Dense and Thick

I: The Golden Age

In October of 1993 I bought myself a used SPARCstation.  I’d just come off of a consulting gig at Apple, and, flush with cash, wanted to learn UNIX systems administration.  I also had some ideas about coding networking protocols for shared virtual worlds.  Soon after I got the SparcStation installed in my lounge room – complete with its thirty-kilo monster of a monitor – I grabbed a modem, connected it to the RS-232 port, configured SLIP, and dialed out onto the Internet.  Once online I used FTP, logged into SUNSITE and downloaded the newly released NSCA Mosaic, a graphical browser for the World Wide Web.

I’d first seen Mosaic running on an SGI workstation at the 1993 SIGGRAPH conference.  I knew what hypertext was – I’d built a MacOS-based hypertext system back in 1986 – so I could see what Mosaic was doing, but there wasn’t much there.  Not enough content to make it really interesting.  The same problem that had bedeviled all hypertext systems since Douglas Englebart’s first demo, back in 1968.  Without sufficient content, hypertext systems are fundamentally uninteresting.  Even Hypercard, Apple’s early experiment in Hypertext, never really moved beyond the toy stage.  To make hypertext interesting, it must be broadly connected – beyond a document, beyond a hard drive.  Either everything is connected, or everything is useless.

In the three months between my first click on NCSA Mosaic and when I fired it up in my lounge room, a lot of people had come to the Web party.  The master list of Websites – maintained by CERN, the birthplace of the Web – kept growing.  Over the course of the last week of October 1993, I visited every single one of those Websites.  Then I was done.  I had surfed the entire World Wide Web.  I was even able to keep up, as new sites were added.

This gives you a sense of the size of the Web universe in those very early days.  Before the explosive ‘inflation’ of 1994 and 1995, the Web was a tiny, tidy place filled mostly with academic websites.  Yet even so, the Web had the capacity to suck you in.  I’d find something that interested me – astronomy, perhaps, or philosophy – and with a click-click-click find myself deep within something that spoke to me directly.  This, I believe, is the core of the Web experience, an experience that we’re so many years away from we tend to overlook it.  At its essence, the Web is personally seductive.

I realized the universal truth of this statement on a cold night in early 1994, when I dragged my SPARCstation and boat-anchor monitor across town to a house party.  This party, a monthly event known as Anon Salon, was notorious for attracting the more intellectual and artistic crowd in San Francisco.  People would come to perform, create, demonstrate, and spectate.  I decided I would show these people this new-fangled thing I’d become obsessed with.  So, that evening, as front the door opened, and another person entered, I’d sidle along side them, and ask them, “So, what are you interested in?”  They’d mention their current hobby – gardening or vaudeville or whatever it might be – and I’d use the brand-new Yahoo! category index to look up a web page on the subject.  They’d be delighted, and begin to explore.  At no point did I say, “This is the World Wide Web.”  Nor did I use the word ‘hypertext’.  I let the intrinsic seductiveness of the Web snare them, one by one.

Of course, a few years later, San Francisco became the epicenter of the Web revolution.  Was I responsible for that?  I’d like to think so, but I reckon San Francisco was a bit of a nexus.  I wasn’t the only one exploring the Web.  That night at Anon Salon I met Jonathan Steuer, who walked on up and said, “Mosaic, hmm?  How about you type in ‘www.hotwired.com’?”  Steuer was part of the crew at work, just few blocks away, bringing WIRED magazine online.  Everyone working on the Web shared the same fervor – an almost evangelical belief that the Web changes everything.  I didn’t have to tell Steuer, and he didn’t have to tell me.  We knew.  And we knew if we simply shared the Web – not the technology, not its potential, but its real, seductive human face, we’d be done.

That’s pretty much how it worked out: the Web exploded from the second half of 1994, because it appeared to every single person who encountered it as the object of their desire.  It was, and is, all things to all people.  This makes it the perfect love machine – nothing can confirm your prejudices better than the Web.  It also makes the Web a very pretty hate machine.  It is the reflector and amplifier of all things human.  We were completely unprepared, and for that reason the Web has utterly overwhelmed us.  There is no going back.  If every website suddenly crashed, we would find another way to recreate the universal infinite hypertextual connection.

