Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

10 SEPTEMBER, 2014

100 Ideas That Changed the Web

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From the mouse to the GIF, by way of the long tail and technology’s forgotten female pioneers.

In his now-iconic 1945 essay “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush considered the problem of organizing humanity’s knowledge, which he poetically termed “the common record,” in an intelligent way amidst an era of information overload. It was a challenge first addressed a decade earlier by a Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet, whose global knowledge network called the Mundaneum sparked the dawn of the modern information age. But it wasn’t until 1999 that Tim Berners-Lee, who had invented the World Wide Web and launched the first webpage on August 6, 1991, coined the concept of the Semantic Web — a seminal stride toward cultivating wisdom in the age of information, bringing full-circle Otlet’s vision for an intelligent global network of organizing human knowledge. Much like Johannes Gutenberg, who combined a number of existing technologies to invent his revolutionary press, Berners-Lee was simply bringing together disjointed technologies — electronic documents, hypertext, markup, the internet — to create a new paradigm that changed our world at least as much as Gutenberg’s invention. But how, exactly, did we get there?

The 98 landmark technologies and ideas that bridged Otlet’s vision with Berners-Lee’s world-changing web are what digital archeologist Jim Boulton chronicles in 100 Ideas that Changed the Web (public library) — the latest installment in a fantastic series of cultural histories by British indie powerhouse Laurence King, including 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas that Changed Film, 100 Ideas that Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas that Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas that Changed Art.

IDEA #1: THE MUNDANEUM

In 1936, six decades before the birth of the web as we know it, a Belgian bibliophile named Paul Otlet envisioned an electronic telescope which would transmit any document to a screen anywhere in the world. His primarily female volunteers manually classified some 17 million documents -- a system that became known as the Index Card Internet.

The hundred ideas range from revolutionary concepts, like the personal computer (#9), open source (#28), and peer-to-peer networks (#62), to technologies so rudimentary and ubiquitous that we forget they were once mere “ideas” in a world without them, like graphical user interface (#5), search (#26), email (#51), and the internet itself (#10), to cultural phenomena like the bulletin board systems (#12) that geeks used to connect with one another 30 years before Facebook or online dating (#78), which we still approach with an ambivalent blend of skepticism, eagerness and, on very rare occasions, absolute ingenuity. Boulton’s point, however, is to illustrate how even the most humble among them — like, say, the dear old GIF (#18) — served as combinatorial building blocks that contributed to the web as we know, use, and love it.

IDEA #5: GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACE

Inspired by Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart's live demonstration of his vision for the future of computing, the oNLine System (NLS), at the 1968 Joint Computer Conference became known as the 'Mother of All Demos.' It was the very first implementation of a GUI. Unlike many of his peers, Engelbart was interested not in making computers smarter but in how computers could make humans smarter.

Tucked into the various chapters are factlets that reveal delightful and often surprising details about elements of digital communication we’ve come to take for granted. For instance, the section on the emoticon (#19) — which made its debut in 1881 and is also among the 100 diagrams that changed the world — Boulton explains that telegraph operators used early examples of type-based sentiment: “73” meant “best regards” and “88” love and kisses.

He writes in the introduction:

Exploring the history of the Web is not just a nostalgic trip into our recent digital past but an exploration of the very way we think and communicate. Our thought processes are non-linear and erratic but the way we make sense of things and express ourselves is linear. Pioneers like Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, Theodor Nelson, Douglas Engelbart and Tim Berners-Lee questioned this conviction. Their legacy is the World Wide Web. A place that breaks down national and cultural borders. A place that blurs the boundaries between generating and exchanging ideas. A place that toppled regimes and created new economic models. A place that has radically changed the way we work, play, shop, socialize and otherwise participate in society. But above all, a place that is for everyone.

The internet, which predates the web by decades, has somewhat unlikely beginnings. (Boulton makes a lucid, charmingly indignant distinction between the two: “The terms “World Wide Web” and “internet” are often used interchangeably, which is plain wrong. The internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks. It is the infrastructure that carries email, instant messaging, Voiceover, IP, network games, file transfer and, of course, the Web.”) In the quest to win the Space Race during the Cold War, the U.S. government established ARPA — the Advanced Research Projects Agency — with grand ambitions, including the creation of an Intergalactic Computer Network. On October 29, 1969, researchers combined ARPA’s three major computing projects — a communications system that could survive a nuclear attack, a computer time-sharing concept, and an operating system — to successfully connect computers between three different universities, creating the world’s first packet-switching network. Known as ARPANET, it was a manifestation of the vision for an Intergalactic Computer Network, which is essentially what we know as the internet.

