A look beyond the edge of the plate. This presentation on digital preservation and long-term thinking was the opening keynote at the Beyond Tellerrand conference held in Dusseldorf in May 2013.
I’m going to do it in English if it’s all the same to you. I think it’d be better for everyone if I do it in English.
So here’s the thing with this conference, Beyond Tellerrand. I was here two years ago doing a workshop before the actual conference. The title of the conference, Beyond Tellerrand; it took me a long time to parse it. I thought, okay, well, Tellerrand is a place, like maybe it’s somewhere in Germany. Beyond Tellerrand. Or maybe it’s another planet like Mars or Venus or something. And the thing was, my wife pointed out no, it’s the German Teller Rand: edge of the plate. I was like, “Oh, okay!”
So what he’s done is, Marc has translated half of this German thing and left the other thing in German, right? So there’s über den Tellerrand hinaus schauen, right? That’s the phrase in German; looking out beyond the edge of the plate. Nice job, confusing my brain there, Marc, by only translating half of the phrase.
But I thought, you know, what a great topic to talk about. Looking out beyond the edge of the plate: über den Tellerrand hinaus schauen. Because I think as web designers and web developers, we have a lot on our plate.
One of the reasons I kind of miss that is that I actually think it is pretty powerful, because it meant that the barrier to entry to getting something online was very low. And I think we need to keep it low. I think it’s really important.
That’s not just my opinion…
There was this beautiful moment at the opening of the Olympics last year. Tim Berners-Lee had one tweet to show the world, and this is what he said: he said, “This is for everyone”. Talking about his gift to the world, right? The World Wide Web, that this is for everyone. And that’s why I feel like we should be aiming to keep the barrier to entry nice and low. And if things do get more complex and the barrier to entry creating a website gets higher and higher, it won’t be for everyone; it’ll just be for us professionals. And I think that’ll be kind of sad. I think that would be a loss.
I do take hope, however, from what I’ve seen recently. So a friend of mine—a colleague of mine; Josh Emerson works at Clearleft—he’s been doing work at local schools. He’s been involved in this whole Code Club thing, which is really cool; teaching kids how to programme with Scratch. And just a couple of weeks ago he was teaching kids how to make websites using HTML, CSS.
It’s awesome. I just absolutely love what they’ve done. I genuinely love this stuff. And these are, like, seven, eight year old kids. One made a page about how much he or she loves chinchillas. It’s like a chinchilla fan page. I love this.
Another one made a website about their pets. And you’re not seeing the animation on the background. It’s a tiled animated .gif. But I genuinely love this stuff.
Another one “…I’ll make a web page about sweets. I love sweets.” I love the way the tone of voice is kind of trying to be authoritative, almost like the Wikipedia of sweets:
Bubblegum is a sticky thing you chew and can blow bubbles with it.
I love this. I love this because it showed me that, you know, maybe the barrier to entry isn’t as high as I was worried. Anybody, even kids can make a website if they have a good teacher.
Because what this reminds me of—certainly the look and feel—is MySpace.
Garish colours and big, bloated pages with automatically playing music and animated gifs, right? Nasty, nasty stuff, but wow, how empowering. I mean, really democratic in a way, the fact that anybody could make a MySpace page …and anybody did make a MySpace page. And the results, sure, were pretty nasty some of the times, but I really love it. Genuinely, I really, really think that MySpace was fantastic.
I know for a fact that there are web designers and web developers working today because of MySpace. That was the entrance to it. I remember a few years ago, Ze Frank used to do The Show. Remember The Show with Ze Frank? No? Just me! He had this competition called “I knows me some ugly MySpace”, where he was getting people to nominate the ugliest MySpace page they could possibly find. And someone sent him an email saying, “You’re just being mean, you’re being cruel, you’re mocking people who have less taste than you.” And his response to this is just absolutely wonderful, and for me, nails the democratising power of technology and the web for creativity. And rather than paraphrase it, I’m going to just let Ze give it to you.
For a very long time, taste and artistic training have been things that only a small number of people have been able to develop. Only a few people could afford to participate in the production of many types of media. Raw materials like pigments were expensive. Same with tools like printing presses. Even as late as 1963 it cost Charles Peignot over six hundred thousand dollars to create and cut a single font family.
