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The Apocalypse of Two Elephants, or "what I really said".


There is a myth that I have described writing standards as like "the Apocalypse of two elephants".

I never said that!

What I did say is slightly different, and (I think) makes more sense.

"The Apocalypse of two elephants" does not actually make any sense at all. The literal meaning of apocalypse is the lifting of the veil, the revelation. In Christian tradition it refers to the revelation of God's will at the end of the world. That the will of God would be two elephants makes about as much sense as "42".

What I did say...

In a talk in the mid-1980's, I said that those who write standards live in a somewhat boring valley between two exciting peaks--the first peak the moment of invention and the second peak the billion dollar return on investment. I then said that the peaks had to be far enough apart that those who set standards can get their job done (forming consensus takes time) but that venture capitalists with money to commit want that second peak to happen right after the first one, so you have to run away from them while you do your work.

On the blackboard of the room where I was lecturing, I drew a little graph showing a line with two peaks and a valley between them. Then, being in a silly mood, I said (of the picture): "Of course, this could also be a snake that has swallowed two elephants". Those of you who have read "The Little Prince" will understand the allusion--if you are not familiar with the book, you need only look at the first page.

The elephant image stuck in my mind, I suppose. In a later talk in the late 1980's I said that writing Internet standards was like being chased by the Four Elephants of the Apocalypse. I said "elephants" rather than "horsemen" because the image in my mind was not so much of purposeful riders as of large beasts that could squish you without even meaning to. At the time, my four elephants were the ISO with its OSI standards effort, IBM and other corporate standards setting activities, the advocates of ATM, and venture capitalists.

In any event, my picture with two peaks, my illusion to The Little Prince, and my "four elephants of the apocalypse" must have become jumbled in someone's mind (I really don't think it was in my mind) and ended up as the idea of "the Apocalypse of two elephants".

I never said that. And Al Gore never said that he invented the Internet.