IDEA #6: THE MOUSE

The first computer mouse, created in 1963, in the hands of its inventor, Douglas Engelbart. The mouse, with its ability to click on specific parts of a document, was the device that made hypertext possible. Without hypertext, there would be no links, and without links, no web. Despite the enormous innovation in computing over the past half-century, the design of the computer mouse has remained practically unchanged. (Photograph: LIFE Magazine)

IDEA #10: THE INTERNET

The location of every IP address on the internet, as visualized by the Opte Project.

Even though the first successful packet-switching network was established in 1969, different such networks around the world operated by different rules and thus could not communicate with one another. In the 1970s, Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf set out to establish a common protocol, which became known as Transfer Control Protocol / Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP. After a successful test was conducted between networks in the U.S., U.K. and Norway in 1977, all packet-switching networks were given a deadline of January 1, 1983, to migrate to the new protocol. Boulton cites Vint Cerf, father of the internet:

When the day came, the main emotion was relief. There were no grand celebrations — I can’t even find a photograph. Yet, with hindsight, it’s obvious it was a momentous occasion. On that day, the operational internet was born.

IDEA #27: WIFI

Hedy Lamarr, inventor of frequency-hopping spread spectrum radio, the technology that underpins wifi.

One of the book’s most heartening touches is Boulton’s effort to shed light on the web’s little-known female pioneers, from Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr, who was once considered the most beautiful woman in the world, starred in cinema’s first on-screen orgasm, and also invented the technology that laid the groundwork for bluetooth and wifi, to the very first photo uploaded to the web thanks to an all-girl science rock band from CERN, no less.

IDEA #45: METADATA

Henriette Avram, creator of the first digital metadata in 1970, the MARC standards (Machine-Readable Cataloging standards) at the Library of Congress. Much like the Dewey Decimal System revolutionized library science by introducing a card-catalog method for organizing books, metadata helps organize digital content by capturing details about it such as who created it, when it was created, its subject matter, and more.

Not all ideas are technologies — many are higher-order concepts that describe cultural phenomena and social dynamics. Among them is the notion of “the long tail,” a term from statistics that Chris Anderson popularized as a lens on business and creative culture in his excellent 2006 book of the same title. (I, of course, am partial — Brain Pickings is made possible entirely by the “long tail” of patrons like you.)

IDEA #73: THE LONG TAIL

Boulton writes: 'The long tail is what happens when everything is available to everyone. Given enough choice and enough customers, obscure products tailored to our individual needs are more desirable than mass-market blockbusters.'

IDEA #68: INFOGRAPHICS

Infographic from 'Information Is Beautiful' by David McCandless.

Fittingly, in the section on infographics (#68), Boulton traces the evolution of this visual communication genre from Otto Neurath’s invention of pictograms in the 1930s to the impact of data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte to the work of information designers like David McCandless, concisely nailing the peril and promise of this singular form of visual literacy, which requires the mastery of a special language to both create and consume intelligently:

The rise of the social web and our reluctance to read long documents has propelled the work of information designers like Neurath, Tufte and McCandless to the fore. It is boom time for infographics. Alongside other bite-sized shareable content such as photos of kittens and GIF animations, infographics have become a staple part of our media diet… Done badly, you get Chartjunk. Done well, they make data meaningful and entertaining. Sometimes even beautiful.

IDEA #18: GRAPHICS INTERCHANGE FORMAT

'Dancing Girl' by legendary GIF artist Chuck Pointer.

And, of course, what history of the web could be complete without everyone’s favorite Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF (#18)? Boulton offers a brief history surprisingly illuminating even for us smug, GIF-slinging moderns:

It’s 20 years old. It supports only 256 colors. It’s unsuitable for photographs. It has no sound capability. It’s inferior to the PNG. Yet the GIF is still hanging in there. Why has it proved so tenacious? Because it can move.

CompuServe introduced the GIF format in the pre-Web days of 1987. It was released as a free and open specification for sharing color images across the network.

[…]

The GIF really took off in 1993 with the release of Mosaic, the first graphical browser. Mosaic introduced the <img> tag, which supported two formats — GIF and a black-and-white format called XMB. Mosaic became Netscape and, as it grew, the GIF grew with it… In 1996, Netscape 2.0 was released. It supported GIF animations — multiple frames shown in succession. The Web went crazy.

