12 August 2009

The logic of the Mall

Robin Good announced today on Twitter the "Real possibility that FriendFeed.com will be shut down for good - Streamy replacing it?" Now I have never been a fan of feeds nor feed aggregators. They always struck me as a kind of extended TV Guide - lots of choice, but little useful information. I am happy to admit, however, that this is a personal foible, and should not be considered, in particular by me, as a fundamental flaw of feeds, feed use or aggregation. However, it is clear that feeds in general have been falling in popularity for some time now, and that new forms of access, sharing and use are arising.

I remember some years ago that there was a flurry of excitement over RSS and ATOM and the possibilities that it offered. I do think that a good history of the direct influence of RSS and ATOM on the rise of social computing has yet to be written, not least in changing the way that information is now accessed on the web (via Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Ning, Bebo, not to mention the rise of blogs). I too was briefly captivated by the possibilities of feeds. I remember a few on-line conversations with Robin Good over the possibilities, all of which were very enlightening as all discussions with Robin are. I quickly realized, though, that what I was working with was a web version of an inventory, and with all of its limitations.

An inventory is useful if you are regularly accessing the same items over and over again, but it is not very useful if you are constantly looking around at different items or your useful items list is constantly changing. What you get with an inventory is a constantly growing list. Like the Library, you get more and more items, but the inventory, so necessary for management, doesn't help much with access. Christine Borgman has made this point many times over the years, as have I on this blog. Inventories are useful for managing resources, but people find things through different means. For books this has always meant finding what you need through bibliographies, indexes, word of mouth, etc., and then going to the inventory to find out where the book actually is kept.

But the limitations of feeds on their own was realized fairly quickly and we saw the rise of aggregators. There was a realization that if it was too difficult to run around the web, from feed to feed, searching for what you were interested in, what you wanted to access, and what you had accessed before, was just too complicated. What was needed was a place where all of your feed needs would be waiting for you. The problem is that aggregators always reminded me of the early Sears Roebuck Catalogue. When, in the United States, the consumers were all too dispersed and distant to come to the store, Sears Roebuck brought the aggregation of the department store to them. Of course there were others who had the idea earlier. Hammacher Schlemmer was sending out its catalogue a good 45 years before Sears Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward had a mail order catalogue 21 years earlier. However, the "Consumer's Bible," as it was often known as, offered everything one needed together in one place. You could get everything you needed from underwear to cars, from kitchen utensils to the house itself.

Like aggregators, catalogues too dominated the consumer's life for some time, but as the society has changed from literate to oral, so consumerism has changed. The catalogue has slowly been replaced over the past 30 years by the Mall. Another aggregate space, but one that is much more social (at least in the US). It is a place not just to shop, but to eat, socialize and share.

Robin Good suggested, today on Twitter, that Streamy was the next big thing after mere aggregators. Perhaps. I have looked at Streamy and it is very impressive, but my feeling is that it is only really impressive if you like malls. Streamy moves beyond the aggregator enabling the accumulation, sharing, commenting and discussion about consumables. I don't always want to be suggesting that the web is mostly a recapitulation of 20th century consumerist culture, but it does seem that the fall of FriendFeed.com, and the rise of Streamy, is not a step forward, but just another recapitulation disguised as an innovation.

16 June 2009

The Tables and Chairs of Database Origins

A friend was over from the States this weekend. She is the one who invented boundary objects, and she always gets me thinking. She gets me thinking largely because she is so smart, but also because she puts things in a way that gets you thinking. That is a rare gift.

