The path to www and onwards – viewed through a personal lens

October 10, 2009

This is a draft of an essay written for a course I’m taking. Feedback is welcome.

Faced with new technology, people often try to figure out how the technology will influence our lives. Sometimes they get it right, often completely wrong. In 1945, Vannevar Bush published “As We May Think”, an article describing how technology could enhance our mental powers. In this short essay, I will try to look at his and others’ predictions while keeping in mind how technology has influenced my life.

A personal view

I was born in 1971. I probably spent all of the 70s without seeing a single computer. My first attempts at writing texts were done by hand. We had TVs and cassette players and landline telephones, no broadband, DVDs or cellphones.

In 1982, the first computer entered our house. It was a ZX81, with a RAM of 1 Kb. We started programming (in Basic) and even played small games. Soon, we expanded to a ZX Spectrum, with a RAM of 16 Kb – expandable to a whopping 64 Kb. In the computer magazines we bought, there were pages full of program listings for games that we could type in on our own and then save to the audio cassette player. Once, many hours of work were lost as the power in our house went off just as we were saving our program – on top of the previous version.

In high school, I had a short course in “IT”, mostly consisting of programming in Pascal. And then, finally, in 1990, I entered university. In the fall of 1990, I took all courses from a distance. All communication was done by post. I remember the handwritten letters from the lecturer. Then I took a course in IT in the spring of 1991, which introduced a whole new world. I got an email account. I got access to newsgroups. I got to learn object-oriented programming. I got access to a computer lab.

One of the newsgroups, rec.arts.movies, saw the start of a “movie database”. You could download several lists that were updated regularly, some with lists of actors in different movies, some with directors – and these lists could then be worked on by special software. You could add information to the lists by emailing the maintainer of the specific list. Thus, Web 2.0 was already beginning, just as Web 1.0 was getting started. (Today, the database is known as The Internet Movie Database.)

The technology influenced many aspects of my studies. When my brother finished his master’s degree ten years earlier, he typed all of it on a typewriter. I wrote everything in LaTeX, writing a little here, a little there, getting input from my adviser as I went along, much like the process described in the fictional part of “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a single day’s work without a computer. My students hand in their papers online, I transfer them to my digital reader and give feedback without printing a single page. I prepare my lectures using the computer, look up information as I need it. When I write research articles, I can find most of the relevant previous research online without leaving my office. When I wonder what’s for dinner in the cafeteria downstairs, I even look that up online. And I’ve just started to take advantage of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to get input from my friends and colleagues.

Old predictions revisited

Looking at my personal experiences and comparing it to the predictions made for instance by Bush, I am both impressed by his insight and struck by how much he is restricted by the technology he knew. Most importantly, in his article the store of all the knowledge was the user’s desk – he could imagine no way of sharing knowledge except by moving it from one desk to another. The user’s part in improving knowledge was by writing articles or books or by lending parts of the Memex to other individuals. The “memory” was based on photography, not electronic devices, and the viewing was done by optical means. On the other hand, it is strange to see the idea of hypertext so clearly formulated right after the war.

While I wrote my masters thesis in a way resembling the text-juggling of Augmenting Human Intellect, I ended up with a traditional thesis with a beginning and an end, in printed form (although I later made a html version available as well). Most people are still not used to reading textbooks and theses in the way imagined by Engelbart and other authors, clicking on words to go in other directions, for instance. I find reading a “book” such as The Electronic Labyrinth as frustrating as I find walking in a physical labyrinth apparently without end.

Newer predictions

Still, we are in the early days of sharing information, and Tim Berners-Lee and his co-authors’ story of how medical appointments are negotiated automatically (in The Semantic Web) is still just a dream. Some services (for instance weather forecasters yr.no) have made their data available, but we are at an early stage of creating the wealth of applications that could use such data.

Currently, I’m trying to create an encyclopedia for teacher education (called eleviki), modeled on Wikipedia. This evokes the words of Vannevar Bush: “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.” But Wikipedia and my eleviki are still based on humans filling it with contents. In future, this process will surely be augmented with information automatically collected from various other sources, for instance with the help of XML. For instance, different sites publishing ideas for teaching could use common tags to make them more easily shareable.

Postscript

As this essay has partly taken the form of describing my personal journey, I cannot end without mentioning my small “claim to fame”. When Jimmy Wales in 2001 needed a logo for Wikipedia, the new encyclopedia he had started, he chose a logo which I had submitted the year before for a Nupedia logo competition. He forgot to tell me, so I didn’t find out until I absent-mindedly googled my own name as I was killing time in an internet café in Greece this spring. The logo has evolved a lot since then, but mine will always be the first Wikipedia logo…

My logo (My logo)

The second logo (The second logo)

The present logo (The present logo)

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The Electronic Labyrinth

October 9, 2009

The Electronic Labyrinth by Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin and Robin Parmar examine how hypertext changes the way we look at texts. For centuries, we have mostly looked at literary texts that have a well-defined start and a well-defined ending, and a well-defined path from beginning to end. (While for other kinds of texts, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias etc, we have been used to find our own path.) The “labyrinth” consists of many separate pages, each with many links onwards.

In my context, this lead to two problems. When given the “task” of reading a certain text, I would like to know that I’ve read it all. Secondly, I wanted a way of transferring the text to my Sony Reader. Happily, I found the solution: I used Adobe’s software to convert the website into a single pdf, which could then be loaded onto my reader. And while I could follow links easily within the pdf, my Sony reader would keep track of which pages I have followed and which I haven’t, making it possible to read it all.

At first I thought that the text’s non-linearity would make it impossible for me to get the sense that I had read it all, but now I see that linearity has nothing to do with it, and this is also interesting.

By the way, the “labyrinth” is an early text, long before sites such as “Wikipedia” took off, but it will still be an interesting read.

