A presentation from Reboot 9, held in Copenhagen in 2007.
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I’m going to talk about soul, which may seem a little odd because… Does it even exist? But we’re probably going to be talking about a lot of things over the next couple of days that don’t really exist. We’re going to be talking about words like presence and identity and other sort of constructs that are intangible and incorporeal. So why not talk about soul? It’s going to be a fairly rambling, haphazard presentation, but I make no apologies for that because if you can’t do a rambling, haphazard presentation at reboot, then where can you do one?
So, soul. I want to talk about soul. I’m not the first person to try and address the issue of soul or what is the soul. Obviously it’s vexed people for thousands of years, “What is the soul?”
There’s a great book by Carl Sagan and his now widow, Ann Druyan, called Dragons of Eden. The subtitle of the book is Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. And what they do is basically, in the first chapter, they get the whole soul question out of the way by taking on board all the possible definitions of what soul is and then knocking them down one by one.
Essentially, what makes us human, what makes us special, what makes us different—many people have many different theories. Some of the theories are based around language, some of the theories are based around things we can do with our brains. But by comparing us with certain cases out of the animal kingdom, it’s pretty clear pretty soon that we aren’t actually that unique.
And yet, people insist on thinking that human beings are somehow different, that we have something intangible, something incorporeal called the soul that perhaps even predates our birth. But generally, I’m pretty much a sceptic on whether there is such a construct.
Now the idea of soul, like I said, it’s occupied people for a long time, from ancient Greece to medieval times. People have been even trying to weigh the soul, trying to find out if there was an actual thing that could be studied scientifically. And even past medieval times, as early as the 20th century, or as late as the 20th century, people were still trying to do this. There was a Doctor Duncan MacDougall, and on the 10th of April, 1901, he had a patient who was dying, and he put the patient on a scales so that he could measure, at the time of death—which was 5:30 p.m.—exactly what went missing from the person, and thereby try and judge the weight of the soul—which is kind of a surprising sort of experiment.
But what’s even more surprising is that he got a result out of the experiment. He got a result of .75 ounces, or, to put it in another system, 21 grams—in case you were ever wondering where the title of that particular Hollywood film came from. Three-quarters of an ounce doesn’t sound nearly as sexy as 21 grams. The reason for this loss in weight was probably down to what’s called “insensible loss”—in other words, just water vapour evaporating. But wishful thinking, I guess.
Speaking of weighing incorporeal things, even though we probably can’t ever weigh the soul, because it probably doesn’t even exist, the World Wide Web that we work on every single day does have a weight. It has now grown so large—all those electrons add up eventually, I guess. Last count, it was two ounces, or 56.7 grams. Very, very light indeed, although driving that small weight requires 200 million horsepower in electricity every single day.
Some other connections between the Web we work on and the soul of the human being: I can tell you that the number of neurons in the human brain is approximately 100 billion. That’s 100 billion connections inside each and every human brain. I can’t tell you the number of links on the World Wide Web. It’s growing every day, who knows? Whether it yet exceeds 100 billion, I’m not sure. And I’m not necessarily drawing a connection there, but…do what you like.
So, soul, and what soul is. Most of the definitions of soul revolve around this idea of self—that there is something uniquely about us that we incorporate into this thing called the soul, that, as I said, some religions believe predates our birth. This idea of self really got tackled in the 19th century with Freud and all this talk about the id and the ego, this idea of the conscious and the subconscious mind. And maybe together it’s the id plus the ego equals the soul? Who knows. But there’s definitely this idea of self-awareness, the self-aware essence unique to a particular living being that perhaps is the soul.
And, like I say, there’s all sorts of definitions of soul, but this is the one I really, really like. This definition—or it was a throwaway remark I heard on a podcast by a doctor called Paul Broks who’s written a book called Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology. And he described the soul, essentially, as “the story we tell ourselves”. That there was a story that each and every one of us, in our mind, tells ourself to create our own self-image. So, an ongoing story that every human brain is telling itself. And it’s this story that informs our own consciousness, our own sense of who we are. And we can even isolate where it comes from—not just that it’s in the human brain, but, in particular, it’s in the right hemisphere of the human brain. Damage to that hemisphere may damage your feeling of self, and possibly even your soul, if there is such a thing.