The small number of people who had access to these tools and resources created rules about what was good taste or bad taste. These designers started giving each other awards and the rules they followed became even more specific. All sorts of stuff about grids and sizes and colour combinations, lots of stuff that the consumers of this media never consciously noticed. Over the last twenty years, however, the cost of tools relating to the authorship of media has plummeted. For very little money, anyone can create and distribute things like newsletters or videos or badass tunes about ugly.
Suddenly, consumers are learning the language of these authorship tools. The fact that tons of people know names of fonts like Helvetica is weird, and when people start learning something new, they perceive the world around them differently. If you start learning how to play the guitar, suddenly the guitar stands out in all the music you listen to. For example, throughout most of the history of movies the audience didn’t really understand what a craft editing was. Now as more and more people have access to things like iMovie, they begin to understand the manipulative power of editing. Watching reality TV almost becomes like a game as you try to second guess how the editor is trying to manipulate you.
As people start learning and experimenting with these languages’ authorship, they don’t necessarily follow the rules of good taste. This scares the shit out of designers.
In MySpace, millions of people have opted out of pre-made templates that work, in exchange for ugly. Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer, but ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.
Regardless of what you might think, the actions you take to make your MySpace page ugly are pretty sophisticated. Over time, as consumer created media engulfs the other kind, it’s possible that completely new norms develop around the notions of talent and artistic ability.
That. Exactly that. And if the price to pay for anyone being able to publish on the web is that we get ugly pages, I’m willing to pay that price. I know what I would prefer.
Now if we’re going to talk about anybody being able to publish ugly web pages, then of course there’s one website I have to mention. GeoCities.
1994 I think it was founded. Okay, who had a GeoCities page? Wow! Fantastic! Yes! And here you are today at a web design conference, right?
At one time, GeoCities was the third most visited website on the web. The third most visited website. It truly embodied that ethos that Tim Berners-Lee was talking about. It really was for everyone. Sure, you know, tiled backgrounds, garish colours, automatically playing background music, Java Applets, all that stuff, but it really, I mean as just a cultural touchstone to show what the web was like in the 1990s, it’s a really remarkable piece of our culture.
Phil Gyford put it nicely, saying that:
GeoCities sites showed what normal, non-designer people will create if given the tools available around the turn of the millennium.
GeoCities was bought by Yahoo in 1999. On October 26th 2009 Yahoo shut down GeoCities. And when I say shut down, I don’t mean they mothballed it. They deleted everything.
They deleted everything that everybody had ever put on there.Sure: garish backgrounds and automatically playing music and all that ugly stuff. But stuff that people had grown up with, that people had poured their hopes, their dreams into this stuff. Destroyed. Not just mothballed. Destroyed. Completely destroyed.
I was really upset about this at the time, and frankly I’m still pretty fucking pissed off about it now. I was talking about it on Twitter last week and somebody said, that’s a long time to hold a grudge. I was like, yeah, that whole library of Alexandria thing; I’m still kind of miffed about that as well.
I remember people who were working at Yahoo at the time trying to explain to me why they had to destroy this. It was like, “Well, we don’t have permission from the users to keep it.” What, so you have permission to completely destroy it? Doesn’t make any sense!
Seven million websites. Seven million personal home pages gone. Tens, hundreds of thousands of outbound links from Wikipedia stopped working on one day.
Phil Gyford again, saying:
As companies like Yahoo! switch off swathes of our online universe, little fragments of our collective history disappear. They may be ugly and neglected fragments of our history, but they’re still what got us where we are today.
Ugly and neglected fragments. That sums it up nicely. But very much part of our history. I don’t just mean our history on the web. Our history as human beings.
And you can say, well they were just silly pages, the majority of them; not all of them contained useful information (although there was a lot of useful information on there). But the point is, you can’t know today what the value of something is going to be in the future.
My friend Bruce was helping someone. This was a widow; her husband had published all his poetry on GeoCities and only on GeoCities. And you might say, well, she should have backed it up then, right? She should have known better. But the point is, when all these services are asking you to publish, they never say, and don’t forget to make a back-up because we might get bought up and we might delete all your stuff. They neglect to mention that at the moment they’re asking you to publish. So all of her husband’s poetry was lost. Bruce was able to find a back-up, luckily.
It was thanks to this guy, my friend Jason Scott. Jason Scott founded the Archive Team. The Archive Team set about trying to save as much of GeoCities as they could.
Is anybody here with Archive Team? No. Okay, because I know there’s some popularity in Germany with Archive Team doing great work.
