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ColdFusion: Article

ColdFusion and the Rise of Right-Brained Thinking

It's time to rock the house

Recently, I've been reading a book recommended to me by my friend, Clark Valberg. The book is A Whole New Mind; its author is Daniel Pink. In this article, I'll discuss why I think the premise of the book holds such promise for ColdFusion programmers - and how it challenges us to rethink how we define what our work is.

Pink begins by recounting what we know of brain chemistry: the left brain is the processor of logic and language; the right brain finds meaning, beauty, and context. One is sequential and discrete; the other grasps truths in whole and synthesizes parts into a whole.

Pink's opening argument is that three forces have conjoined to impeach the dominance of left-brained thinking - the very thing that has given programmers such prominence in the "information economy." Those forces are abundance, Asia, and automation.

The pre-eminence of logical, left-brained thinking has produced wealth on a scale that would have been unthinkable several decades ago. This abundance has met the physical needs of most of those fortunate enough to live in so-called "first-world" countries. But it has done nothing to speak of for the deeper needs, aspirations, and hopes of those thus blessed. This deficit has fueled the growth in movements that span the philosophical/spiritual spectrum from New Age to fundamentalism.

Meanwhile, the source of much of this abundance, the triumph of left-brained thinking, is rapidly moving to countries long thought of as "third world" - notably India, the Philippines, and China. The motivation for this shift? Money. The same, basic left-brained thinking-related work previously done by first-world workers can now be performed by similarly educated and trained third-world workers, but at a fraction of the cost. This trend, Pink asserts, will only continue. "Outsourcing" will become not so much a novel phenomenon as a new paradigm. Finally, automation - primarily computer automation - threatens to displace many whose knowledge work can be turned into computer code. And it turns out that a surprisingly large amount of work we previously thought of as the preserve of humans can be automated. Perhaps no event was so seminal as the 1997 match between Grand Master Gary Kasparov and the IBM supercomputer, Deep Blue. The man who for over a decade had not lost a match was beaten by a collection of semi-conductors that ran a computer program.

Pink argues that left-brained thinking, of the kind practiced by us computer programmers, is not so much antiquated as it is insufficient. It can produce wealth, but not fulfillment. It delivers value but not meaning. It provides, but does not delight.

In this new age, adequacy is inadequate. Our customers are rapidly becoming inured to applications that fail to anticipate their needs. We're all very familiar with such applications; the Web is filled with them: forms that are clumsy to use, links that fail to enlighten us, information that does not sufficiently inform us to make decisions.

In the rapidly passing "Information Age," it was enough to dump data on users. That is no longer the case. Users want interactivity; they want their applications to show that the application's designers took care to make their communication with machines as personal as possible. In an age where so much customer interaction is relegated to machines, they want something human.

Pink is quick to point out that this new era will be both a bane and a blessing. People who have learned to use more than half their brain are at a great advantage while people who insist on employing only a portion thereof will find themselves on very rough waters. My argument in this article is that this dichotomy holds true not only for people, but for computer languages.

Traditional computer languages were built by engineers to get a job done. But what job? The virtues long espoused by computer engineers are speed, power, and robustness. So little thought was given to human interaction with computers that the term "lipstick" was used to derogatorily refer to the user interface. Traditional computer languages reflect this bias: try creating a beautiful interface with, say, Java - you're in for quite a challenge.

If Pink is right, those virtues are all necessary, but by no means sufficient. What we need are languages that facilitate the creative part of ourselves - the right brain. Past a certain threshold, the old-line virtues rapidly reach a point of diminishing returns. We need languages that offer access to those who can use both sides of their brains. If that sounds to you like a good description of ColdFusion, well, I'd agree.

After the debacle of the "dot-bomb" implosion, a new mentality has emerged. Though it has been given the perhaps too-affected name of "Web 2.0," there is an underlying reality that blends nicely with Pink's ideas, as much of what this new perception embraces is the idea of user interfaces that not only inform but inspire.

People like Jason Fried, known for his company 37 Signals and the software it produces (Basecamp, most noticeably), said in a recent interview: "We do things a little different; we start with the [user] interface first."

When the user interface - that part of the application where computer code directly interacts with a real user - is done last, as is the case with much traditional development, it reflects its lowered status as an afterthought. But by using that much-neglected hemisphere of our cerebrum to create the user interface first, we can move beyond the merely sufficient into this new world of design and meaning.

If all this sounds a bit too foo-foo, consider the not so ephemeral success Apple has had with their iPod. By some estimates, Apple controls 80% of the market for mobile music devices, a number that would warm the heart of any predatory monopolist.

What do people love about the iPod? Its design. By understanding that consumers are looking beyond the essential to the elegant, Apple's whole-brained designers have created something that transcends mere success: the iPod is a cultural phenomenon. The actual functioning of the iPod is somewhat less successful: there have been numerous complaints of cases scratching, iPods freezing - and then there's the whole aspect of the execrable iTunes software and Apple's none-too-generous digital rights management. But those have been overlooked by consumers who wanted something more than a functional music player.

ColdFusion, I believe, has a large role to play as we move beyond the merely denotative to the connotative. The world is catching up with the original vision of the Allaire brothers. The time is ripe for us to illustrate how truly powerful, beyond baseline issues of speed and security, is the language. For that to happen, though, we need a new attitude toward application development, just as Apple's new thinking produced the iPod. This can be difficult when the current is moving so strongly in the opposite direction. It takes courage and vision to leave the exclusively left-brained habitués to their dry applications while we pursue meaning.

To those "who have ears to hears," however, the opportunity is unbounded. Computer programmers have for too long adhered to the Hippocratic Oath: "Above all, do no harm." That worked in the past; now is the time to do some positive good, to offer users applications that are built around the way they work rather than forcing them into a Procrustean bed imposed by the limitations of purely left-brained computer languages.

ColdFusion programmers of the world, unite: it's time to rock the house.

More Stories By Hal Helms

Hal Helms is a well-known speaker/writer/strategist on software development issues. He holds training sessions on Java, ColdFusion, and software development processes. He authors a popular monthly newsletter series. For more information, contact him at hal (at) halhelms.com or see his website, www.halhelms.com.

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