Anyway, I got to thinking about databases. There is so much rubbish written now about databases, both from the techie side - knowledge as semantic first order logics, metalanguages, and meta-descriptions, and from what we could call media anthropology - database as metaphor for social relationships, surrogates for ontologies, etc. I was also reading Lev Manovich's softbook Software Takes Command, where he talks about the early days of Ivan Sutherland, Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart, Alan Kay, Nicholas Negroponte and their personal computer as new media. Rather, the personal computer as a universal media machine. What got me thinking was how my friend talked about databases, and how databases are missing from Lev Manovich's book. She talked about them in relation to ever more global indicators, not as mere data repositories. We can talk about how publishing, writing, TV, video, radio, sound, letter writing, the business ledger, etc. etc. have been transformed into software, and how they have been translated, mixed and extended as new media, as Manovich does. But where are databases? I thought that if word processors are the media machine's typewriter and now publisher, if spreadsheets are its ledgers, email its letters, and now we have TV, film, radio and photography on-line, what is the genealogy of the database?

I do realize that the genealogies for all of these systems are complex, and that what is most important is the transformation from media to media machine to integrated new media, but that is not what I am talking about here. What I am talking about here is where is the genealogy for databases, they seem to be the odd one out.

Some histories place the database within the genealogy of information management, within the history of the Archive and the Library. But this can't be right. Databases are not repositories, though they may now function as repositories, but this certainly is not their heritage. Others place it within command and control systems. Though this certainly was the origin of the word itself, from tabulations coordinating command and control systems, this does not seem right either as it is to specific a locale for a genealogy. It is as though we were to say that John Smith was the first to explicitly acknowledge his name, therefore he is the origin of the Smiths.

They genealogy has to lie with tabulation. It has to be found in the 19th century rise of tabulation, census, and indicators, and, technologically, with the tabulation machines (Herman Hollerith's machines, IBM, etc.). Now I don't have the time, or the space, to explore this here. However, what I would like to ask, as a way forward, is "Why has some centralized, imperial and state instrument like tabulation come to be a dominant application on the Web and underlie the functioning of just about everything?"

22 May 2009

You want that wrapped or just in a bag?

Kevin Marks' blogged a year ago in An API is a bespoke suit, a standard is a t-shirt, that the problem with an API is that it:
is like being a bespoke tailor - you have to measure them carefully, and cut your code exactly right to fit in with their shapes, and the effort is the same for every site you have to deal with (you get more skilled at it over time, but it is a craft nonetheless). (1)
Alternately, he sees Standards, like HTML5, OpenID, OAuth or OpenSocial, to be like "like designing a t-shirt".
when a site adopts a standard format for expressing their data, or how to interact with it, you can put your code together once, try it out on some conformance tests, and be sure it will work across a wide range of different sites. (2)
Today he Tweeted that he wanted to know if this metaphor made sense. I thought I would do a @ back, but then thought that this deserved more discussion. So here is a bit of a response to Kevin (albeit unsolicited).

It is true that APIs are "tailored" in the sense that Kevin Marks says, and this is a major drawback. However, there are further problems with standards that far outstretch this tailored inconvenience.

First of all, Standard APIs simply move the tailoring from the API to the wrapper. Fine, you no longer have to tailor your code to all those APIs, but every publisher has to tailor a wrapper.

Second, why do we think that tailoring is such a bad thing? The assumption here, and I hope I am not reading too much into Kevin Marks' statements, is that what we want is nice simple and standardised information. Well, the whole social web thing seems to disprove this. The power of the web is in the diversity, complexity and, yes, even the messiness.

To push this metaphor in a different direction, the problem is that all we seem to be able to find in the shops now are racks and racks of sub-standard (pardon the pun) t-Shirts. What we really would like are some choices, not racks of the same things, no matter how many amusing slogans are printed onto them.

If I could push the metaphor in yet another direction, t-shirts, no matter how convenient, simple and comfortable, are simply not appropriate attire for many social settings. I do not simply mean here that we should not wear t-shirts to weddings or the opera (this is admittedly a matter of debate), but that for many cultures t-shirts are not acceptable attire period. Are we all expected to dress, or share and transform API data, in the same way?

