Tags: philosophy




Cennydd points to an article by Ev Williams about the pendulum swing between open and closed technology stacks, and how that pendulum doesn’t always swing back towards openness. Cennydd writes:

We often hear the idea that “open platforms always win in the end”. I’d like that: the implicit values of the web speak to my own. But I don’t see clear evidence of this inevitable supremacy, only beliefs and proclamations.

It’s true. I catch myself saying things like “I believe the open web will win out.” Statements like that worry my inner empiricist. Faith-based outlooks scare me, and rightly so. I like being able to back up my claims with data.

Only time will tell what data emerges about the eventual fate of the web, open or closed. But we can look to previous technologies and draw comparisons. That’s exactly what Tim Wu did in his book The Master Switch and Jonathan Zittrain did in The Future Of The Internet—And How To Stop It. Both make for uncomfortable reading because they challenge my belief. Wu points to radio and television as examples of systems that began as egalitarian decentralised tools that became locked down over time in ever-constricting cycles. Cennydd adds:

I’d argue this becomes something of a one-way valve: once systems become closed, profit potential tends to grow, and profit is a heavy entropy to reverse.

Of course there is always the possibility that this time is different. It may well be that fundamental architectural decisions in the design of the internet and the workings of the web mean that this particular technology has an inherent bias towards openness. There is some data to support this (and it’s an appealing thought), but again; only time will tell. For now it’s just one more supposition.

The real question—when confronted with uncomfortable ideas that challenge what you’d like to believe is true—is what do you do about it? Do you look for evidence to support your beliefs or do you discard your beliefs entirely? That second option looks like the most logical course of action, and it’s certainly one that I would endorse if there were proven facts to be acknowledged (like gravity, evolution, or vaccination). But I worry about mistaking an argument that is still being discussed for an argument that has already been decided.

When I wrote about the dangers of apparently self-evident truisms, I said:

These statements aren’t true. But they are repeated so often, as if they were truisms, that we run the risk of believing them and thus, fulfilling their promise.

That’s my fear. Only time will tell whether the closed or open forces will win the battle for the soul of the internet. But if we believe that centralised, proprietary, capitalistic forces are inherently unstoppable, then our belief will help make them so.

I hope that openness will prevail. Hope sounds like such a wishy-washy word, like “faith” or “belief”, but it carries with it a seed of resistance. Hope, faith, and belief all carry connotations of optimism, but where faith and belief sound passive, even downright complacent, hope carries the promise of action.

Margaret Atwood was asked about the futility of having hope in the face of climate change. She responded:

If we abandon hope, we’re cooked. If we rely on nothing but hope, we’re cooked. So I would say judicious hope is necessary.

Judicious hope. I like that. It feels like a good phrase to balance empiricism with optimism; data with faith.

The alternative is to give up. And if we give up too soon, we bring into being the very endgame we feared.

Cennydd finishes:

Ultimately, I vote for whichever technology most enriches humanity. If that’s the web, great. A closed OS? Sure, so long as it’s a fair value exchange, genuinely beneficial to company and user alike.

This is where we differ. Today’s fair value exchange is tomorrow’s monopoly, just as today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s tyrant. I will fight against that future.

To side with whatever’s best for the end user sounds like an eminently sensible metric to judge a technology. But I’ve written before about where that mindset can lead us. I can easily imagine Asimov’s three laws of robotics rewritten to reflect the ethos of user-centred design, especially that first and most important principle:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

…rephrased as:

A product or interface may not injure a user or, through inaction, allow a user to come to harm.

Whether the technology driving the system behind that interface is open or closed doesn’t come into it. What matters is the interaction.

But in his later years Asimov revealed the zeroeth law, overriding even the first:

A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

It may sound grandiose to apply this thinking to the trivial interfaces we’re building with today’s technologies, but I think it’s important to keep drilling down and asking uncomfortable questions (even if they challenge our beliefs).

That’s why I think openness matters. It isn’t enough to use whatever technology works right now to deliver the best user experience. If that short-time gain comes with a long-term price tag for our society, it’s not worth it.

I would much rather an imperfect open system to a perfect proprietary one.

I have hope in an open web …judicious hope.

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.

Sean used to sit in his student bedsit and think about what algorithms actually are. He was also around at the birth of SGML in 1985. More words, then. Then he got involved in the creation of XML …even more words. Then the Web came along. HTML is, yup, more words. Even JavaScript is words. His epiphany was realising that HTTP was about sending words across the wire. The Web is fundamentally words.

There’s a Bob Dylan documentary called . Sean took this as a sign from God …or at least from Dylan.

Sean explains stones — horizontal lines from top to bottom. 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.

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 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 and his student 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?

PHP, Django, Rails, Google App Engine …on the Web, Model C wins. It’s even starting to happen on the client side with Ajax, Silverlight and Air. It’s spooky sometimes to view source and see no actual content, just JavaScript to generate the content.

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.

But we lose hyertext and deep linking as we know it. Perhaps we will lose search. Will the Googlebot download that JavaScript and 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?

. 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.