I’m worried about the up-and-coming generation of geeks,” a leading Internet innovator told me at a recent tech gathering. “They try stuff, use it, and throw it away. But I don’t see many of them inventing new foundation technologies.” In other words: rip, mix, burn.
Is this a bad thing? Perhaps quite the opposite. There’s no shortage of foundation technologies, and latent within many of them are unanticipated uses. Discovering new ways to use existing technologies is arguably as important as inventing new ones.
The ingredients for this elegant solution have been lying around in plain sight for years. But the combination wasn’t obvious, so there was quite a stir in the geek community when Nic Wolff, a self-described “Perl hacker from New York City,” published his technique.
As I later found out, there’s another version of the same idea floating around. PasswordScrambler is an Internet Explorer add-on that works in a similar way. It’s available from /n software, whose flagship commercial product, IP*Works!, is a suite of programmable Internet components (infoworld.com/1957). The company offers PasswordScrambler for free in order to make the world safer for, among other things, its own products -- a nice example of enlightened self-interest.
Who thought of this technique first is of little concern, at least to me. Quite possibly, several instances of the same good idea sprouted independently from the compost heap at around the same time. What fascinates me is the architecture of the compost heap itself, made of the rip/mix/burn approach to reusing the protocols and components from which such new ideas can grow.
I don’t want to overstate the case, because the architecture of the Web has plenty of limitations, but it’s amazing how it continues to be a fertile source of these happy discoveries. In a December 2002 column titled “Nobody Expects the Spontaneous Integration” (with apologies to Monty Python), I enumerated the key features of an environment conducive to innovation: Web services (broadly construed), REST, loose coupling, and scripting. It’s even clearer to me today that these are the right ingredients.
But somebody has to see what’s possible and then make it happen. Lots of key insights require no fundamental new invention, yet remain undiscovered. If it’s true that “Generation Z” techies are hardwired to think this way, it would be great. And if they aren’t, we ought to be teaching them how.