The problems with standards in general, and such content transforming standards in particular, is that they have to take a single view of the world for granted. This may be conceptually trivial as in cases of transport standards such as TCP/IP where its world is the world of distributed servers. But the Web is not a world of information, but is a world of discussion, translation, use, sharing, conversation, performance, selling, etc., etc., etc.

Kevin Marks is right that APIs also over determine what they see as useful in their data. In part, I don't see this as a necessarily bad thing as each API reflects a context for the information as well as the information. However, a far more simple solution, than the mass produced t-shirt, would be something like Jeff Lindsay's webhooks. Rather than a commodity metaphor, Jeff's webhooks are more like recycling. Rather than sending out racks of t-shirts, webhooks would be more like this:
"Here is some old plastic that we collected."
"Ok, crunch it up and send it over."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"That's none of your business. However, we are going to transform it into a whole new set of things."
Mass production or sustainability. I suppose that is the question. Is it better to take our information and let people re-use it, in whole new ways, or to broadcast out our information in increasingly narrow channels? I would chose the former in both cases.

06 April 2009

The PUSH and PULL Museum - Jeff Lindsay's WebHooks

Jeff Lindsay, or NASA Ames Labs and general WebHooks guru, gave a presentation back in February at Google about WebHooks. WebHooks are a very simple idea, a RESTful POST and PULL system for a programmable Web. The idea of WebHooks is simple, make it so that Web users can set a condition when met on your system through an update or commit will send your information to a URL. That is pretty much it. However, the point, and its implications, goes much deeper than this.

First of all, as Jeff Lindsay, and Kurt Cagle at O'Reilly, point out, WebHooks are really much more revolutionary than they seem at first sight. In the current world of the interactive Web, even Web 2.0, it is largely a PUSH, or some might say POST, world. Users access our web pages, ask for resources which are broadcast on other web pages. Now, as Web 2.0 and Social Computing have shown, there is a lot of potential in this model. Especially with the addition of Mashups, APIs and AJAX. However, what this model is lacking, according to Lindsay, is the a real programmable web. As Jeff Lindsay says, this time as progrium:

To users, web hooks are a way to get events and data in realtime from their web applications. From this they can use the data however they like, empowering them with the ability to extend and integrate, and start seeing the true vision of the programmable web. (Quoted From)
The technology of this is very simple, trivial even, but the implications for the Web, and museums, is vast. We can envisage a Museum 2.0 world where every time we update, commit our documentation, or even simply add to our online resources, that thousands of users will get data sent to URLs. What will these URLs do with this data? That is up to them. They may mash it up, they may insert it into their own databases, they may simply embed it within their own web pages. It is up to who develops the URL as to how it will process this data.

Obviously licenses will have to be developed and certain decisions made about use of museum data, though museums are already making their on-line data available via Attribution/Non-Commercial license. However, with the ability to allow users to decide what data they want, under what conditions it is to be provided, and how they will use it, could completely transform museums. Simply to have the ability for Source Communities to be certain that all data concerning their patrimony is automatically sent to them, for their use, without having to constantly come and request such information, will radically shift the power of description and identity in museums.

A brave new world? Probably not. But the beginnings of a radical shift in who can account for museum collections? We can but hope.

What the G20 could mean for museums

What could the outcomes of the recent G20 meeting mean for museums, aside from perhaps easing the financial strain that all are feeling? Most would say, "Nothing really". However, there was a very significant change at the last G20 summit which, if nothing else, should serve as both a warning and a model for museums. The significant change was what George Soros calls a "Turning Point". This turning point was that the core nations of the G20, the G7 or what we could even call the G1 (the United States), gave up much of their power which they held in the form of special voting rights. In particular, from 2011, the US will no longer have its veto rights. More power has been shifted to the "developing" countries - in particular India, China and Brazil - not only on the G20, but also within the IMF, the World Bank, and perhaps even onto the UN Security Council.

The significance of this, from museums' point of view, is not only the shift in financial power that this will certainly create (that is the point of it), but the shift in political power and the possibility of real multilateralism.

