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The Intranets of Babel


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Abstract: Corporations and companies today generate a juggernaut of information, much more than they can process or put to use. The accepted response to running out of shelf space is to invest in more capacious IT and storage systems, with intranets serving as interfaces to ensure this stockpile of information remains accessible and usable. This whitepaper posits a less technical but more evolved response, one that has worked for centuries and enabled the very survival of our species. It recommends overlaying on our intranets the principles of oral-based information systems where a premium is placed on the processing, validation and sculpting of information before its eventual storage for future reference. The paper explores in detail how to put these principles to work within the challenging context of a modern corporate environment. It also implements its own recommendations, preferring to lead by example.

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The Intranets of Babel

  1. 1. The Intranets of Babel ∞ Iqbal Mohammed 1 The Intranets of Babel Iqbal Mohammed Twitter: @misentropy | Web: Abstract: Corporations and companies today generate a juggernaut of information, much more than they can process or put to use. The accepted response to running out of shelf space is to invest in more capacious IT and storage systems, with intranets serving as interfaces to ensure this stockpile of information remains accessible and usable. This whitepaper posits a less technical but more evolved response, one that has worked for centuries and enabled the very survival of our species. It recommends overlaying on our intranets the principles of oral-based information systems where a premium is placed on the processing, validation and sculpting of information before its eventual storage for future reference. The paper explores in detail how to put these principles to work within the challenging context of a modern corporate environment. It also implements its own recommendations, preferring to lead by example. Introduction “Everything is at its peak of perfection.” So pronounced Baltasar Gracian, a 17th century Jesuit scholar and political advisor, in his collection of aphorisms titled ‘The Art Of Worldly Wisdom.’ Much of the advice Gracian penned over 3 centuries ago still stands the test of time. Which is probably why his reputation and wisdom have spread far and wide in the intervening centuries. But in stating that all things get better with time, the worldly-wise monk just might have underestimated a tool of information diffusion that he himself made masterly use of. Aphorisms, proverbs, sayings, maxims, epigrams – call them what you will. But wisdom literature is universal. Every ancient culture we know about, had perfected the art. From the proverbs of The Old Testament and the spiritual pronouncements of the Tao Te Ching to the maxims of Nietzsche in ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ and Baltasar Gracian’s own ‘The Art Of Worldly Wisdom.’ Over the last century or so, technology has made many things possible. But has it found a way to beat the common garden-variety proverb in its elegance and efficiency as an information carrier? The question is relevant, today more than ever, because the raison d’etre of the modern organization – definitely the modern marketing and communication organization – is information. And to ensure it flows smoothly and seamlessly, we have at our summons a mind-boggling array of freshly- minted technology – computers buzzing at the speed of electrons, networks connected with high- bandwidth lines, database systems, truly colossal storage space, graphical user interfaces – all coming together to give us that internet-inspired information network: the intranet. But even its most fervent supporters will concede that, at best, intranets work sputteringly. The carriage has been made, the wheels well-oiled, the physics of motion studied and understood. But bewilderingly, the horse stays put – refusing to have anything to do with the contraption. The thesis that follows explores the answer to the question posed above. And provides learnings from our own past – a past we seem all too willing and eager to relinquish. PART ONE In which we ponder on the ubiquity of information and wonder how we ever managed without it. The Indispensability of Information Few things characterize the modern world as much as information. We accumulate it, consume it, create it, revel in it, wallow in it, trade it, build on it, wage wars with it and swear by it. We even refer to our times as the Information Age – the pinnacle of our ongoing quest for omniscience. With characteristic inward-looking vanity, we have grown to believe that progress is represented by our ever-increasing quantum of information. We believe we are above our brutish ancestors simply because we know better, we know more and because, we even know that we know. The knowledge economy is but the latest manifestation of our love affair with information. In our current world, the noblest calling any mortal can hope for is to spend his life creating this precious commodity. If one can do that successfully, immortality is assured. One lives on in the information one bequeaths. It’s a mighty edifice. But like the biblical Tower Of Babel, is it an edifice that just might end up spelling our doom instead of our triumph? It’s a sign of our youthful exuberance that we dismiss such a possibility without even as much as a thought. But if one takes a closer peek at the edifice, the cracks are there for all to see. A Bushelful Of PowerPoint Presentations Statistics abound about the number of books printed since Gutenberg invented the moving type and about the number of web pages created since Tim Berners- Lee created HTML and, in a big bang of his own making, the World Wide Web. Statistics about the number of intranet documents in the world, however, are hard to come by. But that shouldn’t deter us in our journey. A visit to the nearest company intranet and a simple search will yield an impossibly large number of PowerPoint presentations, research documents, reports, fact sheets and other such treasure troves.