Where this came from, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly. It’s somewhere between 200,000 and half a million years ago that there was this leap forward in evolution in homo sapiens that enabled us to have this introverted consciousness, where we were able to start to think about who we are. And this may be what begins to distinguish us from other creatures.
Now, one of the things we have—and people have pointed to this as perhaps what gives us our soul, what makes us so unique—is language. But that’s going to fall down because there are other creatures, there are other animals, that have language. Language by itself isn’t enough to make us unique, to make us somehow special.
But language certainly coincided with this idea of introverted consciousness and introverted inspection, because what we were able to do was to name things. And naming things in the world, of course, gives us power. There are many mythologies and many stories about the act of naming something giving you power over that thing. Being able to name a demon gives you control over that demon. Bruce Chatwin, in his book Songlines, talked about the Aboriginal peoples of Australia singing the world into existence. And song is the very first form of language, and that language came first and then the world—a very sort of Whorfian idea of the world.
But language in itself is not unique to people, but what is unique is the way we can use language to think of things that don’t actually exist in the real world. We’re able to give things tokens, and then we can combine tokens in ways that couldn’t possibly happen in the real world. So you can think of an elephant, and you can think of polka dots, and then you can think of a polka-dotted elephant. Now, you’re never going to see a polka-dotted elephant, but you can imagine that in your mind.
This combination of tokens allows us to construct sentences that have words like this: “Furious green ideas”. It doesn’t make any sense, but we can hold that idea in our head, we can construct sentences that couldn’t have possibly come from the real world. They have to have come from inside our own heads, from the language centre of our brains. So it’s this juxtaposition of tokens that’s quite human. And this juxtaposition of tokens is essentially imagination. And we’re back to the storytelling. Imagination, and storytelling.
And speaking of storytelling, does anyone remember the site fray.com? Hands up if you ever visited fray.com. Excellent. Fray.com was a storytelling site—true stories, in this case. I remember coming across it in the 90s, and the World Wide Web was just getting going, and I did not get the Web. I didn’t get what the fuss was about, and people were talking about e-commerce and—eh, I didn’t get it. People were talking about all sorts of technological things. I did not get it. And then I visited fray.com and I read stories and those stories touched me and had an emotional effect on me, and then I “got” the Web. And it was from that moment that I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew where I wanted to work, and it was on the World Wide Web. And I wanted to create stories myself. I wanted to use the power of hypertext in telling stories.
Which, of course, inevitably leads to blogging. We’re all telling stories all the time when we blog.
So, I’ve got a blog. It’s called—actually, I’ve been told it’s not a blog because I don’t have comments enabled most of the time, and apparently a blog without comments isn’t a blog. But anyway, let’s call it a journal. And this is where I tell my stories. A pretty rambling sort of place; I talk about everything, you know, what I had for lunch, what I’m thinking about, anything that comes into my mind. Very rambling.
I had this going for a few years, and then a few years back, I started telling stories in other places, through other means. For instance, Flickr.com I signed up to a couple of years ago, started putting my pictures up there. And on del.icio.us, I started keeping track of links. And on Upcoming I’d be keeping track of events I’m going to be going to.
I started to feel a little bit fragmented. A little bit like bits of me were being scattered around the Web. And I didn’t really like that feeling too much. I guess it’s kind of letting go of control; I was used to having this centralized place that was me that I could point to. And now there were all these little bits of me scattered around the Web.
I was able to do that because all of those places I mentioned provide APIs. So I was able to programmatically take my Flickr pictures, take my del.icio.us links, and take my Upcoming events and pull them back into adactio.com, which I consider to be myself online. Essentially, the online representation of a bit of my soul.
Which is fun, and it was nice I was able to do such a thing, but it’s a bit geeky. I mean, APIs, you kind of have to know what you’re doing, right? It’s not for your mom and your pop. So, a bit of a shame that that option isn’t really available to everyone.
Now, we talk about storytelling, but there’s a more important aspect than storytelling, and that’s narrative. Narrative is essentially a story over time, this ongoing story, the story I tell myself, but also the story that I’m telling the world. So now we’re moving away from introspection, which is that idea of the brain telling itself a story, to also telling the world the same story. So, self-image informing the image that I present to the world.
