The Social Sense

I: On Top of the World

WebEarth.org image

I’ve always wanted to save the world.  When I was younger, and more messianic, I thought I might have to do it all myself.  As the world knocked sense into me, I began to see salvation as a shared project, a communal task.  I have always had a special vision for that project, one that came to me when I first started working in virtual reality, twenty years ago.  I knew that it would someday be possible for us to ‘see’ the entire world, to apprehend it as a whole.

Virtual reality, and computer visualization in general, is very good at revealing things that we can’t normally see, either because they’re too big, or we’re too large, or they’re too fast, or we’re too quick.  The problem of scale is one at the center of human being: man is the measure of all things.  But where that measuring rod falls short, leaving us unable to apprehend the totality of experience, we live in shadow, part of the truth forever beyond our grasp.

The computer has become microscope, telescope, ultra-high-speed and time-lapse camera.  Using little more than a sharpened needle, we can build atomic-force microscopes, feeling our way across the edges of individual atoms.  Using banks of supercomputers, we crunch through microwave data, painting a picture of the universe in its first microseconds.  We can simulate chemical reactions so fast we had always assumed them to be instantaneous.  And we can speed the ever-so-gradual movement of the continents, making them seem like a dance.

Twenty years ago, when this was more theoretical than commonplace, I realized that we would someday have systems to show us the Earth, just as it is, right in this moment.  I did what I could with the tools I had at my disposal to create something that pointed toward what I imagined, but I have this persistent habit of being ahead of the curve.  What I created – WebEarth – was a dim reflection of what I knew would one day be possible.

In the middle of 1995 I was invited to be a guest of honor at the Interactive Media Festival in Los Angeles.  The festival showcased a number of very high-end interactive projects, including experiments in digital evolution, artificial life, and one project that stopped me in my tracks, a work that changed everything for me.

On 140cm television screen, I saw a visualization of Earth from space.  Next to the screen, I saw a trackball – inflated to the size of a beachball.  I put my hand on the trackball and spun it around; the Earth visualization followed it, move for move.  That’s nice, I thought, but not really terrifically interesting.  There was a little console with a few buttons arrayed off to one side of the trackball.  When you pressed one of those buttons, you began to zoom in.  Nothing special there, but as you zoomed in, the image began to resolve itself, growing progressively more detailed as you dived down from outside the orbit of the Moon, landing at street level in Berlin, or Tokyo, or Los Angeles.

This was T_Vision, and if it all sounds somewhat unexceptional today, sixteen years ago it took a half-million-dollar graphics supercomputer to create the imagery drawn across that gigantic display, and a high-speed network link to keep it fed with all the real-time data integrated into its visualizations.  T_Vision could show you weather information from anywhere it had been installed, because each installation spoke to the others across the still-new-and-shiny Internet, sharing local data.  The goal was to have T_Vision installations in all of the major cities around the world, so that any T_Vision would be able to render a complete picture of the entire Earth, at it is, in the moment.

That never happened; half a million dollars per city was too big an ask.  But I knew that I’d seen my vision realized in T_Vision, and I expected that it would become the prototype for systems to follow.  I wrote about T_Vision in my book The Playful World, because I knew that these simulations of Earth would be profoundly important in the 21st century: they provide an ideal tool for understanding the impacts of our behavior.

Our biggest problems arise when we fail to foresee the long-term consequences of our actions.  Native Americans once considered ‘the seventh generation’ when meditating on their actions, but long-term planning is difficult in a world of every-increasing human complexity.  So much depends on so much, everything interwoven into everything else, it almost seems as though we only have two options: frozen in a static moment which admits no growth, or, blithely ignorant, charging ahead, and devil take the hindmost.

Two options, until today.  Because today we can pop Google Earth onto our computers or our mobiles and zoom down from space to the waters of Lake Crackenback.  We can integrate cloud cover and radar and rainfall.  And we can do this all on computers that cost just a few hundreds of dollars, connected to a global Internet with sensors near and far, bringing us every bit of data we might desire.

We have this today, but we live in the brief moment between the lightning and the thunder.  The tool has been given to us, but we have not yet learned how to use it, or what its use will mean.  This is where I want to begin today, because this is a truly new thing: we can see ourselves and our place within the world.  We were blind, but now can see.  In this light we can put to rights the mistakes we made while we lived in darkness.

 

II: All Together Now

A lot has transpired in the past sixteen years.  Computers double in speed or halve in cost every twenty-four months, so the computers of 2011 are a fifty times faster, and cost, in relative terms, a quarter the price.  Nearly everyone uses them in the office, and most homes have at least one, more often than not connected to high-speed broadband Internet, something that didn’t exist sixteen years ago.  Although this is all wonderful and has made modern life a lot more interesting, it’s nothing next to the real revolution that’s taken place.

In 1995, perhaps fifteen or twenty percent of Australians owned mobiles.  They were bulky, expensive to own, expensive to use, yet we couldn’t get enough of them.  By the time of my first visit to Australia, in 1997, just over half of all Australians owned mobiles.  A culture undergoes a bit of a sea-change when mobiles pass this tipping point.  This was proven during an evening I’d organized with friends at Sydney’s Darling Harbour.  Half of us met at the appointed place and time, the rest were nowhere to be found.  We could have waited them to arrive, or we could have gone off on our own, fragmenting the party.  Instead we called, and told them to meet us at a pub on Oxford Street.  Problem solved.  It’s this simple social lubrication (no one is late anymore, just delayed) which makes mobiles intensely desirable.

In 2011, the mobile subscription rate in Australia is greater than 115%.  This figure seems ridiculous until you account for the number of individuals who have more than one mobile (one for work and one for personal use), or some other device – such as an iPad – that connects to wireless 3G broadband.  Children don’t get their first mobile until around grade 3 (or later), and a lot of seniors have skipped the mobile entirely.  But the broad swath of the population between 8 and 80 all have a mobile or two, and more.

Life in Australia is better for the mobile, but doesn’t hold a candle to its impact in the developing world.  From fishermen on the Kerala coast of India, to vegetable farmers in Kenya, to barbers in Pakistan, the mobile creates opportunities for every individual connected through it, opportunities which quickly translate into economic advantage.  Economists have definitively established a strong correlation between the aggregate connectivity of nation and its growth.  Connected individuals earn more; so do connected nations.

Because the mobile means money, people have eagerly adopted it.  This is the real transformation over the last sixteen years.  Over that time we went from less than a hundred million mobile subscribers to somewhere in the range of six billion.  There’s just under seven billion people on Earth, and even accounting for those of us who have more than one subscription, this means three quarters all of humanity Earth now use a mobile.  As in Australia, the youngest and the very oldest are exempt, but as we become a more urban civilization – over half of us now live in cities – the pace and coordination of urban life is set by the mobile.

 

III:  I, Spy

The lost iPad, found

We live in a world of mobile devices.  They’re in hand, tucked in a pocket, or tossed into a handbag, but sometimes we leave them behind.  At the end of long business trip, on a late night flight back to Sydney, I left my iPad in the seatback pocket of an aircraft.  I didn’t discover this for eighteen hours, until I unpacked my bags and noted it had gone missing.  “Well, that’s it,” I thought.  “It’s gone for good.”  Then I remembered that Apple offers a feature on their iPhones and iPads, through their Me.com website, that lets you locate lost devices.  I figured I had nothing to lose, so I launched the site, waited a few moments, then found my iPad.  Not just the city, or the suburb, but down to the neighborhood and street and house – even the part of the house!  There it was, on Google’s high-resolution satellite imagery, phoning home.

What to do?  The neighborhood wasn’t all that good – next to Mount Druitt in Sydney’s ‘Wild West’ – so I didn’t fancy ringing the bell and asking politely.  Instead I phoned the police, who came by to take a report.  When they asked how I knew where my iPad was, I showed them the website.  They were gobsmacked.  In their perfect world, no thief can ever make away with anything, because it’s telling its owner and the police about its every movement.

I used another feature of ‘Find my iPad’ to send a message to its display: “Hello, I’m lost!  Please return me for a reward.’  About 36 hours later I received an email from the fellow who had ended up with my iPad (his mother cleans aircraft), offering to return it.  The next day, in a scene straight from a Cold War-era spy movie, we met on a street corner in Ultimo.  He handed me my iPad, I thanked him and handed him a reward, then we each went our separate ways.

Somewhere in the middle of this drama, I realized that I possessed the first of what will be many intelligent and trackable devices to follow.  In the beginning they’ll look like mobiles, like tablets and computers, but they’ll begin to look like absolutely anything you like.  This is the kind of high-technology favored by ‘Q’ in James Bond movies and by the CIA in covert operations, but it has always been expensive.  Now it’s cheap and easy-to-use and tiny.

I tend to invent things after I have that kind of brainwave, so I immediately dreamed up a ‘smart’ luggage tag, that you’d clip onto your baggage when you check in at the terminal.  If your baggage gets lost, it can ‘phone home’ to let you know just where it’s ended up – information you can give to your airline.  Or you can put one into your car, so you can figure out just where you left it in that vast parking lot.  Or hang one onto your child as you go out into a crowded public place.  A group of very smart Sydney engineers had already shown me something similar – Tingo Family – which uses the tracking capabilities of smartphones to create that sort of capability.  But smartphones are expensive, and overkill; couldn’t this cost a lot less?

I did some research on my favorite geek websites, and found that I could build something similar from off-the-shelf parts for about $150.  That sounds expensive, but that’s because I’m purchasing in single-unit quantities.  When you purchase 10,000 of something electronic, they don’t cost nearly as much.  I’m sure something could be put together for less than fifty dollars that would have the two necessary components: a GPS receiver, and a 3GSM mobile broadband connection.  With those two pieces, it becomes possible to track anything, anywhere you can get a signal – which, in 2011, is most of the planet.

To track something – and talk to it – costs fifty dollars today, but, like clockwork, every twenty-four months that cost falls by fifty percent.  In 2013, it’s $25.00, in 2015 it’s $12.50, and so on, so that ten years from now it’s only a bit more than a dollar.  Eventually it becomes almost free.

This is the world we will be living in.  Anything of any importance to us – whether expensive or cheap as chips – will be sensing, listening, and responding.  Everything will be aware of where it is, and where it should be.  Everything will be aware of the temperature, the humidity, the light level, the altitude, its energy consumption, and the other things around it which are also aware of the temperature, humidity, light level, altitude, energy consumption, and other things around them.

This is the sensor revolution, which is sometimes called ‘the Web of things’ or ‘Web3.0’.  We can see it coming, even if we can’t quite see what happens once it comes.  We didn’t understand that mobiles would help poor people earn more money until everyone, everywhere got a mobile.  These things aren’t easy to predict in advance, because they are the product of complex interactions between people and circumstances.  Even so, we can start to see how all of this information provided by our things feeds into our most innate human characteristic – the need to share.

 

IV: Overshare

Last Thursday I was invited to the launch of the ‘Imagine Cup’, a Microsoft-sponsored contest where students around the world use technology to develop solutions for the big problems facing us.  At the event I met the winners of the 2008 Imagine Cup, two Australians – Ed Hooper and Long Zheng.  They told me about their winning entry, Project SOAK.  That stands for Smart Operational Agriculture Kit.  It’s essentially a package of networked sensors and software that a farmer can use to know precisely when land needs water, and where.  Developed in the heart of the drought, Project SOAK is an innovative answer to the permanent Australian problem of water conservation.

I asked them how much these sensors cost, back in 2008.  To measure temperature, rainfall, dam depth, humidity, salinity and moisture would have cost around fifty dollars.  Fifty dollars in 2008 is about one dollar in 2020.  At that price point, a large farm, with thousands of hectares, could be covered with SOAK sensors for just a few tens of thousands of dollars, but would save the farmer water, time, and money for many years to come.  The farmer would be able to spread eyes over all of their land, and the computer, eternally vigilant, would help the farmer grind through the mostly-boring data spat out by these thousands of eyes.

That’s a snapshot of the world of 2020, a snapshot that will be repeated countless times, as sensors proliferate throughout every part of our planet touched by human beings: our land and our cities and our vehicles and our bodies.  Everything will have something listening, watching, reporting and responding.

We can already do this, even without all of this cheap sensing, because our connectivity creates a platform where we as ‘human sensors’ can share the results of our observations.  Just a few weeks ago, a web-based project known as ‘Safecast’ launched.  Dedicated to observing and recording radiation levels around the Fukushima nuclear reactor – which melted down following the March 11 2011 earthquake and tsunami – Safecast invites individuals throughout Japan to take regular readings of the ‘background’ radiation, then post them to the Safecast website.  These results are ‘mashed up’ with Google Maps, and presented for anyone to explore, both as current results, and as a historical path of radiation levels through time in a particular area.

