Don Marti

Tue 09 May 2006 11:50:45 PM PDT

Lightweighting vs. bullshit

Harry G. Frankfurt points out that we have no theory of bullshit, and that "very little work has been done on the subject." His On Bullshit makes progress toward coming up with a definition, and he concentrates on one meaning of the word: communication that is "unconnected to a concern with the truth."

By this definition, the most effective bullshit does not involve actual lying, and the fact that bullshit is not aiming at the truth doesn't mean that it's careless or unconsidered about getting to where it is aiming. Prof. Frankfurt writes, "The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in those fields there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who—with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth—dedicate themselves to getting every word and image they produce exactly right."

Bullshit in that sense is a huge problem, and so calling bullshit where needed is the best thing you can do for the rest of the audience. Prof. Frankfurt, though, is concentrating on one side of the bullshit problem, which is probably the side that is more visible to a professor who has to spend a lot of time reading papers but has the help of a department secretary when dealing with the university administration.

The other side of the bullshit problem is what we complain about when we do "bullshit paperwork" or fill out a "bullshit form". It's what Prof. Frankfurt calls "unnecessary routine tasks or ceremonial." A "bullshit meeting" isn't necessarily a meeting at which bullshit is spoken, but is a unproductive meeting, one that delays progress toward its supposed goal. Normally, though, a bullshit meeting involves both kinds of bullshit: the anti-truth kind and the anti-productivity kind.

Bullshit in the second sense imposes transaction costs, and people have strong economic motivations to cut it out. Just as a USB cable with four conductors is less expensive than a parallel cable with 22, low-bullshit interactions are less expensive than high-bullshit ones.

And just as the amount of copper per bit transferred is going down, the amount of bullshit of the second kind in human interactions is going down, too. Lightweighting, as applied to aluminum cans, is improving the design of a product to do the same thing with less material. It overlaps with Buckminster Fuller's idea of Ephemeralization, which is replacing one technology with one a smaller, lighter one.

The idea of lightweighting is now showing up in business APIs and Web 2.0. While putting together a Wiki for a Linux device driver unconference, it occured to me that all of these activities: Web 2.0, Wikis, unconferences, and the Linux driver process are part of a larger lightweighting trend that's applying everywhere that people communicate and cooperate.

David Isenberg's Rise of the Stupid Network points out a famous example, the Internet. Just move the bits, stupid, and businesses that depend on doing creative things with bits that get moved for them will grow up around you and buy your service, even if you completely lack telco-style quality of service and accounting. It's not those features themselves that constitute "phone company bullshit," but the transaction costs involved in selling them and billing for them.

Here's another one: agile software development. More work on the software, less work on putting the cover sheet on your TPS reports or writing huge word processor documents of stuff that will end up never being implemented.

Corporate IT processes are having to do more with less, so, as JP Rangaswami points out, in-house IT operations have turned to lightweighting. "Reporting mechanisms of the past" (which sounds like a polite expression for the B word) had to go. "Architecture and standards and roadmaps and strategy papers and implementation plans became harder to maintain to any worthwhile accuracy."

Free-software development in the open doesn't meet the common definition of "agile", but it's lightweight in other ways. In the Linux device driver development process, instead of locked-down ABIs and formal certification programs, you can join a simple, common core/driver interface consensus—both technical and normative—and have one person do the work that requires, in one case, 150 for a proprietary OS. As Greg K-H contributed to the FreedomHEC Wiki, "Realize that Linux kernel developers are easy to approach, and work directly with, no management levels are present to slow things down."

And of course, the unconference system itself is an example. How much of a conference program committee's work is planning the conference, and how much is planning the program committee meetings? Cut back the overhead.

What's going on is that we're somehow, against all odds, collectively giving ourselves permission to eliminate bullshit. And one example of lightweighting breeds another. Eben Moglen writes, "wrap the Internet around every brain on the planet; spin the planet. Software flows in the network." In that example, the lightweight Internet standards process creates an environment suitable for peer production of software. And now lightweight software processes are enabling lightweighting of business processes that depend on that software and are increasingly embodied in it.

Lightweighting advertising, replacing bullshit such as focus groups with real results, is the engine behind Google earnings. And Google's success is setting an example for lightweighting the rest of Marketing.

Not surprisingly, the peer-production-enabled, Google-gaga software industry is the place where Marketing is most in the bullshit-removal crosshairs. Larry Augustin writes, "The problem is that the traditional enterprise software business model is broken. A rabid search for new customers and revenue growth has caused sales and marketing costs to spiral out of control. In fact, Rick Sherlund at Goldman Sachs estimates that in 2005 software companies will spend 82 percent of new license revenue on marketing and sales efforts. That's up from 66 percent in 2000."

Larry has it right, but in a world where bullshit is laid on so thick that every company seems to call itself a "global leader", it's easy to forget that marketing is full not just of the truth-sapping kind of bullshit, but burdensome transaction costs, too, and the latter is now something we're giving ourselves permission to eliminate. Yes, lightweighting is already moving the ad budget from unaccountable forms of advertising to the ruthless efficiency of Google, but there's a huge architecture of marketing bullshit behind the scenes that's in for the ruthless efficiency treatment, too.

Larry and I talked about this at LinuxWorld—a lot of the cost of marketing in the software industry isn't just communicating with a view to getting people to do business with you, it's bullshit around deciding what to make. Top-down marketing organizations are much worse at the latter than true markets are, because markets get better information out of people than marketing does. Peer production by user-engaged developers is a working solution for the "what to make" problem now; prediction markets are a good possibility for a method that could join it, I think. (Anybody want to bet?) At any rate, the Big Dumb Requirements Document is history.

Catching the "Cluetrain" is a matter of lightweighting marketing, reducing it to a process of (1) make good product (2) open up high-bandwidth communications channels to and from the market (3) listen and repeat. You could replace marketing with doing nothing, and in a lot of cases that might be an improvement. But just as software developers inside the corporate firewall looked at "just for fun" peer production and borrowed some ideas, companies are increasingly looking at what people are doing to build technical, network, business and social relationships "in the wild", on their own time, and borrowing that. People contribute to Wikipedia, not Wordprocessoropedia.

One promising direction is at, where you can track and participate in specs being implemented in the next generation of Ubuntu Linux. Going Web 2.0, using an open process that gets help from people a little at a time using friendly web software, is becoming an effective way to suck information out of the heads of users or prospective users, and "Architecture of Participation" is doing for marketing what Internet Protocol does for "intelligent" networks, agile development does to heavyweight software specs, and what Google ads do for focus groups.

It's interesting to imagine what a lightweighted, debullshitified company will look like, but I still think the anti-truth variety of bullshit is more of a threat in the long run than the anti-productivity variety. It's certainly a good idea for Prof. Frankfurt to concentrate on that, and maybe the quest to eliminate bullshit definition 2 will let us pick off a little of definition 1 while we're at it.