at their original visions.

Teach technology if you want to learn: Seth Loyd is a quantum mechanical engineer at MIT, which sounds intimidating, but the author ofProgramming the Universe admits he didn’t really gain self-confidenceabout IT until he became an instructor for students who are probably as smart as he is. “In my feverish attempt to understand analog computers, I constructed a model for a quantum-mechanical analog computer that would operate at the level of individual atoms. This model resulted in one of my best scientific papers,” he says. Even if it’s daunting, assist others with their IT challenges in order to master your own.

Calm down at the keyboard: Linda Stone, a former Microsoft VP, has been doing a lot of research on how users interact with technology and she realized that their attention span had a lot to do with what was going on in their lungs. “In observing others — in their offices, their homes, at cafes — the vast majority of people hold their breath, especially when they first begin responding to e-mail. On cell phones, especially when talking and walking, people tend to hyper-ventilate or overbreathe. Either of these breathing patterns disturbs oxygen and CO2 balance,” she writes. “I’ve changed my mind about how much attention to pay to my breathing patterns and how important it is to remember to breathe when I’m using a computer, PDA or cell phone.”

No application is eternal: As much as we might like our IT problems to end, software designer Karl Krause says applications are temporary solutions. “I used to think ‘software design’ is an art form. I now believe that I was half-right: it is indeed an art, but it has a rather short half-life. Software is merely a performance art – a momentary flash of brilliance, doomed to be overtaken by the next wave, or maybe even by its own sequel. Eaten alive by its successors. And time.”

Don’t treat the world like a computer: Rodney Brooks, the CTO of iRobot Corp. and author of Flesh and Machines, says we have atendency to think of business problems as though they were broken PCs. That’s not always the best approach. “We can think about human memory as data storage and retrieval. And we can think about walking over rough terrain as computing the optimal place to put down each of our feet. But I suspect that somewhere down the line we are going to come up with better, less computational metaphors,” he says. “The entities we use for metaphors may be more complex but the useful ones will lead to simpler explanations.”

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