  2. 2. The Intranets of Babel ∞ Iqbal Mohammed 2 Depending on past experience with such an experiment, one may or may not be surprised at the abundance of informational wealth that resides within even the most self-effacing organization. Regardless, to serve time in the modern organization is to live with a sneaking suspicion that the universe is bursting at the seams – with dark matter and information. Make no mistake about it. The information factory is working overtime, its assembly lines disgorging information relentlessly onto an unsuspecting world and clogging its pipelines. The Stockpiling Of Knowledge Who consumes all this information? Not you and me, certainly. And if you dismissively think somebody else must be doing it, do remember that somebody out there is counting on you being their somebody else. Dismissively or otherwise. It is precisely this titanic imbalance between the information created and consumed that prompted WIRED magazine to run this warning on their credit panel for years: “The ignorance of how to use new knowledge stockpiles exponentially." We just aren’t doing a good job of imbibing the information we create. And our exponentially motivated information surplus leaves us no hope of catching up, ever. More often than not, it even paralyses our earnest attempts at making a beginning. Sounds familiar? To redress the balance and make a difference to our situation, we need to start with a pilgrimage to a time and place a few thousand years ago. Information And The Hunter-Gatherer It is undeniably true that our ancestors living between 50,000 and 5,000 years ago had only a tiny fraction of the information that we grapple with. But their living and life depended on putting that little information to good use, in a way that can never be said about us. Life for a hunter-gatherer depended on assimilating and sharing a complex web of data about the world he inhabited. Which roots were poisonous and hence needed to be avoided? How did one ensure that you didn’t end the day on some animal’s dinner plate? Which plants yielded fruits all year round? How does one find that watering hole one came across a few weeks ago? Long before a hunter-gatherer on his deathbed was hustled by the family lawyer to carefully consider his will and his material wealth, he had a much more important legacy to pass on. Information which ensured that his progeny was equipped to survive the turbulent times. Information that was passed on to him by his ancestors. Information that was whetted, validated and added upon by him during his lifetime. Information without the benefit of which they all wouldn’t have made it, even as scientific curiosities. Writing would have helped, had it not been invented only as late as 3,000 BC. The printing press would have been great too, but that lay a further few thousand years ahead. Computers and the internet, those magnificent tools of information storage and retrieval, were mere hunter-gatherer science fiction. Not-so-primitive Information Systems How then did our ancestors manage to store and transmit information without any of the tools we have come to rely on for doing the same? There’s no doubt, of course, that they did manage to do it successfully, or else we wouldn’t be around right now pondering on that question. Undoubtedly, stories and myths served that function. But they too were a comparatively later invention – needing the mastery of complex ideas like cause & effect, characterization, plot, symbolism, etc. Anthropologist Jared Diamond talks about a Great Leap Forward that happened about 50,000 years ago. Archaeological yields from the time – artifacts, tools, decorative beads – reveal that this is the Rubicon that divides ‘modern’ man from his predecessors. Precisely what caused that Great Leap Forward is still a matter of debate. It certainly wasn’t an abrupt increase in brain size. ‘Anatomically modern’ human beings have had our brain size for a few million years before the Great Leap Forward. The development of language? Probably. But mankind (and other species) have been conversing with each other ever since they could grunt in two different timbres. The answer, I believe, lies elsewhere. Archaeological digs can and do yield the material possessions of our ancestors. But what of their virtual wealth? I do use the word ‘virtual’ with great caution, though I must admit it is probably the first time the word is being used to describe something belonging to primitive man. Yet, it is in this virtual realm that the Great Leap Forward took place – whether it is the same one that Jared Diamond is referring to or something distinctly different. We know at some point in the past, our ancestors devised an information-sharing system that outlasted their memories and their lives. It pre- dated writing and, by our reasoning from before, even story-telling. Philologists and ‘language archaeologists’ regularly come up with digs of their own. Our languages, regardless of where in the world they originate, are rich with an oral-based information- sharing system, often with hidden clues to its primitive past. And the information carrier of choice? The humble, innocuous and flap-your-ears-and- you’ll-miss-it proverb. PART TWO In which we trace and establish the origins of the world’s earliest information sharing network. A Proverbial Journey Proverbs probably began life as simple injunctions – a set of do’s and don’ts, later peppered with proto- metaphors and rudimentary analogy to aid memory and recall. But it is this simple step forward that effectively put us on the road to who we are today. Before proverbs were invented, each man carried whatever he learnt in his lifetime to his grave. There simply was no means by which he could ensure that