And I present quite a few different pieces of myself out there. I’ve got my blog posts, photos, songs I’m listening to, the links on del.icio.us. So, Last.fm, del.icio.us, the tweets on Twitter or Jaiku or however I’m publishing my little micro-blogging things. So there’s all these little bits going out there. And it’s through this combined collection of items that I tell the narrative of my life—that we all do. It’s through not just the blog posts, but the pictures and the music we’re listening to, the links we’re bookmarking, that we’re telling this ongoing narrative.
For instance, I’ve been doing a fair bit of travelling lately, and when I travel, I’ll blog about it, I’ll be sending updates to Twitter while I’m on the road, I’ll be taking Flickr pictures—usually macro shots of food, but, you know… Taking Flickr pictures, and of course I’ll be on Dopplr saying I’m going to be here from this date to this date. So, essentially, I’m telling the travel narrative as I’m moving around.
I could even tell an untrue travel narrative if I wanted. I could probably blog and say, “I’m going to…Spain.” Take a couple of macro shots of some Spanish-looking food, post to Twitter saying I’m at the airport… Yeah, I could probably fake it. I’m not saying I have. Or that I will. I’m just saying it’s possible.
Anyway, one of the things about all of these little bits of myself that I’ve published to tell this ongoing narrative… Well, there’s two things, really. One is that every single one of these is time-stamped. Every time I publish a photograph or listen to a song, blog post, del.icio.us link, whatever, there’s a time-stamp associated. Also, every single one of these items is available via RSS. So there’s this record—short-term record—of all these time-stamped things I’m doing in telling my narrative.
So I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to pull these together into what I called a lifestream. So I did this. I wrote a little PHP script to pull in these RSS feeds and arrange them by date order, so there was no longer this disparate bunch of separate things, it was one feed. And I called it a lifestream; I blogged about it and put that word out there.
I was not the first person to do this; people had been doing this for quite a while. But evidently I was the first person to use this word “lifestream”, and it seems to have caught on. People said, “Oh, that’s cool” and took my PHP script, somebody created a Wordpress plug-in using it, which was nice. There’s a site now called istalker.com, so you can sign up and put in all your RSS feeds. There’s even a blog now specifically about lifestreams, about the subject of lifestreams. You can visit my lifestream at lifestream.adactio.com.
It’s pretty easy to put one together these days. There’s a couple of tools. If you’re using Jaiku, then one of the things you can do on Jaiku is you can pull in all your RSS feeds and get this lifestream, essentially, of stuff. And if you’ve seen Yahoo Pipes, then that’s really just a way of joining up RSS feeds and spitting out one big RSS feed at the end, so it’s a pretty handy tool for creating a lifestream.
But the thing about a lifestream is it’s short-term. RSS is short-term. It’s the last 10, the last 20 items of activity. It’s not really long-term. So what you’re missing is this thing called provenance. I’m stealing this word from Gavin Bell, who talks about this issue. He works at Nature magazine, where I guess you think about provenance a lot more. It’s a term that comes up in antiques a lot. You wouldn’t buy an antique unless you knew its provenance, for instance.
RSS does not give you this feeling of provenance. It doesn’t give you the long-term narrative, it gives you a nice short-term narrative. And I find I want to know people’s provenance. So if somebody adds me on Twitter, starts following me on Twitter, I’ll say, “Oh, who is this person?” I’ll click through to their Twitter profile, and if they don’t have a URL, then that kind of pulls me up short right there. And if they do have a URL, I want to go back and I want to explore and I want to kind of get to know this person. Hopefully there’d be a link to their Flickr feed and I could see the kind of pictures they take. Or maybe their del.icio.us links, what kind of links they link to. To really form an idea of this person, who they are. Their projected image online, which may or may not be related to the self-image, the story they are telling themselves.
So I want to get to this idea of provenance. And I just want to mention somebody who’s here today, Tom Armitage. He spoke last year on the idea of narrative on the Web—long-term narrative and provenance. You can find the talk from last year on his website, infovore.org/talks/. It was a great talk, in talking about the how the long-term narrative emerged even when you didn’t realize it at times. So, you’d have a blog at university, and then when the time came to put away childish things, he thought he would just leave that blog and take it offline, but actually looking back a few years later, he could see the way that his university blog sort of nicely segued into his later life and his work blog.