I do not need to go into any detail here about the colonial foundations of museums, especially those of the Euro-American museum tradition. It is not only that our museums were founded during the height of the colonial period, to support colonial ideals and ends, and that we hold vast colonial collections. It is also that our whole tradition of practice sits on colonial foundations. Of course I also do not need to go into detail about the enormous amount of work that museums have done over the past 20-30 years to transform these colonial foundations, what was at one time called the New Museology. Nor do I need to cover here, again, the work of many museums over recent years to incorporate deep forms of collaboration with source communities and stakeholders (see Peers and Brown for a good recent summary). The important thing to realize here, and the relevance of what has happened this time at the G20, was that the same thing could have been said of the world's financial governance over the past 30 years. That we could have gone to the IMF, the World Bank and the even the G20 and found ample evidence of a greater degree of collaboration and consideration of the needs and concerns of "developing" nations over the past 20 years. The point is that despite new levels of inclusion, of collaboration, of a shift from institutional concerns to those of other stakeholders within the IMF, the World Bank and even the G20, these institutions remained colonial - or rather neo-colonial.

These institutions remained neo-colonial despite new levels of collaboration and dialogue because their primary goal, and their primary source of authority, was preserved through their control of resources. The IMF, the World Bank and the G20 remained neo-colonial because the handful of ex-colonial countries retained the power to define what the resources were, how they could be accessed and how they could be distributed. This was the fundamental change heralded at the last G20 summit. For the first time in its history, for the first time in several hundred years, the process of real multilateralism was begun. Not finished, not implemented, but at least begun.

This is the wake-up call for museums. What we are seeing, or what I hope we are seeing, is a fundamental shift from a neo-colonial control - a benevolent paternalism that acts for the good of its public, but retains how its resources are used and even what they mean - to a situation where those effected by these resources, those who have a major stake in these resources, have a major say in their definition, allocation and use. Museums as a neo-colonial institution, in the sense of Julia Harrison, have a history, even contemporary history, very similar to these financial institutions. Not as powerful, that is certain, but just as superintending. The wake-up call for museums is that their world of privilege, of having the sole right to define, describe, and determine use of their collections, is coming to an end.

No longer will cries for the primacy of preservation for a global good hold sway - cries similar to the foundation of both the IMF and the World Bank for the preservation of the global economy. No longer will the claim of institutional nor professional rights take precedence over the rights of local patrimony and use. We have all seen that the foundations of the world markets are crumbling. They are crumbling because they are rotten to the core. The new consensus is being driven by a new multilateralism which is far bigger, far more diverse, far more distributed than every before. Museums too are build on similar foundations, with similar materials, and similar ideals. Is it time that museums consider giving up their special voting rights before it is too late for us too?

04 April 2009

Powerhouse Museum in Australia goes all CC

I just read at Creative Commons Australia that the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has gone all CC. Now this is a very good thing that should be encouraged by all museums. Not least as the Powerhouse Museum has also put a large number of its images into the public domain under Flickr Commons. However, the blog went further to say that "In an Australian (and possibly world) first, they’ve released all of their collection documentation under CC."

Now, as you all know, I fully support such a move, but it most certainly is not a world first. The Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology has been offering all of its collections documentation on-line since 1996, and have been offering it under Attribution, Non-commercial CC license since 2007. Not to complain, mind you, as I applaud the move by the Powerhouse. Just to set the record straight.

15 March 2009

Strange how many people think the same -- at the same time.

After finishing the previous blog-post this morning, I noticed Robin Good's entry on Bye Bye E-Learning: Emergent Learning Paradigm More Important Than Digital Delivery Tools. Well done Robin (the other one). Nice to see the pressure building.

Also, found a few good examples of what these more hybrid and decentred approaches are arguing against. See HASTAC's Future of the Digital Humanities, and Mellon's A Digital Humanities Manifesto.

