The connection makes all the difference

Once again, the ways that computers talk to one another provide useful metaphors for human interactions.

I've made another discovery, as I wrap up my work shepherding a technology textbook through publication, about how computers talk to one another. The discovery involved a couple of new vocabulary words – "key concepts," in educatorspeak.

Neither of them exactly trips off the tongue. But what's satisfying about them is the way they provide parallels between the way computers communicate and the way humans do – or don't quite.

The terms are connection-oriented protocol and connectionless protocol.

Our author explained connection-oriented protocol with an example of someone named Fred, who orders a burger and a cola at a fast-food shop, declines a clerk's suggestion to add fries to his order, but does decide to upsize his drink, and then pays for his purchase, in cash, and gets change – all the time dealing with just a single clerk.

The scenario for a connectionless protocol involves Fred once again ordering a burger and cola, but interacting with three different order clerks plus a cashier and a food pickup clerk, and getting a three-digit order number to boot.

In the world of computers, "connectionless" is often the way to go, because of the efficiency of breaking the whole task to be accomplished (the digital equivalent of the order of a burger and cola) into smaller pieces that can be handled separately.

In the real world, though, or the world of human interaction, I should say, "connection oriented" just sounds better, if nothing else. Do you remember the time – or was it only in our dreams? – when a phone call to a customer-service line could, in fairly short order, get you to someone who would introduce himself thus: "I'm sorry to hear you've had a problem with one of our products. My name is Chuck N. Charge, and I will work with you until this matter is resolved to your satisfaction. Let me give you the number that rings on my desk...."

It's more usual today to be able to get customer service in the evenings and on weekends – after all, even the redoubtable Chuck would have to check out for the day at some point. But one of the trade-offs is the loss of continuity you get working with one person who eventually comes to understand the nuances of your particular issue. Even if the nuances are just about mustard and ketchup on a burger, it's nice to know that the other person somehow cares.

Connectionless protocol sounds like an upmarket replacement for what I would otherwise refer to as a "tag-team approach" to customer service. ("No need to give you my name, ma'am. Anyone at this number will be able to help you." Yeah. Right. And besides, doesn't "tag team" sound too much like "ragtag"? ("Rag-tag and bobtail" goes way back as a term for "the rabble," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.)

"Tag team" turns out to have a pretty specific meaning in wrestling. Merriam-Webster Online's first definition is "a team of two or more professional wrestlers who spell each other during a match." The second definition gives what's surely the more widely used sense: "two or more people working in association toward the same goal." For example: "Because they both work full time, they take a tag-team approach to ferrying their children around."

As we go into the holiday season, though, may all your protocols be connection oriented.

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