As I See It: Legacy
September 24, 2012 Victor Rozek
It was shaping up to be a near-perfect day, except for that not-so-small matter of the dead horse. It began as the big finish to a busy summer; a trip to the Wallowas (Oregon’s mini-version of the Swiss Alps) to visit a friend and, ostensibly, to spend a little time in the mountains. Personally, I love mountains with a yearning that borders on the irrational, and I hadn’t had my fill of the high country this year, so I was eager and impatient to hit the trail. The morning after we arrived, I stood outside in the crisp early-autumn air, toeing the ground anxiously, like an addict who knows he’s about to get his fix.
A moment later our host emerged and asked if we first wanted to walk down to the pasture and meet her horses. Since our friend loves the big, sweaty things with a passion that rivals my love of mountains, the correct answer was “yes.” So off we went, with me walking ahead, which is why I saw it first. “I don’t know much about horses,” I said, pointing toward the barn “but I’m pretty sure that one’s dead.”
I’ve always found it disturbing to come upon large lifeless animals. All that power and life force suddenly inert. And this time was no different. There it lay, bloated, with its legs sticking out as straight and stiff as rebar. Our friend had owned this particular horse for 23 years, so she was understandably shaken, and any thoughts of mountains drifted off on the stench of decomposing horse. We returned to the house to call a backhoe operator who could come and bury the unfortunate animal. And afterward, we sat down and sampled several kinds of tequilas and talked about legacy. Even death has compensations.
Animals, like people, leave imprints. Memories of races, cups, or ribbons won; a gentleness suitable for children, bloodlines established. But, like people, most live undistinguished lives, to be forgotten by the world shortly after the backhoe completes its task. Still, for its owner, an animal’s legacy is the impression it makes on the heart. For our friend, her horse offered companionship and non-judgmental acceptance during a difficult time in her life. Seen through human filters, the horse’s legacy was one of kindness.
Memory, the written word, and pictures once delimited legacy, but the digital revolution broadened its parameters. People, (and animals for that matter), can live on in assorted media; their memory refreshed, their messages reheard, their work revisited. Special events can be recorded, fading photos transferred to CDs. And, given the affordability of storage, some of the more self-absorbed among us can, and do, document much of the trivia that comprises their daily lives. The life’s work of programmers, photographers, and writers, among others, can be easily miniaturized and stored in a drawer. It’s somewhat daunting to realize that everything I’ve ever written could fit in a tiny corner of a thumb drive. With room left over for the city library.
But the map is not the territory, and digital immortality can only offer an imprint of a legacy, not the legacy itself. You can stand before a cathedral and marvel at its soaring splendor without understanding anything of the piety that built it. Architecture was the means of passing on the legacy, it was not the legacy itself.
But information technology not only provides the means of capturing and preserving heritage, it is also creating its own legacy. And while social networking sites are becoming the preferred on-line depositories of personal history, perhaps the true digital face of IT’s legacy is the wiki.
As conceived by Ward Cunningham, the wiki was designed to be inclusionary and respectful of everyone’s contributions. You needn’t be an expert to offer useful information. You just had to know something relevant. Like a novel whose chapters are written by different authors, the wiki permitted collaboration among strangers, even strangers who had no conscious intention of collaborating. The end-product grows and evolves, and becomes a timeless undertaking of the community. And although online reference tools like Wikipedia cater to notable people and issues of general interest, non-notable people can easily feign notability. And that is the essence of IT’s legacy: inclusion, and empowerment. Common people are welcome.
The unique attributes of the wiki, however, add another layer to a growing digital legacy: the ability to build consensus among strangers across time and space based on shared knowledge. In the world of wiki, no one has a monopoly on the truth. As a reader, not only do you get access to conventional wisdom, but to people who previously may have had no voice.
As Cunningham put it: “I think that the thing I did right was respect the people who would come that I didn’t even know. . . . But I would say, ‘Come on in and I’ll trust you to contribute in good faith and to make your words a gift to this community.’ And we did. It was magical.”
The same principles of empowerment and inclusion also apply to the Free and Open Source software movements. “Empowerment of individuals is a key part of what makes open source work,” said Tim O’Reilly, vocal defender of unbound software. “In the end, innovations tend to come from small groups, not from large structured efforts.” In O’Reilly’s model, small trumps large.
This foundational belief that sharing benefits the wider community points to yet another aspect of the IT legacy that can best be expressed as digital altruism. It is evident not only in open source and Cunningham’s work, but in trends like cloud computing (monetized sharing, but sharing nonetheless), and even in the life-choices made by entrepreneurs like Bill Gates. Gates decided he wanted to be known for something more than being a digital industrialist, and cut short a top-of-the-heap career to start a charitable foundation, sharing his wealth with the global community.
Philanthropy, although not unheard of among the uber-wealthy, is perhaps a natural extension of the motivations that drive software developers. While hardware is a commodity, it can be argued that software is more service than product. On one level, software designers are motivated by the desire to help people solve problems. Beyond profit motive, there is an element of service in creating a useful program, a helpful app–it stems from the desire to contribute, to make a difference. On the extreme end of the service mindset are people like Linus Torvalds who opined: “Software is like sex: it’s better when it’s free.” I’ve only ever had the free kind, so I’ll have to take Linus’ word for it. But your mileage may vary.
As for Ward Cunningham, he chose not to patent the wiki, walking away from what has been estimated to have a billion dollar value. Seldom has walking your talk proved more costly.
For better or worse, legacy is what we leave behind. With or without our conscious participation, each day another brick is added, another chapter written. So the question becomes not what kind of legacy do I want to create, but rather do I like the legacy I am creating.
Marcus Aurelius, emperor, Stoic philosopher, and author of Meditations, which is still admired as a literary tribute to service and duty, wrote: “We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.”
The IT legacy is still in the making, but we can take a measure of pride that service, inclusion, and empowerment appear to be among its enduring gifts.