Jason had something to say about the GeoCities shutdown at the time. He said:
When history takes a look at the lives of Jerry Yang and David Filo, this is what it will probably say: two graduate students, intrigued by a growing wealth of material on the internet, built a huge fucking lobster trap, absorbed as much of human history and creativity as they could, and destroyed all of it.
Which is a pretty good description of what happened.
The mealy-mouthed justifications I still hear from people today: “Well, that’s business.” Just like I’m sure… “Well, that’s war.” You know, all’s fair.
I don’t buy it. I think we can do better. I think we can try. It takes effort, it definitely takes effort. That’s why we have people like Archive Team. Archive Team does not ask for permission. They have a watchlist of endangered sites, and frankly, let’s face it, MySpace probably doesn’t have that long to live, and that will also be a tragedy.
The Archive Team has been doing such good work, they ended up getting subsumed into Archive.org who are the Internet Archive. Jason Scott is certainly one of my heroes. Brewster Kahle, from the Internet Archive is another hero of mine. He’s like the Bruce Wayne of digital preservation, because he’s got money, he’s a rich guy, and instead of squandering it on stuff, he spends it on trying to preserve our online history.
One of the things that we say here all the time is bits in and bits out. And that is basically just an even shorter way of saying, universal access to all knowledge.
Well, do you go and put it into a cloud which really needs putting into corporate hands; somebody else might turn it off at any moment, like a Yahoo! video that’s already gone; Google video that’s already gone; GeoCities that’s already gone. You Tube. Oh, it’s not going to last for everything. I don’t think so. Flickr? Not even. So how do you go and try to give things away in a professional way? Access drives preservation.
Access drives preservation. I firmly believe that, and as much as I love the Internet Archive and the amazing work they’re doing—essentially creating a back-up of the internet—it’s at a different URL, and when it comes to access, the very idea of URLs is really what drives it, I think. So it’s wonderful that we have saved a lot of GeoCities. We’ve saved a lot of stuff that did get switched off, but they’re at different URLs. And those links break; it kind of breaks the fabric of the web itself.
Taking care of stuff: it’s work. I’m not going to deny that; it takes work to keep stuff on the internet, but that’s no reason to give up. We should be working at this. But instead, it seems to me we’re more interested in chasing the fast and the shiny, and I don’t just mean in technology, but in terms of what our goals are. What we set out to do, we’re chasing our dream by founding a little start-up. That’s our dream.
Bruce Sterling was in Berlin last month giving a talk, and I like the way that he described a typical Silicon Valley start-up:
In a start-up world, you work hard and you move fast in order to make other people rich. You’re a small elite of very smart young people who are working very hard for an even smaller elite of mostly baby-boomer financiers.
I do love these services that make it easier for people to publish, don’t get me wrong: that’s what a lot of these start-ups do is they lower the barrier to entry, which I’m really happy with. I’m less happy with their blasé attitude to the data that they collect from people.
It tends to be a very one-way conversation when you sign up to a website. Here’s our Terms and Conditions. Do you agree, yes or no? You don’t get to have that conversation: but wait a minute; what’s going to happen to my data, what are your plans? Are you going to get bought up?
So if your start-up is successful, you launch, you’ve got money, you launch. What you’re aiming for basically is a money pot rather than making the web better, a lot of the time.
If you’re unsuccessful, you shut down, you delete all the data.
If you’re successful, you get bought up by a bigger company. Then you shut down and you delete all the data. It’s not a matter of if: it’s a matter of when.
I can give you some examples of just how happy these start-ups are when they get acquired and they shut down and take all the data.
We’re excited to announce that Wavii has teamed up with Google!
We’re extremely excited to announce that Summify has been acquired by Twitter!
At a time that represents new beginnings, we’re thrilled to share the exciting news with you, NabeWise has been acquired by Airbnb.
We are super-excited to announce that Jive has been acquired by Yahoo!
Today we are excited to share the news that Pinterest has acquired Punchfork.
Today we are excited to announce that Google has acquired Picnik.
So we’re excited to announce…
you get the picture, right? It’s always the same message. You can find all of these, there’s a blog called ourinrediblejourney.tumblr.com. Because they always thank you. They thank you for joining them on their “incredible journey”.
We’re very happy that Six Apart wants to invest in growing the vision that we founders of Pownce believe so strongly in, and we’re very excited to take our vision to all of Six Apart’s products.
