Honey Roasted Death Camp Salad

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Session: Tuesday Session 5 Space D

Conference: IIW 10 May 17-19, 2009 this is the complete Complete Set of Notes

Convener: Xianhang Zhang

Notes-taker(s): Geoffrey Bilder

Tags: buzzwords, centralization, accountability, anti-patterns


The session started with the observation that in the food industry there are certain words/phrases than are often prepended or appended to make otherwise unpalatable/unhealthy items sound delicious/nutritious. Examples of these words/phrases include “honey roasted” and “salad”.

“Salmon” isn’t normally a big seller. “Honey roasted Salmon” is a major feature of most family restaurants. And, of course, we are all familiar with “potato salad”, “pasta salad”, “roast beef salad”, “taco salad” and (ugh) “marshmallow salad”.

Technology seems to have similar words. Some of them include “open”, “distributed”, “user-centric”, “lightweight”, “framework”, “enterprise”, “federated”, etc.

So, for example, we probably all consider “DRM” to be misguided, intractable problem, yet one could imagine somebody making DRM sound plausible by introducing “open DRM” and a “distributed user-centric open DRM framework”. Which, on the face of it, would be nonsense, but from a marketing perspective might gain some traction.

We are not so sure that these words can make “death camp” sound palatable.

In a bit of a leap, we wondered if, in some cases, our predilection for jumping to use phrases like “distributed”, “open” and “user-centric” are a knee-jerk reaction that might, in fact, blind us to alternative ways of addressing the problems that proponents of “distributed”, “open”, etc. are trying to address.

For example, in most cases, when one advocates a “distributed” or “open” technology, what we are *really* doing is trying to come up with a technological safeguard against a centralized, proprietary (and, by implication “commercial”) service becoming too dominant and un-sympathetic to user needs and concerns.

But there seems to be a potential flaw to this approach.

For one thing, we observed that

“distributed begets centralized.”

That is, it seems that for every “distributed” system that we have created, we have then had to create a centralized system to make it useable again. Think of ICANN, DNS, Pirate Bay, Google, or even Kaliya Hamlin!. Counterexamples are frighteningly hard to come by. We may have even identified an anti-pattern.

The implication of this is that, even if we do succeed in creating a truly distributed, user-centric identity infrastructure, there is the very real possibility that a centralized service will come out that aggregates this information in order to make it usable again. And what happens if this entity turns “evil”?

This made us think that perhaps we are misapplying our energies. Maybe, instead of trying to create a distributed technical infrastructure that might still be co-opted by a centralized service, maybe we should focus some of our efforts on anticipating the need for a centralized service and making sure that *we* create this service and that it is unequivocally accountable to the communities it serves.

This approach, of course, would require us to refocus our efforts on hacking institutions and organization structures instead of hacking technology. Understandably, we might all be reluctant to do this because it isn’t in our core skill sets.