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Web Apparitions

The old Web is as dead as a punch card. Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is that's particularly dead about a punch card. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard an abacus as the deadest piece of infomongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my tendonitis-ridden hands shall not disturb it, or the World's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that the old Web is as dead as a punch card.

Actually, it was Old Marley, and a door-nail, but since this is nearly the end of the 20th century, I modernize.

And what three apparitions haunt me this Christmas? Permit me to close my eyes for a few brief moments, I'll connect.

[sound of modem dialing]

Apparition One presses the Back button.

It's late 1990 and the URL is but a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee's eye. I am working on a short video on groupware for Lockheed. Sitting across the table is Doug Engelbart.

Doug, are you surprised at how far the technology has come in the last 40 years since you first started working at augmenting man's intellect?
No, not at all. I knew from the start that the technology would continue to scale down and make it all possible.

Are you surprised at the human side of this evolution?
I thought we'd have come a lot farther by now. It's as if we're huddled along the Hudson in small settlements, totally unaware of what lies ahead in the vast expanse of the new world.

As we discuss philosophy, I sense my apparition becoming bored. It clicks through. But not before creating a bookmark–www.bootstrap.org.

I'm now sitting with Terry Winograd.

Terry, what was the ripple effect of trying to program contract law into a computer? You helped create a controversial groupware product with the potential to hold individuals accountable for their actions. How did it work?
It all depends on context, choice, and training. The same technology can be used very differently in different environments, to the extent that some people just ignored the headers of a message and used it for straight email. (The headers identified such things as "question," "response," "commitment," and "counter.")

Apparition One is intrigued, but in a hurry bookmarks pcd.stanford.edu, and clicks through to Howard Rheingold's office (www.rheingold.com).

Howard, what should I have asked Doug and Terry, and how would you have answered?
How do you know when it works? When you have a successful, networked organization?You have to give a dedicated group of individuals the funding, resources, and time to invent it. You also need someone on the team who understands the peculiarities of the medium.

Apparition Two drags me back to the present. I visit Brewster Kahle sailing on the Hudson with his father.

Brewster, have you learned anything from dealing with all the data? What's on the horizon?
Cheaper disk drives.

That's it?
Disk storage is now $50 to $100 per gigabyte. We can store an entire snapshot of the Web online. With RAM prices dropping to $2 per MB, you can also max out a 32-bit OS (4GB) at a reasonable cost. This has profound implications for data mining.

What about data mining? Have you learned anything profound? What about link analysis and user trails? Are they really working?
Yes. Consider the Starr Report (see www.alexa.com). According to our sample of 200,000 individuals, more than 15 percent, or one out of seven, viewed Starr's findings the first day they were released.

What does the future hold: dark Starr, or a shining light? You be Apparition Three. Tell me. 


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