In the process of overwhelming us – in fact, part of the process itself – the Web has hoovered up the entire space of human culture; anything that can be digitized has been sucked into the Web.  Of course, this presents all sorts of thorny problems for individuals who claim copyright over cultural products, but they are, in essence swimming against the tide.  The rest, everything that marks us as definably human, everything that is artifice, has, over the last fifteen years, been neatly and completely sucked into the space of infinite connection.  The project is not complete – it will never be complete – but it is substantially underway, and more will simply be more: it will not represent a qualitative difference.  We have already arrived at a new space, where human culture is now instantaneously and pervasively accessible to any of the four and a half billion network-connected individuals on the planet.

This, then, is the Golden Age, a time of rosy dawns and bright beginnings, when everything seems possible.  But this age is drawing to a close.  Two recent developments will, in retrospect, be seen as the beginning of the end.  The first of these is the transformation of the oldest medium into the newest.  The book is coextensive with history, with the largest part of what we regard as human culture.  Until five hundred and fifty years ago, books were handwritten, rare and precious.  Moveable type made books a mass medium, and lit the spark of modernity.  But the book, unlike nearly every other medium, has resisted its own digitization.  This year the defenses of the book have been breached, and ones and zeroes are rushing in.  Over the next decade perhaps half or more of all books will ephemeralize,  disappearing into the ether, never to return to physical form.  That will seal the transformation of the human cultural project.

On the other hand, the arrival of the Web-as-appliance means it is now leaving the rarefied space of computers and mobiles-as-computers, and will now be seen as something as mundane as a book or a dinner plate.  Apple’s iPad is the first device of an entirely new class which treat the Web as an appliance, as something that is pervasively just there when needed, and put down when not.  The genius of Apple’s design is its extreme simplicity – too simple, I might add, for most of us.  It presents the Web as a surface, nothing more.  iPad is a portal into the human universe, stripped of everything that is a computer.  It is emphatically not a computer.  Now, we can discuss the relative merits of Apple’s design decisions – and we will, for some years to come.  But the basic strength of the iPad’s simplistic design will influence what the Web is about to become.

eBooks and the iPad bookend the Golden Age; together they represent the complete translation of the human universe into a universally and ubiquitously accessible form.  But the human universe is not the whole universe.  We tend to forget this as we stare into the alluring and seductive navel of our ever-more-present culture.  But the real world remains, and loses none of its importance even as the flashing lights of culture grow brighter and more hypnotic.

II: The Silver Age

Human beings have the peculiar capability to endow material objects with inner meaning.  We know this as one of the basic characteristics of humanness.  From the time a child anthropomorphizes a favorite doll or wooden train, we imbue the material world with the attributes of our own consciousness.  Soon enough we learn to discriminate between the animate and the inanimate, but we never surrender our continual attribution of meaning to the material world.  Things are never purely what they appear to be, instead we overlay our own meanings and associations onto every object in the world.  This process actually provides the mechanism by which the world comes to make sense to us.  If we could not overload the material world with meaning, we could not come to know it or manipulate it.

This layer of meaning is most often implicit; only in works of ‘art’ does the meaning crowd into the definition of the material itself.  But none of us can look at a thing and be completely innocent about its hidden meanings.  They constantly nip at the edges of our consciousness, unless, Zen-like, we practice an ‘emptiness of mind’, and attempt to encounter the material in an immediate, moment-to-moment awareness.  For those of us not in such a blessed state, the material world has a subconscious component.  Everything means something.  Everything is surrounded by a penumbra of meaning, associations that may be universal (an apple can invoke the Fall of Man, or Newton’s Laws of Gravity), or something entirely specific.  Through all of human history the interiority of the material world has remained hidden except in such moments as when we choose to allude to it.  It is always there, but rarely spoken of.  That is about to change.