  3. 3. The Intranets of Babel ∞ Iqbal Mohammed 3 the tribe-at-large would benefit from his wisdom after he was gone. Proverbs, for the first time in our history, made it possible for information to exist and accumulate outside of us. (Prior to this development, only genes and evolution combined to transmit information between generations. External information systems have dramatically speeded up the process by short- circuiting evolution, which works in timeframes of millions of years. An account of the evolutionary mechanisms superseded by proverbs, and other external information systems that followed, is outside the purview of this thesis.) Progress was swift (by prehistoric standards) after proverbs were hit upon. Each generation built on the proverbial wisdom of their predecessors – validating it, adding layers, sculpting it to its shortest most memorable form, opening new doors of connotation, adding new ones of their own and also discarding the wisdom that didn’t pass the unforgiving real-life test of usefulness. Armed with this body of accumulating wisdom, mankind went on to invent agriculture, domesticate plants and animals, discover metal tools, form complex societies with centralized governments, create literature, forge modern civilization as we know it and even stumble upon writing. Finally. Unchanging Wisdom In A Changing World And did the proverb opt for voluntary retirement with the invention of writing? Of course not. Thousands of years of experimentation in the real world had evolved the perfect formula for information transmission. To successfully make a living, a proverb had to complete the long journey to a listener’s ear, be memorable enough to be summoned in times of need (think the middle of a wild tiger chase) and even more importantly, had to have that magic quality that obsessively compelled one to share it with others. Some of the earliest surviving literature is epigrammatic. And proverbs didn’t wait for the New York Times to acknowledge their success; they’ve been topping the best-seller charts through pre- history and history. Even as late as the 18th century, thinkers were hammering away aphorisms at their typewriters. And if you must ask, Baltasar Gracian still commands shelf-space in a bookstore. Even in the 20th century, proverbs occasionally crop up. But primarily as agents of counter-culture drafted for help by thinkers and revolutionaries struggling against the juggernaut of information overload. (Waiting to be read in my inbox right now is a mail forward with one-liners under the subject line ‘Taxi-Driver Wisdom.’) That they are still being used attests to the timelessness of the formula. The Rise Of The Machines But why, in the first place, have they fallen out of favor? There are 3 primary reasons for the turnaround. Firstly, the proliferation of literacy along with the widespread availability of instruments of writing and recording. This seemingly empowering development gives all of us our own marquee show on the information channel, a development that bestows far more prestige than the alternative – being the couch- potato consumer of age-old wisdom. Conversely, having one’s thoughts carved in stone is no longer a preserve of the wise. Secondly, the rising creed of individualism – probably the most successful and widely exported commodity to come out of the west. This outlook has convinced us that each of our experiences and learnings is unique and only marginally similar to the experiences of the rest of humanity. Nothing could be further than the truth. Nothing has been more harmful to our collective wisdom. Finally, the rapid development of information storage and retrieval technologies. With the advent of computers empowered with Moore’s Law, hardware and software are combining to give us dazzling storage capacities with equally dazzling retrieval times. Unsurprisingly, it has occurred to nobody to put an upper cap to burgeoning knowledge. We can keep cranking it out because the universe is one big storage shelf – or it will soon be. Where Does Information Reside? But is there space in our collective minds for the reverse osmosis to occur? For the information created and accumulated in silos outside of us, to seep back into our minds as wisdom? It’s this reverse osmosis of information that completes the loop and makes it… well, information. But this assimilation cannot always happen at the moment information is needed for processing. There indeed is more than one reason why there doesn’t exist a single cave painting of primitive men chasing game and simultaneously flipping through a well- thumbed copy of Ancient Hunting Proverbs. Proverbs, by their very nature, infiltrate the human mind long before they are needed. Once in the mind, they grow, mutate and take up permanent residence deep in our subconscious. And like a virus, they enlist the infected mind to find new hosts to propagate and spread further. And the process continues ad infinitum. Their actual use only serves to validate and confirm their truth. Now consider the intranet and the way it’s been designed for use. More storage space coupled with better search algorithms have only ensured that we postpone the process of soaking up information to the very last moment possible – preferably just before putting it to use. That wouldn’t have been too bad either. If only the information in our documents was not hidden well enough for underground oil deposits to develop an inferiority complex. It is the norm for entire presentations to be uploaded on an intranet for ‘reference.’ Reports often are islands of information unconnected and aloof, all by themselves. Fact sheets will contain tons of data that you don’t need – the relevant bit is still awaited as an update. The one tiny morsel of information you are looking for could make a difference, if only you can find it. The universal despair of not being able to find the information we are looking for is one of the few emotions that unites all of humanity. Which is why
