12 days ago


Link: https://www.strategicstructures.com/?p=2806

The history of information technologies can be looked at as a punctuated increase in degrees of freedom.

Removing a dependency opens up new possibilities. A freedom from is also a freedom for.

This is the fourth essay in the Autonomy and Cohesion series. The first one was about the basics of the balance, why it is important, where it works and how. The second was about the forces that bring cohesion and the tools that we use to keep things connected and in sync. The third essay introduced the spectrum of cohesion, differentiating five zones depending on how cohesion is achieved. The next post of the series will take a closer look at cohesion technologies used in the fifth zone, Interoperability. Before that, and to prepare the ground, this essay will focus on another curious phenomenon: the balance is somehow present, in a more primitive, mechanistic way, in the tools that we use. And it enables and is enabled by the autonomy and cohesion forces in the larger socio-technical system.

When it comes to tools and technologies, it won’t be appropriate to use autonomy (with a few exceptions). Instead, we can talk about freedom and decoupling.

Let’s go!

When a rusty screw is stuck

There is a maintenance philosophy attributed to Earl Dibbles Jr., according to which,

you only need two tools in life: WD-40 and duct tape. If it doesn’t move and it should, use WD-40. If it moves and it shouldn’t, use duct tape.

While I’m sure you have used duct tape, WD-40® might not be known to everyone. So, what is it? WD-40® is a widely used penetrating oil, and since its invention in 1953, it has indeed penetrated every corner of the world. It can be found in every hardware store, sailing boat, car repair shop, and many households. WD-40® is a lubricant, rust preventer and remover, and moisture displacer. According to the company website, it’s much more than that, so it lists 2000 uses. But if we come back to the wisdom of Earl Dibbles Jr., you use it when something “doesn’t move and it should.” It won’t help for a dead cat or a frozen progress bar on your screen, but for just about anything else, it should. Especially for a machine part that is stuck. Like a rusty screw. You spray a bit of WD-40®, and the screw is free again. You can unscrew it.

Degrees of freedom

The freedom of movement in space can be quantified. According to classical mechanics, rigid bodies have six degrees of freedom in three dimensions. They can translate (move forward and backward, up and down, left and right) in each of the three axes and rotate in each of the three axes. When classical mechanics came up with this theory, sailors had already established terms for each degree for centuries: surging, heaving, swaying, rolling, pitching, and yawing.

If you take a rigid body, say a rod, cut it in two pieces and then connect the parts with a joint, this system of bodies, called a kinematic chain, will have a degree of freedom equal to the combined degrees of freedom of the parts and the joint. If the joint works like a hedge, such a kinematic chain will have 7 degrees of freedom. Cylindrical joints can have two degrees of freedom: sliding and rotation. A robot’s arm with such a joint will have 8 degrees of freedom. In 2007, Dean Kamen presented a prosthetic arm with 14 degrees of freedom,1 and a decade later, another DARPA-financed program developed a modular Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL) with 26 degrees of freedom.2

The concept of degrees of freedom is used beyond classical mechanics and robotics. In statistical mechanics, for example, it is applied to the movement of particles and is correlated with energy. A system with more degrees of freedom can carry more energy.3

Degrees of freedom can be positively correlated to variety. Large structures expand and contract due to temperature changes. Flexible expansion joints in bridges give more degrees of freedom and, respectively, higher variety to respond to changes in the environment. Yet sometimes, more degrees of freedom do not bring more variety. My Sneekermeer sailing boat has a folding mast so it can go under bridges. It has more degrees of freedom than the masts of most sailing boats. And when it comes to going under bridges, if we apply Ashby’s law, it also has more variety. But in other situations, it has less variety than comparable4 fixed masts. In heavy weather, the lower variety is due exactly to the hinge that gives that extra degree of freedom.

Back to our rusty screw. It’s stuck. It has no degrees of freedom. Spraying with WD-40® will free it. We can unscrew it. And when we do, it both rotates and translates (comes up). This means it should have two degrees of freedom. It has only one. Its rotation and translation are tightly coupled.

