The closing talk from the Full Frontal conference held in Brighton in November 2013.
Thanks a lot, Remy. Thanks.
It is actually a real pleasure and honour to be speaking at Full Frontal. I’m not a lifer: I didn’t make it to every single one, but I was here at the first one.
Also, I love this venue, the Duke of York’s, it means a lot to me, and having Full Frontal in the Duke of York’s: my idea! My idea five years ago.
Anyway, so I am now the only thing standing between you and getting out there and getting some food …so I’m going to begin with some food.
Can anybody tell me where this is?
Duke of York’s
Who said Chicago? It’s correct, this is Chicago.
Now there’s two things that might give it away that this is Chicago. One is the skyline of Chicago, which is amazing. It’s the home of the skyscraper, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. Every time I see the skyline, it’s wonderful.
And the second is the Chicago dog. The best of all hot dogs.
I took this picture a while back when I was in Chicago I think for the first time. I was back in Chicago recently and as well as being the home of an amazing skyline and an amazing hot dog, Chicago is also the starting point of a fantastic film, a short film that was commissioned by IBM in the late sixties, and was made by Charles and Ray Eames.
…the start of a lazy afternoon, early one October. We begin with a scene one metre wide, which we view from just one metre away. Now, every ten seconds, we will look from ten times further away, and our field of view will be ten times wider. This square is ten metres wide, and in ten seconds, the next square will be ten times as wide. Our picture will centre on the picnickers, even after they’ve been lost to sight. One hundred metres wide. The distance a man can run in ten seconds. Cars crown the highway; powerboats lie at their docks. The colourful bleachers are Soldiers’ Field. This square is a kilometre wide. One thousand metres. The distance a racing car can travel in ten seconds. We see the great city on the lake shore…
It’s a wonderful film. It’s called Powers of Ten.
So, last time I was in Chicago, I thought, “Where exactly is that opening sequence in Powers of Ten?” So I asked Twitter, of course: help me Twitter.
And Matthew Sommerville came through and gave me latitude and longitude co-ordinates, so I went there and did a time-shifted re-creation of the opening of Powers of Ten, and then I did what any normal person would do, and I made a spot on Foursquare so that you can also check into the location of Powers of Ten.
…ten to the fourth metres. Ten kilometres. The distance a supersonic airplane can travel in ten seconds. We see first the rounded end of Lake Michigan. Then the whole Great Lake. Ten to the fifth metres. The distance an orbiting satellite covers in ten seconds. Long parades of clouds. The day’s weather in the middle-west. Ten to the sixth: a one with six zeros. A million metres. Soon the earth will show as a solid sphere. We are able to see the whole earth now, just over a minute along the journey. The earth diminishes into the distance, but those background stars are so much further away that they do not yet appear to move. A line extends at the true speed of light. In one second, it half-crosses the tilted orbit of the moon…
The speed of light. One hundred and eighty six thousand, two hundred and eighty four miles per second. That distance we saw there was the distance that light travels in one second.
A unit we think about a lot on the web, when it comes to performance: seconds. We think, obviously, in less than seconds. Performance: very important.
So if the speed of light is that distance that we saw, the physical distance between the earth and moon, then theoretically, to traverse, to do one circuit of the earth, could take sixty seven milliseconds, under perfect conditions.
That’s the theoretical distance. Now, obviously, light generally is travelling through some kind of medium, and on our network the medium is fibre-optic cables. So in a cable, ninety milliseconds is the shortest amount of time it could take a signal to travel the globe.
Because the network we are dealing with in our day to day work is very much a network of cables, fibre-optic cables. You might like to think that the internet is all satellite transmission from space, but that is actually just a rounding error. Our network is very, very physical, it’s very, very real; it’s cables.
This is a wonderful cable map. Every year, there’s a new cable map produced by a company called TeleGeography. You can order them as posters to put on your company wall, which will remind you that our network is very physical, it consists of physical things, physical cables.
You will note here, it bears absolutely no resemblance to a cloud.
So, signals are travelling through fibre-optic cables at varying speeds throughout this network, our network, the internet. Now, somebody mapped… there was a paper where they mapped where the fastest connections are in our network, our physical network of cables, and not surprisingly, a lot of those spots are where the backbones are, right where you’d expect; the hubs where the pipes come in out of the sea.