This one actually really hurt more than most! I was a big user of Pownce. And they destroyed it. They got bought by Six Apart. And Six Apart said, “No, no, it’s okay; we’re going to give you a free Vox account, so why don’t you just open up an account on our other service called Vox, and put all your content there?”
Vox got shut down. Took millions of URLs. Oh, and you know what they said when they were shutting down, what they said at Vox? They said, no that’s okay, why don’t you put all of your content on Posterous.
And last week:
Everyone, I’m elated to tell you Tumblr will be joining Yahoo!
..you can just imagine them sitting there with the Thesaurus going, “I can’t say excited. Elated! Perfect!”
Some people have had enough of this. We’ve been burned enough times. I do think it’s only a matter of when and not if you just get burned. It used to be that the more tech savvy people like us used to be the early adopters of all these services, and now we’re more like the conscientious objectors. We’re the ones being very wary.
For example, when Google launched Google Keep just one week after announcing they were shutting down Google Reader, strangely, people weren’t so excited. The usual tech community weren’t, “Oh, I will sign up for your product called Google Keep.” “Yahoo Preserve.”
We could do something about this. First and foremost, like I said, we could make it more of a two-way conversation.
There’s a great article in Contents magazine about this, about what could services do. Some simple rules they could maybe follow, the first one being the most important. To treat our data like it matters. That really isn’t asking so much. It is, after all, our data. If I’m going to give you my hopes, my dreams, my poetry, is it asking that much that you have some plan for looking after it, beyond getting acquired by exciting company?
No upload without download. If you close a system, support data rescue. Not asking that much. Even, like I said, if the URLs disappear, that does hurt. Even if we do manage to back the stuff up, it is a shame. But it would be nice if some companies just had T and Cs.
Actually the guys from Posterous, they’ve just launched some new service, and they do have like a declaration that says, this is what we’re going to do with your data; we’ve this long-term plan for it. I think clearly they were a bit burned by what happened to their start-up. Not happy about it.
It takes work, I won’t deny it. It takes work. And right now you’d be in the minority if this is the area where you’re going to focus your attention, because it’s the unsexy side of start-ups; it’s the unsexy side of the web.
There are a bunch of freaks and geeks working on this stuff. What’s the alternative to giving all our hopes and dreams and poetry to these services? Well, we could host it ourselves. Go back to having our own websites. There’s these gatherings, like Indie Web Camp.
This was at Indie Web Camp in Portland two years ago. It’s still too geeky, right?; the whole self-hosting thing; the barrier to entry is still too high to have your own website with the kind of tools that you get from these larger companies when it comes to publishing on-line. And frankly, the whole Indie Web thing right now, we probably come across like survivalists in Montana in a bunker holed up with our tinned food and our rifles that we’re polishing, waiting for the data apocalypse.
But my point is, there’s an opportunity here. There’s not many start-ups looking at this audience. There’s not many start-ups looking at this opportunity. It’s like the Marty Neumeier thing, right? You shouldn’t be doing what everyone else is doing. When other people zig, you want to zag, right? And right now, every other start-up is asking users to suck up their data so they can shut it down when they get bought up by Google or Yahoo or Facebook or Twitter. Well, maybe if you’re going to start a start-up, maybe you should zag, maybe you should look at enabling people to publish at their own URLs, the whole Indie Web thing.
Right now, it’s just a bunch of us freaks and geeks, like I said. Some pretty smart people here, right? Tantek Çelik. See that guy over in the corner standing up? That’s Ward Cunningham. He invented the Wiki. Smart guy. There’s some smart people working on this.
I think the first step is actually really, really simple. The first step is just acknowledging that there’s a problem. The first step is questioning the next time somebody says this:
The internet never forgets.
Eskimos have fifty words for snow. Everyone at Columbus’s time thought the earth was flat. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s true …No. All bollocks, all of those statements, complete and utter bollocks. And once you start to realise, for some people want to believe this. It’s said like a folk saying almost. “Be careful what you put online because the internet never forgets”, and go, “oh, that’s true, I need to be careful.” Bollocks! I mean really, look at the data. How long does data tend to last online? Getting something to be online for longer than a decade is hard work. A decade is not that long.
Okay, I should maybe calm down. I was supposed to be looking beyond the edge of the plate here, and instead I’m showing you the naked lunch.