  4. 4. The Intranets of Babel ∞ Iqbal Mohammed 4 we eventually give up and give in to the idea that the actual universe might or might not be expanding, but the docu-verse definitely is. We harbor no hope of keeping up or making sense of even a minuscule portion of it and choose to concentrate instead on the resulting feeling of liberation. So, is that necessarily a foretelling of doom? In the biblical story of The Tower Of Babel, the descendants of Noah built a ziggurat far larger and taller than any built at that time. Their success filled them with pride and they continued to build it higher and higher. God, in order to teach them a lesson, ensured that the words spoken by each one became unintelligible to the others overnight. Unable to communicate with each other and frustrated, each of the descendants went away to a different part of the world. And the Tower of Babel was reduced to ruins. The allegory has a strangely happy ending. According to the Bible, the punishment God meted out to Noah’s descendants gave birth to all the different languages spoken by different people around the world today. The real-life Tower Of Babel we are building in our organizations ensures that while everyone is talking, no one is listening. The fallout will have no silver lining, as we all withdraw into our own shells, harboring no hope of ever being heard or understood. For an organization, it means people toiling away and re-creating the very same information created by some one else just across the office. It means wasted resources in time, energy and fragmented information. And, above all, it means a wasted investment – intranets were embraced because they could reduce these very redundancies. The Internet Does Its Bit The biggest information system out there – the Internet – is showing signs of sprouting solutions to the very problems we are posing. New ‘tagging’ technology on social networking sites like Flickr, 43 Things and is empowering information to percolate in strange new ways, and is allowing users to build their own collection of what’s useful to them – information that others are also free to draw and build upon. Other sites like Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and Wikipedia are seducing users to treat their databases like extended notepads, welcoming everyone’s two-bits to form a colossal tapestry of information weaved together by millions of contributors. The Internet – or the 50% of it not created just for the delight of friends and family – is a tool subject to the principles of the free market economy. Market forces are exerting their influence on it to ensure that dysfunctional technologies and tools are constantly weeded out. Innovation and the profit motive are ensuring that their place is taken by new ideas and products that arise spontaneously. The company intranet, however, is a different animal. Not subject to economics and market reality, the intranet instead reflects one designer’s, or worse still, a committee’s need for control of information flow. This then is rigidly coded into the system making it inflexible, restrictive and, in the most part, useless. But placing the source of problem elsewhere, companies then send in reinforcements – hoping that if money can’t buy love, it should at least be able to buy the perfect information-sharing tool. With the same results. Intranets, fortunately or unfortunately, are here to stay. Which is why a little planning and a lot of care can go a long way in ensuring they serve the purpose they were built for. If proverbs could talk and dispense the wisdom they have gained from thousands of years of carrying information to and fro, what would they have to say? And if we were to benefit from this received wisdom, what kind of information-system would we design? PART THREE In which we listen to the whispering wisdom of proverbs and contemplate the lessons they contain. Aphorism 1: “The value of a network approximately equals the square of the number of users of the system.” Metcalfe’s Law (as the above aphorism is known) was first formulated to explain the cumulative networking effects of technologies like telephones, computers, faxes, and even formats like DVDs and (as an explanation of the loss of Sony’s superior Beta format) the VHS video format. Simply put, the more the number of users, the greater (in many orders of magnitude) the benefit of a technology. The logic is impeccable. And to Sony’s rude shock, very real. But there are hidden realities, tucked away by marketing hype that we often come to believe ourselves. Every employee has access to the company intranet, but does every employee access the company intranet? The number of employees who access it are often a subset of the total number of employees. Further, the number of users who actively search for information is a subset of all users who log in. And so on and so forth. The truth is that the actual number of users who use a particular feature of a network is always a much-nestled subset of the overall number. When advocates of digital nirvana espouse the value of computer networks, they sometimes avoid reading the fine print aloud. Network worth can also be eroded in far more subtler ways. Consider x to be a certain number of people who have the access and the inclination to read a PowerPoint presentation of 10 slides. For every additional slide henceforth, the number x only falls. Until we reach another number y which is the number of slides which effectively reduces the number x to zero. The highest value the variable x can take still remains in theory. But in practical reality, it is far short of it. So also the value of the network which stores that particular presentation. Proverbs operate in mysterious ways to ensure that the force is on their side. To begin with, they are uncomplicated and don’t need a masters in computer technology to be used. Most of them are short – so everyone who comes in contact with them has grasped their essence; there are almost no dropouts.