This was in a paper called Planetary scale computing architectures for electronic trading, because that’s the key point here: it’s not about human beings and how fast human beings can send signals; this is about the algorithms that use this network, and electronic trading is very much run by algorithms. Human beings are just far, far too slow; the amount of time it takes for us to click a button, to make a decision: far too slow. So we have algorithms making most of the important financial decisions every day in our life. So, algorithms generally answer the important questions in life, like, “Will I get a mortgage?” An algorithm’s going to answer that. Human beings are left to answer questions like, “Would you like fries with that?”
So, with some of these locations, you’ll see they’re in the middle of the ocean. If you had your server on that red spot in the middle of the ocean, you’d actually have a bit of a competitive advantage in terms of a couple of milliseconds when it comes to algorithmic trading. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see settlements at these points in the oceans, server settlements, to take advantage of that speed.
That might sound pretty far-fetched, that we would effectively terraform our planet for the sake of algorithms and making those connections faster, but it’s already happening.
The address of this place is 111 Eighth Avenue, New York. It’s a hotel. It’s called Carrier Hotel. But it’s not a hotel for human beings. This is a hotel for servers. It’s right near where the backbone comes in, into New York, so all the major companies have got servers in this building, because they can get that little bit of an edge. This would be prime real estate for humans, but it’s more important that the algorithms have access to this particular geographic location.
So, time here has become a valuable business commodity. Those few extra milliseconds really matter, and they can give a business a competitive edge. But that’s not a particularly new development, the idea of time as a competitive edge.
This is Ruth Belville, who’s known as the Greenwich Time Lady. She inherited a business from her parents. She’s the woman who sold time. Time was literally her business. She would go to Greenwich and she would set her clock by the time at Greenwich, and then she would go round to her client list—she had about two hundred clients—and set their watches according to the time, so that they had correct time, and they had a competitive advantage because of that.
Why this mattered at all, that you have the correct time at your particular business, was a relatively recent addition to business, and it all came about because of another network. It’s because of the rail networks that the idea of a centralised time even became important.
Before the rail networks, you had local time. There was the time in Brighton; there was the time in Bristol. They would be different times. It didn’t matter. But as soon as you got train timetables where a train’s supposed to show up at a particular time and leave at a particular time, then you needed to have the same time. So it caused a big change in how we think about time, and there was a lot of opposition. This happened in America as well; there was a lot of clock-smashing went on at the idea of the introduction of a standardised time rather than local time.
Anyone from Brighton will recognise this. This is the Brighton Jubilee Clock Tower. It’s one of the Jubilee Clocks that sprung up all over the empire. This is from 1888, it was designed by Magnus Volk, who’s one of Brighton’s famous Steampunk creators. He did the electric railway down the sea-front.
You notice it’s got that yellow ball on the top, the golden ball? Now, currently this doesn’t operate, the ball doesn’t operate, but it used to. The ball would rise up over the course of an hour, and it was connected telegraphically to Greenwich, so on the hour, the ball would be released, and it would make an almighty noise, and you knew what time it was. It got switched off for a couple of reasons. One, it was really loud, and the neighbours complained. And two, it was destroying the structural integrity of the building; it was like having a very slow jack-hammer just destroying the clock tower! But like I said, it was connected telegraphically to Greenwich, the prime meridian, the origin of where we set our clocks by.
And the reason why we use Greenwich …it sort of dates back to a different network. This was the seafaring network.
They had a problem and they put forward a prize. This was the Longitude Prize. Trying to figure out which longitude you were on when you were travelling the seas. Basically, “Where am I?” They’d been trying to answer that question. “Where am I? I’m on a boat: where am I?”
And what the longitude problem boils down to is a very simple sort of mathematical formula. It’s not as complex as what Ana was showing: it’s much more simple algebraic function here. You’ve got three variables here. As long as you know two of them, you can figure out the third. So here are the three variables:
- The position of objects in the sky. This could be the sun, it could be the moon.
- The time in a specific place on earth, like, say, Greenwich, and
- Your position on the earth.