My point here is that it’s good to have a knowledge of our history, of where we’ve come from, so we can avoid making the same mistakes over and over and over again.
As Josh Clark says, I don’t think you can be a futurist without being a historian. We tend to be very bad at that in our industry. Maybe it goes hand in hand with technology, that we’re always chasing the next thing. We are always looking forward, and that’s great, but it does pay to look back, to know where we’ve come from.
I say this over and over again, but in web development, I see problems cropping up that appear to be new problems, but actually seem really familiar to me. Like when Ajax hit the scene, 2005, 2006, there were all these issues with the back-button and with bookmarking and people were like, oh this new problem is really hard, and I was like, hang on a minute: I remember frames. It was all the same issues. And now with responsive images, there’s all sorts of hard things we’re tackling. What if you had the really low fidelity image and you swap it out with a higher fidelity image. I remember lowsrc!
You’re about the only person that remembers lowsrc apart from me! Brilliant! I’m showing my age, yes, but my point is…OK, some other person remembers …okay, who remembers lowsrc? Wow! This is my audience! Fantastic!
Knowing history allows you to acknowledge when it repeats itself, you go, “this seems familiar; we’ve been here before, I remember this.” And of course, the reasons were much the same, right? The reasons why we’re trying to solve responsive images as well. The bandwidth is really bad on mobile connections, and in the nineties, the bandwidth was really bad, full stop. So: same problems, same solutions.
Though I do like to look to the future as well. I’m an avid reader of science fiction. I’m a nerd; I’m a nerd. Science fiction at its best, I think, doesn’t necessarily ask the question, “what’s next?” What science fiction does is it asks the question, “what now?” What’s happening right now, and sort of projects forward.
I kind of think of science fiction as like programming. You have your parameters set up, you have your variables, and you run the simulation. You let it go and you see, taking the world as it is today, how could it appear in the future? I think that’s what a lot of good science fiction does. And it can be an inspiration to us. It can drive us forward, and we all know the stories of how science fiction has influenced actual technology. Flip-phones from Star Trek, all that kind of stuff, so it’s not just that I want to get obsessive about history; it’s more that I want to think about time: time on a longer scale than we’re used to. Instead of just looking at what’s on our plate; really looking beyond the edge of our plate, to a longer timescale.
There’s an organisation that does this. Specifically the Long Now Foundation. This is my membership card. Not made of card, it’s made of metal because hey, that’s a durable material, right? The idea is we’re thinking long-term here. If you get a platinum card from Long Now Foundation, it is literally a platinum card.
So the whole point here is to think in longer timescales. Like when they read out their dates, they use five digits instead of four for the years, so that they’re Y10K compliant!
This is probably their most famous project, the Clock of the Long Now. I urge you to check it out; it’s got fantastic design principles behind it. The idea here is to build a clock that tells time for ten thousand years. This is the first prototype model; this is in the Science Museum in London, and you can go along and check it out.
The point here is, if this was just a thought experiment, it would basically be an art piece. It wouldn’t really confront the user with feelings …we have to actually build it. Genuinely build something that’s going to tell time for ten thousand years.
So this is Mount Washington in Eastern Navada, which is a relatively geologically stable spot on the North American continent, which is something you have to think about if you’re building for ten thousand years, and they’re re-purposing a mine, cutting away the steps down there, and that will be the location of one of the clocks, although work is progressing faster in a site—I think it’s in East Texas—kindly donated by Jeff Bazos, so there are now two clock sites.
I really like this. I love the fact that they’re actually doing it, that they’re really going for it. The whole idea is to think longer. How would you tell time for ten thousand years? And I take issue with some of their decisions. I look on the website and the Wiki and stuff, and I think, I’m not sure that’s the best way, but I’m getting involved: I’m thinking about it. At least I’m starting to think in timescales longer than what we’re used to.
They have another project called Long Bets. So on Long Bets, you go to the website and you can make a prediction. You can say, in ten years, in twenty years, in thirty years, whatever, this will happen. And it remains as a prediction, until somebody challenges you. And once the prediction is challenged, now it becomes a bet. And just to keep the barrier to entry nice and high so that you don’t go making tens of predictions every day, it costs you money. You put your money down, and you nominate a charity. You say, if I win, the money goes to this charity, and if your prediction is challenged, the other person nominates a charity, so if they win, the money goes to their charity. I like this a lot and there are some really interesting bets on there. Some of them will remain untested for millennia, but some of them are due to run out in the next five, ten, twenty years. Really interesting. Particularly on the website. We don’t usually think in these timescale on a website.
