Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Information History and Early Visions of the Web

I had the pleasure of listening to the starting keynote of the Topic Maps 2008 conference:

Hierarchies, Networks, and the Web that Wasn't
by Alex Wright

I think the keynote was fantastic, giving us some perspective and food for thought discussing the history leading up to hypertext and the World Wide Web. 

He talked about visions of hypertext pioneers (and earlier ideas) that predated the web. In the end he summed up some of the fantastic features that didn't make it into the web, like typed links and multi-directional links. Features we actually can use in a topic map. He also cited Ted Nelson saying "The Web isn't hypertext, it's decorated directories!"

David Weinberger continued this discussion in his own keynote the day after, and argued that one of the reasons the web succeeded was precisely that it left out these complex features. David is a marketing guy (and philosopher among other things) and I think he is right. The web succeeded because it was simplistic. Easy to understand and easy for anybody to just start using. (Which Implications might this have for the Topic Maps standards?)

I think both Wright and Weinberger have a point. Weinbergers perspective is that the "center of the web should be empty",  but he also says that the web is extendable. I think it's possible that we will get closer to Ted Nelsons visions, but probably not all the way.

One highlight of the presentation was about The Mother of All Demos:

On December 9, 1968, Douglas C. Engelbart and the group of 17 researchers working with him in the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA, presented a 90-minute live public demonstration of the online system, NLS, they had been working on since 1962. The public presentation was a session in the of the Fall Joint Computer Conference held at the Convention Center in San Francisco, and it was attended by about 1,000 computer professionals. This was the public debut of the computer mouse. But the mouse was only one of many innovations demonstrated that day, including hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface [1].

This demo in december 1968 and the moon landing in july 1969. - Must have been quite a year!

Another highlight of the keynote was the story of Paul Otlet, an almost forgotten Belgian forefather of the web. He somehow managed to get funding from the Belgian government and set off to build something resembling an analog web in the 1920s. According to the Wikipedia article his Permanent Encyclopedia grew from 400,000 entries in 1895 to over 15 million in 1934. The museum hosting his collection is located in the city of Mons, in Belgium. (I have actually been there. Good beer! - And this gives me some strange and digressing associations, that I spin off in another blogpost).

I can really recommend his book too. Glut - Mastering Information Through The Ages

Through the ages is an understatement. - Alex Wright goes way back:

The information age started not with microchips or movable type, but with the first flowering of complex life. To approach the the history of information systems from a purely human-centered perspective is to overlook the lessons of billions of years' worth of evolutionary history. Just as our brains carry around some very old reptilian equipment, so our collective strategies for managing information bear the traces of patterns that took shape a long time ago.

He then goes on to discuss the transformation from singe cell organisms to the first multicellular organisms.

You can read his Boxes and Arrows article The Sociobiology of Information Architecture as a good sample.

This is only the first chapter of 12, where chapter 11 is The Web That Wasn't.

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