Now as long as you have two of these variables, you can figure out the third.
To give you an example, those star map apps on your iPhone, they know where you are, so they know your position on the earth; they know what time it is, so they can then predict where objects will be in the sky, and that’s how you get that lovely, magical thing where it’s bringing up the names of the constellations and planets, because they have two of those variables.
Now, for the Longitude Prize, they only had one variable here which is they can see objects in the sky, they can measure that. They’re trying to figure out the position on the earth: “Where am I?” What they need to know is what is the time in Greenwich. They need to fill in that variable.
They tried various things. They know the position of objects in the sky, because they’ve got sextants, so they can look at the sun, they can look at the moon, they can get their bearing by that. Trying to figure out the time, that’s tougher, because clocks at this time, most clocks were pendulum clocks, and you can’t really operate a pendulum clock on a ship. The rolling of the ocean is going to interfere with that. Also, there are sundials. Now, sundials will work on a ship, but of course a sundial is going to just tell you local time, it’s going to give you the time on a ship, and it requires the sun to operate, but you can get that.
(By the way, if you’ve ever wondered why clocks go clockwise, it’s simply because sundials were introduced in the northern hemisphere. Had the southern hemisphere been in the ascendant, then clockwise would go in the other direction.)
Anyway, they’re trying to figure out the Longitude Prize, because there’s money up for grabs, trying various things to figure out, what is the time in Greenwich. Things like weapon salve, it’s called powder of sympathy.
The idea here was, before you set out on your voyage, you take a dog and you take a knife and you stab the dog with the knife. Then you put the dog on the ship, and you keep the knife in Greenwich, and you’ve got to make sure that the dog’s wound is kept open on the ship. Meanwhile back in Greenwich, on the hour, someone who can see the clock heats the knife over a flame every hour, the theory being that there’s some kind of sympathetic spooky action at a distance between the knife and the dog, and the dog acts kind of like an alarm clock on your ship. When the dog gets agitated, it means the bells have just rung in Greenwich.
It’s a theory. They applied the scientific method; it turned out not so good.
Eventually the problem was solved by John Harrison, and he created the Harrison watch. This is H5, and we have timekeeping, and we have accurate timekeeping, and now because of that, we know where we are on the planet, so not only do we have timekeeping, we solved the longitude problem and we know where we are.
Since then, our networks have just been getting faster and faster, and our accuracy has been getting faster and faster.
My point here is that our relationship with time has always had a connection to our networks, and the speed of our networks, and as our networks got faster, our accuracy and our relationship with time had to get faster.
So now, today, with this fibre-optic network that we use, our relationship with time is very, very fast—when we do interact, as opposed to the algorithms using the network. And I think we sometimes put a lot of emphasis on the real time, the here and now, the quick-quick connection, because it’s awesome, this whole idea of the real time web, of instantaneous, or near-instantaneous connections across the planet is fantastic, but maybe we’re neglecting the longer timescales.
Robin Sloan borrowed some terms from economics to describe these two levels of time. He calls them flow and stock. He says that “Flow is the feed: it’s the stream, the daily and sub-daily updates, and stock is the durable stuff, what people discover via search. It’s what’s spread slowly but surely.” And he says “Flow is in the ascendant these days, but we neglect the stock at our own peril.”
And of course the flow, these fast connections, they can be a great source of stock. They over time accumulate, and add to this archive of real-time connections, which is something that Matt Ogle talks about, he says, “We’ve all been so distracted by the now that we’ve hardly noticed the beautiful comet tails of personal history trailing in our wake.”
…Now we mark a small part of the path in which the earth moves about the Sun. Now the orbital paths of the neighbour planets: Venus and Mars, then Mercury. Entering our field of view is the glowing centre of our solar system, the Sun, followed by the massive other planets, swinging wide in their big orbits. That odd orbit belongs to Pluto.
Not a planet. Not a planet. Sorry, suck it up: it’s not a planet. I know a lot of people are very sentimental about Pluto, but take comfort from the fact that Pluto was a planet for less than year …a Plutonian Year that is.
One hundred days, one order of magnitude onwards, this figure is the average lifespan of a web page.