Safecast exists because the Japanese government has failed to provide this information to its own people (perhaps to avoid unduly alarming them), filling a gap in public knowledge by ‘crowdsourcing’ the sensing task across thousands of willing participants.  People, armed with radiation dosimeters and Geiger counters, are the sensors.  People, typing their observations into computers, are the network.  Everything that we will soon be able to do automatically we can already do by hand, if there is sufficient need.

Necessity is the mother of invention; need is the driver for innovation.  In Japan they collect data about soil and water radiation, to save themselves from cancer.  In the United States, human sensors collect data about RBT checkpoints, to save themselves from arrest.  You can purchase a smartphone app that allows anyone to post the location of an RBT checkpoint to a crowdsourced database.  Anyone else with the app can launch it and see how to avoid being caught drink driving.  Although we may find the morality disagreeable, the need is there, and an army of human sensors set to work to meet that need.

Now that we’re all connected, we’ve found that connectivity is more than just keeping in touch with family, friends and co-workers.  It brings an expanded awareness, as each of us shares the points of interest peculiar to our tastes.  In the beginning, we shared bad jokes, cute pictures of kittens, and chain letters.  But we’ve grown up, and as we’ve matured, our sharing has taken on a focus and depth that gives it real power: people share what they know to fill the articles of Wikipedia, read their counters and plug results into Safecast, spot the coppers and share that around too – as they did in the central London riots in February.

It’s uncontrollable, it’s ungovernable, but all this sharing serves a need.  This is all human potential that’s been bottled up, constrained by the lack of connectivity across the planet.  Now that this barrier is well and truly down, we have unprecedented capability to pool our eyes, ears and hands, putting ourselves to work toward whatever ends we might consider appropriate.

Let’s give that some thought.

 

V:  Mother Birth

To recap: six billion of us now have mobiles, keeping us in close connection with one another.  This connectivity creates a platform for whatever endeavors we might choose to pursue, from the meaningless, to the momentary, to the significant and permanent.  We are human sensors, ready to observe and report upon anything we find important; chances are that if we find something important, others will as well.

All of that human activity is colliding head-on with the sensor revolution, as electronics become smaller and smarter, leading eventually to a predicted ‘smart dust’ where sensors become a ubiquitous feature of the environment.  We are about to gain a certain quality of omnipresence; where our sensors are, our minds will follow.   We are everywhere connected, and soon will be everywhere aware.

This awareness grants us the ability to see the consequences of our activities.  We can understand why burning or digging or watering here has an effect there, because, even in a complex ecosystem, we can trace the delicate connections that outline our actions.  The computer, with its infinitely patient and infinitely deep memory, is an important partner in this task, because it helps us to detect and illustrate the correlations that become a new and broader understanding of ourselves.

This is not something restricted to the biggest and grandest challenges facing us.  It begins more humbly and approachably with the minutiae of every day life: driving the car, using the dishwasher, or organizing a ski trip.  These activities no longer exist in isolation, but are recorded and measured and compared: could that drive be shorter, that wash cooler, that ski trip more sustainable?  This transition is being driven less by altruism than by economics.  Global sustainability means preserving the planet, but individual sustainability means a higher quality of life with lower resource utilization.  As that point becomes clear – and once there is sufficient awareness infrastructure to support it – sustainability becomes another ‘on tap’ feature of the environment, much as electricity and connectivity are today.

This will not be driven by top-down mandates.  Although our government is making moves toward sustainability, market forces will drive us to sustainability as the elements of the environment become continually more precious.  Intelligence is a fair substitute for almost any other resource – up to a point.  A car won’t run on IQ alone, but it will go a lot further on a tank of petrol if intelligently designed.

We can do more than act as sensors and share data:  we can share our ideas, our frameworks and solutions for sustainability.  We have the connectivity – any innovation can spread across the entire planet in a matter of seconds.  This means that six billion minds could be sharing – should be sharing – every tip, every insight, every brainwave and invention – so that the rest of us can have a go, see if it works, then share the results, so others can learn from our experiences. We have a platform for incredibly rapid learning, something that can springboard us into new ways of working.  It works for fishermen in India and farmers and Africa, so why not for us?

Australia is among the least sustainable nations on the planet.  Our vast per-person carbon footprint, our continual overuse of our limited water supplies, and our refusal to employ the bounty of renewable resources which nature has provided us with makes our country a bit of an embarrassment.  We have created a nation that is, in most respects, the envy of the world.  But as we have built that nation on unsustainable practice, this nation has built its house on sand, and within a generation or two, it will stand no longer.

Australia is a smart nation, intelligent and well-connected.  There’s no problem here we can not solve, no reach toward sustainability which is beyond our grasp.  We now have the tools, all we need is the compelling reason to think anew, revisiting everything we know with fresh eyes, eyes aided by many others, everywhere, and many sensors, everywhere, all helping us to understand, and from that understanding, to act, and from those actions, to learn, and from that learning, to share.

We are the sharing species; the reason we can even worry about a sustainable environment is because our sharing made us so successful that seven billion of us have begun to overwhelm the natural world.  This sharing is now opening an entirely new and unexpected realm, where we put our mobiles to our ears and put our heads together to have a good think, to share a thought, or tell a yarn.  Same as it ever was, but completely different, because this is no tribe, or small town, or neighborhood, but everybody, everywhere, all together now.  Where we go from here is entirely in our own hands.

The Soul of Web 2.0

Introduction: In The Beginning

Back in the 1980s, when personal computers mostly meant IBM PCs running Lotus 1*2*3 and, perhaps, if you were a bit off-center, an Apple Macintosh running Aldus Pagemaker, the idea of a coherent and interconnected set of documents spanning the known human universe seemed fanciful.  But there have always been dreamers, among them such luminaries as Douglas Engelbart, who gave us the computer mouse, and Ted Nelson, who coined the word ‘hypertext’.  Engelbart demonstrated a fully-functional hypertext system in December 1968, the famous ‘Mother of all Demos’, which framed computing for the rest of the 20th century.  Before man had walked on the Moon, before there was an Internet, we had a prototype for the World Wide Web.  Nelson took this idea and ran with it, envisaging a globally interconnected hypertext system, which he named ‘Xanadu’ – after the poem by Coleridge – and which attracted a crowd of enthusiasts intent on making it real.  I was one of them.  From my garret in Providence, Rhode Island, I wrote a front end – a ‘browser’ if you will – to the soon-to-be-released Xanadu.  This was back in 1986, nearly five years before Tim Berners-Lee wrote a short paper outlining a universal protocol for hypermedia, the basis for the World Wide Web.

Xanadu was never released, but we got the Web.  It wasn’t as functional as Xanadu – copyright management was a solved problem with Xanadu, whereas on the Web it continues to bedevil us – and links were two-way affairs; you could follow the destination of a link back to its source.  But the Web was out there and working for thousand of people by the middle of 1993, while Xanadu, shuffled from benefactor to benefactor, faded and finally died.  The Web was good enough to get out there, to play with, to begin improving, while Xanadu – which had been in beta since the late 1980s – was never quite good enough to be released.  ‘The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good’, and nowhere is it clearer than in the sad story of Xanadu.

If Xanadu had been released in 1987, it would have been next to useless without an Internet to support it, and the Internet was still very tiny in the 1980s.  When I started using the Internet, in 1988, the main trunk line across the United States was just about to be upgraded from 9.6 kilobits to 56 kilobits.  That’s the line for all of the traffic heading from one coast to the other.  I suspect that today this cross-country bandwidth, in aggregate, would be measured in terabits – trillions of bits per second, a million-fold increase.  And it keeps on growing, without any end in sight.

Because of my experience with Xanadu, when I first played with NCSA Mosaic – the first publicly available Web browser – I immediately knew what I held in my mousing hand.  And I wasn’t impressed.  In July 1993 very little content existed for the Web – just a handful of sites, mostly academic.  Given that the Web was born to serve the global high-energy-physics community headquartered at CERN and Fermilab, this made sense.  I walked away from the computer that July afternoon wanting more.  Hypertext systems I’d seen before.  What I lusted after was a global system with a reach like Xanadu.

Three months later, when I’d acquired a SUN workstation for a programming project, I immediately downloaded and installed NCSA Mosaic, to find that the Web elves had been busy.  Instead of a handful of sites, there were now hundreds.  There was a master list of known sites, maintained at NCSA, and over the course of a week in October, I methodically visited every site in the list.  By Friday evening I was finished.  I had surfed the entire Web.  It was even possible to keep up the new sites as they were added to the bottom of the list, though the end of 1993.  Then things began to explode.

From October on I became a Web evangelist.  My conversion was complete, and my joy in life was to share my own experience with my friends, using my own technical skills to get them set up with Internet access and their own copies of NCSA Mosaic.  That made converts of them; they then began to work on their friends, and so by degrees of association, the word of the Web spread.

In mid-January 1994, I dragged that rather unwieldy SUN workstation across town to show it off at a house party / performance event known as ‘Anon Salon’, which featured an interesting cross-section of San Francisco’s arts and technology communities.  As someone familiar walked in the door at the Salon, I walked up to them and took them over to my computer.  “What’s something you’re interested in?” I’d ask.  They’d reply with something like “Gardening” or “Astronomy” or “Watersports of Mesoamerica” and I’d go to the newly-created category index of the Web, known as Yahoo!, and still running out of a small lab on the Stanford University campus, type in their interest, and up would come at least a few hits.  I’d click on one, watch the page load, and let them read.  “Wow!” they’d say.  “This is great!”

I never mentioned the Web or hypertext or the Internet as I gave these little demos.  All I did was hook people by their own interests.  This, in January 1994 in San Francisco, is what would happen throughout the world in January 1995 and January 1996, and still happening today, as the two-billion Internet-connected individuals sit down before their computers and ask themselves, “What am I passionate about?”

This is the essential starting point for any discussion of what the Web is, what it is becoming, and how it should be presented.  The individual, with their needs, their passions, their opinions, their desires and their goals is always paramount.  We tend to forget this, or overlook it, or just plain ignore it.  We design from a point of view which is about what we have to say, what we want to present, what we expect to communicate.  It’s not that that we should ignore these considerations, but they are always secondary.  The Web is a ground for being.  Individuals do not present themselves as receptacles to be filled.  They are souls looking to be fulfilled.  This is as true for children as for adults – perhaps more so – and for this reason the educational Web has to be about space and place for being, not merely the presentation of a good-looking set of data.

How we get there, how we create the space for being, is what we have collectively learned in the first seventeen years of the web.  I’ll now break these down some of these individually.

I: Sharing

Every morning when I sit down to work at my computer, I’m greeted with a flurry of correspondence and communication.  I often start off with the emails that have come in overnight from America and Europe, the various mailing lists which spit out their contents at 3 AM, late night missives from insomniac friends, that sort of thing.  As I move through them, I sort them: this one needs attention and a reply, this one can get trashed, and this one – for one reason or another – should be shared.  The sharing instinct is innate and immediate.  We know upon we hearing a joke, or seeing an image, or reading an article, when someone else will be interested in it.  We’ve always known this; it’s part of being a human, and for as long as we’ve been able to talk – both as children and as a species – we’ve babbled and shared with one another.  It’s a basic quality of humanity.

Who we share with is driven by the people we know, the hundred-and-fifty or so souls who make up our ‘Dunbar Number’, the close crowd of individuals we connect to by blood or by friendship, or as co-workers, or neighbors, or co-religionists, or fellow enthusiasts in pursuit of sport or hobby.  Everyone carries that hundred and fifty around inside of them.  Most of the time we’re unaware of it, until that moment when we spy something, and immediately know who we want to share it with.  It’s automatic, requires no thought.  We just do it.

Once things began to move online, and we could use the ‘Forward’ button on our email clients, we started to see an acceleration and broadening of this sharing.  Everyone has a friend or two who forwards along every bad joke they come across, or every cute photo of a kitten.  We’ve all grown used to this, very tolerant of the high level of randomness and noise, because the flip side of that is a new and incredibly rapid distribution medium for the things which matter to us.  It’s been truly said that ‘If news is important, it will find me,’ because once some bit of information enters our densely hyperconnected networks, it gets passed hither-and-yon until it arrives in front of the people who most care about it.

That’s easy enough to do with emails, but how does that work with creations that may be Web-based, or similarly constrained?  We’ve seen the ‘share’ button show up on a lot of websites, but that’s not the entire matter.  You have to do more than request sharing.  You have to think through the entire goal of sharing, from the user’s perspective.  Are they sharing this because it’s interesting?  Are they sharing this because they want company?  Are they sharing this because it’s a competition or a contest or collaborative?  Or are they only sharing this because you’ve asked them to?