One of the most significant, yet least understood implications of a planet where everyone is ubiquitously connected to the network via the mobile is that it brings the depth of the network ubiquitously to the individual.  You are – amazingly – connected to the other five billion individuals who carry mobiles, and you are also connected to everything that’s been hoovered into cyberspace over the past fifteen years.  That connection did not become entirely apparent until last year, as the first mobiles appeared with both GPS and compass capabilities.  Suddenly, it became possible to point through the camera on a mobile, and – using the location and orientation of the device – search through the network.

This technique has become known as ‘Augmented Reality’, or AR, and it promises to be one of the great growth areas in technology over the next decade – but perhaps not the reasons the leaders of the field currently envision.  The strength of AR is not what it brings to the big things – the buildings and monuments – but what it brings to the smallest and most common objects in the material world.  At present, AR is flashy, but not at all useful.  It’s about to make a transition.  It will no longer be spectacular, but we’ll wonder how we lived without it.

Let me illustrate the nature of this transition, drawn from examples in my own experience.  These three ‘thought experiments’ represent the different axes of a world which is making the transition between implicit meaning, and a world where the implicit has become explicit.  Once meaning is exposed, it can be manipulated: this is something unexpected, and unexpectedly powerful.

Example One:  The Book

Last year I read a wonderful book.  The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross, is a thorough and thoroughly enjoyable history of music in the 20th century.  By music, Ross means what we would commonly call ‘classical’ music, even though the Classical period ended some two hundred years ago.  That’s not as stuffy as it sounds: George Gershwin and Aaron Copland are both major figures in 20th century music, though their works have always been classed as ‘popular’.

Ross’ book has a companion website, therestisnoise.com, which offers up a chapter-by-chapter samples of the composers whose lives and exploits he explores in the text.  When I wrote The Playful World, back in 2000, and built a companion website to augment the text, it was considered quite revolutionary, but this is all pretty much standard for better books these days.

As I said earlier, the book is on the edge of ephemeralization.  It wants to be digitized, because it has always been a message, encoded.  When I dreamed up this example, I thought it would be very straightforward: you’d walk into your bookstore, point your smartphone at a book that caught your fancy, and instantly you’d find out what your friends thought of it, what their friends thought of it, what the reviewers thought of it, and so on.  You’d be able to make a well-briefed decision on whether this book is the right book for you.  Simple.  In fact, Google Labs has already shown a basic example of this kind of technology in a demo running on Android.

But that’s not what a book is anymore.  Yes, it’s good to know whether you should buy this or that book, but a book represents an investment of time, and an opportunity to open a window into an experience of knowledge in depth.  It’s this intension that the device has to support.  As the book slowly dissolves into the sea of fragmentary but infinitely threaded nodes of hypertext which are the human database, the device becomes the focal point, the lens through which the whole book appears, and appears to assemble itself.

This means that the book will vary, person to person.  My fragments will be sewn together with my threads, yours with your threads.  The idea of unitary authorship – persistent over the last five hundred years – won’t be overwhelmed by the collective efforts of crowdsourcing, but rather by the corrosive effects of hyperconnection.  The more connected everything becomes, the less likely we are prone to linearity.  We already see this in the ‘tl;dr’ phenomenon, where any text over 300 words becomes too onerous to read.

Somehow, whatever the book is becoming must balance the need for clarity and linearity against the centrifugal and connective forces of hypertext.  The book is about to be subsumed within the network; the device is the place where it will reassemble into meaning.  The implicit meaning of the book – that it has a linear story to tell, from first page to last – must be made explicit if the idea and function of the book is to survive.

The book stands on the threshold, between the worlds of the physical and the immaterial.  As such it is pulled in both directions at once.  It wants to be liberated, but will be utterly destroyed in that liberation.  The next example is something far more physical, and, consequentially, far more important.