But perhaps the most poignant section is also the most conceptual — the notion of “digital fragility” (#41). Boulton captures it elegantly:

Printed in 1455, 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible exist, yet not one copy of a website made a little over 20 years ago survives.

[…]

Digital content is so easy to duplicate that copies are not valued. Worse, the original version is also often considered disposable. Combine this with the rapid obsolescence of digital storage formats, and it is easy to see why many experts describe the early years of the Web as a digital dark age.

[…]

The last 20 years have seen the birth and rise of the Web at an astronomical pace. We have witnessed the birth of the Information Age, equal in magnitude to the transition to the modern world from the Middle Ages. We have a responsibility to expose this artistic, commercial and social digital history — the building blocks of modern culture — to future generations, an audience who will be unable to imagine a world without the Web.

Until we discover the digital equivalent of acid-free paper, bits and bytes remain extremely fragile.

IDEA #8: XANADU

Theodor Nelson's pioneering 1974 book 'Computer Lib | Dream Machines,' an exploration of the creative potential of computer networks, not only predicted the home-computer revolution long before it happened but also served as a clarion call for ordinary people to appropriate computers for their own use, rather than being passive bystanders witnessing a government technology.

But the story of the web is an optimistic one — and, more importantly, one that is still being written. Not coincidentally, the final idea in the book is the Semantic Web (#100) — the concept that, so far, offers the greatest promise of helping us transmute information into wisdom, which is increasingly the defining challenge of our age. As Boulton puts it, “Knowledge is information in context.”

The term, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from Tim Berners-Lee himself:

I have a dream for the Web … in which computers … become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web — the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A “Semantic Web,” which makes this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade,bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines.

The main value of the Semantic Web, however, is that it extracts meaningful relationships and connections from large sets of information, which brings us all the way back to Vannevar Bush’s ideal of “establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” and that it helps discern a context for isolated bits of information, which is the foundation of knowledge and the very thing Paul Otlet pursued in his vision of the Mundaneum. The web, it seems, is coming full-circle.

100 Ideas that Changed the Web is wonderfully illuminating in its entirety. Complement it with Clive Thompson on how the web is changing the way we think for the better and a close look at just how revolutionary and influential Otlet’s Mundaneum was.

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26 AUGUST, 2014

How William Gibson Coined “Cyberspace”

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The moment when fragments of reality were “mushed together” to describe a new realm.

In 1982, writer William Gibson, thirty-four at the time, used a strange new word in his short story “Burning Chrome” to describe — presage, really — the emerging ecosystem sprouted by computer networks. But it wasn’t until Gibson used it again in his 1984 novel Neuromancer (public library) that the new term — “cyberspace” — caught on like cultural wildfire.

In this excerpt from his conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber — the conversation in which Gibson provided his witty 7-word autobiography — the author explains how and why he coined “cyberspace”

I wanted that sense of other realm, a sense of agency within my daily life, looking for bits and pieces of reality that could be cobbled into the arena I needed.

A quarter century later, Gibson coined another exquisitely apt term for a cultural phenomenon — “personal micro-culture,” that absolutely essential tool in our architecture of character as creative people and human beings.

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18 AUGUST, 2014

An Atlas of Alternative Maps by Tim Berners-Lee, Ed Ruscha, Yoko Ono, Damien Hirst, John Maeda, Kevin Kelly, John Baldessari, and More

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“Maps are errors to arrive at truth.”

For all the spiritual benefits of getting lost, we humans are habitually driven to orient ourselves to the world and find our place in it. It is no surprise, then, that maps captivate our imagination so powerfully. We’ve found in cartography a tool of propaganda and a springboard for philosophy, a canvas for art and a vehicle for idealism. We’ve applied it to everything from understanding time to ordering the cosmos.

Just when it might seem like the world doesn’t need another book about maps, Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies (public library | IndieBound) — a magnificent compendium envisioned and culled by legendary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist — proves otherwise. With more than 130 maps by a wide-ranging roster of luminaries spanning art, science, technology, literature, architecture, film, and more — including John Baldessari, Tim Berners-Lee, Louise Bourgeois, Yoko Ono, Kevin Kelly, Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, John Maeda, Sean Carroll, Douglas Rushkoff, and Marcus du Sautoy — the book offers a living reminder that rather than objective representations of reality, maps are invariably projections in both the literal and the metaphorical sense, projecting onto the world the mapmaker’s subjective, abstract, psychoemotionally charged ideas about what is real and meaningful.

