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The Synthetic Web

This was originally posted on my tumblr back in late 2009, I've moved it here because it remains relevant. I've made minor corrections and adjustments.

In a thread on the TiddlyWeb Google group, I stated:

My opinion is that stuff, i.e. information, should be addressable and reusable. That's my fundamental number one design goal with TiddlyWeb.

This was while making the assertion that the URIs used for entities in TiddlyWeb should have names and structure that is most meaningful and most useful to the general user who stumbles across the entities while browsing the web, not names and structure that is most meaningful to the developers of the system. Furthermore the names and addresses and reusability are for humans.

Ideally the names should be useful to both sets but when there is a conflict I think the unknown user should get the benefit or assist from the system, not the developer. This is my personal opinion, but because I've written most of TiddlyWeb, it shows throughout its design.

The opinion has been active throughout what might be called the second half of my career. The first half could be described as managing information systems, the second half could be described as creating them. The opinion goes something like this:

  • Information exists. However it is represented, it is in a system and can be used.
  • Some information systems exist to confirm what we think we already know or for which we can phrase a fairly concrete question (e.g. "Where is London?" or "What is the definition of 'information'?"). In these cases, searching or similar interaction models are excellent tools: our inquiry is algorithmically transformed into a query against an index (note an index can take many forms). Think dictionary. Or google.
  • Other information systems are storehouses (real or otherwise) which provide affordances for navigation, browsing and discovery. These allow for that extraordinary thing: learning new stuff. We're wandering along, soaking up new information or new ways of stating old information and BAM, we make a connection, disparate paths are linked and now we know something. We have made a synthesis of A and B et voila new thesis C. Think narrative book. Or the web at large.
  • These systems that enable synthesis are fundamentally more important than others because synthesis is the source of learning, innovation and change. They drive intuition, inspiration and insight.
  • While data is fundamentally useful to provide authority to new insights, human narrative, human summarization (nee synthesis) is the part that makes you go "hmmm". In an academic paper the part that thrusts us into the future is the frame: the introduction and conclusion, the setting of the stage and the synthesis. The parts in the middle make the rest believable.
  • Some data can be represented with rich syntax that encodes semantics that make it automatically reusable. That is, you can package up data in a structured way such that computation can be performed on it. This is the fundamental premise of the semantic web. Such computation can deduce (deduction: conclusion drawn from examination of facts) true statements such as "Chris Dent is a male living in England working on TiddlyWeb".
  • Narrative is not so clean cut. It is full of connotation and contextual dependence. What it means must be inferred and that inference is inescapably done in the personal headspace of the reader/listener/participant.
  • Opportunities for innovative synthesis from narrative are augmented by arraying (representing) the narrative within the context which created it in the first place and things which are similar or can be identified as being related in time, place, group.
  • Computers have achieved a special place in the history of information systems because they are the most capable tool (thus far) for easing the task of navigating these multi-dimensional representations of narrative.
  • Critically, thus far only humans are able to perform the synthesis that results in new knowledge and from which new narrative might be created.
  • Often it is but a small piece (microcontent) of a larger whole which strikes the chord that plays eureka in the mind.
  • Therefore:
  • Information, especially narrative, should be published in a way that humans can easily make reference to it and use of it as they do the re-representing that is required to engender synthesis. It should have good names and addresses.
  • Tools which enable this publishing should make as few assumptions about the people and tools accessing them as possible, so as to enable as yet unknown ways of (re-)representing the information.
  • Ideally the tools should allow addressing down to small pieces, for clear reference and reuse.

There's nothing particularly new about any of this. You can distill versions of the same reasoning out of Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson. Hypertext does a pretty good job of implementing a lot (but not all) of this stuff. The HTTP web does a pretty good (but not perfect) job of implementing hypertext. Wikis pick up some (but not all) of the gaps.

What I've been exploring for the last fifteen years or so are tools which help enable the multi-dimensional contextualizing of information, so that people can blink a bit, think a bit and then nod knowingly. Granular addressability and transclusion with Purplewiki and Purple Numbers. Various tools in Socialtext to get information into or out of the wikis or get some sense of how things fit together (feeds, backlinks, page or resource inclusion, the REST API).

Which leads to TiddlyWeb. Because TiddlyWeb started out as a server-side for TiddlyWiki, and TiddlyWiki is a) already a wiki, b) already oriented towards microcontent, c) a curious hybridization of narrative, code and data, TiddlyWeb starts out naturally in tune with my inclinations. Where my opinions have impacted it are in the efforts to insure first class tiddlers, diverse storage and representation types, sensible granularity, and strong adherence to being webby, in the open web sense.

Thankfully, many people seem to have the same idea. The open web has always been about people doing the stuff that people want to do with information, with as few restrictions as possible.

Things should have a name, so in contrast to the semantic web, this thing for human learning could maybe be called the synthetic web. Not because it is fake, but because it has been made and is making all the time.

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