Example Two: Beef Mince

I go into the supermarket to buy myself the makings for a nice Spaghetti Bolognese.  Among the ingredients I’ll need some beef mince (ground beef for those of you in the United States) to put into the sauce.  Today I’d walk up to the meat case and throw a random package into my shopping trolley.  If I were being thoughtful, I’d probably read the label carefully, to make sure the expiration date wasn’t too close.  I might also check to see how much fat is in the mince.  Or perhaps it’s grass-fed beef.  Or organically grown.  All of this information is offered up on the label placed on the package.  And all of it is so carefully filtered that it means nearly nothing at all.

What I want to do is hold my device up to the package, and have it do the hard work.  Go through the supermarket to the distributor, through the distributor to the abattoir,  through the abattoir to farmer, through the farmer to the animal itself.  Was it healthy?  Where was it slaughtered?  Is that abattoir healthy?  (This isn’t much of an issue in Australia, or New Zealand. but in America things are quite a bit different.)  Was it fed lots of antibiotics in a feedlot?  Which ones?

And – perhaps most importantly – what about the carbon footprint of this little package of mince?  How much CO2 was created?  How much methane?  How much water was consumed?  These questions, at the very core of 21st century life, need to be answered on demand if we can be expected to adjust our lifestyles so as minimize our footprint on the planet.  Without a system like this, it is essentially impossible.  With such a system it can potentially become easy.  As I walk through the market, popping items into my trolley, my device can record and keep me informed of a careful balance between my carbon budget and my financial budget, helping me to optimize both – all while referencing my purchases against sales on offer in other supermarkets.

Finally, what about the caloric count of that packet of mince?  And its nutritional value?  I should be tracking those as well – or rather, my device should – so that I can maintain optimal health.  I should know whether I’m getting too much fat, or insufficient fiber, or – as I’ll discuss in a moment – too much sodium.  Something should be keeping track of this.  Something that can watch and record and use that recording to build a model.  Something that can connect the real world of objects with the intangible set of goals that I have for myself.  Something that could do that would be exceptionally desirable.  It would be as seductive as the Web.

The more information we have at hand, the better the decisions we can make for ourselves.  It’s an idea so simple it is completely self-evident.  We won’t need to convince anyone of this, to sell them on the truth of it.  They will simply ask, ‘When can I have it?’  But there’s more.  My final example touches on something so personal and so vital that it may become the center of the drive to make the implicit explicit.

Example Three:  Medicine

Four months ago, I contracted adult-onset chickenpox.  Which was just about as much fun as that sounds.  (And yes, since you’ve asked, I did have it as a child.  Go figure.)  Every few days I had doctors come by to make sure that I was surviving the viral infection.  While the first doctor didn’t touch me at all – understandably – the second doctor took my blood pressure, and showed me the reading – 160/120, a bit too uncomfortably high.  He suggested that I go on Micardis, a common medication for hypertension.  I was too sick to argue, so I dutifully filled the prescription and began taking it that evening.

Whenever I begin taking a new medication – and I’m getting to an age where that happens with annoying regularity – I am always somewhat worried.  Medicines are never perfect; they work for a certain large cohort of people.  For others they do nothing at all.  For a far smaller number, they might be toxic.  So, when I popped that pill in my mouth I did wonder whether that medicine might turn out to be poison.

The doctor who came to see me was not my regular GP.  He did not know my medical history.  He did not know the history of the other medications I had been taking.  All he knew was what he saw when he walked into my flat.  That could be a recipe for disaster.  Not in this situation – I was fine, and have continued to take Micardis – but there are numerous other situations where medications can interact within the patient to cause all sorts of problems.  This is well known.  It is one of the drawbacks of modern pharmaceutical medicine.

This situation is only going to grow more intense as the population ages and pharmaceutical management of the chronic diseases of aging becomes ever-more-pervasive.  Right now we rely on doctors and pharmacists to keep their own models of our pharmaceutical consumption.  But that’s a model which is precisely backward.  While it is very important for them to know what drugs we’re on, it is even more important for us to be able to manage that knowledge for ourselves.  I need to be able to point my device at any medicine, and know, more or less immediately, whether that medicine will cure me or kill me.