Now, my data’s a little out of date here; it would be interesting to run the numbers again, but last time that significant numbers were crunched, this came as the average lifespan of a web page. One hundred days.
Four years is the average lifespan of a Google product. Now this was some work done by Charles Arthur at …no, these are the numbers.
I’ll be accurate. It’s not exactly four years. It’s one thousand, four hundred and fifty nine days, but close as damn it, right?
He took all of the Google products that have ever existed, he looked at how long they existed and averaged out how long they had to live. So, Google Keep will be around for about four years.
He did this when Google Reader was shut down. It was at about the same time that Google Keep was released, I believe. I think Google were kinda surprised that people weren’t jumping on Google Keep the same week that they shut down Google Reader. Strange, that.
Bearing in mind that large corporations shut down sites all the time, it’s hard to understand the excitement felt by smaller companies when they get sucked up by larger corporations, when they write blogposts that always begin with this kind of sentence:
We’re excited to announce that Wavi has teamed up with Google
We’re extremely excited to announce that Summify has been acquired by Twitter.
We are super excited to announce that Jybe has been acquired by Yahoo!
Today we’re excited to announce that Google has acquired Picnik.
We’re excited to announce that we’ll be making the journey to California to join Facebook.
That was Gowalla. I still miss Gowalla.
Hey everyone, I’m elated to tell you…
(they found a different word than excited…)
I’m elated to tell you that Tumblr will be joining Yahoo!
Let’s see how that’ll work out.
And more recently, I was reminded of this one:
Today, we’re thrilled to announce that Dopplr has been acquired by Nokia.
But there’s an issue here, I think you’ll agree, that their excitement …I don’t share it.
You know that bit in The Office, where Ricky Gervais says, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is you’re all being fired. The good news is I got a promotion.” And someone says, “That’s bad news and irrelevant news.” That’s generally how these announcements go. It’s bad news and irrelevant news.
And the reason why is, there’s a bit of a mis-match. If these companies had said from the start, “Hey, our plan is to exist for a short time and then get swallowed up and shut down by a large corporation, or shut down at some future point.” Then maybe we’d be a bit more careful about giving them our data. But they don’t mention it at the time of sign-up. They don’t say, “When you’re inputting your data, you might want to make a back-up because we make no guarantees that we’re going to be around.”
There are some people looking to maybe change the relationship. There was this great article on Contents magazine about our data and what should happen to our data. A couple of simple rules, the first one being simply, treat our data like it matters. Your service will be nothing without our data. No upload without download. If you close system support data rescue. Fairly straightforward things, and some sites do this, and that is good.
But mainly, I just want the terms and conditions to be more of a two-way conversation between the user and the service that’s asking for the data. When I say data, I mean your writings, your photos, your hopes, your dreams, your poetry, that maybe you should be able to ask questions like, “What’s going to happen to my data in the long term? How long are you going to hold onto it?”
Now there are services that deliberately do short-term data storage.
There’s SnapChat. Very popular with people who don’t understand how screen capture works.
Jonathan Snook made a service called Phmral, where you blog and then that blog post disappears, by design.
Now you might think I wouldn’t like services like that, because they’re throwing away the data, but actually, at least they’re honest about it. At least they’re upfront. They tell you, we’re not going to hold onto your data, we’re going to throw it away. And you know when you sign up to use it, you can’t be surprised when that picture gets deleted, or that blogpost gets deleted; it’s the whole point of the service.
I’d just like to see more of a two-way conversation between these services to give us maybe just long-term promises for what they’re going to do within the next year; promise for what they’ll do within the next five years, ten years. I know that’s asking a lot, ten years on the web, but to show that at least they’re thinking about it, and not just, hey, we’re really looking forward to getting bought up by Google or Yahoo! or Flickr or Twitter, whatever it is.
Mostly I think though, the main thing that we can do on a day-to-day basis is to call bullshit next time somebody says this:
The internet never forgets.
There is no data to support this. If one hundred days is the average lifespan of a web page, then where did we get the idea that the internet never forgets? And as Remy said, it’s almost like this truism. I’ll put it online, now it’s online, problem solved.