Here we come back – as we will, several more times – to the basic position of the user’s experience as central to the design of any Web project.  What is it about the design of your work that excites them to share it with others?  Have you made sharing a necessary component – as it might be in a multi-player game, or a collaborative and crowdsourced knowledge project – or is it something that is nice but not essential?  In other words, is there space only for one, or is there room to spread the word?  Why would anyone want to share your work?  You need to be able to answer this: definitively, immediately, and conclusively, because the answer to that question leads to the next question.  How will your work be shared?

Your works do not exist in isolation.  They are part of a continuum of other works?  Where does your work fit into that continuum?  How do the instructor and student approach that work?  Is it a top-down mandate?  Or is it something that filters up from below as word-of-mouth spreads?  How does that word-of-mouth spread?

Now you have to step back and think about the users of your work, and how they’re connected.  Is it simply via email – do all the students have email addresses?  Do they know the email addresses of their friends?  Or do you want your work shared via SMS?  A QRCode, perhaps?  Or Facebook or Twitter or, well, who knows?  And how do you get a class of year 3 students, who probably don’t have access to any of these tools, sharing your work?

You do want them to share, right?

This idea of sharing is foundational to everything we do on the Web today.  It becomes painfully obvious when it’s been overlooked.  For example, the iPad version of The Australian had all of the articles of the print version, but you couldn’t share an article with a friend.  There was simply no way to do that.  (I don’t know if this has changed recently.)  That made the iPad version of The Australian significantly less functional than its website version – because there I could at least past a URL into an email.

The more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes.  The more students use your work, the more indispensable you become to the curriculum, and the more likely your services will be needed, year after year, to improve and extend your present efforts.  Sharing isn’t just good design, it’s good business.

II: Connecting

Within the space for being created by the Web, there is room for a crowd.  Sometimes these crowds can be vast and anonymous – Wikipedia is a fine example of this.  Everyone’s there, but no one is wholly aware of anyone else’s presence.  You might see an edit to a page, or a new post on the discussion for a particular topic, but that’s as close as people come to one another.  Most of the connecting for the Wikipedians – the folks who behind-the-scenes make Wikipedia work – is performed by that old reliable friend, email.

There are other websites which make connecting the explicit central point of their purpose.  These are the social networks: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and so on.  In essence they take the Dunbar Number written into each of our minds and make it explicit, digital and a medium for communication.  But it doesn’t end there; one can add countless other contacts from all corners of life, until the ‘social graph’ – that set of connections – becomes so broad it is essentially meaningless.  Every additional contact makes the others less meaningful, if only because there’s only so much of you to go around.

That’s one type of connecting.  There is another type, as typified by Twitter, in which connections are weaker – generally falling outside the Dunbar Number – but have a curious resilience that presents unexpected strengths.  Where you can poll your friends on Facebook, on Twitter you can poll a planet.  How do I solve this problem?  Where should I eat dinner tonight?  What’s going on over there?  These loose but far-flung connections provide a kind of ‘hive mind’, which is less precise, and knows less about you, but knows a lot more about everything else.

These are not mutually exclusive principles.  It’s is not Facebook-versus-Twitter; it is not tight connections versus loose connections.  It’s a bit of both.  Where does your work benefit from a tight collective of connected individuals?  Is it some sort of group problem-solving?  A creative activity that really comes into its own when a whole band of people play together?  Or simply something which benefits from having a ‘lifeline’ to your comrades-in-arms?  When you constantly think of friends, that’s the sort of task that benefits from close connectivity.

On the other hand, when you’re collaborating on a big task – building up a model or a database or an encyclopedia or a catalog or playing a massive, rich, detailed and unpredictable game, or just trying to get a sense of what is going on ‘out there’, that’s the kind of task which benefits from loose connectivity.  Not every project will need both kinds of connecting, but almost every one will benefit from one or the other.  We are much smarter together than individually, much wiser, much more sensible, and less likely to be distracted, distraught or depressed.  (We are also more likely to reinforce each others’ prejudices and preconceptions, but that’s another matter of longstanding which technology can not help but amplify.)  Life is meaningful because we, together, give it meaning.  Life is bearable because we, together, bear the load for one another.  Human life is human connection.

The Web today is all about connecting.  That’s its single most important feature, the one which is serving as an organizing principle for nearly all activity on it.  So how do your projects allow your users to connect?  Does your work leave them alone, helpless, friendless, and lonely?  Does it crowd them together into too-close quarters, so that everyone feels a bit claustrophobic?  Or does it allow them to reach out and forge the bonds that will carry them through?

III: Contributing, Regulating, Iterating

In January of 2002, when I had my first demo of Wikipedia, the site had barely 14,000 articles – many copied from the 1911 out-of-copyright edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.  That’s enough content for a child’s encyclopedia, perhaps even for a primary school educator, but not really enough to be useful for adults, who might be interested in almost anything under the Sun.  It took the dedicated efforts of thousands of contributors for several years to get Wikipedia to the size of Britannica (250,000 articles), an effort which continues today.

Explicit to the design of Wikipedia is the idea that individuals should contribute.  There is an ‘edit’ button at the top of nearly every page, and making changes to Wikipedia is both quick and easy.  (This leaves the door open a certain amount of childish vandalism, but that is easily reversed or corrected precisely because it is so easy to edit anything within the site.)  By now everyone knows that Wikipedia is the collaboratively created encyclopedia, representing the best of all of what its contributors have to offer.  For the next hundred years academics and social scientists will debate the validity of crowdsourced knowledge creation, but what no one can deny is that Wikipedia has become an essential touchstone, our common cultural workbook.  This is less because of Wikipedia-as-a-resource than it is because we all share a sense of pride-in-ownership of Wikipedia.  Probably most of you have made some small change to Wikipedia; a few of you may have authored entire articles.  Every time any of us adds our own voice to Wikipedia, we become part of it, and it becomes part of us.  This is a powerful logic, an attraction which transcends the rational.  People cling to Wikipedia – right or wrong – because it is their own.

It’s difficult to imagine a time will come when Wikipedia will be complete.  If nothing else, events continue to occur, history is made, and all of this must be recorded somewhere in Wikipedia.  Yet Wikipedia, in its English-language edition, is growing more slowly in 2010 than in 2005.  With nearly 3.5 million articles in English, it’s reasonably comprehensive, at least by its own lights.  Certain material is considered inappropriate for Wikipedia – homespun scientific theories, or the biographies of less-than-remarkable individuals – and this has placed limits on its growth.  It’s possible that within a few years we will regard Wikipedia as essentially complete – which is, when you reflect upon it, an utterly awesome thought.  It will mean that we have captured the better part of human knowledge in a form accessible to all.  That we can all carry the learned experience of the species around in our pockets.

Wikipedia points to something else, quite as important and nearly as profound: the Web is not ‘complete’.  It is a work-in-progress.  Google understands this and releases interminable beta versions of every product.  More than this, it means that nothing needs to offer all the answers.  I would suggest that nothing should offer all the answers.  Leaving that space for the users to add what they know – or are willing to learn – to the overall mix creates a much more powerful relationship with the user, and – counterintuitively – with less work from you.  It is up to you to provide the framework for individuals to contribute within, but it is not up to you to populate that framework with every possibility.  There’s a ‘sweet spot’, somewhere between nothing and too much, which shows users the value of contributions but allows them enough space to make their own.

User contributions tend to become examples in their own right, showing other users how it’s done.  This creates a ‘virtuous cycle’ of contributions leading to contributions leading to still more contributions – which can produce the explosive creativity of a Wikipedia or TripAdvisor or an eBay or a RateMyProfessors.com.

In each of these websites it needs to be noted that there is a possibility for ‘bad data’ to work its way into system.   The biggest problem Wikipedia faces is not vandalism but the more pernicious types of contributions which look factual but are wholly made up.  TripAdvisor is facing a class-action lawsuit from hoteliers who have been damaged by anonymous negative ratings of their establishments.  RateMyProfessors.com is the holy terror of the academy in the United States.  Each of these websites has had to design systems which allow for users to self-regulate peer contributions.  In some cases – such as on a blog – it’s no more than a ‘report this post’ button, which flags it for later moderation.  Wikipedia promulgated a directive that strongly encouraged contributors to provide a footnote linking to supporting material.  TripAdvisor gives anonymous reviewers a lower ranking.  eBay forces both buyers and sellers to rate each transaction, building a database of interactions which can be used to guide others when they come to trade.  Each of these are social solutions to social problems.

Web2.0 is not a technology.  It is a suite of social techniques, and each technique must be combined with a social strategy for deployment, considering how the user will behave: neither wholly good nor entirely evil.  It is possible to design systems and interfaces which engage the better angels of nature, possible to develop wholly open systems which self-regulate and require little moderator intervention.  Yet it is not easy to do so, because it is not easy to know in advance how any social technique can be abused by those who employ it.

This means that aWeb2.0 concept that should guide you in your design work is iteration.  Nothing is ever complete, nor ever perfect.  The perfect is the enemy of the good, so if you wait for perfection, you will never release.  Instead, watch your users, see if they struggle to work within the place you have created for then, or whether they immediately grasp hold and begin to work.  In their more uncharitable moments, do they abuse the freedoms you have given them?  If so, how can you redesign your work, and ‘nudge’ them into better behavior?  It may be as simple as a different set of default behaviors, or as complex as a set of rules governing a social ecosystem.  And although Moses came down from Mount Sinai with all ten commandments, you can not and should not expect to get it right on a first pass.  Instead, release, observe, adapt, and re-release.  All releases are soft releases, everything is provisional, and nothing is quite perfect.  That’s as it should be.

IV: Opening

Two of the biggest Web2.0 services are Facebook and Twitter.  Although they seem to be similar, they couldn’t be more different.  Facebook is ‘greedy’, hoarding all of the data provided by its users, all of their photographs and conversations, keeping them entirely for itself.  If you want to have access to that data, you need to work with Facebook’s tools, and you need to build an application that works within Facebook – literally within the web page.  Facebook has control over everything you do, and can arbitrarily choose to limit what you do, even shut you down your application if they don’t like it, or perceive it as somehow competitive with Facebook.  Facebook is entirely in control, and Facebook holds onto all of the data your application needs to use.

Twitter has taken an entirely different approach.  From the very beginning, anyone could get access to the Twitter feed – whether for a single individual (if their stream of Tweets had been made public), or for all of Twitter’s users.  Anyone could do anything they wanted with these Tweets – though Twitter places restrictions on commercial re-use of their data.  Twitter provided very clear (and remarkably straightforward) instruction on how to access their data, and threw the gates open wide.

Although Facebook has half a billion users, Twitter is actually more broadly used, in more situations, because it has been incredibly easy for people to adapt Twitter to their tasks.  People have developed computer programs that send Tweets when the program is about to crash, created vast art projects which allow the public to participate from anywhere around the world, or even a little belt worn by a pregnant woman which sends out a Tweet every time the baby kicks!  It’s this flexibility which has made Twitter a sort of messaging ‘glue’ on the Internet of 2010, and that’s something Facebook just can’t do, because it’s too closed in upon itself.  Twitter has become a building block: when you write a program which needs to send a message, you use Twitter.  Facebook isn’t a building block.  It’s a monolith.

How do you build for openness?  Consider: another position the user might occupy is someone trying to use your work as a building block within their own project.  Have you created space for your work to be re-used, to be incorporated, to be pieced apart and put back together again?  Or is it opaque, seamless, and closed?  What about the data you collect, data the user has generated?  Where does that live?  Can it be exported and put to work in another application, or on another website?  Are you a brick or are you a brick wall?

When you think about your design – both technically and from the user’s experience – you must consider how open you want to be, and weigh the price of openness (extra work, unpredictability) against the price of being closed (less useful).  The highest praise you can receive for your work is when someone wants to use it in their own. For this to happen, you have to leave the door open for them.  If you publish the APIs to access the data you collect; if you build your work modularly, with clearly defined interfaces; if you use standards such as RSS and REST where appropriate, you will create something that others can re-use.

One of my favorite lines comes from science fiction author William Gibson, who wrote, ‘The street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturer never imagined.’  You can’t know how valuable your work will be to someone else, what they’ll see in it that you never could, and how they’ll use it to solve a problem.

All of these techniques – sharing, connecting, contributing, regulating, iterating and opening – share a common thread: they regard the user’s experience as paramount and design as something that serves the user.  These are not precisely the same Web2.0 domains others might identify.  That’s because Web2.0 has become a very ill-defined term.  It can mean whatever we want it to mean.  But it always comes back to experience, something that recognizes the importance and agency of the user, and makes that the center of the work.

It took us the better part of a decade to get to Web2.0; although pieces started showing up in the late 1990s, it wasn’t until the early 21st century that we really felt confident with the Web as an experience, and could use that experience to guide us into designs that left room for us to explore, to play and to learn from one another.  In this decade we need to bring everything we’ve learned to everything we create, to avoid the blind traps and dead ends of a design which ignores the vital reality of the people who work with what we create.  We need to make room for them.  If we don’t, they will make other rooms, where they can be themselves, where they can share what they’ve found, connect with the ones they care about, collaborate and contribute and create.