So I’ve got a prediction that was challenged and turned into a bet, here’s the URL: longbets.org/601, and this is the text of my prediction/bet.
The original URL of this prediction will not exist in eleven years.
So I made the bet in February 2011, so this is the date that it runs out: 22 February 2022. I like the alliteration of the date, that’s kinda why I chose eleven years rather than ten. Matt Haughey from MetaFilter has challenged me. If I win, the money goes to Bletchley Park. If he wins, the money goes to The Computing History Museum in California.
So I basically thought, this is a win-win situation for me, because I want URLs to survive, so if I lose, the URL is still alive in ten years, that’s great, and if the URL disappears, which is bad, at least I get some money. Until somebody pointed out, but if the URL disappears, doesn’t that mean the organisation’s gone and you’ll never see the money? I s’pose, okay. Anyway, I look forward to this date. At least I’m thinking in terms of a decade now, and on that date, I hope to have a drink with Matt in this place, which is the Salon of The Long Now, which doesn’t exist yet; it’s currently being built in San Francisco, but I’d like to toast somebody’s victory there in 2022.
(Alcohol. Remarkably long-lived organisations behind alcohol. There’s a Wikipedia page of the longest-lived companies; a lot of them in Japan. Quite a few of them in Germany. Hotels and pubs and stuff, where they’ve survived for centuries, even over a thousand years. There may be something to that.)
You’re going to hear a lot of words of wisdom from Mandy today. I particularly like this one, that we should be measuring our work success in decades, not months or years.
It’s interesting, on the web, I’ve found that the timescales that have started to matter the most to me are on the extremes, that I’m thinking about where our sites will be in ten years, twenty years, fifty years, right? This really matters, and the other part that I get really obsessive about is performance and how quickly something loads and we’re talking seconds and micro-seconds. Those two extreme timescales are the ones starting to matter most and most to me, and I’m less interested in launching next month or what’s the newest framework this week, or what’s the hot trend this year.
So, it kinda does take time and it takes work. As I said, the biggest issue is confronting that there is a problem when somebody says, “the internet never forgets.” Call bullshit on that.
And taking care of our URLs. It shouldn’t be such hard work, but for some reason it is. For some reason, keeping a URL alive seems to be hard work. I guess it makes sense when you think about domain names, because you might think you own a domain name, but you don’t really. You rent a domain name, and when you rent a domain name, it’s usually in one year, two year, maybe five year increments. It’s not actually that long.
So Tim Berners-Lee said, “cool URIs don’t change” (URIs, URLs: much the same thing). What I like is he’s got the asterisk at the end of the sentence to qualify it, to say:
historical note: at the end of the twentieth century when this was written, cool was an epithet of approval, particularly amongst young, indicating trendiness, quality or appropriateness.
I like that. It’s like, long-term thinking from Tim Berners-Lee, the same guy who said, “This is for everyone.” The web has a certain spirit; it always has, from the start. And this is part of it, that the web is for everyone, that the barrier to entry should be that low that everyone should be able to publish.
There’s another aspect too, and that’s around not needing to ask for permission. This wasn’t so obvious at the birth of the web, that I should be able to just link to a webpage, and not have to ask permission from the page I’m linking to whether I can do that or not. There were even court cases back in the nineties to figure this stuff out. Is that okay? Can we do that? Yeah, we can. We’re used to it now; we’re blasé about it, but actually this is really, really powerful. I can link to anyone. I don’t have to ask permission.
Steve Jobs said, you don’t need anyone’s permission to be awesome …which is ironic, because on the App Store, you need someone’s permission!
And don’t get me wrong, I see some great work being done there. I’ve seen a lot of people who used to do fantastic work in the world of Flash, really experimental, maybe more art-based stuff, moving to iOS and making fantastic work there, and I understand it actually; I understand why the people who were into Flash are now really into the native apps on iOS, maybe Android. Because when they were making that Flash stuff, it was the Flash stuff that mattered: it wasn’t the web that mattered. The web was just a delivery mechanism. Not judging, I’m just stating that’s the way it was. So the work they were doing, which was amazing work, it was on the web, but it wasn’t really of the web. So when a new delivery mechanism comes along—like an App Store—they can very easily shift to that, say, oh that looks cool, I’m going to try that. I understand it.
