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On the Death of 20th Century thinking!

by Daryl Plummer  |  October 2, 2008  |  9 Comments

I’ve been spending a lot of time explaining cloud computing and service orientation to people lately. It’s getting frustrating. One reason is that there seems to be a pretty deeply embedded allegiance to what I have started to call “20th Century Thinking”, as opposed to “21st Century thinking”. Now, bear with me, because this is going to sound a bit elitist, but if Barrack Obama can survive such a claim, I can stand in the wind for a second.

So, ok. 20th Century thinking is the steadfast reliance on assumptions about how technology must work, how it will be used, and how it will affect people. It is also associated with what I call the “Elvis Syndrome”. Remember back in the day (when Elvis got hot), parents banned their kids from watching his hips gyrate (or at least that is what my mom told me). They could not understand why their kids wanted to watch or to listen to that “barbaric” form of entertainment! The world sort of segmented into “Before Elvis” (BE) and “After Elvis” (AE) thinkers. Same thing has happened time and time again throughout the history of man and woman-kind. We don’t react well to when the world forces us to change our viewpoints.

Now you could just dismiss this as an “age” issue. Nope. Not me.

I don’t believe this is an issue of “Age” but I do believe it is an issue of “Priorities” and how much “new stuff” people can absorb. Each generation faces the new priorities of its children and those priorities progressively pull the “Parents” into a new set of behaviors. For example – not all Digital Natives will act the same but they will be similar in having different priorities than their parents. We watched more television than our parents. They watched movies. We consumed our entertainment in different ways than they did and this fostered a change in the overall behavior of society because we simply were of a different era (can’t say age) than they. The age is a characteristic of the people who sponsor the change, not a driver. The driver is their changed situation based on what their parents often wrought (i.e. no child of television invented television and no child of the digital age invented the Internet or iPods). But, those who grew up with the option evolved different priorities for their modes of operation and interaction – their behaviors changed.

What the industry misses in the discussion about the cloud, and digital natives, and social computing is that while new thinkers may sponsor changes, they alone can’t cement them. Society will follow and society will validate the new sets of behavior.

So, now we are once again faced with the “Elvis Syndrome” in the IT Industry.

For example, in the IT industry, there are a lot of assumptions about computing scale and performance that are being challenged. We have always felt that reliability, serviceability, and availability were pretty important aspects of any “serious” computing solution – haven’t we? Well for the last ten years, those claims have been refuted many times over as people began to use computing solutions from the Web to e-business to web services, to (now) the Cloud. Most of these have not always lived up to our notions of RAS. But, as it turns out, access, compelling experience, community, collaboration, and capability have become as important as any scale or performance issues of the past. So, those who refuse to evaluate the value of Web 2.0, or Cloud computing, or social computing on the basis that “The really important stuff” can’t work that way might as well park their pterodactyls at Heathrow and go home – or, start rethinking their assumptions.

Assumption: We (IT) must control what users do with computers and technology. Zzzzttt! Wrong! Thanks for playing though. We (IT) need to learn how to coordinate what people do with technology, not control it. Control is an illusion. IT did not pick PCs. IT did not pick IM. IT did not pick GMail. IT did not pick Facebook. IT did not pick the iPhone. IT did not pick the Web. In fact, IT fought against much of this. Sure, we need to try to keep people safe in their use of technology. But, we need to be negotiators and coordinators and trusted advisors to decisions people will make about technology, not dictators.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, well that’s all good but what about serious high end computing? We need to control that! Ok. Fine. Go ahead. The basement is yours – now leave the 80% of us who are trying to create new multi-billion dollar modes of business alone! Oops! Sorry – got carried away by my ego for a moment. Actually, we do need high end computing to be reliable and somewhat controlled – but we can’t lose sight of the fact that the assumptions we made about how that high end computing needed to be done might need rethinking. Do we really need distributed transactions, or are compensating transactions enough? Does it all have to run on one big box, or can we use low cost hardware in large quantity to get similar results? Challenge your assumptions!

