Woolly Thinking

by Charles Miller on November 3, 2005

Via James, I found an anonymous blog (two posts so far) called Abandon the Web, a site with the stated purpose of "Thinking outside the box of the Web", to find the "next winning platform".

Now the web isn't going to be the Big New Thing forever. Someone's going to come up with something better. We do need people throwing out interesting ideas, because the web's successor is going to come from someone with a lot of dissatisfaction and a good idea. But with the kind of sloppy thinking displayed on Abandon the Web so far, it's only going to be found there by accident. After reading the first post, I was left hoping the site was a parody of the "lost in the stratosphere" world of web punditry.

I suspect it is. Even then, though, it's a great example of how to manufacture supposed insight from thin air.

ATW's first post sets out to describe the five major problems of the World Wide Web that its successor will have to overcome. These problems are labeled the "Five Paradoxes of the Web." They're not paradoxes, of course, most of them don't even manage to be contradictions, but a good name is important. The 'Compensation Paradox', for example, could be better stated as "It's not easy to get people to pay for web-based services", something that any number profitable web-based enterprises can prove isn't exactly the insurmountable problem that the paradox label implies.

Looking at the paradoxes, they seem to be mostly, well, peeves. Coming up with a viable business model in a completely new ecosystem is hard, but it's not a paradox. Browser compatibility might suck, but even Internet Explorer is slowly coming to the party. Code that bridges between Javascript and the server-side is getting easier.

One advantage of describing problems as paradoxes is that logic abhors a contradiction, so if you can tease one out of some circumstances, you don't need to say anything more to justify your position. Contradictions are bad, OK? This is classic woolly thinking. Take the 'Identity paradox', which complains that the web provides neither absolute identity nor anonymity, once again not exactly a paradox. ATW never has to explain why this is necessarily a bad thing, why either complete anonymity or identity would be an improvement, it just phrases the issue as a contradiction and leaves it there.

The other advantage is that by stating only the contradiction, you don't have to come down on one side or the other: all your solution needs to do is be less contradictory. In its second post, ATB rates World of Warcraft against the web, based on how it scores against each of the paradoxes. WoW scores 50% on the Responsibility Paradox against the Web's 0%, because the MMORPG has a central authority. A complete anarchy would also avoid the Responsibility Paradox. Would the anarchy score higher or lower? Would this make a complete anarchy preferable to WoW's central authority? Presumably, a 100% totalitarian system would be less contradictory than WoW's 50%. Would this also be preferable?

I know the questions are a little unfair, but it wasn't me who started throwing meaningless numbers around:

Final rating is: modern software platform—1.4, modern gaming platform—2.1. To build a successor to the Web, don't start with .Net: instead, take World of Warcraft and make it suitable for general purpose use.

Once again proving that if you reduce a problem down to a series of nonsense metrics, you end up with a meaningless result. I'd guess this person has never read the World of Warcraft forums.

Previously: Digital Identity

Next: Woolly Thinking Two