  5. 5. The Intranets of Babel ∞ Iqbal Mohammed 5 The best ones are not only memorable but also compel us to share them with every one we can. In short, proverbs ensure that they benefit from cumulative networking in an outward spreading ripple. On the other hand, the intranets we encounter start with a maximum number of users and work inwards, ending up cornering only an ever- diminishing fraction of it. Lesson: The lesser you have to say, the more the number of people willing to listen to it. Aphorism 2: “Information is nobody’s property; it belongs to whoever uses it best.” I hate to be the one breaking this to Richard Stallman (founder of the Open Source Software Movement) and Linus Torvalds (creator of the Linux Operating System.) but the Open Source movement pre-dates not just them, but the whole of known history. (Though, do keep up the good work and the free software.) Proverbial wisdom is the first great open source experiment. Everyone in the community shared whatever wisdom they had with everyone else. The users in turn could chisel the proverbs, add to them, change them (for better or for worse) and would return them back to the community pool. Thus, the collective proverbs in a community were always being improvised upon by whoever had the experience and ability to do so – the same model that open source software currently follows. Wisdom thus was sculpted into shape not just by one man’s experience or genius, but by collective and collaborative effort. It’s counterintuitive, but what makes open source movements work is that the people collaborating do not expect explicit credit, or even money, for the work they do; they share their skills instead for the sheer love of doing so. Of course, if the trust under which the system operates cracks, the structure will crumble. But when information-systems are designed to be ‘honest, open and genuine,’ users will give of their time, skills and even more importantly, will share all the wisdom they hold deep within. Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and Wikipedia have been harnessing this model successfully for years. And both of them are currently challenging the professionally established databases – built up through paid labor of supposed experts in their respective fields. Not only have the above two sites managed to achieve similar results at a microscopic fraction of the cost, they have managed to do it at a fraction of the time as well. Of course, remove the anonymity clause in these systems and they grind to a spectacular halt. Which is why proverbs are often signed ‘English proverb’ or ‘Jewish Proverb’ rather than ‘Fred the Farmer’ and ‘Moredecai the Merchant.’ Attribute the name of a person to a quote and you freeze it for eternity – tinkering with it will only attract howls of protest from irate family members and avaricious lawyers. Give it a generic attribution and you invite people to sandbox it – fool around and play with it until they come up with something probably better. Lesson: If you want superstars and divas, give contributors credit and money. If you want to build a robust self-sufficient information-sharing system, keep your sights, and the spotlight, firmly on knowledge. Aphorism 3: “Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.” It’s commonsense, but there’s more to Coughlin’s Law in this context than Mr.Coughlin imagined there would be. In ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’, authors Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger argue that markets resemble ‘conversations.’ The actual transactions – buying, selling, trading – represent words and sentences communicated through a language that can either be open, honest and direct or dry, humourless or worse still, insincere. Of course, these ‘market conversations’ can take weeks, months or even years to unfold. The hypothesis they proffered has been much embraced and has found a widespread following in that hotbed of innovation, Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs saw in it the promise of an Internet of the future – not shackled by its current frumpy image of a huge monolithic library of information. In the words of David Sifry, founder of the first blog search engine Technorati, the Internet “is a river of human chatter, constantly joined by other creeks and brooks but ever flowing.” And he wasn’t referring just to its hormone-filled chatrooms; he was talking about all of it. What’s true of the Internet is true of intranets too; if only less so. What this means is that the mere act of uploading your profile, or that 200 page report, is the beginning of a conversation with someone out there. Whether you receive a reply or not depends on how gregarious or frosty the atmosphere in the network is. Along with how easy you make it for people to enter into a dialogue with you. Of course, a response needn’t be an email – it can be another presentation or an activated link to yours. Lesson: Your manners are visible in places where you won’t be seen. Aphorism 4: “Knowledge is learning something every day. Wisdom is letting go of something every day.” In the 1970s, with an oil crisis looming large, British economist E.F.Schumacher proposed a host of new ideas and terms : sustainable development, intermediate size, intermediate technology, etc. But he is most famous for giving the world a book and with it, a slogan: ‘small is beautiful.’ The problem with slogans is that they are catchy and look good on banners – and that’s where it ends. ‘Small is beautiful’ became a rallying cry for everything from the protest of gas-guzzling vehicles to the population crisis in China. But somewhere along the way, everyone forgot the lesson and the means to it. Michaelangelo Buanorotti – renaissance painter, sculptor and genius – has a more helpful and useful way of explaining the same lesson. Beauty, in his words, is the purgation of all superfluities. Of course, as a painter and sculptor he should know.
