LEGOs

Michael Feldstein has a must-read post on interoperability and learning management systems, the sort of writing we used to call nuanced and detailed but are now contractually obligated to call a “long-read”.  It’s probably an “explainer” too, for that matter, from one of the best explainers of what-the-real-roadblocks-are around. This post is primarily a nudge to get you to read that post so that we can move to a deeper level of conversation on the problems engendered by the LMS.

I will add one (multi-paragraph) comment to what it presents, however. A testimonial of sorts.

It’s been eye-opening working on federated wiki because you simultaneously get amazed by the possibilities of stuff-done-at-the-right-level-of-abstraction and frustrated with people’s inability to comprehend things done at that level. People say they want a classic LEGO set, but in practice most conversations with actual people push you towards providing the Millenium Falcon set Michael mentions (via Amy Collier’s not-yetness presentation).

The Millenium Falcon, a LEGO set for late-stage capitalism.

This is why in the consumer-driven space we get 22 “track your pet’s eating habits” apps next to 63 “track your water consumption” apps next to 98 “what did you eat today” apps, each with a different database, login, API, interface, and small company that will be out of business in a year anyway.

The cycle reinforces itself. In a world where you have gosh-darn so many apps, each app must be dirt simple to learn since you get a new app every week (and as quickly forget them). When presented with a classic LEGO set app people ask “How could I ever learn this in five minutes?”, unaware that the reason you have to learn things in five minutes is that you are dealing with problems at the wrong level of abstraction.

As Michael notes, the stuff that happens at the operating system level can support many things, but is useful primarily to developers, not users. The Millenium Falcon LEGO sets, on the other hand, are user-focused but over-specific. They lead one into a never-ending infancy, where one can quickly become competent with a tool, but never adept or creative with it.

What’s missing is tools in the middle — general purpose end-user tools. We get these every once in a while. Word processors, Excel, Hypercard, the web browser. Each a tool you enter to find a blinking prompt and a couple powerful, generative ideas waiting for you to tap into them. Each a tool that unleashes new capabilities and creativity.

But until users can see the relationship between their app-adopting behavior and their larger situation I’m not sure I see solutions like this in the near future. I’ll continue to promote and work on such solutions, because that’s where the potential is. But it’s the cultural issue that needs solving, and I’m still working out how we overcome that.

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