Assumptions, exactitudes, perfection and creativity

A while back, those wonderful fellas at Box UK asked me to take part in their Cardiff Web Scene Meet-up #4. I pondered for a long while what I was going to do. The obvious one was an overview of BathCamp: how we put it together, what tools we used to collaborate, and so-on. In the end I decided I’d use the slightly different format (an informal gathering in a bar) as an excuse for a slightly different kind of presentation (an informal gathering of thoughts and slides..), and not just do the obvious thing..

The slides are an expansion on my previous post, Newton vs Einstein, and form an underlying question which continues to be an itch I need to scratch. The question is really summed up in my third slide: When do we need perfection?

[slideshare id=619607&doc=newtonvseinsteinfinalppt-1222420030171861-9&w=425]

The Newton / Einstein metaphor (for those who can’t be arsed to read my original post) stemmed from In Our Time on Radio 4: given that we manage to go about our daily lives (and even carry out a number of fairly stunning technical tasks, such as putting a man on the moon) without worrying about the complex rightness of Einstein, how much can we make do with simple approximations – how much do we actually need to worry about being “right” when we’re in an environment of wanting to get things done, where “rightness” actually hinders rather than helps?

This question isn’t as simple as it first appears. There is no binary position here, no right or wrong, and yet often in IT scenarios, we are asked to choose EITHER the easy, quick, risky, “lightweight” way OR the long, arduous,  “enterprise” one (this Dilbert cartoon, posted by @miaridge on Twitter about museum projects, may seem oddly familiar…). And yet this isn’t just about over-speccing or analysis paralysis. This goes deeper, asking questions about creativity and innovation and what these mean.

Here’s an example. For maybe 5 of my 7 years at the Science Museum, the entire website was published (not served – how stupid do you think I am 😉 ) from an Access database using a simple system I built in ASP during my first year at the museum. This system enabled maybe 20 authors to contribute to the site, whilst maintaining a simple templating system and look and feel. During this time, the site was run out of a single (and slightly battered) web server. Just before I left, we went through a long CMS project, and ended up installing the excellent Sitecore content management system across (if my memory serves me correctly) 7 servers, plus having a re-design which culminated in the current Science Museum website: it is beautiful, clean, well coded, and – frankly – the apple of my eye. 

It would be very, very easy to dismiss the old site and way of doing things in light of the “professional” approach that content management at “enterprise” level brings to the party, but the fact was for five years the old site performed nearly perfectly, both technically and in terms of responding to the content needs of the organisation. It was imperfect, hacked-together, “lightweight” – and did the job. Compare that to now (when I’m betting that 90% of the CMS functionality and 95% of the server capacity isn’t used..) and it’s not immediately obvious to me – and this is a quite open statement, without bias – which is the better solution. I think both bring benefits and disbenefits, and somewhere in the middle is a ground which more of us should be striving to inhabit, rather than hanging on to our notions of “lightweight vs enterprise”.

These questions begin with a bias even in the naming. “Lightweight” seems fickle, faddish, subject to change and risk. “Enterprise” is laden with visions of dull corporate lunches, sales people and multi-million pound pricetags.

The question I ask in the slides really outline the entire theme to this blog and the questions I have been asking over the past decade (eek!) working online. Brian Kelly suggests in this post that “it is time to get serious” – that strategic thinking somehow lives in a different place to the lightweight. He’s referencing the presentation we did together a couple of years ago (Web 2.0: Stop thinking, start doing) – but I can’t help thinking that now is the time to bring strategic and lightweight together rather than trying to drive them apart.

My time as Head of Web at the museum was almost all about strategy, about bringing together digital and real content and about getting things done. Ultimately, I’m way, way more on the strategic side of this stuff than anything else. But…getting creative things done requires making assumptions – inaccuracies and uncertainty are inherent and valuable. 

Ultimately, most of us work in enviroments that are at complete odds to creativity: we are forced to work to project plans, “plan” our time, “justify” our expense, “do” the actions. Web2.0 and “lightweightness” are never going to be comfortable – these approaches are deliberately disruptive. The question is – and always has been – how do we embrace this uncertainty and creativity and move forward but still maintain a clear view of the horizon..?

Newton vs Einstein

Perfection geneIf you spend any time at all reading this blog (of course you do..) then you’ll know that I have a recurring theme about perfection, ideas, freedom and “justdoit-ness”. I sum it all up on a previous post where I talk about my OPG – Overactive Perfection Gene – which works hard to prevent me from doing stuff rather than just thinking and talking about it. On the left is the “time vs perfection” graph I chucked into that post.

Yesterday there was a superb programme on Radio 4’s “In Our Time” about Newton’s Principia and the Laws of Motion, and about the philosophical as well as physical meaning behind these axioms. It’s well worth a listen. I’m not sure if this is the direct link but it’s somewhere round there…

I’m a geophysicist by training (don’t tell anyone) and so the three laws aren’t new to me, and probably aren’t to you either. What struck me about this programme in particular however was the last five minutes where the guests began to focus in the apparent displacement of Newton’s laws by Einstein a couple of hundred years later. Einstein showed that the Newtonian model of the world was simplistic, that the laws of motion hid something deeper and darker: mass-energy equivalence being the most striking example.

It appears (as far as we can tell right now..) that Einstein is “right”. But like A-level students completing our exams, going to university and then discovering that actually what we’d spent years learning was all an approximation, one of the first questions we naturally ask is “does it actually matter?”.

It would appear not, for the most part. Einstein’s brilliance – his “rightness” – matters a huge amount when we’re nearing the speed of light. But down here as we plod about our normal daily lives, we can cope with the innacuracies. Relativity matters not a jot; actions do have an equal and opposite reaction; gravity acts downwards and relativity is merely a philosophy. As Melvin Bragg said on the program:

…we didn’t need Einstein to put Armstrong on the moon

Like some bad vicar trying desperately hard to relate OK magazine with a verse from the bible, it’s time for me to get to the point. It is this: just as we accept Newton over Einstein even though we know he is essentially “wrong”, if we (and by this I mean me, museums or anyone with ideas) want to shine, we too need to accept imperfection. In fact, I believe we need to learn to actively embrace it. Again calling back to the programme: a mechanistic universe is not by any definition a deterministic one: if we worry and continue to worry about the “what if’s” then we will never grow.

I’m of course always prompted by the discussions around Web2 and museums, which flared again last week on the MCG mailing list (#34). As Nick Poole pointed out, we do have a tendancy to take to our corners and thus risk polarisation, but essentially it boils down to “we should think more” vs “we should do more”.

One of the other speakers on the Radio 4 programme came out with this, which really resonates with me:

the perfect truth is perhaps not to be had, and certainly isn’t necessary for startling and brilliant success

If we can learn to accept a level of chaos, embrace the prevailing direction of travel without actually knowing where we are going to end up, then we stand a chance of actually getting somewhere. If we carry on worrying, we’re going nowhere but backwards…