In May 1994 I attended WWW’94, the inaugural World Wide Web conference at CERN, outside Geneva.
I reported on the conference on Lynx, the online magazine established by Tony Jewell and Bernard Jauregui at Cityscape, their ground-breaking ISP. Lynx, and Cityscape, are long gone but I’ve found the articles cached on the Wayback Machine and here they are:
To launch ‘The Lynx’ magazine, the latest CityScape/Global On-Line project, our first issue is a special on the WWW ’94 conference in CERN.
At no expense spared we have sent Bill Thompson, our roving reporter, to sunny Switzerland to give us the latest, up to date, inside views of what is happening at this important event.
The Lynx is an attempt to see if a real magazine can be published on the World Wide Web on a regular basis. The magazine will cover the more alternative sides of the Web and the Internet, and we hope to be amusing, informative, and slightly anarchic …
We need your articles and columns to make sure this magazine works, and in return we will carry full resumes and CVs of anyone that works with us. The magazine is run from the Global On-Line server in Cambridge, UK, one of Europes largest commercial servers, with nearly a quarter of a million access a month, so we hope to get considerable publicity for this venture.
As promised here’s the text of the talk I gave at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee. It is part of the Oxygen Lecture Series, organised by the University of East Anglia to address subjects – from digital technology to the environment – of critical contemporary relevance to society at venues in London and Scotland.
Earlier today I took part in a panel discussion at Watford Palace Theatre – where they serve illy coffee, I’m pleased to report – as part of the Ideal World season for which the theatre worked with CRASSH – the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. The theatre commissioned three plays on technology and its impact on human life and we were there to discuss some of the wider implications.
You can still catch the plays – Perfect Match, Override and Virgin.
I got there in time to watch the afternoon performance of Perfect Match, the plot of which hinges on the idea that an algorithm with full access to your entire social media profile could find your ‘perfect match’ and that this could be life-changing. I don’t want to review the play here but I will note that throughout the play there was no real questioning of the algorithm itself, perhaps making it more of a plot device than a fully-rounded examination of contemporary technology – an iGuffin, perhaps.
[an iGuffin, like a MacGuffin, is an object of power or desire used to propel a plot which in the end turns out to be either unimportant or simply an empty vessel. An iGuffin is a technology that serves as a MacGuffin]
Out of Body
As for the panel, the question posed was whether we are having ‘a collective out of body experience’ and we were asked to consider the role of the technologies as pulling us out of the moment and ask if it is important to live life increasingly in an embodied state.
Using the theatrical performance as the analogy, we ask if there needs to be co-presence to full engage with others, or in fact if it is possible to have social interactions with others in an increasingly disembodied way.
The organiser was Dr Kathleen Richardson and she asked specifically what we each felt the consequences are for these technologies/robots that seem to be pulling us out of the moment and locality and into the virtual world and encouraging us to have more interactions with machines.
These are my notes, which I suspect betray more about my views of those who believe that consciousness and the body can somehow be separated than the use of technology in theatre. I’ve tidied them up a little but as you read them you’ll get the right authorial tone of you imagine me coffee fuelled in an upstairs room behind a long table trying to be entertaining at 4pm on a wet Friday in Watford.
I spent most of today in the company of a group of fascinating people who work at the NHK http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, my hosts while I’m here in Tokyo. They had organised a half-day symposium on the future of broadcast archives, and especially on what we do with the written material that complements and explains the television and radio programmes that organisations like the BBC and NHK spend most of their effort making and broadcasting.
I had a sneak preview yesterday, and Jun Ibuki told me that the system was based around associative search rather than dumb keyword matching or a pre-defined data model. When he did so I thought of an old teacher of mine, Karen Sparck-Jones http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Sp%C3%A4rck_Jones who was one of the foremost experts in natural language processing. Karen sadly died in 2007, but I remember her and her husband Roger Needham http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Needham fondly, as I did the Diploma in Computer Science at Cambridge and was taught by both of them.
Today at the symposium I had a chance to talk to Professor Akihiko Takano from NII, who developed the system, and we discussed the technology behind Webcat Plus http://webcatplus.nii.ac.jp/ and the NHK system, and I thought the same thing.
And then, this evening over supper, I mentioned that my first degree was in philosophy and Jun and Akihiko and I started a complicated conversation about Wittgenstein, language games, search tools and the nature of programming (you had to be there), and at some point I mentioned Roger and Akihiko said that he had known him too, and that Karen’s work was behind his approach to search and that some years ago he had worked for Hitachi Labs, and that Roger and Karen had visited him in Tokyo.
At which point I felt a circle close, and another of the threads of my life became weft, trapped in the warp of my tapestry. And I paused to remember old friends, now gone, and the times that had brought me to this place, and this life.
Five years ago I had the great pleasure of hanging out with Colin Holgate, who was behind many of the Voyager CD-ROM titles that pioneerd interactive multimedia. We spent a few days in a meeting room inside Tower Bridge at a charrette about the future of education, and the ideas from that time are still central to my thinking about the wider impact on society.
Colin and I both share an interest in hypermedia, and remembered the days of Apple’s Hypercard (and its predecessor, GUIDE), so it was interesting to hear from him recently about RunRev‘s LiveCode, which he rates highly:
Like HyperCard it uses a card metaphor, and a near English scripting language.In addition to continued development, active community, and annual conferences, it can run onMac, Windows, and Linux (even talk of it being ported to Raspberry Pi), and it can publish apps to Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, and be used for Server side applications.