Project Bamboo: Opportunities lost

In January I went to the 3rd Workshop for Project Bamboo in Tucson, Arizona. Project Bamboo is an eHumanities project, funded by a well known foundation and lead by two very large US universities. I am not going to say who these players are, you can see the main website to figure this out. Also, I am not casting aspersions onto any of these institutions. The foundation has been a generous and visionary funder of many worthwhile projects. The two universities are leading Higher Education institutions with excellent reputations. I am interested, though, in saying a few things about the ongoing trend in university computing, especially in the humanities, towards large, centralized and service architectures. I am not the only one who finds this trend bizarre, out of touch and even damaging (see Lev Manovich, Alan Liu, Haidy Giesmar or Jussi Parikka for more on this).

I have been working in or around what we today call eHumanities for over 30 years. I know that what I, and others, were doing 15 to 30 years ago can't really be called eHumanities, but, if you will just for the moment allow me to extend the present into the past. Having such a long-term view of these sorts of developments, and having sat through more seminars, workshops and development meetings than I care to remember, what is striking about all these past eHumanities initiatives is that none of them currently exist. They have all promised to be the next big thing, promised to sort humanities computing out, to provide just those tools which will bring the humanities into the computer age, to build the tools that the humanities need. What is blatantly clear, however, is that none of the hundreds of initiatives and projects that I have witnessed over the past 30 years have any existence now. PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) no longer exists (though it was resurrected as Cyber 1 in 2004). The explosion of CD-ROMs in the 1980s and 1990s, now seem to be pitiful relics of a pre-WWW world. The TLTP (Teaching and Learning Technology Program) of the 1990s spent over 22 million pounds and achieved little of lasting influence. Even The e-University Project, which finished in 2004, has had little lasting influence. The only initiatives that have lasted have been archive based projects. Ones where large archives, or concordances between archives, have been slowly digitized and offered on-line.

So let's return to Bamboo. Bamboo is offered as:
“... a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary, and inter-organizational effort that brings together researchers in arts and humanities, computer scientists, information scientists, librarians, and campus information technologists to tackle the question:
How can we advance arts and humanities research through the development of shared technology services?” (http://projectbamboo.org/what-bamboo)
There are a number of familiar assumptions embedded in this project. First of all, it is clear from the Project Bamboo Directions specification that one of the basic assumptions of this project is a one stop humanities services provider. Such a strong SOA model for any community must assume at least two things. First, that the present situation of service provision within the community is a problem, and, second, that the service needs of the community are definable and amenable to SOA tools.

The first of these assumptions is not only false, but not just a little insulting. There is a general assumption among IT departments and university administrators that the humanities are Luddite and need sorting out. In fact, e-Humanities, on-line performance, web-arts, and other humanities web work is healthy, exciting and thriving. It does not need sorting out. What it does need is something even approaching a sustainable level of infrastructure funding.

The second assumption, though related to the first, needs a bit more consideration. There is a fundamental assumption that to effectively and correctly make use of academic computing, it must conform to some sort of Services Oriented Architecture (SOA). This is understandable when considering that university administrators always seek something that they can measure and control. However, why they don't think that this is necessary with the Sciences, whose ICT has always been fragmented, task specific and decentralized, is never explained. The fact that computing in the humanities is constantly striving for the unique, the critical, the local and the subversive, simply confirms to the auditor and administrator that something is fundamentally wrong. Therefore, something centralized, uniform and accountable will sort this "chaos" out nicely.

This approach has been tried and tried again over the past 30 plus years, but fortunately to no avail. It has always failed because the two basic assumptions have always been wrong, and remain wrong. Unfortunately, the powers of control and accountancy do not give up that easily. I am not really at all worried that this time they might succeed and enforce a uniform methodology onto the Humanities -- this really isn't going to happen. What worries me, yet again, is that another large pot of money is going to be dumped down the proverbial drain. Money that is desperately needed for some actual humanities research.

