Monday, December 27, 2004

Like an Elephant

Time and again many of the new people that I speak with about Croquet immediately (and most certainly prematurely) begin making comparisons between what they think we are trying to do with Croquet and the technologies and categories of technologies with which they are already familiar. With few exceptions, this happens long before they gain even a rudimentary understanding about what we are actually seeking to accomplish through the efforts of this project.

Of course, relating something new to something familiar is a natural way of dealing with what's new. Categories are comfortable. But they can spawn preconceptions or even prejudices that then stand in the way of one's ability to see what is most important or individually unique about a new thing. This is especially true when a large share of a new thing's value lies in the outcome of the interaction between its constituent parts. Emergent properties can have great value...

This is essentially the problem described in John Godfrey Saxe's (1816-1887) poetic version of the famous Indian legend known as The Blind Men and the Elephant in which each observer only perceives a part of the whole in a way that prevents a wholistic understanding of the animal and what it is capable of doing.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk
Cried, "Ho! what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me `tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up he spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope.
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Unfortunatly, the vision of what Croquet really is remains just a vision until we begin deploying a more mature networking technology and the framework of interactivity and worldbase servers as described in whitepapers on the project website. Words do it little justice. Trying to explain it is kind of like trying to describe the smell of coffee to a Martian with no earthly experience. As the character Morpheus in The Matrix puts it so well: "Unfortunately no one can be told what the matrix is, you have to see it for yourself." This lack of experience with the whole is why so many are compelled to relate only to Croquet's consituent parts at the level of the categories with which they are already familiar.

Below I list below some of the typical comments that I hear from people who are new to Croquet. Notice the syntax - it's usually a statement of category followed by a reference to an existing product or approach. The reference part, usually in the form of a question, is for most people the result of a desire to be helpful.

"It's like an open source game engine - Oh, are you familiar with open source CrystalSpace or the Unreal engine and its mod capabilities?"

"It's like a 3D chat room - oh yea, have you checked out things like Second Life or Adobe Atmosphere?"

"It's like a 3D desktop - have you seen Sun's Project Looking Glass, its also a 3D desktop?"

"It's like a 3D learning space - have you gotten in touch with Active Worlds, they are building an Education Universe, aren't they?"

"It's like a collaboration suite - doesn't SharePoint do everything you are trying to do?"

"It's like a videoconferencing tool - gee, I thought NetMeeting already did that, have you looked into that?"

"It's like an operating system - I hear that Longhorn will be 3D and collaborative, right?"

"It's like a digital repository - so do you know about DSpace and the IMS specifications?"

"It's like a browser - do you use Mozilla source code and are you a member of W3C, after all, standards are important aren't they?"

"It's like a learning management system - Moodle and other commercial systems like WebCT and Blackboard do collabrative stuff, don't they?"

"It's a peer-to-peer technology - is it a file sharing program like Morpheus or KaZaA?"

"It's an integrated tool for collaboration, communication, and training - Macromedia Breeze does that, right?"

"It's like a 3D wiki - isn't there a...
(then there is a long pause while they think about it)...hmmm...a real 3D that would be cool!"

Just like the blind men and just like an elephant...


Darius said...

I still prefer Alan Kay's "Idea Processor" (or editor) vs. a word processor or spreadsheet number processor with all the storage, publication, transmission, freeform malleability, shared content editing, and universal authorship that these common tools imply with multimedia added.

Perhaps one might best describe Croquet as a “visual metaphor generator”
or a

“visual narrative canvas for exploring, creating, learning, recording, storing, & publishing processes & simulations… secure, yet eliminating most boundaries to fast, accurate creation, transmission, & updating of dynamic, living representations of anything that one can imagine”.

Anonymous said...

It's a flexible, real-time editable, networked Virtual Reality system meant to be used in a global scale. Something like a platform for VR and creating programmable objects in this VR space.


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