The Semantic Web

October 9, 2009

Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler and Ora Lassila: The Semantic Web

As I’m reading these articles, I do start to see that there is a whole world out there that I didn’t think of… Of course, I have been aware that there is a lot of data in usable format available, for instance yr.no makes available weather data that you can take advantage of in your own applications. Traffic data from the public transport system is also available.

But what exists in my context? In mathematics education, what kinds of resources are available? For instance, a long-standing dream would be to be able to search for teaching ideas for teaching symmetry in 3rd grade mathematics classrooms with no PCs which activates the pupils. Today, searching for such a thing involves sifting through sites with no educational content and lots of sites with little of interest. How far has “the semantic web” got in this area? And what can I do?

So again: I do see the point of picking these articles as the reading material in the start of the “Fragments” course…

XML and the Second-Generation Web

October 9, 2009

So far in the reading list of the course, there’s been fairly old documents predicting a future that is now already long gone. As I move towards the end of this first reading list, however, I get to predictions still for the future. XML and the Second-Generation Web by Jon Bosak and Tim Bray is such an article.

The sad fact is that I haven’t kept up to pace on the development of website languages since HTML. I do see the practical advantages of a language such as XML (marking items on a page not only with how it should look but with what it contains), but I must admit that I don’t even know if it is now widespread everywhere on the net or if the predictions are still that.

Of course, I can’t write a sentence like the last one in a blog without instantly trying to find out. A quick look in XML’s Wikipedia article makes me aware that familiar formats such as RSS and Atom are themselves XML-based. Which means that my own blogs have been producing XML-based stuff for years without me even knowing.

Yes, I have a steep learning curve ahead of me here…

Internet Pioneers

October 8, 2009

A website called Internet Pioneers gives some biographical detail and more flesh on the bone of the development of the internet and the world wide web. It is interesting to see how these people have had an immense impact on how the world operates today, even though most of them had more limited ambitions. Which is perhaps as good a reason for funding for R&D projects as any…

Tim Berners-Lee/Robert Cailliau email

October 7, 2009

Next on the reading list was Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau’s email of November 12th, 1990, in which they proposed setting up a HyperText Project. The subject field of the email was “WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project”. In this, they made parts of Vannevar Bush’s ideas become reality, in that it would be possible to “browse” information using a “browser”, following “links” from one document to another – or even from one server to another.

Again, the braveness of the ideas is striking. They did see that the ideas might change the way information is viewed throughout the world.

I can’t help thinking of my personal biography when reading this. In November 1990 I was preparing to move to Oslo to study at the university. I had been playing with different computers for eight years, but I had never been on the Internet. In January of 1991, I met Internet for the first time – in the form of email and of Usenet “newslists”. Apparently, I didn’t get to see a browser until 1993, when the Mosaic browser was developed. Anyway, that was the first browser that I remember.

It is fun to have a look at the Internet Movie Database, for instance, and remember that this database was at first distributed fully by email and ftp. If you had additions to it, you could send an email with specific “commands” to the database server. The idea of a browser and hypertext links has clearly made it more user-friendly… 🙂

Augmenting Human Intellect and Machine of the Year

October 6, 2009

The second article on our reading list was D. C. Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect from Stanford Research Institute 1962. This is a fascinating paper in which the author tries to argue that the new technology may revolutionize the way humans do their work. It contains both a framework to analyze this development and a more science fiction-like section in which possible future uses of the technology is included. (I thought I was doing something “risky” by including a fictionous “vision” in my application for the professional doctorate program, but it was not such a new idea…)

Much of what is described is standard practice today – for instance I write papers much in the way described there; by first writing a very rough first draft and thereafter moving everything around and editing until it’s okay. But in other cases the developments have gone in other directions completely. Of course, neither spam nor porn are discussed in this paper – both are important industries today. Even more significantly: the social aspect is barely touched upon.

The next article was the cover story of TIME Magazine in January 1983, the first time humankind lost the TIME Man of the Year prize: 1982 Machine of the Year. This is also an interesting read. Of course, it’s a bit closer to our time – 1982 was actually the year when I first worked on a computer (at age 10). But the amount of explaining that the writers of the article felt necessary is strange today.

I’m beginning to see where the course creators are going with this. By making us read these old articles on the developments in technology of the 20th century, we are reminded of how new the technologies are, and of how high hopes people once had in them. Of course, these hopes have partly come true, but there are also lots of potential still to be explored – and new technologies are coming every week. We are reminded to look back at life 50 years ago to see what technology has done so far, and to look forward to life 50 years from now to see what can be.

As We May Think

October 5, 2009

The first article I’ve read in this course is Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” (Atlantic Monthly 1945).

“As We May Think” is a fascinating article, trying to figure out how technology may in future (as seen from the point of view of 1945) may help in the organisation of knowledge. The direction described is often very recognizable, even though Mr. Bush was obviously limited by the technologies he had knowledge of.

Particularly interesting, I think, was the “Memex” machine. This was an idea of an office desk in which was organized not only encyclopaedias and newspapers, but also personal notes, and they were connected in ways which made it possible to find them easily. However, from the point of view of the present “Web 2.0” phase of development, it is interesting to see that the information could be inserted by buying centrally produced information, by inserting your own information or by getting information from someone you knew. The idea of the single person contributing to the mass of knowledge available was not there (except, of course, by contributing to the encyclopaedias or newspapers).

The way in which we can all “instantly” contribute to the information structures was probably almost unthinkable at that time.

(This blog post is also posted in Teacher Educator Bjørn.)

Fragments course

September 17, 2009

This blog is created as part of taking a course at Oslo University College called Fragments. It will be used for the duration of the course to describe my progress in the course.

I also have other – permanent – blogs, such as Teacher Educator Bjørn.