Coupling removes degrees of freedom.


The history of information technologies can be seen as a punctuated increase in the degrees of freedom — a history of decoupling. Content decouples from medium, representations decouple from mirroring reality, software decouples from hardware, interfaces decouple from infrastructure, data decouples from applications, and content decouples from the host.

Writing appeared first on clay tokens and then on more sophisticated cuneiform tablets during the Bronze Age. These early information technologies decoupled content from its only medium so far, the oral speech. Now, the sender of information may not be next to the receiver or alive when the receiver gets the message.

Alphabets decoupled language from individual sound units, opening up the possibility of representing new concepts not directly tied to existing objects.

Symbols decoupled from the objects they represented. III looks like three sticks; 3 doesn’t. Hindu-Arabic numerals made arithmetic operations easy. Some of them were nearly impossible to do with Roman numerals. Now we know that the benefits went way beyond that.

The greater political, artistic, and academic freedoms during the Renaissance had a reciprocal influence on information technologies, and they, in turn, shaped society. Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized knowledge distribution, making books cheaper and more readily available. Printed books offered the possibility of individual ownership and interpretation of texts. This way, written information got decoupled from authoritative sources (like a priest or scholar) of explanation and interpretation.

Having access to more books was probably one of the main reasons for the revival of the old art of excerpting and its information technology, commonplace books. Their use and internal organization evolved quickly. The organization of information in commonplace books shifted from mirroring the world to being organized according to its own logic. That’s one decoupling. Another decoupling was that storing order no longer coincided with the order of knowledge.5 The most tangible decoupling was freeing the pages from the physical binding. We don’t know who started this practice. Conrad Gessner, a Swiss physician and naturalist from the 16th century, was probably the first famous scholar known for their extensive collection of individual notes.6 In the 17th century, Thomas Harrison raised this practice to an entirely new level with his “Ark of Studies”.7 But remember, more freedom is better only when there is a new way to maintain cohesion. Keeping separate notes is not enough and can only work if there is a new technology or method of binding, just more flexible than that of books. In Harrison’s invention, the balance was enabled by a well-designed device, a small wooden cabinet, where individual notes were attached on hooks under subject headings.

If Harison found a smart way to organize individual knowledge, a few centuries later, Paul Otlet had the ambition to organize all human knowledge. The Mudaneum archive he created allowed for the first time non-linear exploration of information on a large scale. The archive reached 15 million8 interlinked index cards and is considered by many, if not a precursor to the Internet, at least to Wikipedia. The knowledge in the Mundaneum’s archive was organized according to the Universal Decimal Classification system, still in use today in more than 150,000 libraries around the world. The cards in the Mundaneum archive had more degrees of freedom compared to the preceding systems for organizing information. The classification to subject heading was no longer one-to-one. An index card can be under more than one subject heading. Apart from that decoupling, the system got more variety via taxonomical relations between topics and additional possibilities for linking to related cards.

Moving on to electronic information technologies, what started the era of modern computing was the decoupling of software from hardware, allowing computers to be re-programmed for a different purpose. That’s what distinguished ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer9) from the previous generation of computers and the reason to consider it the first modern computer.10

Software-hardware decoupling continued in various ways. Programming languages became progressively more abstract from hardware details, and virtualization and emulation technologies introduced their specific ways of decoupling.

Relational databases brought another level of decoupling by abstracting data structures from the way data is stored. What remained tightly coupled was structure and semantics.

In a traditional system, meaning is both horribly bound up in the data structure, and at the same time, not discoverable from it. (Dave McComb11)

This decoupling of structure and semantics was brought by the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and the related semantic technologies stack. It opened up a possibility for another important decoupling, that between applications and data. Application and data decoupling, in turn, bring more flexibility and control for both individuals and organizations. Individuals can have control over their data12 on the web and greater autonomy in what they use and consume. In organizations, decoupling data from applications lowers the cost of integration, the cost of change and the risks associated with vendor lock-in.