Mothers of Innovation

Introduction:  Olden Days

In February 1984, seeking a reprieve from the very cold and windy streets of Boston, Massachusetts, I ducked inside of a computer store.  I spied the normal array of IBM PCs and peripherals, the Apple ][, probably even an Atari system.  Prominently displayed at the front of the store, I spied my first Macintosh.  It wasn’t known as a Mac 128K or anything like that.  It was simply Macintosh.  I walked up to it, intrigued – already, the Reality Distortion Field was capable of luring geeks like me to their doom – and spied the unfamiliar graphical desktop and the cute little mouse.  Sitting down at the chair before the machine, I grasped the mouse, and moved the cursor across the screen.  But how do I get it to do anything? I wondered.  Click.  Nothing.  Click, drag – oh look some of these things changed color!  But now what?  Gah.  This is too hard.

That’s when I gave up, pushed myself away from that first Macintosh, and pronounced this experiment in ‘intuitive’ computing a failure.  Graphical computing isn’t intuitive, that’s a bit of a marketing fib.  It’s a metaphor, and you need to grasp the metaphor – need to be taught what it means – to work fluidly within the environment.  The metaphor is easy to apprehend if it has become the dominant technique for working with computers – as it has in 2010.  Twenty-six years ago, it was a different story.  You can’t assume that people will intuit what to do with your abstract representations of data or your arcane interface methods.  Intuition isn’t always intuitively obvious.

A few months later I had a job at a firm which designed bar code readers.  (That, btw, was the most boring job I’ve ever had, the only one I got fired from for insubordination.)  We were designing a bar code reader for Macintosh, so we had one in-house, a unit with a nice carrying case so that I could ‘borrow’ it on weekends.  Which I did.  Every weekend.  The first weekend I got it home, unpacked it, plugged it in, popped in the system disk, booted it, ejected the system disk, popped in the applications disk, and worked my way through MacPaint and MacWrite and on to my favorite application of all – Hendrix.

Hendrix took advantage of the advanced sound synthesis capabilities of Macintosh.  Presented with a perfectly white screen, you dragged the mouse along the display.  The position, velocity, and acceleration of the pointer determined what kind of heavily altered but unmistakably guitar-like sounds came out of the speaker.  For someone who had lived with the bleeps and blurps of the 8-bit world, it was a revelation.  It was, in the vernacular of Boston, ‘wicked’.  I couldn’t stop playing with Hendrix.  I invited friends over, showed them, and they couldn’t stop playing with Hendrix.  Hendrix was the first interactive computer program that I gave a damn about, the first one that really showed me what a computer could be used for.  Not just pushing paper or pixels around, but an instrument, and an essential tool for human creativity.

Everything that’s followed in all the years since has been interesting to me only when it pushes the boundaries of our creativity.  I grew entranced by virtual reality in the early 1990s, because of the possibilities it offered up for an entirely new playing field for creativity.  When I first saw the Web, in the middle of 1993, I quickly realized that it, too, would become a cornerstone of creativity.  That roughly brings us forward from the ‘olden days’, to today.

This morning I want to explore creativity along the axis of three classes of devices, as represented by the three Apple devices that I own: the desktop (my 17” MacBook Pro Core i7), the mobile (my iPhone 3GS 32Gb), and the tablet (my iPad 16GB 3G).  I will draw from my own experience as both a user and developer for these devices, using that experience to illuminate a path before us.  So much is in play right now, so much is possible, all we need do is shine a light to see the incredible opportunities all around.

I:  The Power of Babel

I love OSX, and have used it more or less exclusively since 2003, when it truly became a useable operating system.  I’m running Snow Leopard on my MacBook Pro, and so far have suffered only one Grey Screen Of Death.  (And, if I know how to read a stack trace, that was probably caused by Flash.  Go figure.)  OSX is solid, it’s modestly secure, and it has plenty of eye candy.  My favorite bit of that is Spaces, which allows me to segregate my workspace into separate virtual screens.

Upper left hand space has Mail.app, upper right hand has Safari, lower right hand has TweetDeck and Skype, while the lower left hand is reserved for the task at hand – in this case, writing these words.  Each of the apps, except Microsoft Word, is inherently Internet-oriented, an application designed to facilitate human communication.  This is the logical and inexorable outcome of a process that began back in 1969, when the first nodes began exchanging packets on the ARPANET.  Phase one: build the network.  Phase two: connect everything to the network.  Phase three: PROFIT!

That seems to have worked out pretty much according to plan.  Our computers have morphed from document processors – that’s what most computers of any stripe were used for until about 1995 – into communication machines, handling the hard work of managing a world that grows increasingly connected.  All of this communication is amazing and wonderful and has provided the fertile ground for innovations like Wikipedia and Twitter and Skype, but it also feels like too much of a good thing.  Connection has its own gravitational quality – the more connected we become, the more we feel the demand to remain connected continuously.

We salivate like Pavlov’s dogs every time our email application rewards us with the ‘bing’ of an incoming message, and we keep one eye on Twitter all day long, just in case something interesting – or at least diverting – crosses the transom.  Blame our brains.  They’re primed to release the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine at the slightest hint of a reward; connecting with another person is (under most circumstances) a guaranteed hit of pleasure.

That’s turned us into connection junkies.  We pile connection upon connection upon connection until we numb ourselves into a zombie-like overconnectivity, then collapse and withdraw, feeling the spiral of depression as we realize we can’t handle the weight of all the connections that we want so desperately to maintain.

Not a pretty picture, is it?   Yet the computer is doing an incredible job, acting as a shield between what our brains are prepared to handle and the immensity of information and connectivity out there.  Just as consciousness is primarily the filtering of signal from the noise of the universe, our computers are the filters between the roaring insanity of the Internet and the tidy little gardens of our thoughts.  They take chaos and organize it.  Email clients are excellent illustrations of this; the best of them allow us to sort and order our correspondence based on need, desire, and goals.  They prevent us from seeing the deluge of spam which makes up more than 90% of all SMTP traffic, and help us to stay focused on the task at hand.

Electronic mail was just the beginning of the revolution in social messaging; today we have Tweets and instant messages and Foursquare checkins and Flickr photos and YouTube videos and Delicious links and Tumblr blogs and endless, almost countless feeds.  All of it recommended by someone, somewhere, and all of it worthy of at least some of our attention.  We’re burdened by too many web sites and apps needed to manage all of this opportunity for connectivity.  The problem has become most acute on our mobiles, where we need a separate app for every social messaging service.

This is fine in 2010, but what happens in 2012, when there are ten times as many services on offer, all of them delivering interesting and useful things?  All these services, all these websites, and all these little apps threaten to drown us with their own popularity.

Does this mean that our computers are destined to become like our television tuners, which may have hundreds of channels on offer, but never see us watch more than a handful of them?  Do we have some sort of upper boundary on the amount of connectivity we can handle before we overload?  Clay Shirky has rightly pointed out that there is no such thing as information overload, only filter failure.  If we find ourselves overwhelmed by our social messaging, we’ve got to build some better filters.

This is the great growth opportunity for the desktop, the place where the action will be happening – when it isn’t happening in the browser.  Since the desktop is the nexus of the full power of the Internet and the full set of your own data (even the data stored in the cloud is accessed primarily from your desktop), it is the logical place to create some insanely great next-generation filtering software.

That’s precisely what I’ve been working on.  This past May I got hit by a massive brainwave – one so big I couldn’t ignore it, couldn’t put it down, couldn’t do anything but think about it obsessively.

I wanted to create a tool that could aggregate all of my social messaging – email, Twitter, RSS and Atom feeds, Delcious, Flickr, Foursquare, and on and on and on.  I also wanted the tool to be able to distribute my own social messages, in whatever format I wanted to transmit, through whatever social message channel I cared to use.

Then I wouldn’t need to go hither and yon, using Foursquare for this, and Flickr for that and Twitter for something else.  I also wouldn’t have to worry about which friends used which services; I’d be able to maintain that list digitally, and this tool would adjust my transmissions appropriately, sending messages to each as they want to receive them, allowing me to receive messages from each as they care to send them.

That’s not a complicated idea.  Individuals and companies have been nibbling around the edges of it for a while.

I am going the rest of the way, creating a tool that functions as the last 'social message manager' that anyone will need.  It’s called Plexus, and it functions as middleware – sitting between the Internet and whatever interface you might want to cook up to view and compose all of your social messaging.

Now were I devious, I’d coyly suggest that a lot of opportunity lies in building front-end tools for Plexus, ways to bring some order to the increasing flow of social messaging.  But I’m not coy.  I’ll come right out and say it: Plexus is an open-source project, and I need some help here.  That’s a reflection of the fact that we all need some help here.  We’re being clubbed into submission by our connectivity.  I’m trying to develop a tool which will allow us to create better filters, flexible filters, social filters, all sorts of ways of slicing and dicing our digital social selves.  That’s got to happen as we invent ever more ways to connect, and as we do all of this inventing, the need for such a tool becomes more and more clear.

We see people throwing their hands up, declaring ‘email bankruptcy’, quitting Twitter, or committing ‘Facebookicide’, because they can’t handle the consequences of connectivity.

We secretly yearn for that moment after the door to the aircraft closes, and we’re forced to turn our devices off for an hour or two or twelve.  Finally, some time to think.  Some time to be.  Science backs this up; the measurable consequence of over-connectivity is that we don’t have the mental room to roam with our thoughts, to ruminate, to explore and play within our own minds.  We’re too busy attending to the next message.  We need to disconnect periodically, and focus on the real.  We desperately need tools which allow us to manage our social connectivity better than we can today.

Once we can do that, we can filter the noise and listen to the music of others.  We will be able to move so much more quickly – together – it will be another electronic renaissance: just like 1994, with Web 1.0, and 2004, with Web2.0.

That’s my hope, that’s my vision, and it’s what I’m directing my energies toward.  It’s not the only direction for the desktop, but it does represent the natural evolution of what the desktop has become.  The desktop has been shaped not just by technology, but by the social forces stirred up by our technology.

It is not an accident that our desktops act as social filters; they are the right tool at the right time for the most important job before us – how we communicate with one another.  We need to bring all of our creativity to bear on this task, or we’ll find ourselves speechless, shouted down, lost at another Tower of Babel.

II: The Axis of Me-ville

Three and a half weeks ago, I received a call from my rental agent.  My unit was going on the auction block – would I mind moving out?  Immediately?  I’ve lived in the same flat since I first moved to Sydney, seven years ago, so this news came as quite a shock.

I spent a week going through the five states of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  The day I reached acceptance, I took matters in hand, the old-fashioned way: I went online, to domain.com.au, and looked for rental units in my neighborhood.

Within two minutes I learned that there were two units for rent within my own building!

When you stop to think about it, that’s a bit weird.  There were no signs posted in my building, no indication that either of the units were for rent.  I’d heard nothing from the few neighbors I know well enough to chat with.  They didn’t know either.  Something happening right underneath our noses – something of immediate relevance to me – and none of us knew about it.  Why?  Because we don’t know our neighbors.

For city dwellers this is not an unusual state of affairs.  One of the pleasures of the city is its anonymity.  That’s also one of it’s great dangers.  The two go hand-in-hand.  Yet the world of 2010 does not offer up this kind of anonymity easily.  Consider: we can re-establish a connection with someone we went to high school with, thirty years ago – and really never thought about in all the years that followed – but still not know the names of the people in the unit next door, names you might utter with bitter anger after they’ve turned up the music again.  How can we claim that there’s any social revolution if we can’t be connected to people whom we’re physically close to?  Emotional closeness is important, and financial closeness (your coworkers) is also salient, but both should be trumped by the people who breathe the same air as you.

It is almost impossible to bridge the barriers that separate us from one another, even when we’re living on top of each other.

This is where the mobile becomes important, because the mobile is the singular social device.  It is the place where our of the human relationships reside.  (Plexus is eventually bound for the mobile, but in a few years’ time, when the devices are nimble enough to support it.)  Yet the mobile is more than just the social crossroads.  It is the landing point for all of the real-time information you need to manage your life.

On the home page of my iPhone, two apps stand out as the aids to the real-time management of my life: RainRadar AU and TripView.  I am a pedestrian in Sydney, so it’s always good to know when it’s about to rain, how hard, and how long.  As a pedestrian, I make frequent use of public transport, so I need to know when the next train, bus or ferry is due, wherever I happen to be.  The mobile is my networked, location-aware sensor.  It gathers up all of the information I need to ease my path through life.  This demonstrates one of the unstated truisms of the 21st century: the better my access to data, the more effective I will be, moment to moment.  The mobile has become that instantaneous access point, simply because it’s always at hand, or in the pocket or pocketbook or backpack.  It’s always with us.

