Thursday, April 14, 2011

The terrible beauty of dynamic documents

Ever since the world moved its information from atoms (clay tablets, paper etc.) to bits, we have seen an incredible increase in the volume, richness and sheer power of information.

Much of that power comes from the fact that information has become dynamic. Web pages are created and rendered *on demand*. WYSIWYG word processors construct a layout for a document *when you ask for it*. What you see on that web page is increasingly likely to be different from what I would see, if I looked too because the page is customized to you - your browser, your location, your profile history, the time of the request...etc. What I see when I open that PDF depends on what the embedded javascript does and it might well do something different for me than it would for you. Worse, it might do something different for me five minutes from now!

This phenomenon is accelerating and unleashing amazing things. However, we still live in a world where information such as a document is thought of in paper terms. I.e. something that is not invented on demand. Something that is the same for all observers. Something that will not change itself automatically over time. Much of the world of law revolves around that idea of stable information. Much of the world of regulatory oversight revolves around that idea too.

Well, it is becoming increasingly hard to wield IT with a stable-information world view. The world isn't going to row back from WYSIWYG or Web App Servers or Mashups ...and I'm not suggesting for a minute that it should. However, until such time as the legal world and the regulatory world find a way to live in a completely dynamic information environment, practitioners in those fields need to be very careful.

For years, I have been looking around for some crisp terminology to capture the challenge we face. I think I might have found it. Information is increasingly exogenous. Documents do not hold your information. Your information is the result of programs (such as WYSIWYG word processors) acting on the data (the documents).

If you have perfect replicas made of your documents, you haven't got a perfect replica of your information unless you are very careful to control the exogenous factors. Thankfully, for a lot of the worlds information, it does't really matter if you do it imperfectly. However, it really, really matters in the world of law and regulation.

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