  6. 6. The Intranets of Babel ∞ Iqbal Mohammed 6 Far away from the world of Renaissance Art (and yet inadvertently using or abusing the very same processes), designers of intranets swear by the mantra ‘more is good.’ And with modern technology and unfathomable storage space available, there’s nothing to stop them from filling up an infinite array of cubbyholes in a fierce underground competition to build the largest collection of unread documents in the universe. In use far before writing became widespread, proverbs were limited in bandwidth and storage space by the recalling ability of the reigning heavy- weight memory champion of the community. Anything that couldn’t be remembered by him or anyone else was discarded. Understanding this simple principle, communities ensured what they only remembered and passed on was what was most useful. In modern information storage systems, it’s hard to evolve this kind of natural spring-cleaning system. But a combination of an externally imposed spring- cleaning system, the constant resistance of the urge to upgrade to the latest storage technologies and a foreknowledge of the essential principles of information storage and flow, should do quite fine instead. Lesson: Be careful of what you wish for; it might not always be what you need. Aphorism 5: “The more frequently an expression is used, the more likely it will be replaced by a shorter equivalent.” Someone once said ‘A ship in a harbour is safe; but that is not what ships are meant for.” The same holds true for information and knowledge. We build and accumulate knowledge in order that we can use it to help us navigate the world we live in. Yet, we leave it in coldstorage – in books, libraries, presentations and on the net – until the very last moment, relying instead on the efficiency of search engines, overnight cramming sessions, or both, when the need arises. Yes, search engine technology has progressed by leaps and bounds since two graduate students cobbled together Yahoo and rigged the system online. But even now the best search engines are no match for raw human talent at processing, storing and recalling information. Else, we would have newspaper headlines screaming : “Artificial intelligence is a reality.” For the moment, they are lamenting the exact opposite. Call it whatever you want – information, knowledge, wisdom – it was never meant to be a mantelpiece. It always was and is a tool to be taken to work, a weapon carried to battlefield, an idea taken to a laboratory and a truth awaiting its real-world test. In the spirit of the scientific method, and the ideas of Karl Popper (who defined it), science can only be advanced by empirical falsifiability – the theory that all knowledge is a series of ‘conjectures and refutations’ approaching, though never reaching, a definitive truth. Karl Popper aside, information should be put to use for another good reason. Zipf’s Law, quoted above, dictates that the more the information is used, the more it will benefit from the exercise – losing flab, acquiring the spring of step and the leanness of build it needs to travel far and wide. Lesson: Information is not the end result to our quest but only the means. Do not hoard it. Aphorism 6: “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.” A few words in the English language are so beautiful to the ear that listeners gush even before they find out what it means. In my experience, 'serendipity' is one of them. Serendipity also encapsulates within itself a beautiful idea – that of finding something unexpected and useful while searching for something else entirely different. Life is one long series of serendipitous experiences – the friends of our insignificant other who stay on long after the two-month fling ended, the hobby we pick up while trying to run an errand for the aunt of our best friend, the program we discover while randomly surfing TV at 3 in the morning and the book that ends up changing our life after being rescued from a garage sale. In fact, many people are all too keenly aware of their inability to exhaust the experiences on offer, especially if they wait for life to work its serendipitous magic. They consciously and rigorously use serendipity as a method to seek new ideas, new experiences, new knowledge, new friends, new hobbies – new just-about-anything. Which is why it’s baffling when system analysts leave no room for the unplanned in the intranets they design. It isn’t