Orangutans, Oxen and Ogham Stones
Sean McGrath is delivering the closing keynote at XTech 2008. Sean would like to reach inside and mess with our heads today. He plans to modify our brain structures, talking about the movable Web.
Even though Sean has been doing tech stuff for a long time he freely admits that he doesn’t know what the Web is. He quotes Dylan:
I was so much older then, I’m so much younger now.
Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs is a book by Nicklaus Wirth from 1978. Anyone remember Pascal? Sean went to college here at Trinity in 1983 doing four years of computer science which is where he came across that book.
Computing is all about language …human language. People first, machines second. Information is really about words, not numbers. Words give the numbers context.
There’s a Bob Dylan documentary called Eat The Document. Sean took this as a sign from God …or at least from Dylan.
Sean explains Ogham stones — horizontal lines from top to bottom. The Book of Ballymote is the Rosetta Stone of Ogham writing. The translation on this particular stone is
If I were you, I would not stand here. The Irish have been using words for a long time. They’ve also been hacking for a long time. Dolmens are an example of neolithic hacking.
Illuminated documents demonstrate the long Irish history of writing unit test cases for Cascading Style Sheets. A common thread in books from the Book Of Ballymote up to the Annals of the Four Masters was that they were from a religious background. Joyce came along with the world’s first hypertext novel, Finnegan’s Wake. Sean goes from Yeats to Shane McGowan, quoting Summer In Siam as a sublime piece of Zen metaphysics:
When it’s Summer in Siam then all I really know is that I truly am in the Summer in Siam.
The Irish will even go to war over words. Copyright was a big bone of contention between St. Finnian and his student St. Columba in the 6th Century. St. Columba ran a proto-Pirate Bay. If you saw him coming, you’d bury your books. There was a war between St. Finnian and St. Columba in which 3,000 people lost their lives. Finally, the High King of Ireland said
As to every cow its calf, so to every book its copy, the first official statement on copyright. But because books were actually written on cows (vellum), the statement is ambiguous.
Here’s a picture. Nobody in the room knows what it is. We haven’t had our brains rewired yet.
Sean loves the simplicity of the idea that computing is words. Sadly, it’s just not true. There are plenty of images and video on the Web.
Back to that picture. It’s a cow. One person in the room sees the cow.
Sean likes the idea of the Web as electronic Ogham stones. But he sought the 2nd path to Web enlightenment. He realised that not only is the Web not just all words, the Web doesn’t exist at all.
What is the true nature of the words on the Web? Here’s something Sean created called Finite State Machines for a mobile app called Mission Control that generated documents based on the user, the device, the location and the network. There were no persistent documents.
No words, just evaporation as Leonard Cohen said.
There are three models for the world.
- Model A is the platonic model. Documents exist on the server before you observe them. You request them over HTTP.
- Model B is Bishop Berkeley’s model. Stuff exists but we twist it (using CSS for example).
- Model C is that nothing exists until you observe it. In quantum physics there is the idea that observing a system actually defines the system.
Model A exists within Model B which exists within Model C. Model C is the general case. If you have a system that is that dynamic, you could generate Model B and therefore Model A. Look at the way our sites have evolved over time. We used to create Model A websites. Then we switched over to Model B with Web Standards. Now we’re at Model C — we’re not going to create any actual content at all. There is no content but there is also an infinite amount of content at the same time. We generate a tailor-made document for each user but we don’t hold on to that document, we throw it away. So what content actually exists on the Web?
Doing everything dynamically is fine as long it scales. It’s better to solve the problems of scalability than to revert to the static model. The benefits of Model C are just so much greater than Model A.
Amazon are making great services but they are rubbish at naming things, like Mechanical Turk.
So where are all the words? HTTP still delivers words to me but they are generated on the fly. The programs that generate them are hidden.
The Web is becoming a Web of silos. As the Web becomes more dynamic, it’s harder for the little guy to compete (behind me I hear Simon grumble something about Moore’s Law). So we build silos on the client side; so-called Rich Internet Applications. We’re losing URIs.
Model C is Turing complete, user-sensitive, location-sensitive and device-sensitive. It’s scalable if it’s designed right. It’s commercially viable if it’s deployed right.
eval it to spider it? URIs have emergent properties because they can be bookmarked, tagged and mashed up. We are also losing simplicity: simply surfing documents.
So is it worth it?
Mu. That means
I reject the premise of the question. We have no choice. We are heading towards Model C whether we want to or not. That’s bad for the librarians such as the Orangutan librarian from Discworld. Read Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths. Sean recommends reading Borges first and Pratchett second — it just doesn’t work the other way around. Now Sean mentions Borges and John Wilkins — Jesus, this is just like my Hypertext talk at Reboot! Everyone has a good laugh about taxonomies. Model C makes it possible to build the library of Babel — every possible book that is 401 pages long. But the library of Babel is, in Standish’s view, useless. He says that a library is not useful for the books it contains but for the books that it doesn’t contain — the rubbish has been filtered out. How will we filter out the rubbish on a Model C Web?
Information content is inversely related to probability said Claude Shannon. George Dyson figured out that the library of Babel would be between a googol and googolplex of books.
Nothing that Sean has seen this week at XTech has rocked his belief that we are marching towards Model C. Our content is going into the cloud, despite what Steven Pemberton would wish for.
When Sean first started using the Web, you had static documents and you had a cgi-bin. Now we generate our documents dynamically. We are at an interesting crossroads right now between Joycean documents and Turing applications. Is there a middle way, a steady-state model? Sean doesn’t think so because he now believes that the Web doesn’t actually exist. The Web is really just HTTP. The value of URIs is that we can name things. It’s still important that we use URIs wisely.
Perhaps HTML is trying to be too clever, to anthropomorphise it. Perhaps HTML, in trying to balance documents and applications, is a jack of all trades and a master of none.
Sean now understands what Fielding was talking about. There is no such thing as a document. All there is is HTTP. Dan Connolly has a URI for his Volkswagen Beetle because it’s on the Web. Sean is now at peace, understanding the real value of HTTP + URIs.
Now Sean will rewire our brains by showing us the cow in the picture. Once we see the cow, we cannot unsee it.