Whereas I …I’m much more cautious and …I don’t like how this feels; I don’t feel like it’s part of this larger whole. What it feels like actually is more like when the web first came along, we had the option of producing CD-Roms as well, and a lot of people did. Interactive CD-Roms.
Who remembers Encarta? Right, Encarta. What would you rather work on? Encarta or Wikipedia, okay? I kinda think that a lot of the native apps in App Stores have this kind of like making CD-Roms. You can do a lot more in some cases with them. They can be more “rich” but they’re isolated, they’re just islands, they’re pockets that can’t interlink between one another; they’re cut off from one another.
And I know I’m going to come across like I’m an old fuddy-duddy, I’m one of these old web guys and I’m scared by the new App Stores, but that’s the way things work now and I should just get with the programme and I’m dragging my heels, but actually, no! My point is that the App Stores are a step backwards. The App Stores are trying to bring us back to a world before the web.
This is what the world before the web was like. We had limited shelf space; it’s a world of bits, right? Books and movies and stuff. You couldn’t buy them all, you couldn’t choose from all of them because there’s a limited amount of shelf space. Somebody had to decide what goes on the shelves, so we had taste-makers, we had companies who decided what you’re going to read, what you’re going to watch, what you’re going to listen to, right? Taste-makers. It was a world where there was the publishers and there was the consumers. Separate entities. And the web comes along and it really threatens that. It threatens those kind of companies; it threatens totalitarian regimes. All of these kind of industries that are based on dictating something to you rather than allowing choice.
So, when I say that things like the App Store feel like they’re isolated and small and they’re returning to this world of limited shelf space, it’s because I feel like these people are trying to put the genie back in the bottle; the web scared the shit out of them, and they want to return to this kind of world.
You think about the industries …the music industry and the film industry and newspapers and magazines. These are the people who are creaming their pants about iPad apps, right, because they see an opportunity to return to a world of producers and consumers, and try and put that genie back in the bottle which is the web which has just flattened all of that, allowed anyone to become a publisher. This is for everyone. They’re quite rightly threatened by that. And you can understand it; it’s their business model.
So for me, the web just feels like it aligns more closely with my own personal philosophy, and I don’t want to judge anyone who uses different platforms; it just means you have a different philosophy to me. The web tends to be diverse and open, and that means messier. Let’s face it: that means horrible websites with nasty colours and bloated images and all that stuff, but if that’s the price we pay, I’m very happy to pay it.
I’m not comfortable with a system that has rules about who can publish what, a system that rejects an app like this: this is a drones app. It doesn’t have any graphically explicit material; it doesn’t show the results of drone strikes. All it is, is just news reports and a map of where and when the latest drone strikes are taking place. But this was rejected from the App Store.
The App Store has rules, and even if you’re not building something political—you’re building a fart app or whatever—the fact that you’re using an eco-system that has rules that explicitly say:
We view apps different than books or songs. If you want to criticise a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song.
Those are the terms and conditions for the App Store. Whereas on the web: go crazy. Do what you want. You do not need to ask anyone’s permission to publish on the web.
There’s another part of the spirit of the web that I think should infuse what we do, if we want to keep it alive. And that’s the fact that Tim Berners-Lee just gave it away. More than the technology that he gave away, I think was this act that really mattered most: that he didn’t try and patent the web, he didn’t try and patent any of that technology. He gave it to the world for free. This is for everyone.
That’s the kind of spirit that imbues a lot of our technology. It would be a very, very different world if the rules of the App Store were to apply to the fundamental technology we use every single day, but it makes sense when you consider where the web comes from, right? It comes from a place that’s working on huge problems.
Talk about long-term thinking: the fundamental issues of science. Okay, let’s take a crack at it. Step one, we need to build a giant underground ring underneath Geneva and start smashing particles together. Amazing, fantastic!
The web was like a by-product. The scientists at CERN were like, “oh yeah, the web thing, that was kinda cool. But this …this is the real issue.” The web’s like a by-product. But the spirit of the web is imbued by the kind of collaboration that happens at CERN.
The web was built to enable collaboration between scientists. There’s this myth that you often hear the web defined as, “Oh, it was to enable the sharing of documents between scientists.” No. Not true. See what Tim Berners-Lee originally said. It was about enabling collaboration. It happened to be that sharing documents was maybe the first and easiest way to do that, but the goal was to enable collaboration, and some of my favourite websites today still do that. Enabling collaboration. Furthering science.
