Web operators are brain surgeons

Our increased reliance on web-based intelligence makes speed and reliability even more important.

As humans rely on the Internet for all aspects of our lives, our ability to think increasingly depends on fast, reliable applications. The web is our collective consciousness, which means web operators become the brain surgeons of our distributed nervous system.

Velocity conference 2010Each technology we embrace makes us more and more reliant on the web. Armed with mobile phones, we forget phone numbers. Given personal email, we ditch our friends’ postal addresses. With maps on our hips, we ignore the ones in our glovebox.

For much of the Western world, technology, culture, and society are indistinguishable. We’re sneaking up on the hive mind, as the ubiquitous computing envisioned by Mark Weiser over 20 years ago becomes a reality. Today’s web tells you what’s interesting. It learns from your behavior. It shares, connects, and suggests. It’s real-time and contextual. These connected systems augment humanity, and we rely on them more and more while realizing that dependency less and less. Twitter isn’t a site; it’s a message bus for humans.

The singularity is indeed near, and its grey matter is the web.

Now think what that means for those who make the web run smoothly. Take away our peripheral brains, and we’re helpless. We’ll suddenly be unable to do things we took for granted, much as a stroke victim loses the ability to speak. Take away our web, and we’ll be unable to find our way, or translate text, or tap into the wisdom of crowds, or alert others to an emergency.

We’re not ready for this. Alvin Toffler once said, “The future always arrives too fast … and in the wrong order.” A slow-down will feel like collective Alzheimers. Web latency will make us sluggish, not only because thoughts travel more slowly, but also because delay makes us less productive. In 1981, IBM proved that as applications speed up, workers become exponentially more productive (pdf).

Web operators are responsible for keeping the grey matter running. As we become more dependent on our collective consciousness, web operators will be much more involved in end-user experience measurement, from application design to real user monitoring. They’ll need to upgrade their sniffer skills to include psychology and cognitive modeling. And they’ll track new metrics — like productivity, number of tasks completed per hour, mistakes made, and so on — along with their lower-level operational metrics.

They’ll also be specialists, brought in to diagnose and repair complex problems. They’ll have to drill down from high-level issues like poor adoption and high bounce rates into root causes: heavy page load, packet loss, BGP, big data constraints, caching, and so on. Finally, they’ll become systems thinkers, understanding how the combination of data center, cloud, network, storage, and client technologies produce a particular end-user experience.

So give your web operator some respect. Forget the central nervous system; it’s the century of the distributed nervous system, and web operators are its brain surgeons.

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  • John

    The abstract on the IBM piece cited says exactly the opposite of what is characterized here (“the relationship between response time and productivity was linear rather than exponential”). Am I missing something.

  • Pieter Kubben

    Forget the central nervous system? Being a neurosurgeon in training, of course I have to react on this one!

    Yes, web operators and all so are important for our daily lives. And they work with infrastructures, signals and a central organization. But so do bus drivers! Why not call them brain surgeons as well, because they keep all of us connected?

    Point here: brain surgery is not that forgiving. Messing up a database neither, but hey: if the web operator did his/her work well, there’s a backup!! Where is the backup after a craniotomy, a rebleed, a trauma? And where’s the sandbox to play around and mess up without causing any damage to the real world?

    So nice illustration, but as long as the neurosurgeon is much more limited in his “Undo” options, I guess you rethink your title…

    On the other hand, the medical world should be putting more efforts in simulators to create that sandbox I am referring to. Like pilots practice their first flights in realistic flight sims, so should surgeons practice their first procedures in a simulator. Adoption is coming, but slowly. So from that point of view you could proclaim the opposite: brain surgeons should be more like web operators! :-)

    That’s the interesting part: IT can learn from medicine, and medicine can learn from IT. Let’s connect them more, and improve integration!

    Pieter Kubben, MD
    Dept of Neurosurgery
    Maastricht University Medical Center
    The Netherlands


    Twitter: @DigNeurosurgeon

  • Alex Tolley

    If the web is becoming like a ‘hive mind’ then web operators are becoming like…bee keepers?

    There are distinct differences between collective minds and single minds. However, with Google dominating search, a misstep can erase the web’s memory access, which is looking more like a single mind, and should be a warning about trusting your data to an untrained brain surgeon.

    But most web operators do not have such global impacts…thankfully.

  • Militiry Strategist

    I disagree with the following assumption: “our ability to ‘think’ increasingly depends on fast, reliable applications”.

    If you’re a student of military warfare strategies, then you understand that network centric systems are designed for C2 (“Command & Control”). Specifically, if you look at our JCOS vision documents, you’ll find that the real objective of Network Centric Warfare “is to enhance the speed and reliability of command.” This means, web systems of the type that you refer to are intended to develop users who function within the system as system ‘sensors’ and ‘task masters’. Thinking is done by command operators, who design the feedback & control algorithms of the ‘hive’.

    I’ll leave you with this quote from a famous JCOS document on NCO:

    “If successful, modern military networks can achieve decision superiority over their adversaries. We can get “inside our adversaries’ Observation, Orient, Decision, Act (OODA) loop.” This is accomplished by the modern network’s ability to process continuous observations while operating in real-time with super precision.”

    Our military strategy documents on Network Centric Operations (NCO) are very illuminating when it comes to the system designs being proposed would be better understood for their future impact on society.

  • Alistair Croll

    One of the things I love about posting on Radar is the breadth of comment wisdom. Neurologists and military strategists; awesome.

    John — the response time chart is indeed exponential. Check out this 1984 meta-study across several studies (some with linear, some with exponential, improvements.)

  • Alistair Croll

    Scratch that — John, you’re correct, the study I linked to in the original post does indeed say linear, not exponential. The meta-study I reference in the comment above shows some results are linear, some exponential. Good catch; I think I got my studies mixed up.

  • Military Strategist

    @Alistair: The significance of your name is not missed here, for it is inordinately similar to quite an interesting dystopian character in our recent history.

    Now, if “Web Operator ‘Brain Surgeons'” adopt the Monarch Butterfly as their mascot, I’ll have to interpret your post in an entirely different light.