It’s very, very dangerous, this idea that simply by going digital, you have preserved something. That’s a big worry; I’ve seen it in other industries.
In the film industry, there was a big movement to get films off celluloid and get them digitised, because celluloid is a volatile material; it burns. And you think, “Okay, I’ve digitised my film: problem solved.” No, your problem’s just beginning now. Now you have the upkeep, you have to take care of that data.
Things don’t just stay on a server somewhere without some work. You have to work at keeping data alive. You all know this, and yet we find ourselves saying stuff like, “Oh yeah, the internet never forgets”, “Be careful what you put on Google or Facebook because it’ll be on there forever.” I don’t think Facebook gives a shit about holding onto your data forever.
So just call bullshit the next time someone says, “The internet never forgets.”
One of the things that we say here all the time is, bits in and its 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 means putting into corporate hands somebody else that 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, YouTube, oh, isn’t that going to last for ever? I don’t think so. Flickr? Not even. So, how do you go and try to give things away in a perpetual way?
Access drives preservation.
Access drives preservation. That’s pretty key.
That voice there was Brewster Kahle, who runs the Internet Archive. He’s kind of like the Bruce Wayne of the internet. He got rich in the early days and he spent his money fighting the good fight to preserve the internet.
But of course, it’s preserved at a different URL. Preserved over at archive.org. So the fabric of the web is still torn apart when those sites shut down, right? It’s great that the things are saved, but they’re at a different URL, and cool URLs don’t change, right?
So maybe we should be considering not putting our data into these services. Or let me put it another way: not only putting our data into these services. Holding onto the canonical copy ourselves.
This is the main idea behind the movement of Indie Web Camp, which is dedicated to the radical idea that you should have your own website, and that that’s where you should post stuff.
Now the idea here isn’t that you just post stuff on your own website and you hold onto it and you don’t let anyone have it. There’s another idea in digital preservation called LOCKSS – Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. So the idea is you do want to distribute it, you do want to push it out to all these other services. And they provide great tools. But you want to hold on to the original copy. You want the canonical URL to be at your own website.
Of course, it’s still very geeky, right? There’s this small group of people getting together to try and solve this problem and we’re kind of like the survivalists in Montana, hunkered down, polishing our shotguns, compared to everyone out there just posting their stuff on Facebook and all these other services.
I will point out there’s a huge opportunity here. If every other start-up is asking people for their data, saying, “Give me your data; give me your data; give me your data.” And nobody is enabling people to host their own data on their own websites. Now there’s an opportunity for a start-up. Maybe that’s where we could be looking.
I’ve been posting on my own website for over eleven years now, blogging on adactio.com. It’s up to me to make sure that data stays around. If it ever disappears, it should be my decision.
Eleven years is also the length of a wager I have placed. That wager expires on 22nd February 2022, so I originally placed it in 2011. You can go to the website, longbets.org/601.
Longbets.org is this wonderful site where you can begin by making a prediction. I predict by a certain date, something will have happened or something will have not happened. Contact with alien civilisations, strong AI, the Singularity, whatever you want. And somebody else can challenge it and say, actually, I don’t think that’s true. And that becomes a bet, and now you’ve got to put money down. You’ve got to put money down to make your prediction; you’ve got to put money down to make your bet. The money goes to charity. I have been called on this bet, and I have nominated a charity. The bet states this:
The original URL if this prediction will not exist in eleven years.
So it’s kind of a meta-bet. And I’m kind of thinking of it as a win-win situation, because I’m really hoping I lose this bet. I’m really hoping that in 2022, this URL still exists, and I lose the bet. But if it doesn’t exist, then hey, I’ve won! Although that probably means the organisation doesn’t exist and so there’s no one around to pay off the money.
Matt Haughey from Metafilter has taken me up on this particular challenge. If he wins, the Computing History Museum in California gets the money. If I win, the Bletchley Park Foundation gets the money.
So we’ll see what happens in 2022, on that day. I propose that we meet up for a drink here to celebrate the win or loss of that bet. This is the Salon of Long Now. It doesn’t exist yet: it’s only populated by render ghosts, but hopefully by 2022 it will exist.