So it’s this long-term picture, which I like—the fact that all these things, over time, build up a much clearer image of who you are. Not necessarily who you might want to be—you may not want to be projecting this. In fact, just recently, there was a friend of mine, Brian Veloso, a designer, and he redesigned his site recently—he tends to do that a lot. And I was kind of disappointed, because he took away the archives of stuff up to that point. He wanted to start afresh. Which is his prerogative, of course he can do that. But it seems a shame to me to deny your past in that way. He basically didn’t feel that what he’d been publishing up to that point represented what he wanted to represent. But to me, it’s always a valid part of who you are, even if that’s not what you want to project. So I was somewhat disappointed that he decided to try and exorcise the past. Of course, we still have Google, right? And Google caches everything, thank goodness. And we have archive.org, a wonderful resource. But I was disappointed in this.
Now, moving away from the idea of provenance, back to the idea of the soul and what the soul is, I want to talk about physical manifestations of the soul or projections of the soul. There’s an Irish author called Flann O’Brien, also known as Myles na gCopaleen, and he wrote a book called The Third Policeman. A humorous book. In that book—I think it was in that book, anyway—he talked about people who ride bicycles a lot and the scientific interplay between the molecules on the bicycle seat and the molecules on the buttocks of the rider, and how, over time, these would perhaps intermingle and become hard to distinguish at that point. And perhaps people would become slightly bicycle-like if they cycled enough. And there was, of course, the moral issue of a lady borrowing a man’s bicycle and the implications of those molecules interacting.
That was all for humour, but we do invest a lot in objects, in physical things in the real world. Cars. People get very excited about cars, people love their cars sometimes. Apple Macintosh computers people get very attached to. The mobile phone you own. Has anybody ever done the toilet test? You know what I mean, right? You drop it—like, what’s your first instinct? Do you—is it worth reaching down there, grabbing it? [Laughter] It will happen someday, if it hasn’t happened yet.
Essentially, these are, in some ways, physical projections of little bits of our soul, because we invest part of ourselves into those things. Which seems kind of sad, right? Oh, it seems so…so physical or so materialistic. But, you know, why not? Why not invest part of your soul into something in the real world?
Now, in the virtual world, there’s this idea of the avatar, which I first came across in the book Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, where he talked about the “Metaverse,” this place created by the Global Multimedia Protocols Group. And you had a projection of yourself in there called an avatar. And it didn’t have to look, of course, like your own self. But that was your manifestation. So, not physical in this way, but a virtual representation of yourself. Avatar was a nice term from science fiction which, of course, we know use in the not-real-world, but in our day-to-day world, if you know what I mean.
There’s another term I like from another science fiction or fantasy book, and that’s from the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, which is this word “daemon” to describe, essentially, a physical manifestation of your soul in an alternate world, where you have an animal that represents you, your soul. So really, pretty much like an avatar. It just happens to be in the real world in this case.
Avatar is, of course, familiar to us from Second Life, right? That’s the most obvious extension of the Metaverse or of having a daemon. And gaming is really, I guess, where it’s at with having this representation of yourself doing things. When I say “doing things”, it’s generally creating a narrative. Gaming is the next step in storytelling, in some ways. If you ever listen to Will Wright talk about why he makes games—The Sims, SimCity—it is all about the narrative. It is all about being able to let you tell the story, as opposed to, say, a book or a film, where you consume the story. You can get involved in it, but you can’t control it. Really good games feel like you are controlling the narrative or you are influencing the narrative. Bad games are the ones that feel like you’re just a hamster in a cage, going through the motions, and that you can’t actually influence the outcome.
So gaming really is an important part of narrative. In a way, it’s part of what makes us human as well. It’s play, and play really is important—not just to humans, obviously, to many animals. But it is important to us, like language. So play and language together telling this ongoing narrative.
So you get games like World of Warcraft, which, of course, are somewhat special in that they are collaborative. It’s a place you go to and you interact with other avatars, other daemons, other people projecting parts of themselves into this virtual world.
