Four Pillars: Like a smoke ring day when the wind blows

When the dream came
I held my breath with my eyes closed
I went insane, like a smoke ring day
When the wind blows

On The Way Home, Neil Young

Have you ever watched what happens when a gust of wind hits a smoke ring? Blows it to smithereens, makes it “go insane”. Do it sometime, just for a laugh. You don’t have to smoke, just know someone who still does.

It’s the same expression-of-freedom thing that happens in Cabaret, if I’m thinking of the right film. Liza Minnelli and someone else waiting in a tunnel for a train to pass, then yelling at the top of their voices as the train passes.



I can only speak for myself, but the more I see of what we can now dream of doing with technology, the more I get a sensation of catharsis. Which, by the way, is connected to the Cathars in the same way the Canary Islands are connected to canaries. The Cathars were called the Cathars becaused they underwent catharsis. The canaries were called canaries because they were found on the island.

Why this sense of being purged, why this sense of release? Take a look at this.

Here’s one way of looking at our industry (apologies for the extreme brevity and lack of references, I just want to prove a simple point):

  • Iteration 1: The customer could do nothing except through us. Everything was obscure and off limits. Our profession existed behind a thick curtain segregated away from all else, with our own jargon and our own secrets. Men wore cigarettes in their beards and coffee cups grew things. Lasted a long time. Moore writes the laws he can’t afford to buy the original papers of.
  • Iteration 2: The customer could manipulate structured information directly, could consume some structured information. The mouse and pointer and window and icon had arrived. Heady days when everyone was copying everyone and nobody knew the value of what they were giving away and nobody cared. Started while Iteration 1 was still going strong. The lovely Lisa arrived, email and mobile phones were clunking around. Metcalfe writes the laws he can’t afford to buy the original papers of.
  • Iteration 3: The customer could produce structured information. Visicalc and Wordstar had done their bit. IBM had finished setting up Microsoft and now had problems of their own. The PC was born, and IT departments had started their devolution and decentralisation. Ma Bell was finding breaking up hard to do, and SVID was freed up. More versions of Unix than you could shake a stick at. The evil that is patent and IPR and DRM today starts getting its roots firmed up.
  • Iteration 4: The customer could consume unstructured information. From the net via HTML and the browser to the World Wide Web. [ An aside, is www still the only abbreviation to have twice the number of syllables as the thing it’s trying to abbreviate?]. The AT bus, unix and PC clones, open systems and standards, despite all being very vendor-driven, create a whole new industry: the Indian offshore software companies. Until then, proprietary architecture costs and Indian import duties put paid to any other option. All you had was Indian branches of foreign computer manufacturers. Offshore staff, but no offshore industry.
  • Iteration 5: The customer could produce unstructured information. Blogs and wikis start becoming mainstream. The capacity to publish and consume information is democratised. Collaboration using technology becomes a distinct possibility. The opensource movement gets institutional traction, and vendors lose their last vestiges of monopoly control. Standards start becoming community-driven.
  • Iteration 6: The customer can do everything and it works. We see off Strassmann gloom (there is no business value in IT) and Carr gloom (there is no business value in IT innovation either) and Blue Screens of Death and start delivering measurable tangible benefits. Moore and Metcalfe continue to help. Opensource is now the norm. Utilities emerge that are true utilities, owned communally, moderated commercially, serving a specific vertical.

People get connected.

Information gets connected.

Markets get connected.

And life is good.
Because we learn to get out of the way. And allow value to emerge. Using things like Four Pillars.
After all, when all the vendors have been subjugated, we’re left with the biggest vendor of them all. Us. Internal IT departments.

This is why I feel we live in a period of catharsis, as we wash away the constraints of the past and get ready to do new things. And I’m with Neil Young watching smoke ring days when the wind blows, with Sally Bowles yelling my head off when the train goes by.

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