He was writing to let me know that RunRev want to make LiveCode open source and have started a Kickstarter project to fund a six month engineering team that will make the source code more modular, and easier for the community to contribute to.
They want to raise £350K to cover all the costs and are at £120K as I write, and I think it’s worth checking out. It looks like a good product and it would be great to see it available to the community of users. Too often we ask for code to be made available under a better licence without realising that doing this takes time and effort.
I am writing this on my iPad, using the WordPress app so I can work on a post offline and then update it when I get latched on to a network. I’m still getting used to the onscreen keyboard, which is decent enough apart from having to search for punctuation and the autocorrect – which I may turn off as it is less useful on a tablet device than a phone, especially when much of my technical vocabulary isn’t in the dictionary.
As someone who has carried a laptop around for most of the last fifteen years simply having a computing device with me is far from a major step forward but the format of the ipad might encourage me to write more often and to work on stuff when I only have a couple of minutes free, a time period to small to justify pulling out even a fast-starting MacBook. We will see.
I’m planning to spend a few days without my laptop to force me to engage with the pad. I’ve acquired a MiFi after John Naughton showed me how useful they are – and am using it to post this. And I will report on my experiences. Should be fun.
I’m in Austin, Texas with Gareth, Michelle, Julian and Terry, here to report on events for the BBC WOrld Service but also to appear in a special Digital Planet panel at SXSWi. It should be loads of fun – here’s the trailer that Terry has put on the World Service website:
Despite the huge success of its website over the last decade, the Guardian was a relative latecomer to the business of online news. While competitors such as the Daily Telegraph built efficient and well-used digital facsimiles of their print editions, the Guardian instead established a new media “skunkworks” team, tasked with dreaming up innovative online ideas, in an airy old warehouse just across the road from its main offices.
There a group of programmers and young journalists dabbled in a curious range of experimental projects from a wildly ambitious, multilingual website for Euro 96 to Shift Control, a webzine so painfully cool that every issue was redesigned from scratch. When, in 1997, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger dispatched me across the road with instructions to redirect their efforts to building an online version of the Guardian itself, the team wore the despondent look of a bunch of German soldiers who had just been sent to the Eastern Front.
But though many of the hipsters soon departed, some of the lateral, webcentric spirit of the New Media Lab animated our plans for the online Guardian.
In early 1995 Tony Ageh of The Guardian suggested I join them there full-time to do Web stuff, having already made The Guardian the first UK national paper with any online content. In January 1996 Tony left to go to Virgin and I became head of the New Media Lab. I stayed until September 1996, having seen the successful launch of The Guardian site, The Observer site, GO2 (Guardian Online online), Top Marques online and the phenomenally wonderful Eurosoccer.com, covering Euro ‘96.
At The Guardian we were convinced we could change the world of newspapers, We were playing around with design, navigation, content and approach, looking for ways to take the printed newspaper online while preserving the values and attitude that made it work: we were all about brand extension, not about being an income-generating business unit. This gave us a freedom that others could only marvel at – when Vauxhall gave us £250,000 to build a Website for the Euro ‘96 tournament I spent all of it on the best site in the world, drawing the wrath of my director, Stella Beaumont.
But I was right – the point was to spend the money and do something great, not feed 10% to The Guardian. Two years later, at the time of the World Cup in France, eurosoccer.com was still the benchmark for how to do a major sporting event on the Web.
I left The Guardian for many reasons, not least being the tension between the newsroom and its journalists and the Web team under my direction. Since leaving I can’t understand why I stayed as long as I did. My successor, Robin Hunt, lasted a matter of months. His successor, Ian Katz, threw away all the Guardian had learned, and it was left to Simon Waldman and Emily Bell to turn the experiment into a viable, brand-building proposition.
Funny how things can look different from different perspectives.
One of the best things about working on Digital Planet is that I get the opportunity to visit places that I wouldn’t normally get to, and when I’m there I get to meet a lot of interesting people and talk about their work and their lives.
Yesterday I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, to meet up with Gareth and Michelle, and after a trip to the BBC bureau we spent some time at KBC, the main Kenyan broadcaster.
But the afternoon was spent at Kibera, the slum in southern Nairobi. It’s the largest slum in Africa, with a population of over one million, and being there was astonishing.
I don’t have time now to write about it, or what I thought as we wandered through the space where a million people carve out a life. But I will.
[You can also find this on the BBC News website, of course]
The 53rd Venice Art Biennale has just opened, a massive exhibition of contemporary art from around the world that takes over large parts of the city every two years from June to November and turns it into a showcase for the new, the experimental, the exciting and the just plain weird.
And I do mean weird.
There’s a semi-submerged Russian submarine in the Grand Canal, an Icelandic artist is going to spend the next six months painting a series of bad portraits of a cigarette-smoking model, and a group of Nordic artists are exhibiting a very life-like corpse floating face-down in a swimming pool while a group of naked men sit on deckchairs nearby.
Seventy-seven countries are taking part, many of them exhibiting their work in purpose built pavilions in the public gardens of the Giardini while others can be found in the former shipyard of the Arsenale or scattered across palaces and warehouses throughout the city.
As well as the national pavilions there are forty-four associated exhibitions and events, and nearly one hundred individual artists have been invited to show work in the central ‘Making Worlds’ exhibition.