Why Johnny Can't Syndicate

In Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do About It, published in 1955, Rudolf Flesch argued that our method of teaching kids to read was wrongly denying them the pleasures of "Andersen's Fairy Tales or The Arabian Nights or Mark Twain ... or anything interesting and worthwhile." Instead, said Flesch, they get "horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers." It wasn't just the lack of literary merit that incensed Flesch. He hated the rationale for those dumbed-down books. Vocabulary, it was thought, must only be introduced gradually. Nonsense, said Flesch. If you equip kids with the right conceptual tools they can read anything. But one fundamental concept -- phonics, the decoding of words by mapping symbols to sounds -- wasn't being taught.

In Why Johnny Can't Encrypt: A Usability Evaluation of PGP 5.0, presented at the 1999 USENIX Security Symposium, Alma Whitten and J.D. Tygar explored why people couldn't figure out how to encrypt their outbound email or authenticate their inbound email. If you've ever used PGP you won't be surprised by their conclusion: its user interface didn't present the underlying model -- which involves public and private keys, encryption and authentication -- in a way that made sense. Of course that was true, and remains true, for every implementation of the model. Users interfaces are surely part of the problem, but not the whole story. Here's the question Whitten and Tygar asked:

If an average user of email feels the need for privacy and authentication, and acquires PGP with that purpose in mind, will PGP's current design allow that person to realize what needs to be done, figure out how to do it, and avoid dangerous errors, without becoming so frustrated that he or she decides to give up on using PGP after all?

That first step is a doozy. Average people never acquired PGP with that intent, nor discovered the encryption and authentication features baked into Outlook, because they were never introduced to the underlying concepts. I discussed this once with Phil Libin, who's now CEO of Evernote but was then president of a software security company, and Phil made this remarkable comment:

The basics of asymmetric cryptography are fundamental concepts that any member of society who wants to understand how the world works, or could work, needs to understand. They are as fundamental as the basics of supply and demand and monetary inflation.

We take the latter concepts for granted, Phil said, but before Adam Smith we didn't. It took a long time, and required a lot of education, to get to the point where most people had those concepts in their mental toolkits. So we should expect it will also take a long time, and require a lot of education, to add the concepts that underly privacy and authentication.

As we colonize the cloud we'll need to acquire some other basic concepts too. The one I'm focusing on in the elmcity project is syndication. It's a broad concept that unites all the principles I discuss in Seven ways to think like the web:

  1. Be the authoritative source for your own data

  2. Pass by reference not by value

  3. Know the difference between structured and unstructured data

  4. Create and adopt disciplined naming conventions

  5. Push your data to the widest appropriate scope

  6. Participate in pub/sub networks as both a publisher and a subscriber

  7. Reuse components and services

I'm exploring these principles in the context of calendar syndication, but they apply in many other realms too. In Goodbye Fax, Hello Personal Cloud, for example, I imagined a world in which we syndicate health information to and from insurers and care providers. Why don't things work that way yet? Sure, our systems aren't ready to do that yet. But neither are we.

Syndication, at its core, means that when you want to give me something, you don't have to send me a copy. You can instead grant me access to your original. Like the decoding of symbolic representations, like monetary inflation, like asymmetric cryptography, this is not a possibility that millions of years of evolution prepared us for. It's not hardwired. It's not something we easily and naturally learn. It's why we so often still abuse email with attachments instead of connecting our shared spaces in the cloud.

In the realm of public calendars, the free flow of information flow is largely thwarted by what I call the Submit Your Event Antipattern. "Got events for the public calendar? Send them to us." Which makes sense because for millions of years that's how you gave stuff to people: you handed it over. It's only in the last 15 years that a radically different possibility emerged. "Got events for the public calendar? Give us access to your feed."

Why can't Johnny syndicate? He'll learn, but it will take a while, and the right kind of education will help.