In February I gave a keynote at a small Melbourne science fiction convention.  After I finished speaking a young woman approached me and told me she couldn’t wait until she could have some implants, so her mobile would be with her all the time.  I asked her, “When is your mobile ever more than a few meters away from you?  How much difference would it make?  What do you gain by sticking it underneath your skin?”  I didn’t even bother to mention the danger from all that subcutaneous microwave radiation.  It’s silly, and although our children or grandchildren might have some interesting implants, we need to accept the fact that the mobile is already a part of us.

We’re as Borg-ed up as we need to be.  Probably we’re more Borg-ed up than we can handle.

It’s not just that our mobiles have become essential.  It’s getting so that we can’t put them down, even in situations when we need to focus on the task at hand – driving, or having dinner with your partner, or trying to push a stroller across an intersection.  We’re addicted, and the first step to treating that addiction is to admit we have  problem.  But here’s the dilemma: we're working hard to invent new ways to make our mobiles even more useful, indispensable and alluring.

We are the crack dealers.  And I’m encouraging you to make better crack.  Truth be told, I don’t see this ‘addiction’ as a bad thing, though goodness knows the tabloid newspapers and cultural moralists will make whatever they can of it.  It’s an accommodation we will need to make, a give-and-take.  We gain an instantaneous connection to one another, a kind of cultural ‘telepathy’ that would have made Alexander Graham Bell weep for joy.

But there's more: we also gain a window into the hitherto hidden world of data that is all around us, a shadow and double of the real world.

For example, I can now build an app that allows me to wander the aisles of my local supermarket, bringing all of the intelligence of the network with me as I shop.  I hold the mobile out in front of me, its camera capturing everything it sees, which it passes along to the cloud, so that Google Goggles can do some image processing on it, and pick out the identifiable products on the shelves.

This information can then be fed back into a shopping list – created by me, or by my doctor, or by bank account – because I might be trying to optimize for my own palette, my blood pressure, or my budget – and as I come across the items I should purchase, my mobile might give a small vibration.  When I look at the screen, I see the shelves, but the items I should purchase are glowing and blinking.

The technology to realize this – augmented reality with a few extra bells and whistles – is already in place.  This is the sort of thing that could be done today, by someone enterprising enough to knit all these separate threads into a seamless whole.  There’s clearly a need for it, but that’s just the beginning.  This is automated, computational decision making.  It gets more interesting when you throw people into the mix.

Consider: in December I was on a road trip to Canberra.  When I arrived there, at 6 pm, I wondered where to have dinner.  Canberra is not known for its scintillating nightlife – I had no idea where to dine.  I threw the question out to my 7000 Twitter followers, and in the space of time that it took to shower, I had enough responses that I could pick and choose among them, and ended up having the best bowl of seafood laksa that I’d had since I moved to Australia!

That’s the kind of power that we have in our hands, but don’t yet know how to use.

We are all well connected, instantaneously and pervasively, but how do we connect without confusing ourselves and one another with constant requests?  Can we manage that kind of connectivity as a background task, with our mobiles acting as the arbiters?  The mobile is the crossroads, between our social lives, our real-time lives, and our data-driven selves.  All of it comes together in our hands.  The device is nearly full to exploding with the potentials unleashed as we bring these separate streams together.  It becomes hypnotizing and formidable, though it rings less and less.  Voice traffic is falling nearly everywhere in the developed world, but mobile usage continues to skyrocket.  Our mobiles are too important to use for talking.

Let’s tie all of this together: I get evicted, and immediately tell my mobile, which alerts my neighbors and friends, and everyone sets to work finding me a new place to live.  When I check out their recommendations, I get an in-depth view of my new potential neighborhoods, delivered through a marriage of augmented reality and the cloud computing power located throughout the network.  Finally, when I’m about to make a decision, I throw it open for the people who care enough about me to ring in with their own opinions, experiences, and observations.  I make an informed decision, quickly, and am happier as a result, for all the years I live in my new home.

That’s what’s coming.  That’s the potential that we hold in the palms of our hands.  That’s the world you can bring to life.

III:  Through the Looking Glass

Finally, we turn to the newest and most exciting of Apple’s inventions.  There seemed to be nothing new to say about the tablet – after all, Bill Gates declared ‘The Year of the Tablet’ way back in 2001.  But it never happened.  Tablets were too weird, too constrained by battery life and weight and, most significantly, the user experience.  It’s not as though you can take a laptop computer, rip away the keyboard and slap on a touchscreen to create a tablet computer, though this is what many people tried for many years.  It never really worked out for them.

Instead, Apple leveraged what they learned from the iPhone’s touch interface.  Yet that alone was not enough.  I was told by sources well-placed in Apple that the hardware for a tablet was ready a few years ago; designing a user experience appropriate to the form factor took a lot longer than anyone had anticipated.  But the proof of the pudding is in the eating: iPad is the most successful new product in Apple’s history, with Apple set to manufacture around thirty million of them over the next twelve months.  That success is due to the hard work and extensive testing performed upon the iPad’s particular version of iOS.

It feels wonderfully fluid, well adapted to the device, although quite different from the iOS running on iPhone.  iPad is not simply a gargantuan iPod Touch.  The devices are used very differently, because the form-factor of the device frames our expectations and experience of the device.

Let me illustrate with an example from my own experience:  I had a consulting job drop on me at the start of June, one which required that I go through and assess eighty-eight separate project proposals, all of which ran to 15 pages apiece.  I had about 48 hours to do the work.  I was a thousand kilometers from these proposals, so they had to be sent to me electronically, so that I could then print them before reading through them.  Doing all of that took 24 of the 48 hours I had for review, and left me with a ten-kilo box of papers that I’d have to carry, a thousand kilometers, to the assessment meeting.  Ugh.

Immediately before I left for the airport with this paper ball-and-chain, I realized I could simply drag the electronic versions of these files into my Dropbox account.  Once uploaded, I could access those files from my iPad – all thousand or so pages.  Working on iPad made the process much faster than having to fiddle through all of those papers; I finished my work on the flight to my meeting, and was the envy of all attending – they wrestled with multiple fat paper binders, while I simply swiped my way to the next proposal.

This was when I realized that iPad is becoming the indispensable appliance for the information worker.

You can now hold something in your hand that has every document you’ve written; via the cloud, it can hold every document anyone has ever written.  This has been true for desktops since the advent of the Internet, but it hasn’t been as immediate.  iPad is the page, reinvented, not just because it has roughly the same dimensions as a page, but because you interact with it as if it were a piece of paper.  That’s something no desktop has ever been able to provide.

We don’t really have a sense yet for all the things we can do with this ‘magical’ (to steal a word from Steve Jobs) device.

Paper transformed the world two thousand years ago. Moveable type transformed the world five hundred years ago.  The tablet, whatever it is becoming – whatever you make of it – will similarly reshape the world.  It’s not just printed materials; the tablet is the lightbox for every photograph ever taken anywhere by anyone.  The tablet is the screen for every video created, a theatre for every film produced, a tuner to every radio station that offers up a digital stream, and a player for every sound recording that can be downloaded.

All of this is here, all of this is simultaneously present in a device with so much capability that it very nearly pulses with power.

iPad is like an Formula One Ferrari, one we haven’t even gotten out of first gear.  So stretch your mind further than the idea of the app.  Apps are good and important, but to unlock the potential of iPad it needs lots of interesting data pouring into it and through it.  That data might be provided via an application, but it probably doesn’t live within the application – there’s not enough room in there.  Any way you look at it, iPad is a creature of the network; it is a surface, a looking glass, which presents you a view from within the network.

What happens when the network looks back at you?

At the moment iPad has no camera, though everyone expects a forward-facing camera to be in next year’s model.  That will come so that Apple can enable FaceTime.  (With luck, we’ll also see a Retina Display, so that documents can be seen in their natural resolution.)  Once the iPad can see you, it can respond to you.  It can acknowledge your presence in an authentic manner.  We’re starting to see just what this looks like with the recently announced Xbox Kinect.

This is the sort of technology which points all the way back to the infamous ‘Knowledge Navigator’ video that John Sculley used to create his own Reality Distortion Field around the disaster that was the Newton. Decades ahead of its time, the Knowledge Navigator pointed toward Google and Wikipedia and Milo, with just a touch of Facebook thrown in.  We’re only just getting there, to the place where this becomes possible.

These are no longer dreams, these are now quantifiable engineering problems.

This sort of thing won’t happen on Xbox, though Microsoft or a partner developer could easily write an app for it.  But that’s not where they’re looking, this is not about keeping you entertained.  The iPad can entertain you, but that’s not its main design focus.  It is designed to engage you, today with your fingers, and soon with your voice and your face and your gestures.  At that point it is no longer a mirror; it is an entity on its own.  It might not pass the Turing Test, but we’ll anthropomorphize it nonetheless, just as we did with Tamagotchi and Furby.  It will become our constant companion, helping us through every situation.  And it will move seamlessly between our devices, from iPad to iPhone to desktop.  But it will begin on iPad.

Because we are just starting out with tablets, anything is possible.  We haven’t established expectations which guide us into a particular way of thinking about the device.  We’ve had mobiles for nearly twenty years, and desktops for thirty.  We understand both well, and with that understanding comes a narrowing of possibilities.  The tablet is the undiscovered country, virgin, green, waiting to be explored.  This is the desktop revolution, all over again.  This is the mobile revolution, all over again.  We’re in the right place at the right time to give birth to the applications that will seem commonplace in ten or fifteen years.

I remember the VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet.  I remember how revolutionary it seemed, how it changed everyone’s expectations for the personal computer.  I also remember that it was written for an Apple ][.

You have the chance to do it all again, to become the ‘mothers of innovation’, and reinvent computing.  So think big.  This is the time for it.  In another few years it will be difficult to aim for the stars.  The platform will be carrying too much baggage.  Right now we all get to be rocket scientists.  Right now we get to play, and dream, and make it all real.

Paperworks / Padworks

I: Paper, works

At the end of May I received an email from a senior official at the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.  DEECD was in the midst of issuing an RFP, looking for new content to populate FUSE (Find, Use, Share, Education), an important component of ULTRANET, the mega-über-supremo educational intranet meant to solve everyone’s educational problems for all time.  Or, well, perhaps I overstate the matter.  But it could be a big deal.

The respondents to the RFP were organizations who already had working relationships with DEECD, and therefore were both familiar with DEECD processes and had been vetted in their earlier relationships.  This meant that the entire RFP to submissions could be telescoped down to just a bit less than three weeks.  The official asked me if I’d be interested in being one of the external reviewers for these proposals as they passed through an official evaluation process.  I said I’d be happy to do so, and asked how many proposals I’d have to review.  “I doubt it will be more than thirty or forty,” he replied.  Which seemed quite reasonable.

As is inevitably the case, most of the proposals landed in the DEECD mailbox just a few hours before the deadline for submissions.  But the RFP didn’t result in thirty or forty proposals.  The total came to almost ninety.  All of which I had to review and evaluate in the thirty-six hours between the time they landed in my inbox and the start of the formal evaluation meeting.  Oh, and first I needed to print them out, because there was no way I’d be able to do that much reading in front of my computer.

Let’s face it – although we do sit and read our laptop screens all day long, we rarely read anything longer than a few paragraphs.  If it passes 300 words, it tips the balance into ‘tl;dr’ (too long; didn’t read) territory, and unless it’s vital for our employment or well-being, we tend to skip it and move along to the next little tidbit.  Having to sit and read through well over nine hundred pages of proposals on my laptop was a bridge too far. I set off to the print shop around the corner from my flat, to have the whole mess printed out.  That took nearly 24 hours by itself – and cost an ungodly sum.  I was left with a huge, heavy box of paper which I could barely lug back to my flat.  For the next 36 hours, this box would be my ball and chain.  I’d have to take it with me to the meeting in Melbourne, which meant packing it for the flight, checking it as baggage, lugging it to my hotel room, and so forth, all while trying to digest its contents.

How the heck was that going to work?

This is when I looked at my iPad.  Then I looked back at the box.  Then back at the iPad.  Then back at the box.  I’d gotten my iPad barely a week before – when they first arrived in Australia – and I was planning on taking it on this trip, but without an accompanying laptop.  This, for me, would be a bit of a test.  For the last decade I’d never traveled anywhere without my laptop.  Could I manage a business trip with just my iPad?  I looked back at the iPad.  Then at the box.  You could practically hear the penny drop.

I immediately began copying all these nine hundred-plus pages of proposals and accompanying documentation from my laptop to the storage utility Dropbox.  Dropbox gives you 2 GB of free Internet storage, with an option to rent more space, if you need it.  Dropbox also has an iPad app (free) – so as soon as the files were uploaded to Dropbox, I could access them from my iPad.

