What is software for?
Delaney Turner 270003RQ8K Delaney.Turner@ca.ibm.com | | Tags:  ibmwatson information-insights ibmsoftware
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Silly question, right?
Two contrasting views of software came through my twitter stream today that got me thinking.
I do that sometimes.
The first was a blog post by Dr. Norman Lewis. The second was by Manoj Saxena. Dr. Lewis is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation as well as Chief Innovation Officer and a Managing Partner of Open-Knowledge. Mr. Saxena holds two U.S. software patents for advanced discovery and non-intrusive personalization of Web services.
Clearly, these men know a thing or two about code.
In his post, "Facebook valuation: $100 billion for what?", Dr. Lewis takes the financial media to task for celebrating what he views as a colossal waste of time. Investor excitement about Facebook, he says, is not about innovation nor any social or economic benefit. Rather, he says, Faceook's financial success depends on continuing to enable a regressive worldview in which connections are ends not means and introspective narcissism are celebrated.
"[In its S1 filing] Facebook argues [...] that if it fails to retain existing users or add new users, or if its users decrease their level of engagement, then its revenues, financial results and business may be significantly harmed. In other words, what Facebook understands, and what it wants its prospective investors to understand as well, is that its future success relies upon more of the same: more people playing games, sharing photos and sending each other messages upon which Facebook can generate revenues through targeted advertising...The largest technology IPO in history, in other words, is not about a technology that can transform nature, provide new sources of energy, or new cures for illnesses or cancer, for example; it is about a platform that encourages ever more of the same unproductive, self-absorbed communications between users...Facebook is now a cultural institution, which is driven by, and nurtures, a culture of self-reflective, self-absorbed individuated entertainment and therapeutic communications. The sad truth is that the frenzy and excitement generated by Facebook’s pending IPO reflects little more than its cultural significance. And this is a million miles away from where investment ought to be focused...The Facebook IPO does show how unambitious contemporary society’s expectations are about technology. That Facebook could become the largest technology IPO in history is an alarming prospect."
Now consider the post by Manoj Saxena that appeared today on the Smarter Planet blog. It's been a year since IBM's Watson system defeated Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings on prime-time TV and opened our eyes to the comingled power and potential of deep Question-and-Answer systems. It took four years for IBM engineers to build Watson; yet only one year later it's being put to work in a real-world situation, helping improve patient outcomes at WellPoint, one of the largest health benefits companies in the U.S. Right now, Watson can digest millions of pages of research, incorporate the best clinical practices and monitor outcomes to help doctors treat cancer patients.
In other words, Watson is doing what Dr. Lewis believes technology should do.
I'm inclined to believe him, too. Yes, I'm on Facebook and enjoy trading pop-culture references with friends far and wide. But it's an amusement. One thing you learn when you work at IBM is that expectations of ourselves and of the products we build are very high,
It may be too early to know what Facebook's IPO really "means" in the grand scheme of things. Facebook users may effect real change through their thousands of connections. But for now I'm happy to work for a company that understands the importance of the role it plays in the world and the impact its products have on the way we live our lives.