This square’s ten to the sixteenth metres. One light year. Not yet out to the next star. Our last ten second step took us ten light years further: the next will be a hundred. Our perspective changes so much in each step now, that even the background stars will appear to converge. At last we past the bright star, Arcturus, and some stars of The Dipper. Normal, but quite unfamiliar stars and clouds of gas surround us as we traverse the Milky Way galaxy. Giant steps carry us into the outskirts of the galaxy, and as we pull away, we begin to see the great, flat spiral facing us. The time and path we chose to leave Chicago has brought us out of the galaxy along a course nearly perpendicular to its disc…
Now, we think of mountains as relatively stable things. Over a long enough geological timescale, that’s not true, but still, a very handy place to stick a time capsule. That’s exactly what happened in 2010; there was an organisation, The Open Planets Foundation—PLANET stands for Preservation and Long-term Access through Networked services—and they placed a time capsule into Swiss Fort Knox in Saanen, in Switzerland.
When I say Swiss Fort Knox, I don’t mean it’s a place that’s like Fort Knox in Switzerland, it’s called Swiss Fort Knox. You can store your data there. It’s awesome. It’s like a James Bond villain’s lair! This place is real. Forget about storing my data in the cloud—I want to store my data in the mountain!
What they put in the time capsule, importantly two things. There’s formats, data formats, and storage media. Mediums: different formats stored in different mediums.
The mediums are
- floppy disk,
- audio tape,
- and BluRay.
Then the formats are
- the .mov video file,
- the JPEG image format,
- and HTML.
Now, as for these storage mediums, I’m not sure which one of those are going to last. I’m betting magnetic media’s not going to be great. Maybe I’d place my money on paper. Certainly BluRay, DVD, CD, I’m not sure we’ll be able to decode that.
But of the formats, I’m actually pretty sure which one will still be readable at some future date, and I’d put my money on that last format. HTML.
It’s been around for twenty two years. For a format, that’s a long time. Of course, it hasn’t stood still. It’s evolved a lot, I think that’s the key to it.
I’m a big fan of HTML because I’m a big fan of the web in general. You think about what the web is: if the network is a very physical thing made up of fibre-optic cables traversing the world, the web is completely insubstantial, because it is nothing but protocols and formats. As Paul Downey puts it, the web is agreement.
HTML, URIs (or URLs) and HTTP. Those things don’t exist in the sense of something you can touch: they’re purely agreements. We have to agree to use those formats for the web to exist, and of those three things, HTML is probably my favourite.
It’s not like it’s a perfect format, but I think that might even be a strength, the fact that it isn’t perfect. We tried to create a perfect format: it was XHTML2. That didn’t work out so well.
It’s not perfect, but it is ubiquitous; it’s everywhere. That’s its strength. Low barrier to entry, also a big strength. It changes over time, as I said, but what we need to avoid is that kind of Year Zero thinking that happened with XHTML2 where we think, it’s not good enough: let’s rip it out and start from scratch. That’s almost always a bad idea when it comes to any kind of format or protocol, or any kind of agreement, because it’s very hard to change behaviour, it’s very hard to change systems that are already in place. Even if they’re not the best systems.
Think of time itself, when we use sixty seconds in the minute and sixty minutes in the hour. Why sixty? It doesn’t seem to make much sense. It goes back to the Babylonians; they settled on this base sixty sexagesimal system because sixty was the first number that could be evenly divided by the first six numbers: one, two, three, four, five, six. It made it handy for accounting purposes, and so we got stuck with base sixty time-keeping.
And the whole twelve hour and twenty four hour day: that was the Egyptians. We could change this at any time, theoretically. It would be really, really hard: people have tried. With the French Revolution, there was the idea of decimal time. It would make a lot more logical sense to have a hundred minutes and ten hours, but it’s really hard to change behaviour; it’s hard to change entrenched things.
The fact that the prime meridian was at Greenwich goes back to British naval superiority a few centuries ago. There’s no reason why it needs to be that particular place.
So HTML is not the best format, but it may just be the longest lasting format, because of its ubiquity, because it’s taken off so much at this point. As Mark Pilgrim wrote:
HTML is not an output format. HTML is The Format. Not the Format Of Forever, but damn it if it isn’t the Format Of The Now.