Over the next decade the cost of sequencing an entire human genome will fall from the roughly $5000 it costs today to less than $500.  Well within the range of your typical medical test.  Once that happens, will be possible to compile epidemiological data which compares various genomes to the effectiveness of drugs.  Initial research in this area has already shown that some drugs are more effective among certain ethnic groups than others.  Our genome holds the clue to why drugs work, why they occasionally don’t, and why they sometimes kill.

The device is the connection point between our genome – which lives, most likely, somewhere out on a medical cloud – and the medicines we take, and the diagnoses we receive.  It is our interface to ourselves, and in that becomes an object of almost unimaginable importance.  In twenty years time, when I am ‘officially’ a senior, I will have a handheld device – an augmented reality – whose sole intent is to keep me as healthy as possible for as long as possible.  It will encompass everything known about me medically, and will integrate with everything I capture about my own life – my activities, my diet, my relationships.  It will work with me to optimize everything we know about health (which is bound to be quite a bit by 2030) so that I can live a long, rich, healthy life.

These three examples represent the promise bound up in the collision between the handheld device and the ubiquitous, knowledge-filled network.  There are already bits and pieces of much of this in place.  It is a revolution waiting to happen.  That revolution will change everything about the Web, and why we use it, how, and who profits from it.

III:  The Bronze Age

By now, some of you sitting here listening to me this afternoon are probably thinking, “That’s the Semantic Web.  He’s talking about the Semantic Web.”  And you’re right, I am talking about the Semantic Web.  But the Semantic Web as proposed and endlessly promoted by Sir Tim Berners-Lee was always about pushing, pushing, pushing to get the machines talking to one another.  What I have demonstrated in these three thought experiments is a world that is intrinsically so alluring and so seductive that it will pull us all into it.  That’s the vital difference which made the Web such a success in 1994 and 1995.  And it’s about to happen once again.

But we are starting from near zero.  Right now, I should be able to hold up my device, wave it around my flat, and have an interaction with the device about what’s in my flat.  I can not.  I can not Google for the contents of my home.  There is no place to put that information, even if I had it, nor systems to put that information to work.  It is exactly like the Web in 1993: the lights on, but nobody home.  We have the capability to conceive of the world-as-a-database.  We have the capability to create that database.  We have systems which can put that database to work.  And we have the need to overlay the real world with that rich set of data.

We have the capability, we have the systems, we have the need.  But we have precious little connecting these three.  These are not businesses that exist yet.  We have not brought the real world into our conception of the Web.  That will have to change.  As it changes, the door opens to a crescendo of innovations that will make the Web revolution look puny in comparison.  There is an opportunity here to create industries bigger than Google, bigger than Microsoft, bigger than Apple.  As individuals and organizations figure out how to inject data into the real world, entirely new industry segments will be born.

I can not tell you exactly what will fire off this next revolution.  I doubt it will be the integration of Wikipedia with a mobile camera.  It will be something much more immediate.  Much more concrete.  Much more useful.  Perhaps something concerned with health.  Or with managing your carbon footprint.  Those two seem the most obvious to me.  But the real revolution will probably come from a direction no one expects.  It’s nearly always that way.

There no reason to think that Wellington couldn’t be the epicenter of that revolution.  There was nothing special about San Francisco back in 1993 and 1994.  But, once things got started, they created a ‘virtuous cycle’ of feedbacks that brought the best-and-brightest to San Francisco to build out the Web.  Wellington is doing that to the film industry; why shouldn’t it stretch out a bit, and invent this next generation ‘web-of things’?

This is where the future is entirely in your hands.  You can leave here today promising yourself to invent the future, to write meaning explicitly onto the real world, to transform our relationship to the universe of objects.  Or, you can wait for someone else to come along and do it.  Because someone inevitably will.  Every day, the pressure grows.  The real world is clamoring to crawl into cyberspace.  You can open the door.