Externalisation: Not all bad.

Last week, I talked in my usual brief fashion about the idea of Externalisation. I want to expand my thinking on this a little further, to round things out. What I mean when I say Externalisation is the pushing off of costs onto a third party. The idea of somebody making a living by taking in other peoples washing is a good example. The price here is financial, but in other cases (for example modern cloud systems and social networks) the price is less obvious and in my view more insidious.

That’s not to say that there aren’t benefits. Much of modern software is built around externalisation. For example, UNIX systems follow the principle “Do One Thing And Do It Well”. This means that when writing a CD authoring package (for example), one finds that there are already programs out there that do the job of handling the hardware amongst other things. This saves the programmer a colossal amount of time and effort, by standing on the shoulders of others. For a more current example, consider the number of websites out there that use the Bootstrap or Angular JavaScript frameworks to provide functionality. Of course, the price for this kind of externalising is that you very often don’t have a clear picture of how the code that underpins your software works, it’s something of a black box to you.

The current crop of “in play” social networks and search engines have certainly made the world smaller. The effort of communicating with and keeping up with a large number of people is hugely reduced. Especially for a group who are geographically dispersed. However, they charge for their services by providing targeted advertising or monetising personal data in one way or another. This isn’t always completely obvious, but is in the Terms and Conditions (which nobody really reads) and can often mean that you cede ownership of anything you put onto these networks. It’s also worth noticing how difficult it is to completely remove your data from these sites. I’d been talking about that problem two years ago and the recent Ashley Madison break in, with the continued existence of “deleted accounts” proves that I was completely correct.

Externalising things has huge benefits, the ability to call in specialists and to offload work that we find unpleasant, inconvenient or demeaning. I mean look at Subway, imagine having to bear the time, effort and cost of preparing all those sandwich ingredients and sauces yourself; not to mention the stuff you’d end up throwing in the bin when it went off. But by letting them do it, you get a very nice lunch and they have to deal with the messy stuff. Externalisation works beautifully, but comes with a cost. This can vary from control issues to trust issues (I know a horrible story about a well known UK pub chain, a staff Christmas party and an uncooked turkey), to giving up the ability to do the things competently for yourself.

It’s not all bad, but it’s not always worth it.

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