At this stage now, we’ve moved beyond the individual, this introspection of the story we tell ourselves, the soul, and out to the collective, which is society. And this is kind of where they combine, that little projection of yourself, projection of your soul, combining with society. And each individual in this society has provenance because each individual has been creating a history and creating experience. And each individual has an avatar or daemon, a representation of themselves.
This idea of collaboration and of being social has kind of leaked back into the World Wide Web, of course, with our whole Web 2.0 ethos of collaboration. And there’s a lot of social sites out there. I’m, for instance, on just a few of them. These are some of the social sites I’m on. There’s an awful lot, and this seems like, wow, what a great thing, all these social networks I’m part of.
These are all walled gardens. Not in the sense of data; most of these I can get the data out of, either RSS, APIs… That’s not the problem. The whole “open data” ethos of Web 2.0 is pretty clear, and all of these sites, I think, allow me access to the data.
What they don’t allow me access to is the relationships to the actual social networks I have formed in these places. So when I come to a new social networking site and I join up, what have I got to do? I’ve got to find all my friends that are also my friends on these other sites and add them one by one by one. Is anybody else here frustrated with that? Good. OK.
We need to fix this. This is a problem. We need to be able to have social networks that can move around as freely as we move around our data these days with APIs and RSS. We need to be able to take these relationships from one service, bring them into another. Maybe I wouldn’t want all the friends, you know. Maybe because I like someone because they take certain pictures doesn’t mean I’m going to like their taste in music on Last.fm, right? But at least have the option to take a chunk of people and say I know these people are my friends, I want them to be my friends on whatever the new social networking site is.
And it’s holding back adoption of social networking sites. Jaiku is superior to Twitter in almost ever conceivable way. But I’m still using Twitter. Because all my friends on Twitter. And it’s hard for people to move easily between these services.
Alright, I’ve got one idea for how we might tackle this. And it involves a little piece of markup—it seems ludicrously simple, but all the best ideas are, right? So, the rel attribute in HTML. You’re probably familiar with it from CSS. It describes the relationship from the current document to the anchor specified by the href attribute. So, like I say, the example you’re probably familiar with is in the head of your document, you have a link to a stylesheet. You link off to the stylesheet, and you say
rel="stylesheet". That means the relationship of the linked document to the current document is stylesheet. “foo.css” is the stylesheet for the current document. It has the relationship of being “stylesheet”.
OK. The rel attribute is not limited to the link element. We can also use it on anchors. On hypertext. Let’s say I’m on a shopping cart page and I create a link off to a help page for the shopping cart. So I link off to “help”, and I want to make that explicit. I can say
rel="help". That means the linked document has the relationship of being a help page for the current document. All clear? OK.
There’s this thing called XFN, and it is a microformat. Microformats are very, very simple patterns of behaviour encoded in markup. This was one of the first sort of proto-microformats. And it works like this:
I’m linking off to somebody. I’m linking to my friend Brian Suda here, and using the rel attribute, I can encode my relationship, make it explicit, say
rel="friend". Brian is my friend. And the nice thing about the rel attribute is that, like the class attribute, it can take space-separated values. So he’s not just my friend, I’ve also met him, and we’re colleagues because we’ve worked together. And then I can link off to other friends who are co-workers, also friends, also met—perhaps in a blogroll.
In fact, this is where XFN came from, because people were already publishing this information. In their sidebars of their blogs, they were linking off to blogs they read, and somehow making it clear that this person is my friend, they’re special, there’s something about that person, or this person I work with, that’s why I’m linking to them. And XFN allows you to make those relationships explicit. So it’s kind of fun, and you can do fun things, you can spider this and you can look at the networks that are formed by this.
But here’s where it becomes really useful: I can link to other scattered pieces of myself online and say that is me. So, this site we’re on now is me, and that other site over there is also me, by simply saying
rel="me". That allows us to pull in all these little bits of ourselves very, very easily. No APIs, no RSS, no fancy code. Just a little bit of markup. So I can link to my Flickr photographs from my blog, I can link to my del.icio.us links and say, “That’s me.” And if, on my Flickr page, there’s a list of contacts—as there is—and on my del.icio.us page there might be, or, where else would I link to… Upcoming.org would have a link, a list of friends. And if those friends are encoded in XFN, then any social networking site can figure out who my friends are.
