nmg: (hypertext)

Some years ago, back when I was in sixth form and trying to decide what I wanted to study at University, the BBC broadcast a Horizon documentary on novel interfaces for computers, which was presented by Douglas Adams and Tom Baker. The documentary presented a future information system in which you could follow links between documents, images and videos, with software "agents" that helped you find things. More than anything else, it was a novel documentary by itself; how better to show what a new information system might be like, than to film the documentary as if it were being presented by that information system.

The memory of this documentary, Hyperland, stayed with me, and was one of the reasons why I decided to read computer science rather than electronics (this book and this book were the other reasons). Moving forward a few years, I first came across the Web in the autumn of 1993, with the release of the Mosaic browser (I can still remember various of my contemporaries, possibly including [livejournal.com profile] evildespot and [livejournal.com profile] perdita_fysh, telling me that the Web wouldn't come to anything).

The early Web was quite exhilarating, but it still didn't live up to the promise of Hyperland. I graduated and moved to Cambridge. As I got more disillusioned with my employer (a certain large Scandinavian mobile telecoms company that isn't Ericsson), I spent more time reading academic papers on the subject of hypertext and agents. In order to get a better grounding in AI, I studied for my Masters in Edinburgh. After that, I looked around for PhD places, and found that the University of Southampton was the place to go in the UK if you wanted to do research on hypertext.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Hyperland, via Google Video )
nmg: (Default)

Given that the 1961 original was lost in one of the great BBC tape purges of the 1970s (to make way for Match of the Day, no doubt), it's unsurprising that I've never seen A for Andromeda. Rather more embarrassingly, I've not read any of Fred Hoyle's novels.

[livejournal.com profile] ias and I watched the live remake of The Quatermass Experiment that BBC Four showed last year; I enjoyed it, but I didn't think that the plot had dated especially well, and the pacing required of a live production with outside broadcasts felt artificial. I've just seen BBC Four's remake of A for Andromeda, and I have to say that I was really rather impressed. Good dialogue, and an intelligent script - what more could one want? The closing quotation by Carl Sagan was a deft, if slightly in-jokey touch, considering the considerable conceptual debt that Contact (written 1985) owes to A for Andromeda. I shan't deign to comment on the similarities between AFA and the execrable Species.

In other news, I'm back from Sofia, and will possibly write something about that tomorrow.

nmg: (Default)

The BBC have been carrying a story today on the rise of Web 2.0 and Flock, to tie in with a report on this evening's Newsnight (the report can be seen on the Newsnight website for the next twenty-four hours). I can't say that I'm too impressed.

I've tried Flock (see my earlier comments), and have found it to be a generally unimpressive experience, in that it doesn't add any significantly new additional browser functionality that was not already available as extensions to Firefox. Given that Flock is probably about 98+% Firefox in terms of lines of code, this doesn't justify the hype that has surrounded the release of Flock 0.5 alpha. Granted, it does have quite a pretty new skin, but that's not exactly earth-shattering.

Flock is the most recent piece of software to be identified with what is fast becoming known as Web 2.0. The view that we are seeing a phase change in the nature of the Web is quite prevalent amongst some of the more vocal parts of the blogorati, and amongst some of the refugees from the dotcom boom, but it's more style than substance. Certainly, there's nothing about Web 2.0 systems that was not possible with existing (Web 1.0) technologies. Instead, we're being asked to believe that Web 2.0 is a different way of thinking about the Web, a Web where all can participate equally, and where useful services spring unbidden from social interactions.

A central theme of Web 2.0 is therefore that of emergent intelligence, that together we're somehow smarter than we are individually. This doesn't sound particularly 2.0 to me, but rather too much like some of the more hyperbolic future-posturing from the pages of WiReD magazine c. 1998. On a more cynical note, I could add that the Web 2.0 is a kneejerk reaction from those members of the blogorati that prefer syntactic XML markup to the more stable foundation for shared understanding that is afforded by the Semantic Web, and that they're sleepwalking into the very problems that the Semantic Web is designed to mitigate against, but that would just be petty of me.

Both the BBC News report and the segment on tonight's Newsnight were quite reminiscent of the mainstream media hype during the dotcom boom in the sheer breathlessness of the reporting. The web report was centred on Barcamp in Amsterdam earlier this month, but the television report also featured footage from the O'Reilly-organised Web 2.0 Conference (with about ten seconds of a Cory Doctorow rant, and some pictures of stories from Make:) . In the television report, Paul Mason interviewed Andy Smith and Chris Messina of Flock, who had "built a new web browser". As I've already stated, I think that statement is quite disingenuous. The BBC News report notes that Flock is based on Firefox, but the Newsnight segment didn't go so far as to even mention this debt. Overall, I'm very disappointed by this sort of reporting from the BBC. It was largely devoid of analysis, and just repeated the Web 2.0 hype uncritically.

In short, I wasn't expecting the BBC to drink the Kool Aid.

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Nick Gibbins

August 2010

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