I sat through a software product demo this morning. The name of the product isn’t relevant: I heard the words “one version of the truth” a few times, and also sat wondering if the self-same claims made today were being made about Lotus Notes back in the days when we called social “groupware”.

The words “one version of the truth” for me encapsulates the gap between the world of software development and the world of social science. Social scientists perceive a world where there is rarely one version of anything. In every situation in which there are people, there are multiple perspectives; multiple versions of the truth. Creating “one version of the truth” actually just adds another.

For software engineers, the role and purpose of what they do is to reduce ambiguity and flatten out the bumpy bits of the world. That’s the way software works, and to an extent is the value that it offers us (or at least that’s where the perceived value lies). But this control of the world is illusory – tie down one version of the truth in a system, and others will spring up elsewhere, supported by software that provides the flexibility of a platform to users. One version of the truth runs parallel to the multiple versions of reality stored in a myriad of Excel files.

Both viewpoints are kind of right, kind of wrong; useful and useless in equal measure. It’s hard for people who come from one perspective to acknowledge the value inherent in the other. Where things go wrong is often when there is a failure to acknowledge that both of these mindsets can co-exist (although maybe that’s me being of the former…)

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