James Governor's Monkchips

Adam Bosworth Skewers IBM like Isaac Newton

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I wasn’t there so maybe i am projecting something into his speech, but i had to call out the underlying intellectual aggression of some comments Bosworth made during ICSOC 2004. Everyone and their dog (everyone and their blog…) is pointing to the speech and how spot on it was. Me – i was particularly taken by the quality of his insults.

In an industry where argument so often descends into name calling name Bosworth stands out for the almost 17th century sophistication of his rhetoric. Self effacing but with a razor blade hidden in his flourishes…

Nailing IBM generally and Don Ferguson specifically?

How are we supposed to read the following if not irony clad – given the context of the speech? Check out the poetry:

“Don Ferguson of IBM builds edifices of such sophistication and elaboration as to daunt the designers of the extraordinary archways of the Alhambra.”

Kind of sounds like a compliment doesn’t it?

So what about another esteemed giant- Mr Berners Lee?

“Tim Berners Lee created the web as we know it today and preaches a sort of religion about the semantic web from his eyrie at MIT that is totally over my head.”

The next comments nail it for me: “These are very smart gentlemen. One would be foolish to try to appear smart when speaking between them. Accordingly, I’m going to take the opposite tack.”

The approach reminds me of Sir Isaac Newton’s comments in a letter addressed to Robert Hooke on 5th February 1676.

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

While some commentators claim this is a straightforward compliment there is a school of thought that the line was steeped in irony. I tend to the latter view. After all Newton and Hooke was one of the great scientific rivalries. As a bit of aside – it turns out the true origin of the meme is 12th C.

One could still argue that Bosworth was simply giving others their due – until he talks to the problems of WS-I complexity.

“The difference between HTTP, with its small number of simple verbs, and this world [Ws-*] with its innumerable layers which must be composed together in Byzantine complexity cannot be overstated. It is, in short, a world only IBM and MSFT could love. And they do.”

“Only a world IBM and MSFT could love” – “a face only a mother could love”… 😉

Bosworth also says:

“Consider programming itself. There is an unacknowledged war that goes on every day in the world of programming. It is a war between the humans and the computer scientists.”

As far as i can read there is little doubt which side Bosworth sees himself as on. And if he is at war, then why not throw in some choice insults… but all in the terms of “polite discourse”

“In the end, I am profoundly encouraged and hopeful that the growth on the web is one which is slowly improving the civility and tenor of discourse. Just as Porn seems to be an unpleasant leading user of technology, so does crude and vituperative communication seem to be a pattern for early adopters and it is a relief to see that forms of governance, trust and deliberation are now emerging.”

Could we be entering the era of the subtle insult? i doubt it. But its nice to see man of letters (and code) in full flow…


  1. For what it is worth, I was not intending my remarks as insults. I’m genuinely impressed by the intelligence and analytic rigor of all people concerned in this space and certainly by TBL and Don Ferguson! What I was trying to point out is that systems that extremely intelligent people build for themselves often don’t work well in the large.

  2. Hey! Thanks for the link!


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