A small peak at what Bamboo wants to do shows the same failure, and the same inevitable outcomes. This stage of the project is exploratory and consultative. They have been convening a number of workshops, and setting up a larger "community" of consulting committees. This seems, on the surface, to be the right thing to do. Set up a broad consultation to get the broadest consensus as to what services are needed. Then commence a development program that takes the community input, translate this into a plan, and then build the services. This is an all too familiar model of SOA and is represented explicitly in the Bamboo project.

The problem is that this model, in all its applications, ignores the most difficult and problematic bits of its implementation. The only certain and unproblematic link in the above model is the link between the Plan and the Build. Questions about the representativeness of the Community, of how the Exploration is conducted, of what is chosen and what is ignored in the Plan are all treated as unproblematic. The outcome of this naive approach is that a partial model of the consultation -- The Whole Thing model below, is transformed into an even more partial, local and planable model -- the More Realistic Vision below.

The problem with SOA, and this model of eHumanities services, is that as the model becomes more defined, the less it has to do with what the humanities do, until it gets to a point where what is realistic bears no relationship with the realism of humanities research.

So what is the real mistake here. Well, it is partially that the model of Service Architecture, while it may be applicable to well defined service contexts, simply does not apply to humanities teaching, research or production. However, I think that the larger error is a complete misunderstanding of what flexibility, locality, and innovation entail. Project Bamboo, inadvertently, highlight this error in its own name. The project defines "bamboo", and hence the proposed metaphor, as:
“In the natural world, bamboo is a highly flexible organic material that serves multiple purposes: it can live as a single stalk on a desk or grow quickly into renewable forests; be used for constructing buildings or decorating them; become as strong as hardwood or as flexible as cloth; … We envision our approach for arts and humanities digital services to be similar: configurable, flexible, sustainable, and reliable – hence the name, Bamboo.” (http://projectbamboo.org/why-name-bamboo)
What they completely miss in this metaphor is that while it is true that bamboo is a "highly flexible and organic material", the fact that it serves many purposes does not arise from any form of design or planning in the making of bamboo. None of the properties of bamboo that make it so incredibly flexible, both literally and it terms of the uses it can be put to, were designed for these purposes. In fact, the amazing properties of bamboo were not designed at all.

This is the point. What characterizes the humanities, and almost all of important human endeavour, is the ability to turn the mundane, common and innocuous into the new and innovative. What is needed in the eHumanities is the basic resources and the freedom to explore and innovate. What is not needed is yet more expensive programs designed by system engineers and administrators who have no understanding of what constitutes the useful, the innovative, or the important in the humanities.

11 March 2009

Museum Authority and the Developing Debate

There is an utterly brilliant animation by Basically, it presents the common problem with museums - and we could include archives and libraries here too - that they see any form of open access to collections information as a direct threat to their authority. It also, in a very enjoyable way, makes the point that none of the arguments for this are in any way true.

I would go much further, as I have done for over 20 years, that the basic premise is completely wrong. Museums, and museum professionals, only have authority to the degree that they continue to control access to, and the public accounts of, their collections. This is not very difficult when a museum has all of its collections under its own roof, but what museums do not yet realize, and Michael shows this all so well, is that increasingly they are not even able to control these traditional forms of presentation. On-line access to digital collections, no matter how they are served out, is making the traditional position of museum professionals as the arbiters of understanding completely untenable.

This should come as no surprise, though it is a bit surprising that it has taken so long. Back in 1997 I said the following as a conclusion to a talk that made this point to a Museum conference at Leicester University in the UK.

"As museums, we cannot do this [make ourselves relevant] by simply accepting the hype of the internet and offer up more of the same restrictive icons electronically. We do not need virtual museums, we need means of access and communication which speak to new audiences and more directly to our local communities.