a big deal finding the needle people are looking for in a haystack. Sometimes it may be wonderful to turn up with the safety pin they weren’t looking for and didn’t know they needed. Until then. In fact, even more than ‘programmed randomness’, a truly efficient information sharing system is built on an open architecture – designed to grow into an extension of its users, going in whichever direction they take it. Proverbs had no defining manifesto – they instead evolved and flowed down pathways their users thought useful. This open architecture along the natural laws of evolution and survival of the fittest ensured that the strongest strains of wisdom survived and prospered. Incorporating randomness in an intranet is always tricky. But constant and controlled experimentation with emerging Internet technologies – like blogging, tagging, podcasting – will ensure that the intranet grows in the territories the Internet is exploring; instead of continuing to look like a sepia-tinted snapshot of the Internet in its bell-bottomed extravagant youth. Lesson: Plan for flexibility and you don’t have to plan for anything else. Aphorism 7: “A proverb is a short sentence based on long experience.” Lying crumpled in the waste paper basket at my feet is a piece of paper that contained my first recommendation to ensure our own Tower Of Babel stands tall: “dismantle our intranets, sell our storage
  7. 7. The Intranets of Babel ∞ Iqbal Mohammed 7 disks as scrap and send our back-up tapes to the National Archives with our best compliments.” I would be most surprised, to put it very mildly, if any self-respecting organization would take that advice seriously. Chances are that even the current thesis would be much appreciated, categorized, tagged with appropriate search words and filed safely away in an intranet – to gather virtual dust. To be woken up from deep slumber, now and then, by a fresh set of back-up tapes. However, as creators of our organization’s intellectual wealth it is imperative then that we – you and I – turn the tables by taking the onus of ensuring that those long toilsome nights burning the midnight oil weren’t all in vain. We could, of course, fool ourselves into believing that we have incorporated the wisdom that proverbs have to offer and still land up at the pearly gates of the intranet with a bound copy of a 172 slide presentation. Or we could throw everything that’s expected of us out of the window, and go ahead and say everything we want to say in one short sentence. The choice is ours. And for those of us who cannot take that advice (and that includes me, thanks to the Matrix), I have only one further lesson to offer. Lesson: Write out that damn presentation. And as a summary, throw in the proverb for free. PART FOUR In which we attempt a summary of our long journey and take our own bitter medicine. Summary Epigrams succeed where epics fail. – Persian Proverb ABOUT THE AUTHOR IQBAL MOHAMMED is a brand and marketing strategist whose area of specialization lies at the intersection of advertising, information systems and economics. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award 2006 for best original published writing in the 'Branding and Identity' category. To subscribe to email updates of his latest papers, visit BIBLIOGRAPHY  Dawkins, Richard (2003) : ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’  Diamond, Jared (1997): ‘Guns, Germs And Steel: A Short History Of Nearly Everybody for 13,000 years’  Economist, The (Sept. 15th 2005) : Technology Quarterly – ‘Websites of Mass Description’  Economist, The (Oct. 6th 2005) : ‘The Life And Soul Of The Internet Party’  Gracian, Baltasar & Maurer, Christopher (1991) : ‘The Art Of Worldly Wisdom’  Lessig, Lawrence (2004) : ‘Free Culture’  Levine, Rick; Locke, Christopher; Searls, Doc & Weinberger, David (2001) : ‘The Cluetrain Manifesto’  Parker, Victoria (2002) : ‘Children’s Illustrated Bible’  Popper, Karl (1935) : ‘The Logic Of Scientific Discovery’  Skinner, Robin & Cleese, John (1996) : ‘Life And How To Survive It’ URLs  43 Things –  –  Flickr –  IMDb –  Technorati –  Wikipedia – What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? - CLR James, 'Beyond A Boundary' META Suggested Citation: Mohammed, Iqbal, The Intranets of Babel (January 15, 2006). Available at SSRN: This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 543 Howard Street, 5th Floor, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.