Warning: This one’s not about programming, but it is programming adjacent.
Meditations on Moloch, which I’ve linked to before, is a great article. Alexander finds a few texts and weaves them together, creating an argument that that binds them all. He wraps each text into that braid until an free-standing argument is borne from each of the separate texts.
Chronology is a harsh master. You read three totally unrelated things at the same time and they start seeming like obviously connected blind-man-and-elephant style groping at different aspects of the same fiendishly-hard-to-express point.
A braid of thought — multiple ideas that come together from varied sources that you happened upon almost by chance — follows.
As We May Think is a classic article from 1945, where Vannevar Bush describes a piece of technology he calls the “memex”.
A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
Upon reading this, many humans rejoice, seeing a reflection of the memex in the modern web or in Wikipedia. Bush seemed to have predicted the widespread dissemination of knowledge that’s taken for granted today. But Bret Victor, when reading Bush’s piece, sees failure in the modern web. He writes about this failure in the Web of Alexandria and its follow up.
The web, of course, took a different approach. A million volumes, yes, but our desks remain empty. Instead, when we summon a volume, we are granted a transient and ephemeral peek at its sole instance, out there somewhere in the world, typically secured within a large institution.
This server/client, truth-lives-in-the-cloud, single-point-of-failure model is so engrained in me that when considering a new product, I don’t even evaluate other protocols for data storage and transmission. But there’s so many other templates we can base our information model off of.
Consider email, where every participant keeps a copy of every single dispatch. Consider Git, where each programmer keeps a copy of every single commit. Consider Bittorrent, where each user hosts only the files they care about.
There are also models we haven’t tried. Some datasets are really small, like my contacts. There’s no reason I couldn’t trust all those contacts to 5 or 6 of my close friends. I doubt they’d mind a few hundred extra kilobytes on their drives. Even If I didn’t trust them, I can just heavily encrypt the contacts before I send them over.
It’s made me realize that there’s so many ways we limit ourselves with technology. Modern startups care about very specific things, like streams and attention and keeping your data. Silicon Valley’s conception of what an app can be is very narrow minded, bounded by the dreams of hockey-stick user growth and a high valuation. Paul Ford explains why these types of companies want that type of data in his post about Ashley Madison.
I’ve never built a translucent database-driven system because none of my clients have ever been the least bit interested. They want names, addresses, credit cards, and the like. But they don’t actually need a lot of that data to build a good web service. They need it for potential marketing purposes.
These connections are yet reinforced by Maciej Cegłowski’s Web Design: The First 100 Years. The connections here are left as an exercise for the reader.
If I’m understanding Victor’s argument correctly, it’s the very structure of the web (combined with a thirst for profit, I would probably add) makes these problems arise. We could restructure things and make the web suck less by default. A pit of success of usability and humanity.
To cap off this little mini-web of interconnectivity, last week Mike Caulfield wrote about taking this idea further in Beyond Conversation. He described how links fit into this world: “Links are made by readers as well as writers,” and that was the moment for me that all these threads wound themselves into a much stronger braid.
We have values: links shouldn’t rot; users should have control of their data; media companies should serve users, and not the other way around. These values are incompatible with the Internet in its current conception, and we can’t build the future we want on top of a foundation that won’t support it.
Caulfield’s general solution is for each user to create her own wiki. A personal wiki has never had much appeal for me, since I don’t have a category of stuff I write that I wouldn’t publish here. I don’t really write much privately. However, you could take all the pages I love, all the pages I think are important, all the pages I think are mildly interesting, all the pages I’ve seen, all the conversations I’ve had, and all the pictures I’ve taken and save them on my computer. Make it searchable. Now you’re talking about something I really understand.
Allow me to make links and create associations on top of these documents and this very blog post becomes a lot easier to research and write. Chat logs that have links in them should point to the pages that they link to; those pages should link back to the chat logs. What if there were two documents I loved that both linked to a third document on the web? I’d probably want to read that. What if documents, web pages, and images could cluster around a physical location? I’d probably want to know when I’m near that spot.
It’s hard to solve the link rot problem in the general case, without downloading the whole Internet. Fortunately, I don’t care about most of the Internet; I only care about the stuff I’ve read. We have so much cheap storage available now that it’s almost criminal not to save all the web pages you look at. But we don’t keep them so someone can sell ads to you more easily; we keep them so you can easily find the stuff you liked and cared about and thought about.
The idea of the “outboard brain” is a technique for using computers for what computers are good at, and freeing up your brain for what brains are good at. This tool is an outboard brain for idea generation. (“An enlarged intimate supplement to his memory”!) I think I remember all of the various articles and writings that lead to this blog post, but what if I haven’t? Maybe I’ve forgotten a thread that would pull this braid in a totally different direction. (Oh, yeah. I just remembered: watching the BBC’s Connections definitely put me in the mood to start thinking about how all these things are related. - ed.) I’m really bad at remembering stuff, and I’d love to relegate that responsibility to a tool that’s great at it.
Computers are for people. Let’s make them so.