We may be able to effect this development, but only in a small way. We can only achieve and effect by concerning ourselves with how we are used, rather than on what we produce. The internet is not the answer, it is but a medium. The question is whether it does become a medium within which various groups and interests may find a voice."
As far back as 1995 we released a report about a project that I was directing that made these very points. The report was called Objects and Learning, and was a report about the Virtual Teaching Collection. The Virtual Teaching Collection was a project run out of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, at the University of Cambridge, and was working on a system that would allow users to collect, link to, share and discuss digital collections. It was developed just before the Web took off, so it was an application rather than a Web App. As such, it has passed into the history of Applications on no longer supported operating systems (in this case Mac OS 9).

I suppose that the point of this Post is that though finally there is a growning consensus, even within some museum staff, that the traditional attitude of the museum as an authoritative expert institution is no tennable, there has been some voices around for a couple of decades who have been saying this all along. Mostly, though, I think that my real point is that the battle is far from won. The resistance I see today from museum professionals remains distrubingly like Michael curator in his animation. We have a long way yet to go.

09 March 2009

Concepts and a RESTful Web

I just finished reading Ryan Tomayko's really enjoyable blog post "How I Explained REST to my Wife." I also read most of the miles of comments which have built up around this now famous blog post over the past two months. The comments are really very interesting, not so much for what they say, as most are really rather banal, but for what they tell us about Ryan's main point in his description of REST. The comments split pretty much into two topics, leaving out all the "Well done!" and "This is rubbish!" comments. Basically the comments talk of Sexism and What Really is REST?

What interested me about these comments was the hugely diverse readings of Ryan's post. Many focused on how Ryan referred to his wife as "Wife", also arguing that he had implied that his "Wife" was predisposed to be technically incompetent simply by having to explain what are a set of web design principles, and some technical specifications, to his partner. In fact, I do not see that the sexist argument applies at all here. There is no sense that Ryan assumed that his wife was predisposed to technical incompetence, quite the opposite. Though, by Mrs. Tomayko's own assertion, it did make her sound a bit thick. By far the most sexist, and even offensive, statements are to be found in the comments.

What I think is really interesting about the comments, with appologies to the Tomaykos for what they have had to endure, is that these comments counter what seems to be Ryan's main point: that what is really holding back the development of a RESTful Web is the absense of standards. Ryan makes a clear association between the advance of database services on the Web with the acceptance of SQL as a standards query language. He goes on to assert that such a universal standard for REST resources, the nouns in his explanation to his wife, would have an equal or greater benefit.

The comments to Ryan's post counter this arguement by their very diversity. One of Ryan's assertions is that REST resources are "representations" and, hence, correspond to a "concept". After his wife makes clear taht she is not really sure what a URL does, Ryan explains to his wife:

Ryan: Oh, right. Those tell the browser that there’s a concept somewhere. A browser can then go ask for a specific representation of the concept. Specifically, the browser asks for the web page representation of the concept.

The wife has already unquestioningly accepted this association of a representation with a concept, and the two, unproblematically, with a web page when the conversation contiues:

Wife: What other kinds of representations are there?

Ryan: Actually, representations is one of these things that doesn’t get used a lot. In most cases, a resource has only a single representation. But we’re hoping that representations will be used more in the future because there’s a bunch of new formats popping up all over the place.

Wife: Like what?

Ryan: Hmm. Well, there’s this concept that people are calling Web Services. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people but the basic concept is that machines could use the web just like people do.

Wife: Is this another robot thing?

Ryan: No, not really. I don’t mean that machines will be sitting down at the desk and browsing the web. But computers can use those same protocols to send messages back and forth to each other. We've been doing that for a long time but none of the techniques we use today work well when you need to be able to talk to all of the machines in the entire world.

But what does Ryan mean by "computers can use those same protocols to send messages back and forth to each other"? What messages, saying what, doing what, specifying what, and to what ends? I think this is where Ryan's post deviates from what REST is, to what the Web is, and I disagree with him on what the Web is or should be.