I should take a moment and talk about the model of the iPad I own.  I ordered the 16 GB version – the smallest storage size offered by Apple – but I got the 3G upgrade, paired with Telstra’s most excellent pre-paid NextG service.  My rationale was that I imagined this iPad would be a ‘cloud-centric’ device.  The ‘cloud’ is a term that’s come into use quite recently.  It means software is hosted somewhere out there on the Internet – the ‘cloud’ – rather than residing locally on your computer.  Gmail is a good example of a software that’s ‘in the cloud’.  Facebook is another.  Twitter, another.   Much of what we do with our computers – iPad included – involves software accessed over the Internet.  Many of the apps for sale in Apple’s iTunes App Store are useless or pointless without an Internet connection – these are the sorts of applications which break down the neat boundary between the computer and the cloud.  Cloud computing has been growing in importance over the last decade; by the end of this one it will simply be the way things work.  Your iPad will be your window onto the cloud, onto everything you have within that cloud: your email, your documents, your calendar, your contacts, etc.

I like to live in the future, so I made sure that my iPad didn’t have too much storage – which forces me to use the cloud as much as possible.  In this case, that was precisely the right decision, because I ditched the ten-kilo box of paperwork and boarded my flight to Melbourne with my iPad at my side.  I poured through the proposals, one after another, bringing them up in Dropbox, evaluating them, making some notes in my (paper) notebook, then moving along to the next one.  My iPad gave me a fluidity and speed that I could never have had with that box of paper.

When I arrived at my hotel, I had another set of two large boxes waiting for me.  Here again were the proposals, carefully ordered and placed into several large, ringed binders.  I’d be expected to tote these to the evaluation meeting.  Fortunately, that was only a few floors above my hotel room.  That said, it was a bit of a struggle to get those boxes and my luggage into the elevator and up to the meeting room.  I put those boxes down – and never looked at them again.  As the rest of the evaluation panel dug through their boxes to pull out the relevant proposals, I did a few motions with my fingertips, and found myself on the same page.

Yes, they got a bit jealous.

We finished the evaluation on time and quite successfully, and at the end of the day I left my boxes with the DEECD coordinator, thanking her for her hard work printing all these materials, but begging off.  She understood completely.  I flew home, lighter than I might otherwise have, had I stuck to paper.

For at least the past thirty years – which is about the duration of the personal computer revolution – people have been talking about the advent of the paperless office.  Truth be told, we use more paper in our offices than ever before, our printers constantly at work with letters, notices, emails, and so forth.  We haven’t been able to make the leap to a paperless office – despite our comprehensive ability to manipulate documents digitally – because we lacked something that could actually replace paper.  Computers as we’ve known them simply can’t replace a piece of paper. For a whole host of reasons, it just never worked.  To move to a paperless office – and a paperless classroom – we had to invent something that could supplant paper.  We have it now.  After a lot of false starts, tablet computing has finally arrived –– and it’s here to stay.

I can sit here, iPad in hand, and have access to every single document that I have ever written.  You will soon have access to every single document you might ever need, right here, right now.  We’re not 100% there yet – but that’s not the fault of the device.  We’re going to need to make some adjustments to our IT strategies, so that we can have a pervasively available document environment.  At that point, your iPad becomes the page which contains all other pages within it.  You’ll never be without the document you need at the time you need it.

Nor will we confine ourselves to text.  The world is richer than that.  iPad is the lightbox that contains all photographs within it, it is the television which receives every bit of video produced by anyone – professional or amateur – ever.  It is already the radio (Pocket Tunes app) which receives almost every major radio station broadcasting anywhere in the world.  And it is every one of a hundred-million-plus websites and maybe a trillion web pages.  All of this is here, right here in the palm of your hand.

What matters now is how we put all of this to work.

II: Pad, works

Let’s project ourselves into the future just a little bit – say around ten years.  It’s 2020, and we’ve had iPads for a whole decade.  The iPads of 2020 will be vastly more powerful than the ones in use today, because of something known as Moore’s Law.  This law states that computers double in power every twenty-four months.  Ten years is five doublings, or 32 times.  That rule extends to the display as well as the computer.  The ‘Retina Display’ recently released on Apple’s iPhone 4 shows us where that technology is going – displays so fine that you can’t make out the individual pixels with your eye.  The screen of your iPad version 11 will be visually indistinguishable from a sheet of paper.  The device itself will be thinner and lighter than the current model.  Battery technology improves at about 10% a year, so half the weight of the battery – which is the heaviest component of the iPad – will disappear.  You’ll still get at least ten hours of use, that’s something that’s considered essential to your experience as a user.  And you’ll still be connected to the mobile network.

The mobile network of 2020 will look quite different from the mobile network of 2010.  Right now we’re just on the cusp of moving into 4th generation mobile broadband technology, known colloquially as LTE, or Long-Term Evolution.   Where you might get speeds of 7 megabits per second with NextG mobile broadband – under the best conditions – LTE promises speeds of 100 megabits.  That’s as good as a wired connection – as fast as anything promised by the National Broadband Network!  In a decade’s time we’ll be moving through 5th generation and possibly into 6th generation mobile technologies, with speeds approaching a gigabit, a billion bits per second.  That may sound like a lot, but again, it represents roughly 32 times the capacity of the mobile broadband networks of today.  Moore’s Law has a broad reach, and will transform every component of the iPad.

iPad will have thirty-two times the storage, not that we’ll need it, given that we’ll be connected to the cloud at gigabit speeds, but if it’s there, someone will find use for the two terabytes or more included in our iPad.  (Perhaps a full copy of Wikipedia?  Or all of the books published before 1915?)  All of this still cost just $700.  If you want to spend less – and have a correspondingly less-powerful device, you’ll have that option.  I suspect you’ll be able to pick up an entry-level device – the equivalent of iPad 7, perhaps – for $49 at JB HiFi.

What sorts of things will the iPad 10 be capable of?  How do we put all of that power to work?  First off, iPad will be able to see and hear in meaningful ways.  Voice recognition and computer vision are two technologies which are on the threshold of becoming ‘twenty year overnight successes’.  We can already speak to our computers, and, most of the time, they can understand us.  With devices like the Xbox Kinect, cameras allow the computer to see the world around, and recognize bits of it.  Your iPad will hear you, understand your voice, and follow your commands.  It will also be able to recognize your face, your motions, and your emotions.

It’s not clear that computers as we know them today – that is, desktops and laptops – will be common in a decade’s time.  They may still be employed in very specialized tasks.  For almost everything else, we will be using our iPads.  They’ll rarely leave our sides.  They will become so pervasive that in many environments – around the home, in the office, or at school – we will simply have a supply of them sufficient to the task.  When everything is so well connected, you don’t need to have personal information stored in a specific iPad.  You will be able to pick up any iPad and – almost instantaneously – the custom features which mark that device as uniquely yours will be downloaded into it.

All of this is possible.  Whether any of it eventuates depends on a whole host of factors we can’t yet see clearly.  People may find voice recognition more of an annoyance than an affordance.  The idea of your iPad watching you might seem creepy to some people.  But consider this: I have a good friend who has two elderly parents: his dad is in his early 80s, his mom is in her mid-70s.  He lives in Boston while they live in Northern California.  But he needs to keep in touch, he needs to have a look in.  Next year, when iPad acquires a forward-facing camera – so it can be used for video conferencing – he’ll buy them an iPad, and install it on the wall of their kitchen, stuck on there with Velcro, so that he can ring in anytime, and check on them, and they can ring him, anytime.  It’s a bit ‘Jetsons’, when you think about it.  And that’s just what will happen next year.  By 2020 the iPad will be able to track your progress around the house, monitor what prescriptions you’ve taken (or missed), whether you’ve left the house, and for how long.  It’ll be a basic accessory, necessary for everyone caring for someone in their final years – or in their first ones.

Now that we’ve established the basic capabilities and expectations for this device, let’s imagine them in the hands of students everywhere throughout Australia.  No student, however poor, will be without their own iPad – the Government of the day will see to that.  These students of 2020 are at least as well connected as you are, as their parents are, as anyone is.  To them, iPads are not new things; they’ve always been around.  They grew up in a world where touch is the default interface.  A computer mouse, for them, seems as archaic as a manual typewriter does to us.  They’re also quite accustomed to being immersed within a field of very-high-speed mobile broadband.  They just expect it to be ‘on’, everywhere they go, and expect that they will have access to it as needed.

How do we make education in 2020 meet their expectations?  This is not the universe of ‘chalk and talk’.  This is a world where the classroom walls have been effectively leveled by the pervasive presence of the network, and a device which can display anything on that network.  This is a world where education can be provided anywhere, on demand, as called for.  This is a world where the constructivist premise of learning-by-doing can be implemented beyond year two.  Where a student working on an engine can stare at a three-dimensional breakout model of the components while engaging in a conversation with an instructor half a continent away.  Where a student learning French can actually engage with a French student learning English, and do so without much more than a press of a few buttons.  Where a student learning about the Eureka Stockade can survey the ground, iPad in hand, and find within the device hidden depths to the history.  iPad is the handheld schoolhouse, and it is, in many ways, the thing that replaces the chalkboard, the classroom, and the library.

But iPad does not replace the educator.  We need to be very clear on that, because even as educational resources multiply beyond our wildest hopes –more on that presently – students still need someone to guide them into understanding.  The more we virtualize the educational process, the more important and singular our embodied interactions become.  Some of this will come from far away – the iPad offers opportunities for distance education undreamt of just a few years ago – but much more of it will be close up.  Even if the classroom does not survive (and I doubt it will fade away completely in the next ten years, but it will begin to erode), we will still need a place for an educator/mentor to come into contact with students.  That’s been true since the days of Socrates (probably long before that), and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.  We learn best when we learn from others.  We humans are experts in mimesis, in learning by imitation.  That kind of learning requires us to breathe the same air together.

No matter how much power we gain from the iPad, no matter how much freedom it offers, no device offers us freedom from our essential nature as social beings.  We are born to work together, we are designed to learn from one another.  iPad is an unbelievably potent addition to the educator’s toolbox, but we must remember not to let it cloud our common sense.  It should be an amplifier, not a replacement, something that lets students go further, faster than before.  But they should not go alone.

The constant danger of technology is that it can interrupt the human moment.  We can be too busy checking our messages to see the real people right before our eyes.  This is the dilemma that will face us in the age of the iPad.  Governments will see them as cost-saving devices, something that could substitute for the human touch.  If we lose touch, if we lose the human moment, we also lose the biggest part of our ability to learn.

III:  The Work of Nations

We can reasonably predict that this is the decade of the tablet, and the decade of mobile broadband.  The two of them fuse in the iPad, to produce a platform which will transform education, allowing it to happen anywhere a teacher and a student share an agreement to work together.  But what will they be working on?  Next year we’ll see the rollout of the National Curriculum, which specifies the material to be covered in core subject areas in classrooms throughout the nation.

Many educators view the National Curriculum as a mandate for a bland uniformity, a lowest-common denominator approach to instruction, which will simply leave the teacher working point-by-point through the curriculum’s arc.  This is certainly not the intent of the project’s creators.  Dr. Evan Arthur, who heads up the Digital Educational Revolution taskforce in the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, publicly refers to the National Curriculum as a ‘greenfields’, as though all expectations were essentially phantoms of the mind, a box we draw around ourselves, rather than one that objectively exists.

The National Curriculum outlines the subject areas to be covered, but says very little if anything about pedagogy.  Instructors and school systems are free to exercise their own best judgment in selecting an approach appropriate to their students, their educators, and their facilities.  That’s good news, and means that any blandness that creeps into pedagogy because of the National Curriculum is more a reflection of the educator than the educational mandate.

Precisely because it places educators and students throughout the nation onto the same page, the National Curriculum also offers up an enormous opportunity.  We know that all year nine students in Australia will be covering a particular suite of topics.  This means that every educator and every student throughout the nation can be drawing from and contributing to a ‘common wealth’ of shared materials, whether they be podcasts of lectures, educational chatrooms, lesson plans, and on and on and on.  As the years go by, this wealth of material will grow as more teachers and more students add their own contributions to it.  The National Curriculum isn’t a mandate, per se; it’s better to think of it as an empty Wikipedia.  All the article headings are there, all the taxonomy, all the cross references, but none of the content.  The next decade will see us all build up that base of content, so that by 2020, a decade’s worth of work will have resulted in something truly outstanding to offer both educators and students in their pursuit of curriculum goals.
Well, maybe.