RDF was enabled by an earlier set of innovations that made the World Wide Web. The HTTP played a central role there. This simple client/server protocol brought about important decoupling between how information is requested and delivered and the underlying network infrastructure. The decoupling created by HTTP allowed for innovation on both sides. Web browsers can evolve with new features and functionalities without requiring changes to how servers handle requests. Similarly, servers can implement new functionalities and data formats without breaking existing browsers. Additionally, HTTP is agnostic to the physical location or specific hardware of the communicating parties. As long as they adhere to the protocol, communication can occur seamlessly, regardless of whether they reside on the same local network or across continents.

The World Wide Web was born via the marriage between HTTP and another important technology, HTML. HTML decoupled content and its presentation. Through CSS, websites can evolve their styles independently from the content and show it differently to different client types and devices.

Apart from HTTP, HTML, and CSS, another important technology was the Uniform Resource Identifier (URI). It decoupled the identity of digital resources from their physical location, a significant innovation over Gopher paths and FTP addresses. URIs are used in RDF to identify all entities, such as people, places and things on the web. And while HTTP URIs brought identity persistence, increasing reuse and interoperability, they still depend on the host for content negotiation. Two recent technologies came up with solutions to that. The decentralized identifier (DID) decouples user identity from the host, and the Content identifier (CID) decouples content from the host. Both are now used by the AT protocol.

The web technologies did not only allow new functionalities to be developed. They also enabled new ways of delivering functionalities. At the beginning of this century, a new software architecture paradigm, SOA, introduced the notion of services as self-contained, modular units of exposed capabilities that provide well-defined interfaces and are accessible through standardized protocols. Once again, protocols, the main cohesion mechanism in the Interoperable zone of the CABIN spectrum, enable coordination with a minimum loss of autonomy and, at the same time, have the potential to increase the agency of the collaborating participants. There will be more on the features and potentiality of protocols in future essays.

Now, what is the decoupling that SOA brought? It’s more than one. The mainstream software engineering approach at the time delivered rigid functionalities. In contrast, SOA promoted smaller, self-contained capability units with well-defined interfaces. Such an increase in autonomy had to be balanced with new cohesion mechanisms, choreography and orchestration. A notable aspect is the combination of both, an interplay between centralized and decentralized approaches. I’ll return to it in future articles of this series.

SOA also introduced service contracts, a technology for service-consumer decoupling that minimizes dependencies between consumers and services. Service contracts define the interface and behavior of services independently of their implementation details.

Microservices take the concept of service autonomy to the next level. They are no longer coupled with heavyweight infrastructure like an Enterprise Service Bus, a common component in early SOA implementations. Instead, microservices communicate via well-defined APIs that hide the internal implementation details of each service. This approach maintains interoperability while reducing interdependencies. Each microservice can have its own data storage, processing logic, and communication protocol, providing benefits for resilience, agility, and scalability.

As mentioned earlier, the two technologies for decentralized identity, DID and CID, are both utilized by the AT protocol (Bluesky). On top of that, the AT protocol decouples user handles from server names and from the user’s unique identifier, DID. Users are now free to move to another server or change their handle with no effect on their posts and social network. Personal Data Servers (PDS) decouple user data from the application (Bluesky). The AT Protocol goes further in removing traditional social media platform dependencies. It allows the decoupling of feed manipulation and moderation services from the host.

It seems that information technologies, from the clay tablets to the AT protocol, add degrees of freedom and increase possibilities. They do so when the same or a contributing technology can provide cohesion so that things can work together again but in a more flexible way. This dynamic is reciprocally influenced by the autonomy-cohesion balance in the social systems.

Final notes

Looking at the history of information technologies through the lens of decoupling may suggest that tight coupling is always bad, that decoupling is the only evolutionary direction, or that once a technology solves a big problem, it gets adopted, and we are all standing on the next step of the ladder. None of these is the case.

The quill and the ink are decoupled. Frequent dips into the inkwell interrupt the flow of writing. Though some pauses may aid the thought process and sharing an inkwell in a school or scriptorium may be a valid use case, integrating the ink supply directly into the writing tool proved a far superior solution.