The problem is that Ryan makes a common mistake. He takes the trivial things and makes them seem to be the problem, and, hence, transforms the really complex problems into trival issues (a traditional error that Clay Shirky identified in the Semantic Web arguement back in 2003) . The problem in the above discussion between Mr. and Mrs. Tomayko is not "How do you get machines to pass information back and forth using REST principles?", but "How do people find, understand and use a web page?"

Web pages are not representations of concepts, they are complex performances, accounts. They are purposfully designed and constructed accounts of something. The complexity is extended as a web page, or web resource, does nothing until it is accessed, used and/or read. The really difficult problem in all of this is getting from the web page to a concept period. On top of this, as the long list of comments to Ryan's post demonstrate, a web page does not represent just one concept, but potentially an infinite set of concepts. What is one person's representation of REST, is another person's exemplar of sexism, and another person's evidence of complete missunderstanding. The concept is not in the web page, but in its use. And its use is as diverse as its users.

This is the real rub, whether the web is a RESTful place or a SOAPy place. In fact, I lean very strongly, if not completely, to the RESTful side, but this is not the point here. Whether to REST or not to REST is an important issue, but one, with others such as the Semantic Web, that will continue to get diverted down blind alleys as long as we think that concepts are simple, stable and representational.

06 February 2009

Remembering my Father

A week ago tonight, my father died. Don't worry, I'm not going to go all soppy on you. My father and I were not close, he was 86 and a half, and it was not unexpected. He had a long life and, as lives go, a good one. He found success, or at least some, and lost it. On top of all trials and tribulations, throughout his life, he seemed to enjoy it. His death, however, did cause me to remember. To remember a father who must have died, or had been killed, long ago.

You see, my father, as I knew him over the past 20 to 30 years, was typical of most Americans of his age, and of the age since Regan; he was superficially liberal, but right-wing in practice. In fact, and this is one thing that I will never understand, he found religion later in life. It is not that he wasn't spiritual for all of his life. In fact, I think that he always was "a believer", but he wasn't at all of the organized church. Actually, when he did find religion, he couldn't be content with one that was just lying around, so he made his own.

I am not keen to discuss this aspect of his life, the Judaic and Christian fundamentalism, the colonial apologetic, and the soft misogynism, but to try and remember an earlier man -- a man who I could recognize in myself, a man who has a genealogy with my own. But a man who I did not remember.

In my attempt to remember this man, I chanced on a memory which seemed in conflict with the man I knew. The conservative, who argued that power was always right, that the weak deserved to be subjugated, and that civilization was for the chosen few. These concepts have no meaning for me, except as the actions of those alien to my own sensibilities, but, for him, they became his pillars of belief later in life. This is why the one memory was so confusing. It was not of the man, but pointed to a man who stood for, and stood by, very different beliefs.

When I was a young child, about 8 or 9, back in the 1960s, we had one of those wonderful cadenza like record players. It was so high off the floor that I could easily curl up under it as I played my fathers records. I played many different records, but my favorites were always to folk singers -- Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers. I would particularly like the protest songs, though I didn't really understand the history being sung, and certainly not the politics that they represented. This specific memory was of one song in particular. I did not remember the name, but the tune and a few words. A quick look on YouTube found it. It was Pete Seeger singing Which Side Are You On?.

For those of you who did not live in the 1960s, or who did and didn't know, if you listened to such music, and especially if you owned such music, it was a clear indication of your politics. You would have been decidedly left. In fact, you could easily be thought of as socialist. This was my father's music, and it became my music too. It still is my music, and it still is my politics.

I am not interested any more to understand my father's reasons, psychology or crises that caused him to leave this music, and their politics, behind -- to even deny them later in life. It doesn't really matter now. However, for whatever it is worth now, I prefer to remember a man I never really knew, but who must have had a profound impact on my life -- or perhaps it was just his music.

My daddy was a miner,
And I'm a miner's son,
He'll be with you fellow workers
Until the battle's won.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

26 January 2009

Imagined Futures

Just because it is true that we must imagine our futures before we can make them, this does not mean that we make the futures we imagine.