I say all of this as if it were a sure thing.  But it isn’t.  Everyone secretly suspects the National Curriculum will ruin education.  I ask that we can see things differently.  The National Curriculum could be the savior of education in the 21st century, but in order to travel the short distance in our minds between where we are (and where we will go if we don’t change our minds) and where we need to be, we need to think of every educator in Australia as a contributor of value.  More than that, we need to think of every student in Australia as a contributor of value.  That’s the vital gap that must be crossed.  Educators spend endless hours working on lesson plans and instructional designs – they should be encouraged to share this work.  Many of them are too modest or too scared to trumpet their own hard yards – but it is something that educators and students across the nation can benefit from.  Students, as they pass through the curriculum, create their own learning materials, which must be preserved, where appropriate, for future years.

We should do this.  We need to do this.  Right now we’re dropping the best of what we have on the floor as teachers retire or move on in their careers.  This is gold that we’re letting slip through our fingers. We live in an age where we only lose something when we neglect to capture it. We can let ourselves off easy here, because we haven’t had a framework to capture and share this pedagogy.  But now we have the means to capture, a platform for sharing – the Ultranet, and a tool which brings access to everyone – the iPad.  We’ve never had these stars aligned in such a way before.  Only just now – in 2010 – is it possible to dream such big dreams.  It won’t even cost much money.  Yes, the state and federal governments will be investing in iPads and superfast broadband connections for the schools, but everything else comes from a change in our behavior, from a new sense of the full value of our activities.  We need to look at ourselves not merely as the dispensers of education to receptive students, but as engaged participant-creators working to build a lasting body of knowledge.

In so doing we tie everything together, from library science to digital citizenship, within an approach that builds shared value.  It allows a student in Bairnsdale to collaborate with another in Lorne, both working through a lesson plan developed by an educator in Katherine.  Or a teacher in Lakes Entrance to offer her expertise to a classroom in Maffra.  These kinds of things have been possible before, but the National Curriculum gives us the reason to do it.  iPad gives us the infrastructure to dream wild, and imagine how to practice some ‘creative destruction’ in the classroom – tearing down its walls in order to make the classroom a persistent, ubiquitous feature of the environment, to bring education everywhere it’s needed, to everyone who needs it, whenever they need it.

This means that all of the preceding is really part of a larger transformation, from education as this singular event that happens between ages six and twenty-two, to something that is persistent and ubiquitous; where ‘lifelong learning’ isn’t a catchphrase, but rather, a set of skills students begin to acquire as soon as they land in pre-kindy.  The wealth of materials which we will create as we learn how to share the burden of the National Curriculum across the nation have value far beyond the schoolhouse.  In a nation of immigrants, it makes sense to have these materials available, because someone is always arriving in the middle of their lives and struggling to catch up to and integrate themselves within the fabric of the nation.  Education is one way that this happens.  People also need to have increasing flexibility in their career choices, to suit a much more fluid labor market.  This means that we continuously need to learn something new, or something, perhaps, that we didn’t pay much attention to when we should have.  If we can share our learning, we can close this gap.  We can bring the best of what we teach to everyone who has the need to know.

And there we are.  But before I conclude, I should bring up the most obvious point –one so obvious that we might forget it.  The iPad is an excellent toy.  Please play with it.  I don’t mean use it.  I mean explore it.  Punch all the buttons.  Do things you shouldn’t do.  Press the big red button that says, “Don’t press me!”  Just make sure you have a backup first.

We know that children learn by exploration – that’s the foundation of Constructivism – but we forget that we ourselves also learn by exploration. The joy we feel when we play with our new toy is the feeling a child has when he confronts a box of LEGOs, or new video game – it’s the joy of exploration, the joy of learning.  That joy is foundational to us.  If we didn’t love learning, we wouldn’t be running things around here.  We’d still be in the trees.

My favorite toys on my iPad are Pocket Universe – which creates an 360-degree real-time observatory on your iPad; Pulse News – which brings some beauty to my RSS feeds; Observatory – which turns my iPad into a bit of an orrery; Air Video – which allows me to watch videos streamed from my laptop to my iPad; and GoodReader – the one app you simply must spend $1.19 on, because it is the most useful app you’ll ever own.  These are my favorites, but I own many others, and enjoy all of them.  There are literally tens of thousands to choose from, some of them educational, some, just for fun.  That’s the point: all work and no play makes iPad a dull toy.

So please, go and play.  As you do, you’ll come to recognize the hidden depths within your new toy, and you’ll probably feel that penny drop, as you come to realize that this changes everything.  Or can, if we can change ourselves.

What Ever Happened to the Book?

For Ted Nelson

I: Centrifugal Force

We live in the age of networks.  Wherever we are, five billion of us are continuously and ubiquitously connected.  That’s everyone over the age of twelve who earns more than about two dollars a day.  The network has us all plugged into it.  Yet this is only the more recent, and more explicit network.  Networks are far older than this most modern incarnation; they are the foundation of how we think.  That’s true at the most concrete level: our nervous system is a vast neural network.  It’s also true at a more abstract level: our thinking is a network of connections and associations.  This is necessarily reflected in the way we write.

I became aware of this connectedness of our thoughts as I read Ted Nelson’s Literary Machines back in 1982.  Perhaps the seminal introduction to hypertext, Literary Machines opens with the basic assertion that all texts are hypertexts.  Like it or not, we implicitly reference other texts with every word we write.  It’s been like this since we learned to write – earlier, really, because we all crib from one another’s spoken thoughts.  It’s the secret to our success.  Nelson wanted to build a system that would make these implicit relationships explicit, exposing all the hidden references, making text-as-hypertext a self-evident truth.  He never got it.  But Nelson did influence a generation of hackersSir Tim Berners-Lee among them – and pushed them toward the implementation of hypertext.

As the universal hypertext system of HTTP and HTML conquered all, hypertext revealed qualities as a medium which had hitherto been unsuspected.  While the great strength of hypertext is its capability for non-linearity – you can depart from the text at any point – no one had reckoned on the force (really, a type of seduction) of those points of departure.  Each link presents an opportunity for exploration, and is, in a very palpable sense, similar to the ringing of a telephone.  Do we answer?  Do we click and follow?  A link is pregnant with meaning, and passing a link by necessarily incurs an opportunity cost.  The linear text is constantly weighed down with a secondary, ‘centrifugal’ force, trying to tear the reader away from the inertia of the text, and on into another space.  The more heavily linked a particular hypertext document is, the greater this pressure.

Consider two different documents that might be served up in a Web browser.  One of them is an article from the New York Times Magazine.  It is long – perhaps ten thousand words – and has, over all of its length, just a handful of links.  Many of these links point back to other New York Times articles.  This article stands alone.  It is a hyperdocument, but it has not embraced the capabilities of the medium.  It has not been seduced.  It is a spinster, of sorts, confident in its purity and haughty in its isolation.  This article is hardly alone.  Nearly all articles I could point to from any professional news source portray the same characteristics of separateness and resistance to connect with the medium they employ.  We all know why this is: there is a financial pressure to keep eyes within the website, because attention has been monetized.  Every link presents an escape route, and a potential loss of income.  Hence, links are kept to a minimum, the losses staunched.  Disappointingly, this has become a model for many other hyperdocuments, even where financial considerations do not conflict with the essential nature of the medium.  The tone has been set.

On the other hand, consider an average article in Wikipedia.  It could be short or long – though only a handful reach ten thousand words – but it will absolutely be sprinkled liberally with links.  Many of these links will point back into Wikipedia, allowing someone to learn the meaning of a term they’re unfamiliar with, or explore some tangential bit of knowledge, but there also will be plenty of links that face out, into the rest of the Web.  This is a hyperdocument which has embraced the nature of medium, which is not afraid of luring readers away under the pressure of linkage.  Wikipedia is a non-profit organization which does not accept advertising and does not monetize attention.  Without this competition of intentions, Wikipedia is itself an example of another variety of purity, the pure expression of the tension between the momentum of the text and centrifugal force of hypertext.

Although commercial hyperdocuments try to fence themselves off from the rest of the Web and the lure of its links, they are never totally immune from its persistent tug.  Just because you have landed somewhere that has a paucity of links doesn’t constrain your ability to move non-linearly.  If nothing else, the browser’s ‘Back’ button continually offers that opportunity, as do all of your bookmarks, the links that lately arrived in email from friends or family or colleagues, even an advertisement proffered by the site.  In its drive to monetize attention, the commercial site must contend with the centrifugal force of its own ads.  In order to be situated within a hypertext environment, a hyperdocument must accept the reality of centrifugal force, even as it tries, ever more cleverly, to resist it.  This is the fundamental tension of all hypertext, but here heightened and amplified because it is resisted and forbidden.  It is a source of rising tension, as the Web-beyond-the-borders becomes ever more comprehensive, meaningful and alluring, while the hyperdocument multiplies its attempts to ensnare, seduce, and retain.

This rising tension has had a consequential impact on the hyperdocument, and, more broadly, on an entire class of documents.  It is most obvious in the way we now absorb news.  Fifteen years ago, we spread out the newspaper for a leisurely read, moving from article to article, generally following the flow of the sections of the newspaper.  Today, we click in, read a bit, go back, click in again, read some more, go back, go somewhere else, click in, read a bit, open an email, click in, read a bit, click forward, and so on.  We allow ourselves to be picked up and carried along by the centrifugal force of the links; with no particular plan in mind – except perhaps to leave ourselves better informed – we flow with the current, floating down a channel which is shaped by the links we encounter along the way.  The newspaper is no longer a coherent experience; it is an assemblage of discrete articles, each of which has no relation to the greater whole.  Our behavior reflects this: most of us already gather our news from a selection of sources (NY Times, BBC, Sydney Morning Herald and Guardian UK in my case), or even from an aggregator such as Google News, which completely abstracts the article content from its newspaper ‘vehicle’.

The newspaper as we have known it has been shredded.  This is not the fault of Google or any other mechanical process, but rather is a natural if unforeseen consequence of the nature of hypertext.  We are the ones who feel the lure of the link; no machine can do that.  Newspapers made the brave decision to situate themselves as islands within a sea of hypertext.  Though they might believe themselves singular, they are not the only islands in the sea.  And we all have boats.  That was bad enough, but the islands themselves are dissolving, leaving nothing behind but metaphorical clots of dirt in murky water.

The lure of the link has a two-fold effect on our behavior.  With its centrifugal force, it is constantly pulling us away from wherever we are.  It also presents us with an opportunity cost.  When we load that 10,000-word essay from the New York Times Magazine into our browser window, we’re making a conscious decision to dedicate time and effort to digesting that article. That’s a big commitment.  If we’re lucky – if there are no emergencies or calls on the mobile or other interruptions – we’ll finish it.  Otherwise, it might stay open in a browser tab for days, silently pleading for completion or closure. Every time we come across something substantial, something lengthy and dense, we run an internal calculation: Do I have time for this?  Does my need and interest outweigh all of the other demands upon my attention?  Can I focus?

In most circumstances, we will decline the challenge.  Whatever it is, it is not salient enough, not alluring enough.  It is not so much that we fear commitment as we feel the pressing weight of our other commitments.  We have other places to spend our limited attention.  This calculation and decision has recently been codified into an acronym: “tl;dr”, for “too long; didn’t read”.  It may be weighty and important and meaningful, but hey, I’ve got to get caught up on my Twitter feed and my blogs.

The emergence of the ‘tl;dr’ phenomenon – which all of us practice without naming it – has led public intellectuals to decry the ever-shortening attention span.  Attention spans are not shortening: ten year-olds will still drop everything to read a nine-hundred page fantasy novel for eight days.   Instead, attention has entered an era of hypercompetitive development.  Twenty years ago only a few media clamored for our attention.  Now, everything from video games to chatroulette to real-time Twitter feeds to text messages demand our attention.  Absence from any one of them comes with a cost, and that burden weighs upon us, subtly but continuously, all figuring into the calculation we make when we decide to go all in or hold back.

The most obvious effect of this hypercompetitive development of attention is the shortening of the text.  Under the tyranny of ‘tl;dr’ three hundred words seems just about the right length: long enough to make a point, but not so long as to invoke any fear of commitment.  More and more, our diet of text comes in these ‘bite-sized’ chunks.  Again, public intellectuals have predicted that this will lead to a dumbing-down of culture, as we lose the depth in everything.  The truth is more complex.  Our diet will continue to consist of a mixture of short and long-form texts.  In truth, we do more reading today than ten years ago, precisely because so much information is being presented to us in short form.  It is digestible.  But it need not be vacuous.  Countless specialty blogs deliver highly-concentrated texts to audiences who need no introduction to the subject material.  They always reference their sources, so that if you want to dive in and read the lengthy source work, you are free to commit.  Here, the phenomenon of ‘tl;dr’ reveals its Achilles’ Heel:  shorter the text, the less invested you are.  You give way more easily to centrifugal force.  You are more likely to navigate away.

There is a cost incurred both for substance and the lack thereof.  Such are the dilemmas of hypertext.

