Joel Spolsky demonstrates his exegetic prowess by analyzing a Gillmor missive.
Gillmor himself is (mildly) criticizing Dave Winer, who was teeing off on Mark Lucovsky. Both are riffing on points I made in my earlier commentary on Lucovsky, so I understand where they are coming from.
Joel’s commentary is rather bizarre. Paraphrased, he says “It took me three hours to understand Gillmor, and I am smarter than you, so I will explain Gillmor to you. Gillmor said nothing at all.”
In actuality, he is saying “I believe that Gilmor was trying to get on Techmeme by insulting a luminary, but he did it the wrong way. Let me impress you by showing you the right way insult a luminary and get on Techmeme.”
Joel is the undisputed expert on this topic. His bait-and-prank of DHH was incredible. If you are looking for a slightly mean-spirited but deliciously devious way to deflate an ego, you can find nothing better. The perfect balance with which others were also duped is almost unbelievable (some still are confused, I’m afraid). When the only thing for reasonable people to do is laugh, it’s a good roast.
But in this case, I’m not quite as impressed. Since Joel phrased his roast this time as an insider joke directed to pre-mitzvahed kids with just enough scholarship to be cocky, I’ll respond within the framework. Midrashim, like journalistic editorials, serve an important purpose. But they bring with them some smelly problems.
- Arrogance: CNN talking heads like to say things like “The world is confusing. We break down the news for you real simple.” This is patronizing and laughable. Any time you look to a Rabbi to ‘splain to you something that was clearly etched in stone, that’s a failure on your part and a temptation on his. Typically, the Rabbis are commenting when the original scribe is dead, so arrogance is masked or muted. But when you are “interpreting” a breathing person who penned their text less than a week ago, without asking a single question, the arrogance is plain. Journalists exist to speak truth to power; not to “interpret” for the rabble.
- Context: Joel admits that it took him three hours to understand something that took me three minutes to understand. Joel is certainly at comparable IQ level. So this suggests that he didn’t enter the conversation with adequate context or preparation, and thus perhaps was not the intended audience to whom Gillmor was speaking. Gillmor doesn’t link a lot, and he cites within a small circle. So it’s safe to assume he’s writing primarily for a certain type of person. This, too, is a well-established Midrashic concept. Certain writings are inaccessible to people who aren’t prepared to understand them. Some take this to mean that the best midrashist is a super genius who layers insider jokes within insider jokes and makes his momma proud with dazzling sophistry. But as Kierkegaard explains, it’s simpler than that. Two people faced with the same distinct life experience can draw two different lessons, and both are not necessarily equally valid. Context and experience matter, as does the heart of the listener. No amount of exegetical talent can erase those two factors of listener context.
- Selfish Deceit: Joel’s case is innocuous and plain. He admits that he doesn’t understand what Gillmor is saying, and Gillmor is alive if you want to ask him yourself. And it’s clear that Joel has a selfish motive despite professing otherwise. But in the broader pattern of CNN ‘splainers and Midrashim, corrosion is inevitable. For starters, if you set up a system where rabble need priests to ‘splain, the priests stay in power due to ignorance in the rabble. The incentive system is all wrong. Aaron represented Moses’s failure, not a divine endorsement of the priest class. If you must have Levites, ask yourself why, and only trust them so long as they admit “I’m a liar, too”.
Furthermore, Dave has long had suspicions about the Atom crew’s intentions for RSS; and it is absolutely true that SOAP is feeling pressure from JSON. While Joel would have you believe that there is nothing of interest going on, John Battelle explains it clearly. It actually has nothing to do with APIs in the final analysis — you might as well just stick Google search results in an IFRAME for all that the “API” gives you after this neutering. It’s a perfectly good business decision for Google, trying to frame it as a “developer” feature is wishful thinking.
And really, Gillmor’s missive is just a bit of posturing among prophets. Gillmor is saying, “Dave was probably right, but it’s not relevant anymore”. Then he responds to McNealy’s claim that “you rabble have sold your soul to the central server!” with “it’s true, but you need to rise up and demand your attention data!”.
These are all very significant industry patterns which were predicted by people like Gillmor, Winer, and McNealy; and which were scorned by the rabble and first ignored, then attacked and finally co-opted. Gillmor perhaps is suggesting that he’s a better prophet than Winer, since Winer hasn’t moved on to sounding the claxon about centralization. Or perhaps he’s pointing out that McNealy is utterly surreal; to finally be proven right in defeat, and then change his story to something that is obviously wrong. That’s the opposite pattern to what you normally see — you normally see leaders who push the lie on others, then change their story once the lie is obvious to virtually everyone and claim “I was right all along, you just misunderstood me.”
Since I’ve gone this far to “interpret”, I’ll add my own blatant opinions. First, Dave’s warnings about XML’s complexity were right. Most of his other warnings were right. He has a good track record. More people believe him (by now) than believe Gillmor. But Gillmor is right, too. So if you measure a prophet in how unique, non-obvious to the rabble, or scorned his vision is, Gillmor is currently winning.
On the other hand, you have to rate a prophet not only on how perceptive the prophecy, but how timely and pragmatic the warning. Prophets are typically warning people of something. When McNealy said “privacy is dead” and then dedicated his life to making it true, he wasn’t a prophet — he was just a businessman tracking what he felt to be inevitable. But Gillmor is warning of something important, something people will almost certainly look back on with regret, and suggesting a way to avert disaster. But he’s also suggesting a solution that has a high probability of being ignored, which requires a LOT of people to listen to work, and which attempts to go against nearly every industry trend in force today. In other words, he’s setting himself up to be able to say “I was right, and you should have listened to me”. I hope that future history will prove my doubts unfounded.