From David to Dave

The New York Times has an interesting article over a fight about how to best clean Michelangelo’s David. It’s an interesting study of how technology sometimes clashes with more traditionalist approaches. In our rush to use technology for everything, it is interesting to stop and ponder whether it is the right tool for the job.

Often, geeks like myself tend to jump on technology for technology’s sake. An example of this is the recent hubbub over (n)echo, which has left many people wondering whether RSS is broken. The truth is that it isn’t and that whatever new format comes up will live nicely in parallel to RSS for years to come.

When estimating technology, one should ask himself/herself whether it is the right tool for the job. I could write a calculator program to calculate the sum of one and one but that does not mean that I should (especially on such a small thing). So why is it that we get so blinded by technology? Why is it that the old axiom “to someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” holds true so often when it comes to technology projects?

Part of it is what I would call institutional blindness. It is the kind of thing that sits at the source of most of the big conflicts in the technology space: platform wars like Windows vs. Mac, Windows vs. Linux, Internet Explorer vs. Netscape, RSS vs. (n)echo are often rooted into a set view of how the world is, not how it could be. Some of the most vocal people in those discussions are set on a particular approach and refuse to see the value in the other way.

For example, I’ve recently made the switch from Microsoft windows to Linux as the underlying operating system for There was no acrimony on my part regarding Microsoft. I think Microsoft is a good company when it comes to building desktop operating systems that people use. While many assign sinister motives to Microsoft moves, I do not believe that the company is inherently evil. What I do believe is that the company has a certain view of computing and that this view no longer aligns with my own. Companies, in and of themselves, do not have any motives. They are merely legal entities created to market products and services.

The same can be said of projects. Many people are saying that Dave Winer is inflexible in his stewardship of RSS. However, what they fail to realize is that, while Dave did come up with the initial RSS 2.0 specification, he specifically said that

while these copyright restrictions apply to the written RSS specification, no claim of ownership is made by UserLand to the format it describes

By doing so, he essentially gave anyone a right to extend RSS. So why come up with another format? And why fight over it?

It seems to me that the discussions over the restoration of David are no more academic than the recent discussions over RSS and (n)echo. In both cases, we have people who have done some great work. In both cases, we have disagreement as to how to move forward. In both cases, we will end up with something that will leave some people unhappy.

However, in the case of online syndication, unlike in restoration, there is a way to have your cake and eat it too. Based on my cursory experience of (n)echo to date, I am not yet seeing much value. I do know, however, that RSS is driving large amounts of traffic to my site, and thus, helps me have interesting discussions with a lot of people. RSS 2.0 is highly extensible, if that’s what you want. Some people say it is stuck but I can’t help but think that it is they who are stuck. Stuck on personal conflicts that, in the end, accomplish little in terms of moving standards forward but end up irritating everyone (while Dave and I do not always agree on implementation, and while I have often been on the receiving end of some of his flames, I do value his technical input and his past accomplishments. At the same time, I am willing to go with what I feel is right, whether he or anyone else agrees (as can be attested from my own offering of RSS 1.0 feeds on the site))

The question to all participants in the current RSS/(n)echo flame wars (as this entry is largely targeted at them) is where is the value? and will your format stand in the long run. I suspect RSS will be in use for years to come. I also suspect that, for the most part, it will change. I do believe that all those involved in this fight need to take some time off and figure out what is best for the format. Sure, people can make fun and attack each other but how does that help anyone? At the end of the day, I wish that we all had a Ruby filter in all our discussions.

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