II:  Schwarzschild Radius

It appears inarguable that 2010 is the Year of the Electronic Book.  The stars have finally aligned: there is a critical mass of usable, well-designed technology, broad acceptance (even anticipation) within the public, and an agreement among publishers that revenue models do exist. Amazon and its Kindle (and various software simulators for PCs and smartphones) have proven the existence of a market.  Apple’s recently-released iPad is quintessentially a vehicle for iBooks, its own bookstore-and-book-reader package.  Within a few years, tens of millions of both devices, their clones and close copies will be in the hands of readers throughout the world.  The electronic book is an inevitability.

At this point a question needs to be asked: what’s so electronic about an electronic book?  If I open the Stanza application on my iPhone, and begin reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I am presented with something that looks utterly familiar.  Too familiar.  This is not an electronic book.  This is ‘publishing in light’.  I believe it essential that we discriminate between the two, because the same commercial forces which have driven links from online newspapers and magazines will strip the term ‘electronic book’ of all of its meaning.  An electronic book is not simply a one-for-one translation of a typeset text into UTF-8 characters.  It doesn’t even necessarily begin with that translation.  Instead, first consider the text qua text.  What is it?  Who is it speaking to?  What is it speaking about?

These questions are important – essential – if we want to avoid turning living typeset texts into dead texts published in light.  That act of murder would give us less than we had before, because the published in light texts essentially disavow the medium within which they are situated.  They are less useful than typeset texts, purposely stripped of their utility to be shoehorned into a new medium.  This serves the economic purposes of publishers – interested in maximizing revenue while minimizing costs – but does nothing for the reader.  Nor does it make the electronic book an intrinsically alluring object.  That’s an interesting point to consider, because hypertext is intrinsically alluring.  The reason for the phenomenal, all-encompassing growth of the Web from 1994 through 2000 was because it seduced everyone who has any relationship to the text.  If an electronic book does not offer a new relationship to the text, then what precisely is the point?  Portability?  Ubiquity?  These are nice features, to be sure, but they are not, in themselves, overwhelmingly alluring.  This is the visible difference between a book that has been printed in light and an electronic book: the electronic book offers a qualitatively different experience of the text, one which is impossibly alluring.  At its most obvious level, it is the difference between Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.

Publishers will resist the allure of the electronic book, seeing no reason to change what they do simply to satisfy the demands of a new medium.  But then, we know that monks did not alter the practices within the scriptorium until printed texts had become ubiquitous throughout Europe.  Today’s publishers face a similar obsolescence; unless they adapt their publishing techniques appropriately, they will rapidly be replaced by publishers who choose to embrace the electronic book as a medium,.  For the next five years we will exist in an interregnum, as books published in light make way for true electronic books.

What does the electronic book look like?  Does it differ at all from the hyperdocuments we are familiar with today?  In fifteen years of design experimentation, we’ve learned a lot of ways to present, abstract and play with text.  All of these are immediately applicable to the electronic book.  The electronic book should represent the best of 2010 has to offer and move forward from that point into regions unexplored.  The printed volume took nearly fifty years to evolve into its familiar hand-sized editions.  Before that, the form of the manuscript volume – chained to a desk or placed upon an altar – dictated the size of the book.  We shouldn’t try to constrain our idea of what an electronic book can be based upon what the book has been.  Over the next few years, our innovations will surprise us.  We won’t really know what the electronic book looks like until we’ve had plenty of time to play with them.

The electronic book will not be immune from the centrifugal force which is inherent to the medium.  Every link, every opportunity to depart from the linear inertia of the text, presents the same tension as within any other hyperdocument.  Yet we come to books with a sense of commitment.  We want to finish them.  But what, exactly do we want to finish?  The electronic book must necessarily reveal the interconnectedness of all ideas, of all writings – just as the Web does.  So does an electronic book have a beginning and an end?  Or is it simply a densely clustered set of texts with a well-defined path traversing them?  From the vantage point of 2010 this may seem like a faintly ridiculous question.  I doubt that will be the case in 2020, when perhaps half of our new books are electronic books.  The more that the electronic book yields itself to the medium which constitutes it, the more useful it becomes – and the less like a book.  There is no way that the electronic book can remain apart, indifferent and pure.  It will become a hybrid, fluid thing, without clear beginnings or endings, but rather with a concentration of significance and meaning that rises and falls depending on the needs and intent of the reader.  More of a gradient than a boundary.

It remains unclear how any such construction can constitute an economically successful entity.  Ted Nelson’s “Project Xanadu” anticipated this chaos thirty-five years ago, and provided a solution: ‘transclusion’, which allows hyperdocuments to be referenced and enclosed within other hyperdocuments, ensuring the proper preservation of copyright throughout the hypertext universe.  The Web provides no such mechanism, and although it is possible that one could be hacked into our current models, it seems very unlikely that this will happen.  This is the intuitive fear of the commercial publishers: they see their market dissolving as the sharp edges disappear.  Hence, they tightly grasp their publications and copyrights, publishing in light because it at least presents no slippery slope into financial catastrophe.

We come now to a line which we need to cross very carefully and very consciously, the ‘Schwarzschild Radius’ of electronic books.  (For those not familiar with astrophysics, the Schwarzschild Radius is the boundary to a black hole.  Once you’re on the wrong side you’re doomed to fall all the way in.)  On one side – our side – things look much as they do today.  Books are published in light, the economic model is preserved, and readers enjoy a digital experience which is a facsimile of the physical.  On the other side, electronic books rapidly become almost completely unrecognizable.  It’s not just the financial model which disintegrates.  As everything becomes more densely electrified, more subject to the centrifugal force of the medium, and as we become more familiar with the medium itself, everything begins to deform.  The text, linear for tens or hundreds of thousands of words, fragments into convenient chunks, the shortest of which looks more like a tweet than a paragraph, the longest of which only occasionally runs for more than a thousand words.  Each of these fragments points directly at its antecedent and descendant, or rather at its antecedents and descendants, because it is quite likely that there is more than one of each, simply because there can be more than one of each.  The primacy of the single narrative can not withstand the centrifugal force of the medium, any more than the newspaper or the magazine could.  Texts will present themselves as intense multiplicity, something that is neither a branching narrative nor a straight line, but which possesses elements of both.  This will completely confound our expectations of linearity in the text.

We are today quite used to discontinuous leaps in our texts, though we have not mastered how to maintain our place as we branch ever outward, a fault more of our nervous systems than our browsers.  We have a finite ability to track and backtrack; even with the support of the infinitely patient and infinitely impressionable computer, we lose our way, become distracted, or simply move on.  This is the greatest threat to the book, that it simply expands beyond our ability to focus upon it.  Our consciousness can entertain a universe of thought, but it can not entertain the entire universe at once.  Yet our electronic books, as they thread together and merge within the greater sea of hyperdocuments, will become one with the universe of human thought, eventually becoming inseparable from it.  With no beginning and no ending, just a series of ‘and-and-and’, as the various nodes, strung together by need or desire, assemble upon demand, the entire notion of a book as something discrete, and for that reason, significant, is abandoned, replaced by a unity, a nirvana of the text, where nothing is really separate from anything else.

What ever happened to the book?  It exploded in a paroxysm of joy, dissolved into union with every other human thought, and disappeared forever.  This is not an ending, any more than birth is an ending.  But it is a transition, at least as profound and comprehensive as the invention of moveable type.  It’s our great good luck to live in the midst of this transition, astride the dilemmas of hypertext and the contradictions of the electronic book.  Transitions are chaotic, but they are also fecund.  The seeds of the new grow in the humus of the old.  (And if it all seems sudden and sinister, I’ll simply note that Nietzsche said that new era nearly always looks demonic to the age it obsolesces.)

III:  Finnegans Wiki

So what of Aristotle?  What does this mean for the narrative?  It is easy to conceive of a world where non-fiction texts simply dissolve into the universal sea of texts.  But what about stories?  From time out of mind we have listened to stories told by the campfire.  The Iliad, The Mahabharata, and Beowolf held listeners spellbound as the storyteller wove the tale.  For hours at a time we maintained our attention and focus as the stories that told us who we are and our place in the world traveled down the generations.

Will we lose all of this?  Can narratives stand up against the centrifugal forces of hypertext?  Authors and publishers both seem assured that whatever happens to non-fiction texts, the literary text will remain pure and untouched, even as it becomes a wholly electronic form.  The lure of the literary text is that it takes you on a singular journey, from beginning to end, within the universe of the author’s mind.  There are no distractions, no interruptions, unless the author has expressly put them there in order to add tension to the plot.  A well-written literary text – and even a poorly-written but well-plotted ‘page-turner’ – has the capacity to hold the reader tight within the momentum of linearity. Something is a ‘page-turner’ precisely because its forward momentum effectively blocks the centrifugal force.  We occasionally stay up all night reading a book that we ‘couldn’t put down’, precisely because of this momentum.  It is easy to imagine that every literary text which doesn’t meet this higher standard of seduction will simply fail as an electronic book, unable to counter the overwhelming lure of the medium.

This is something we never encountered with printed books: until the mid-20th century, the only competition for printed books was other printed books.  Now the entire Web – already quite alluring and only growing more so – offers itself up in competition for attention, along with television and films and podcasts and Facebook and Twitter and everything else that has so suddenly become a regular feature of our media diet.  How can any text hope to stand against that?

And yet, some do.  Children unplugged to read each of the increasingly-lengthy Harry Potter novels, as teenagers did for the Twilight series.  Adults regularly buy the latest novel by Dan Brown in numbers that boggle the imagination.  None of this is high literature, but it is literature capable of resisting all our alluring distractions.  This is one path that the book will follow, one way it will stay true to Aristotle and the requirements of the narrative arc.  We will not lose our stories, but it may be that, like blockbuster films, they will become more self-consciously hollow, manipulative, and broad.  That is one direction, a direction literary publishers will pursue, because that’s where the money lies.

There are two other paths open for literature, nearly diametrically opposed.  The first was taken by JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.  Although hugely popular, the three-book series has never been described as a ‘page-turner’, being too digressive and leisurely, yet, for all that, entirely captivating.  Tolkien imagined a new universe – or rather, retrieved one from the fragments of Northern European mythology – and placed his readers squarely within it.  And although readers do finish the book, in a very real sense they do not leave that universe.  The fantasy genre, which Tolkien single-handedly invented with The Lord of the Rings, sells tens of millions of books every year, and the universe of Middle-earth, the archetypal fantasy world, has become the playground for millions who want to explore their own imaginations.  Tolkien’s magnum opus lends itself to hypertext; it is one of the few literary works to come complete with a set of appendices to deepen the experience of the universe of the books.  Online, the fans of Middle-earth have created seemingly endless resources to explore, explain, and maintain the fantasy.  Middle-earth launches off the page, driven by its own centrifugal force, its own drive to unpack itself into a much broader space, both within the reader’s mind and online, in the collective space of all of the work’s readers.  This is another direction for the book.  While every author will not be a Tolkien, a few authors will work hard to create a universe so potent and broad that readers will be tempted to inhabit it.  (Some argue that this is the secret of JK Rowling’s success.)

Finally, there is another path open for the literary text, one which refuses to ignore the medium that constitutes it, which embraces all of the ambiguity and multiplicity and liminality of hypertext.  There have been numerous attempts at ‘hypertext fiction’; nearly all of them have been unreadable failures.  But there is one text which stands apart, both because it anticipated our current predicament, and because it chose to embrace its contradictions and dilemmas.  The book was written and published before the digital computer had been invented, yet even features an innovation which is reminiscent of hypertext.  That work is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and it was Joyce’s deliberate effort to make each word choice a layered exploration of meaning that gives the text such power.  It should be gibberish, but anyone who has read Finnegans Wake knows it is precisely the opposite.  The text is overloaded with meaning, so much so that the mind can’t take it all in.  Hypertext has been a help; there are a few wikis which attempt to make linkages between the text and its various derived meanings (the maunderings of four generations of graduate students and Joycephiles), and it may even be that – in another twenty years or so – the wikis will begin to encompass much of what Joyce meant.  But there is another possibility.  In so fundamentally overloading the text, implicitly creating a link from every single word to something else, Joyce wanted to point to where we were headed.  In this, Finnegans Wake could be seen as a type of science fiction, not a dystopian critique like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, nor the transhumanist apotheosis of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (both near-contemporary works) but rather a text that pointed the way to what all texts would become, performance by example.  As texts become electronic, as they melt and dissolve and  link together densely, meaning multiplies exponentially.  Every sentence, and every word in every sentence, can send you flying in almost any direction.  The tension within this text (there will be only one text) will make reading an exciting, exhilarating, dizzying experience – as it is for those who dedicate themselves to Finnegans Wake.

It has been said that all of human culture could be reconstituted from Finnegans Wake.  As our texts become one, as they become one hyperconnected mass of human expression, that new thing will become synonymous with culture.  Everything will be there, all strung together.  And that’s what happened to the book.