Carved atlas by artist Étienne Chambaud

(Image courtesy of Étienne Chambaud)

The volume’s greatest gift and highest point of differentiation is, in fact, precisely the sensibility for which Obrist is known and celebrated — the bold cross-pollination of disciplines, which invites the various fields to enrich one another, a beacon whose aggregate beam illuminates the landscape of the unknown. Obrist remarks on this approach in a companion essay titled “You Are Here”:

Dialogue, conversation and exchange between different fields is the only way we can chart a course through the increasingly complex terrain of contemporary life… Maps produce new realities much as they seek to document current ones. Maps are always a going-beyond the space-time of the present.

In 2009, Wired magazine founding editor and digital culture sage Kevin Kelly asked people to draw a map of the internet as they pictured it, illustrating what he had in mind by drawing his own map.

(Image courtesy of Kevin Kelly)

(See more of Kelly’s Internet Mapping Project here.)

'Map of the Future' by designer John Maeda

(Image courtesy of John Maeda)

'Wen Out for Cigrets' (1985) by artist Ed Ruscha

(Image courtesy of Ed Ruscha)

Obrist points to the particularly appropriate situationist concept of dérive — a term from psychogeography connoting an unplanned, wanderlust-driven journey through an urban landscape — citing his conversation with the Belgian writer and philosopher Raoul Vaneigem:

The dérive is not merely a spatio-temporal drift through urban landscapes, but a drift through the spaces of the imagination in order to arrive at an invention of reality. This is why Joyce’s Ulysses takes the simultaneous form of a dérive through the environs of Dublin and a drift through the mind of Stephen Dedalus. Wandering and drifting can be a geographical and a psychological movement, a migration across borders. Maps are errors to arrive at truth. To paraphrase the words that Joyce gives to Dedalus, these “errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Obrist touches on this element of psychological wanderlust in the opening chapter:

Maps are often an abstraction of the physical or conceptual world — a symbolic depiction of a space or idea that allows one to understand and navigate an unfamiliar topography or complex topology. But while most conventional charts, plans and diagrams claim to offer an accurate, even objective picture of the world, each one is bound by the specific agendas of its creators and users… Cartographies can be altered endlessly to reflect different priorities, hierarchies, experiences, points of view, and destinations.

'Flight Patterns' by artist Aaron Koblin, a visualization based on airplane location data.

(Image courtesy of Aaron Koblin)

'18th Century Königsberg' and '21st Century Kaliningrad' by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy

(Image courtesy of Joe McLaren)

The prominent Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy points to the unsolvable 18th-century puzzle “The Seven Bridges of Königsberg,” a groundbreaking “map in mathematics” asking whether it’s possible to cross all seven bridges only once, as a kind of metaphor for how maps reflect multiple dimensions of cultural change:

Rather than the physical geometry of the city, it was the way the city was connected together that was important. Topology was born. Topological maps are essential in navigating the plethora of networks that map the modern world: from the London Underground to the Internet, from neural networks to social networks. Although the eighteenth-century version proved an impossible puzzle to solve, it turns out that in modern-day Königsberg, or Kaliningrad as it is called today, you can cross the seven bridges that currently span the Pregel River once and only once.

'Map of Media Power Over Time' by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff

(Image courtesy of Douglas Rushkoff)

Artist Yoko Ono contributes a textual piece, originally published in her 1970 gem Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings by Yoko Ono:

MAP PIECE

Draw an imaginary map.
Put a goal mark on the map where you
want to go.
Go walking on an actual street according
to your map.
If there is no street where it should be
according to the map, make one by putting
the obstacles aside.
When you reach the goal, ask the name of
the city and give flowers to the first
person you meet.
The map must be followed exactly, or the
event has to be dropped altogether.

Ask your friends to write maps.
Give your friends maps.

1962 summer

Artist Pae White admits to a chronic difficulty in reading maps and writes, 'Shapes don't automatically register as places, and cropping or figure/ground ambiguity only makes things worse. For me, a void is also a place.'

(Image courtesy of Pae White)

Computer scientist and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee's 'mapping analogy for explaining to people the mingling and evolution of influences in the World Wide Web technology' (2007)

(Image courtesy of Tim Berners-Lee)

Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies is a stimulating delight in its entirety. Complement it with Umberto Echo’s chronicle of the greatest maps of imaginary places and E.F. Schumacher’s superb vintage guide to philosophical maps, then revisit Obrist’s compendium of famous artists’ instructions for art anyone can make.

Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson

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