You can’t read this online at the moment. It’s 410 gone, because Mark Pilgrim took it offline, but at least Mark Pilgrim made that decision to take it offline, it wasn’t made by a third-party person.
The longevity of HTML isn’t an accident: it’s there by design. Ian Hickson is the editor of the HTML spec at WHATWG. He wrote just a few years back in a mailing list:
I decided that for the sake of future generations, we should document exactly how to process today’s documents, so that when they look back, they can still re-implement HTML browsers and get our data back.
Actual long-term thinking when it comes to something quite short term. We think of HTML in terms of the new shiny, but in order to push it forwards into the future, we really need to bear in mind backwards compatibility; it has to be baked in. I’m fond of saying that the best way to be future friendly is to be backwards compatible.
That kind of error-handling is important, because it allows us to introduce new features to HTML. It allows us to introduce new features to CSS.
I think, inherently, declarative languages are going to be a bit more robust than procedural programmatic languages. So I’m saying, use progressive enhancement.
When Tim Berners-Lee was creating the world wide web at CERN, Håkon Wium Lie was there, and he placed a bet (that’s Håkon Wium Lie as in co-creator of CSS). He placed a bet that HTML would be around for fifty years. Which seemed ridiculous at the time, because no format’s going to last for fifty years.
He’s since updated that actually, he gave a talk in Oslo last week, and he said five hundred years, which is really pushing it. But fifty years? I think he’s right, I think it will be around.
67.2 years is the average lifespan of a human being on this planet.
In this country, it’s eighty years. So are we going to live longer than HTML? Are we going to live longer than other formats that we’re currently putting online?
Our memories… if your child has just been born, there’s about eighty years life expectancy—probably longer by the time they grow up—but what’s the life expectancy of those JPEG files that you’re getting off your camera? What’s the life expectancy of whatever movie format your device is taking?
Binary formats in general, I’m not sure how long-lasting they will be. Text formats, it gets a bit easier because they’re human readable as well.
Ten to the twenty second power. A million light-years. Groups of galaxies bring a new level of structure to the scene. Glowing points are no longer single stars, but whole galaxies of stars seen as one. We pass the big Virgo cluster of galaxies among many others. A hundred million light-years out. As we approach the limit of our vision, we pause to start back home.
Imagine you were working on a project where the timescale was ten thousand years. You had to design something that was going to work for ten thousand years. There is such a project, that’s the Clock of the Long Now.
There’s the model that’s in the Science Museum. This is a scale model because it’s designed to be scale-free. The actual clock is being built in Nevada, in Mount Washington.
Actually, there’s a second site, because Jeff Bezos has donated a second site in West Texas, so two sites for the Clock of Long Now, at geologically stable points.
This is a clock that’s going to tell time for ten thousand years. It’s got wonderful design principles. I urge you to read the design principles of that, from The Long Now Foundation, the same people who made longbets.org. The same people who are making the Salon of the Long Now.
There’s actually even longer lasting projects than that.
Twenty four thousand, one hundred years, give or take, is the half-life of plutonium 239, and of course we’re undertaking projects today that should be considering this timescale.
How do you store something for that long? How do you write a warning for the future—that far in the future—to tell people to keep away?
You can’t use language, you can’t use English; any other form of written language. You can’t even use iconography.
There was a think-tank came together to try and figure out what they were trying to say; they were saying:
This place is a message, it’s part of a system of messages, pay attention to it. Sending this message was important to us. What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us; this message is a warning about danger. This place is not a place of honour.
How do you communicate all of that without using words or using iconography?
They settled on using menacing earthworks to try and keep people away. There’s an argument to be made: you don’t communicate anything at all because it’s like building the pyramids: you’re asking for grave-robbers to come along and open it up.
Long term thinking, but it’s not the longest. There’s some design projects that have taken even longer timescales into consideration.
Voyager’s now heading into interstellar space. Maybe one day an alien civilisation will come across it. How will they decode this? The instructions to create a gramophone player.
