Monday, December 23, 2013

Digital Camelot - The Once and Future Web of Engelbart and Nelson

If you care about modern culture and how technology is shaping it, this is worth thinking about -- A powerful eulogy for where the Web might have gone, and still may someday, and the friendship of the two people most responsible for envisioning the Web*  --  Ted Nelson's eulogy for his friend Doug Engelbart, as reported by John Markoff in The Times -- with Nelson's inimitable flair.

As Markoff says:
Theodor Holm Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, has been a thorn in the side of the computing establishment for more than a half century. Last week, in an encomium to his friend Douglas Engelbart, he took his critique to Shakespearean levels. It deserves a wider audience. 
Dr. Engelbart and Ted Nelson became acquaintances at the dawn of the modern computing era. They had envisioned and invented the computing that we have come to take for granted.
I first encountered both of them in 1969, and what I saw set the direction for my life's work.  Engelbart gave "The Mother of All Demos" in 1968 (I first saw him give a follow-up the next year, and then read most of his work).  Nelson dreamed of hypertext and hypermedia, and wrote papers on what he called "hypertext" in the '60s and the highly influential Whole Earth Catalog of "Computer Lib / Dream Machines" in 1974.

As Nelson laments, both received a degree of recognition, but both were marginalized. Powerful as it may be, expediency took the Web in more limiting directions.

Their ideas remain profound and forward looking. Anyone who really cares about the future of media, intellect, and culture, and how information technology can augment that, should consider their work.  Just because the Web took a turn to expediency in the past does not mean it will not realize its richer potential in the future. (One hint of that is noted in the next section.)


As to Nelson's comment about "keeping the links outside the file," he refers to the important point that HTML embeds the links in the HTML file, which largely limits linking and annotating to the author/distributor of the HTML page. Nelson views this a crippling to the vision he and Engelbart (and Bush) had, in which links could be created by third parties and associated with the page from outside, thus allowing anyone to link from, annotate, and enhance any work.

I was struck by the fact that  interactive hypermedia centered on TV and video are becoming mainstream, and much of it now does keep the links outside the file. Perhaps just a primitive version of Engelbart and Nelson's ideas, but a step in the right direction that might lead to further movement, and maybe spill over into other Web services...

Prime examples are the growing use of Automatic Content Recognition (ACR), which recognize a program and current viewing time-position, and is used to associate independent linkbases with video.  This is occurring both with 2-screen apps like Shazam, Zeebox, and IntoNow (Yahoo), and with 1-screen apps in smart TVs from most of the major TV vendors, and with support from major studios.

Video seems to naturally make embedded links problematic (where to put them?).  The TV industry tried to embed the links into the content (in such forms as ATVEF trigger streams in the VBI, and more recently in cable operator OCAP/EBIF platforms), but this has proven difficult to get to mass market.  Meanwhile, ACR has become popular -- first on the fringes, but now increasingly accepted by both the market and the industry.  Studios like Fox are even opening up their TV enhancement content to let independents like Zeebox use that content apart from (and in competition with) the Fox apps.  They recognize that the value of their services is enhanced by letting others re-distribute enhancements to their shows (along with independent enhancements) -- anything to increase attention to their shows.

*Of course there were others, most notably Vannevar Bush, who inspired both Engelbart and Nelson.

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