There are dozens of examples like this I have faced recently. Here are some others:

  • The Cloud is not new. We did that back when we had TSO time-shared operations with our mainframe systems. Ok, Cro-Magnon-boy, I give you that some of the principles were the same, but you did not have the phenomenon of the Internet to make that truly the same as Cloud. You did not have virtualization or Service Orientation to allow the consumer of a service the freedom to act and the provider of a service the freedom to innovate without adversely affecting one another. Not everything has to be new. The most important phenomena of our time emerge when conditions are right. That means lots of “old” things come together to drive “new” outcomes.
  • The cloud is not secure: Remember when people use to say “no-one will ever put their credit card number into one of them new-fangled Web pages? How’s the web doing, folks? Been shopping online, have you? People will do what they need to do to take advantage of opportunity. Security will follow.
  • Thin Clients can’t do what we need. We have to have fat rich interfaces. Well, I agree, but who says they can’t be “chubby” and embody characteristics of both thin and fat clients? Besides, user experience (how satisfying the UI is to people) is much more of a differentiator than richness alone!
  • Web Apps and social apps are just toys – wait until they need true ENTERPRISE applications! If anyone says this to you, just slap them three times and leave. The world is in the process of recognizing that the “Enterprise” is a limited use case, not the be-all and end-all of computing. We talk about “Global Class” which encompasses the culture of the consumer, the culture of multi-enterprise strategies, and a bias towards elastic computing (come back to my blog for a description of that real soon!).

So, are you a 20th Century thinker or a 21st century thinker? I admit, I struggle and slip from one to the other multiple times in one day! But if we can strive to create a 21st century viewpoint, then new vistas will open before us. And that is where the true opportunities for making big money will emerge. And, if those of us who have been around for a while can learn to embrace the newer concepts, we will be the ones who cement them in real business scenarios.

Still don’t believe me? Well, talk to your kids. Talk to college students. Get on the web and join some social communities. And if that does not work, then remember that many industry pundits believe that between 40 and 60% of the IT workforce in America will retire in the next 5 years. The people who replace them will be increasingly digital natives. They will bring new viewpoints with them for how computing needs to work; and, they will be 21st century thinkers. They will demand changes to the basic assumptions IT has held dear. They will be less tolerant of those who hold on to the last century. And they will have no problem at all with Elvis’ hips!

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Category: cloud  emerging-phenomena  service-orientation  

Tags: change  clous  enterprise  global  service  social  

Daryl C. Plummer
Managing VP & Gartner Fellow
18 years at Gartner
35 years IT industry

Daryl Plummer is vice president, chief of Research and chief Gartner Fellow. Mr. Plummer manages the Gartner Fellows Program, which is designed to allow senior analysts the opportunity to explore new research ideas and to elevate… Read Full Bio

Thoughts on On the Death of 20th Century thinking!

  1. Pierre-Luc conchard says:

    Hi Daryl,
    Great post!

    Maybe you already now memetics but if you don’t check these links :

    This probably explain the Presley phenomenon or the increasing power of the social networks and new behaviours.
    Would be great for the business to be able to predict future It behaviours!


  2. Daryl,

    Nice post. I like the idea of getting out of the 20th century and into the 21st; that’s something I’m very familiar with in the area of load-balancing/application delivery.

    “But, as it turns out, access, compelling experience, community, collaboration, and capability have become as important as any scale or performance issues of the past.”

    I have to question whether collab, community, exp, and capability can be achieved *without* RAS. Twitter serves as an interesting example, if not an anomaly, in how RAS does not necessarily destroy the social aspects of a platform, but I’m not sure that model holds true for more business-oriented applications that might live “in the cloud”.

    Perhaps, but perhaps not…it will be interesting to see whether that holds true or not.


  3. […] 2008 Posted by James Warren in geeky stuff, marketing, media, pr, social media, work. trackback This is excellent.  It’s about IT, but it might as well be about the media.  Or anything else for that […]

  4. Mark Raskino says:

    That’s not a blog post its a manifesto! You have my vote for president of the association for 21st century computing.

    <> – priceless.


  5. […] on September 26, 2008 by sagecircle Update 10/3/08: Darly Plummer has posted his first piece On the Death of 20th Century thinking! Now only two “phase one” analyst blogs have not been […]

  6. Don says:

    To paraphrase Mark Twain, IT can lead the parade or be run out of town, or be run over by the people who have opted for 21st century technology.

  7. […] On the Death of 20th Century thinking! […]

  8. […] other day I read Daryl Plummer’s post On The Death of 20th Century Thinking! and it dawned on me that flashmobs are a great example of what Daryl was talking about.  In […]

  9. […] to dive deeper? I’d recommend the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. And my colleague Daryl Plummer’s post on 20th century thinking. And, of course, my own thoughts on the impact of the web, social software […]

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