So when I go to the new social networking site that wants me to sign up, that wants me to use it, I don’t want it to ask me for choosing a user name and a password, and all my details, and then try and figure out what friends are already on it. I just want it to ask me: what’s your URL? What’s my URL. And then it can go there and figure it out from there. By following these links, by figuring out, OK, those people are friends, they’re colleagues, that place over there, that’s also the same person, so let’s go there and spider from there. And we can start to build up this picture of who we’re connected to.
I talk about doing this, Gavin Bell has gone and done it. He’s created a proof of concept that he demoed at XTech a couple of weeks ago, and you can find the code for that at this URL: idsix.org. It’s a mixture of scraping using XPath or parsing using XFN. That’s the nice thing about using XFN, the microformat: it allows you to parse. There is a constrained structure on what you’re going to find, so you don’t have to know the individual HTML layout for that page. As long as you know it’s using XFN, you can parse that page.
So, that’s what I want. Somebody build that, please. That would be nice.
I kind of want to tie together some of the things we’ve been talking about: social activity, gaming—a very social activity involving an avatar, a daemon—and provenance, our history online. Now, people have already started to try and tie together this idea of gaming—which everyone enjoys, right, everyone likes playing games—and our activity online, our provenance.
Justin Hall has put together a site called bud.com—you can also find Justin’s thoughts on these matters at passivelymultiplayer.com. What it is is a PMOG, a passively multiplayer online game, where, essentially, surfing the Web becomes the game. You get given tasks to do, to research things, and you can collaborate with other surfers. And, of course, there’s different types of surfers: you know, the horder, the explorer…
I like that. I like this idea of turning our everyday activities into a fun gaming exercise. It would be great if it was like that at work. You know, instead of writing that email or filling out that report becoming this chore you have to do, that you gained hit points for doing it. That you built up your character, that it added to your provenance. It would make work a lot more fun.
So, surfing the Web gives us provenance. But I want to go further than this. This is good, but I want to tie in all those bits of publishing. What I want to do is take the ideas from Dungeons and Dragons, or any other role-playing game—World of Warcraft, whatever—and turn that into the online experience. So, in Dungeons and Dragons—and I’m not that familiar with it, but as I understand it, you have things like your strength and your dexterity and your stamina, all these points that you gain over time. Essentially, you have a provenance that you build up in the game by hacking and slaying.
Well, online, I’ve got my Flickr pictures, my Twitters, my Last.fm, my del.icio.us—they’re not that far removed, right? I mean, we just need to figure out how to match them up, you know? What makes a good Flickr score, what would the algorithm for that be? Because it’s not just the amount of pictures you post, it’s also what kind of citizen you are on Flickr, how much you comment on other people’s. You know, what kind of a del.icio.us linker are you, what kind of a Last.fm listener are you? What kind of a citizen are you on all of these places? And tie it all together and give you hit points for all that.
So let’s make a game. Let’s make a game that uses our histories, our provenance online, to play with each other. And I guess to fight each other, because that’s usually what it comes down to, right? Hacking and slaying, probably the roll of a twenty-sided die, maybe some of kind Top Trumps situation where we play off against each other: “I bet my Flickr points are higher than yours.” It would be kind of fun, because we’ve been publishing this stuff for years now. So let’s make use of it. Let’s get this stuff, pull it all in together, and make a game out of it.
In fact, I’ll say when we should make that game. I say we should make that game on the 16th of June, in London, at Hack Day. Anybody going to Hack Day? Excellent. If you haven’t yet got plans, I could do with some help. I need some leet haxors who are good at taking the APIs from each of these services, who’ll somehow figure out some algorithms to figure out what kind of Flickr person you are, what kind of Last.fm person you are, build up characters based on that provenance, and then figure out how we get these people collaborating or fighting, playing against each other. I think that’s going to be fun. And that’s the real reason why I came here today, was to recruit.
I want to thank you all very much for listening to my ramblings. This is my blog, adactio, and with that, I will say: thank you.
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