Digital technology existed at this time: this was 1977 when this got sent into space, but rather than encode it digitally, it was encoded in analogue, because it’s a lot easier to give the instructions, “here’s how you build a gramophone record” than it is, “here’s how you build a computer”, before you then even begin to give the instructions.
They have to have a unit of time, time itself; but it has to be universal. That’s what this diagram is for; the transition of a hyperfine state of hydrogen. Should be the same everywhere in the universe.
The trip back to the picnic on the lake-front will be a sped-up version, reducing the distance to the earth’s surface by one power of ten every two seconds. In each two seconds, we’ll appear to cover ninety per cent of the remaining distance back to earth. Notice the alternation between great activity and relative inactivity, a rhythm that will continue all the way into our next goal: a proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom, beneath the skin on the hand of the sleeping man at the picnic. Ten to the ninth metres, ten to the eighth, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. We are back at our starting point. We slow up at one metre. Ten to the zero power.
I had the great pleasure of returning to CERN this year, not that long ago, with Remy, with Brian, with a bunch of smart geeks. We were working on this great project, to try and recreate the line-mode browser, one of the earliest web browsers, a text only web browser. Over twenty years old. Trying to recreate that in a modern browser.
Brian and Remy did all the work, obviously, they’re the smart guys, but it was a wonderful experience, being at CERN, being at the birthplace of the web. And I knew about the stuff that went on at CERN, and I knew, of course, it was the birthplace of the web, but getting to understand how CERN works was quite amazing, how it works, how it operates: it’s like one big hack day! They’re freed from the constraints of, well, “What’s the business model?” It’s pure scientific research and I think that influenced Tim Berners-Lee when he was creating the web.
We got shown around the LHCb, one of the four experiments in the Large Hadron Collider by this great crazy professor, showing us round.
The B stands for Beauty: they’re trying to detect the beauty quark which appears in these sub-atomic collisions that they create when they fire up the Large Hadron Collider and they create the coldest place in the universe to get that super-conductivity and they smash these protons together.
And I was asking, so when these particles are omitted, how long did they exist for? What’s the length of time that you’ve got to try and spot the particle? And he said, well, it’s travelling at the speed of light and it exists for—on average—it travels about one centimetre.
One centimetre! On average …actually at the most: somewhere between a millimetre and a centimetre, travelling at the speed of light, which I did some back of the envelope calculations, and that’s my estimate for how long that is in terms of seconds. I’m not going to read out that number, but that’s how far light could travel in one centimetre.
That’s amazing, that they’re working to these timescales. Of course, they don’t work on seconds; they work in Planck time, right?
But just focusing on that pure science, what happened was that the web came out of it as a by-product. The web, this amazing thing that we work on every day. It wasn’t even the main thrust on their research. That was just something to help them collaborate, because they were dealing with such big issues, fundamental issues, unencumbered by geographical boundaries, unencumbered by economics. Unencumbered by the usual thinks that stop cool stuff getting built, frankly.
They created something like the web. To help them collaborate. And that was definitely an influence on Tim Berners-Lee.
I re-read Weaving The Web after getting back from CERN, and very much that spirit of CERN, that hack-day spirit informed it.
I want to make sure that the web isn’t a fluke. That that spirit should inform what we do. Let’s try and make that the norm when we’ve been given this amazing planet-wide archive of knowledge, with near real-time access. It’s the best of both worlds.
We need to think long-term. Think big picture. Think about offsite back-up for planet earth. Right now, all our data is on this one place, and the dinosaurs died out because they didn’t have a space programme, right?
I just want to finish by saying we should be thinking about our purpose. Why we build what we build.
We’ve got some people, they build stuff for fun. We need those people; the people who push the boundaries of our technologies. Brendan Dawes and Seb-Lee Delisle; these people creating, I guess it’s art, but really pushing the boundaries. We need those people.
And you’ve got people like us, I guess: we do it for a living. Maybe we do it for a pay cheque: I don’t think that’s the best motivation to do great work.
But then we do it for the users. Okay, that’s better motivation; user-centred design and development.
But there’s a way to push it further; that we’re doing it for the web.
And why are we doing it for the web? Well, the web is good for our species. It’s good for our planet. The web is good for our future.
So think long-term. Think big-picture.
And my time …is up.