New information technologies and paradigms do not necessarily bring decoupling and an increase in degrees of freedom. Some innovations and currently dominant computing paradigms, such as SaaS and cloud, do exactly the opposite, and with a predictable effect: reduction of autonomy and agency for both individuals and organizations. They used the possibilities opened up by the web. New business models based on tight coupling, for example, between data and applications, brought power concentration and, in some cases, like Facebook, with corrosive effects on society’s ability to understand and address important issues.

This brief history of information technologies through the lens of decoupling may also give the impression of linear cause and effect. Decoupling of A enabled B. Socio-technical systems are messier than that. There was never a single cause or a single enabling condition. Yet, there are some causal patterns in both the evolution of technology and the technology-culture loop. An example given earlier was the development of tools for personal knowledge management during the Renaissance. A more recent example is the agility values. The Agile movement in software development had a reciprocal influence on the agility introduced by service architecture. Furthermore, SOA and later microservices influenced the broader Enterprise Architecture, and Agile influenced working methods outside software development.

A particular technology may provide much-needed decoupling. It may solve or dissolve a problem instead of replacing it with another or postponing it. It doesn’t mean it will get adopted quickly. Some ideas spread slower than others. RDF, for example, mentioned earlier, decouples meaning and structure by making semantics explicit and using URIs instead of local IDs. The result is a unified and interoperable way to represent data on the web and inside corporate networks. Yet, it took two decades to spread, and its use is still marginal today. I discussed some reasons for that elsewhere. Examples like that abound. The point is that no matter how useful a decoupling is, it might not be used by the majority for a long time. Some are too busy pushing carts with square wheels, while others have huge benefits with the way things are, and in third cases, there are synergies of convenience.

Yet it seems that, in the long run, decoupling, combined with new ways to make things work together, prevails. This gives me hope that whatever couplings are currently exploited by providers of cloud services, corporate applications, social media platforms and LLMs, it is a temporary setback.

First published on Link&Think.

1    The human arm has 7 degrees of freedom, but together with the shoulder and the hand, 21.
2    Perry, B. N., Moran, C. W., Armiger, R. S., Pasquina, P. F., Vandersea, J. W., & Tsao, J. W. (2018). Initial Clinical Evaluation of the Modular Prosthetic Limb. Frontiers in Neurology9, 153. https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2018.00153
3    According to the equipartition theorem.
4    In relation to the degree of freedom given by the hinge, mast can be approximated to rigid bodies. Otherwise, they are not, and their ability to bend plays an important role in sailing performance. By comparable, what is meant here is that they are of the same material and height and are used in the same kind of boats. But importantly, a comparable fixed mast should be deck-stepped and not keel-stepped. On the other hand, the fact that foldable masts cannot be keel-stepped brings their overall variety down since they cannot be used on large cruising yachts where high compressive stresses occur.
5    Cevolini, A. (2018). Where Does Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index Come From? Erudition and the Republic of Letters3(4), 390–420. https://doi.org/10.1163/24055069-00304002
6    Sawday, J., & Rhodes, N. (Eds.). (2000). The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print (1st edition). Routledge.
7    Malcolm, N. (2004). Thomas Harrison and his ‘Ark of Studies’ An Episode in the History of the Organization of Knowledge. The Seventeenth Century19(2), 196–232. https://doi.org/10.1080/0268117X.2004.10555543
8    Wright, A. (2014). Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. Oxford University Press. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/cataloging-the-world-9780199931415
9    “A” stands for automatic. At that time, computer was used to refer to a person employed to carry out complex calculations. Automatic was added to distinguish electronic and human computers, hence the “AC” in ENIAC, ADVAC, BINAC, and UNIVAC.
10    Haigh, T., & Ceruzzi, P. E. (2021). A New History of Modern Computing. The MIT Press. https://mitpress.mit.edu/9780262542906/a-new-history-of-modern-computing/
11    McComb, D. (2019). The Data-Centric Revolution: Restoring Sanity to Enterprise Information Systems (First edition). Technics Publications.
12    An RDF-based technology enabling that is Solid.