Web services and natural-born cyborgs

"While a business process is running," an IBM white paper on BPEL4WS dryly notes, "it might be necessary to undo one of the steps that have already been successfully completed." Translation: Things can get screwed up, and then they need to be fixed. If there's anything revolutionary about Web services, it's the notion that we'll be able to deal with the inevitable screwups in more realistic and more effective ways. Compensation can't simply mean what it does to a programmer: chaining back through a nested series of automatic exception handlers. We have to accept that it's often people who both throw and handle the exceptions, and we have to build software systems that gracefully include them. [Full story at InfoWorld.com]
This short article, part of InfoWorld's special report on Web services, touches on some things I'll say more about in my talk at XML 2003 next week.

natural-born cyborgs One of the books I read over the holiday, Andy Clark's Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence, has helped me to think about what I want to say in that talk. Parts of the book went by in a blur, echoing themes I've read about in too many other books in this genre: agents, swarming, virtual reality, wearable computers. But the central theme really grabbed me, and I'll summarize it like this. When we say, jokingly, that Google and our weblogs have become extensions of our brains, it's not really a joke. Ever since the advent of language, and especially since the advent of print, our minds have operated in a hybrid mode, depending on a complex interaction between information processes running inside the skull and information processes running outside it. This is now our natural state, argues Clark, and it is not really meaningful or useful to try to precisely define the inside/outside boundary. He writes:

The goal is to provide rich environments in which to grow better brains. The more seriously we take the notion of brain-environment engagement as crucial, the less sense it makes to wonder about the relative size of each of the two contributions. What really matters is the complex reciprocal dance in which the brain tailors its activity to a technological and sociocultural environment, which -- in concert with other brains -- it simultaneously alters and amends. Human intelligence owes just about everything to this looping process of mutual accommodation.

And elsewhere:

The biological organism is just one part of the chameleon circuitry of thought and reason, much of which now runs and flows outside the head and through our social, technological, and cultural scaffoldings.

So what's all this got to do with XML? If you buy the notion that we are projecting ourselves into networked information systems, then we can't only focus on how processes and data interact in these increasingly XML-based systems. The quality and transparency of our direct interaction with XML processes and data -- and with one another as mediated by those processes and data -- has to be a central concern too.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2003/12/02.html#a856