Like the guys from Zooniverse build these fantastic sites. Have you seen Galaxy Zoo? This allows you to classify galaxies. You’re shown a picture of a galaxy and you just answer some questions. Does it look spiral? Does it look globular? This kind of stuff. Stuff that’s actually very easy for a human to do, but very, very hard for a computer to look at an image and parse an image. And you might think, well you know, that’s just crowd-sourcing. There’s all sorts of start-ups do the crowd-sourcing thing. No, no, this is science. You’re contributing to science, and if one of your findings—like a galaxy that you classified on Galaxy Zoo—gets used in a paper, you are a co-author of that paper. You are a scientist, collaborating on the web.
They do fantastic work. There’s a whole bunch of things now like classifying craters on the moon, solar flares. One of my favourites was Old Weather.
This was taking log books from the turn of the twentieth century, early twentieth century ships’ log books that are written in hand-written scrawl, with observations of the day’s weather. And you’ve got to try and decipher it because you’re looking at what a human being has written, very hard for a computer to parse; not that difficult for us to do. And you put that data into a machine-readable form. The point here being, that now climatologists who want to build data models of the climate over the twentieth century now have data going back to before we had electronic instruments, before we had the kind of instruments we use today.
Really fantastic example of collaborating on the web. Makes total sense. This is what the web is all about, right? Collaborating.
I was very, very lucky to get to go to CERN last year and go to the room, see the place where the web was born. The guy who works there now, he’s getting really pissed off with all the people coming by: “I’m trying to work here!”
And I expected I would be really impressed by being at the place where the web was born (less impressed with the typography, but you know). But what really got to me was understanding how things got done there.
This guy, Christoph Remsber—he’s from Bonn—was explaining, it’s one giant hack day. It’s basically like someone goes, “I’ve got an idea for an experiment. Who wants to help me?” Here’s the idea, and someone goes, “yeah, I can help you with that.” And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a student or a Nobel prize winning physicist. These teams from all over the world come together to try out this experiment. Absolutely fantastic.
And Christoph was telling me, when he first came to CERN from Bonn—which was still the capital at the time because it was 1989—you now, it was his first chance to interact with people from all over the world. People from East Germany. People from China. That summer, he’s doing experiments with Chinese students while tanks are rolling back in Tiananmen Square. From Russia, from all over. And they collaborated together, and then they go back to their countries, maybe with some of that spirit.
Then Tim Berners-Lee creates the World Wide Web that year, maybe with some of that spirit. I started to understand more where the web was coming from, that spirit of collaboration.
This is the original proposal, this is “Information Management: A Proposal” by Tim Berners-Lee. You can see the scrawl at the top from his boss, who’s written “Vague, but exciting!”
And I mentioned using science fiction to think about the present and to think about the future. This author, Arthur C Clarke; I know that he had an influence on Tim Berners-Lee. He wrote a short story called Dial F for Frankenstein, when all the telephones in the world getting hooked up at the same time, essentially creating this enormous worldwide network. That influenced Tim Berners-Lee.
There’s another book by Arthur C Clarke—The Fountains of Paradise—that very much influences my long-term thinking. This is a book that looks at the building of a space elevator.
It would have to happen on the equator. The technology: we’re just about there now, with carbon nano-tubes, we could do it. It would be an enormous undertaking. It would require CERN-level co-operation and Apollo-level funding, but we could do it: we could build a space elevator. Get us off this planet. Spread further out into the solar system.
Talk about backing up our data. Right now, all of us, all our culture, we’re all stored on one planet. We need off-site back-up. A space elevator can deliver it. The dinosaurs died out because they didn’t have a space programme.
So every now and then I just like to think about that, what I’m working towards when I’m building websites, when I’m contributing something to the larger whole, thinking that, well maybe this will contribute to more collaboration, better understanding. We’re sharing knowledge, we’re preserving knowledge. Get out there, start mining asteroids, start building colonies in the solar system, start building generation starships, start spreading out to the Galaxy.
So, over the next couple of days, you’re going to hear a lot about technologies, about your day to day work, and you’re going to have a lot to absorb, but at the same time, I’d like you to think beyond the edge of the plate, and try and think in longer timescales as well. Thank you.
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@adactio those Web 2.0 company logos would make for a fantastic party game of “Who am I?”