The lovable Mr Stephen Fry recently noted [iTunes link] that the challenge isn’t to help people become “computer literate” instead it is to make computers “human literate”. And when you think of the last 25 years, as an industry, we’ve done a pretty good job.
1984 saw Apple launch the Macintosh and with it the world was introduced to the GUI. And then in 1989 TimBL invented the web and changed the world. I’m not suggesting for a moment that everything is OK in the world of interaction design, just that we have come a very long way.
The genius of the Web and the Macintosh is their ability to abstract information to make it more useful, as TimBL put it when talking about the Giant Global Graph:
[The Net] made it simpler because [instead] of having to navigate phone lines from one computer to the next, you could write programs as though the net were just one big cloud, where messages went in at your computer and came out at the destination one. The realization was, “It isn’t the cables, it is the computers which are interesting”. The Net was designed to allow the computers to be seen without having to see the cables.
Simpler, more powerful. Obvious, really.
And then with the development of the Web we could go one step further:
“It isn’t the computers, but the documents which are interesting”. Now you could browse around a sea of documents without having to worry about which computer they were stored on. Simpler, more powerful. Obvious, really.
That’s where we are, more or less, right now, except there’s a realisation that we can keep going, keep making the web more useful and easier to use because:
“It’s not the documents, it is the things they are about which are important”
To achieve this we need to be able to identify those things we’re interested in and the relationship between them, in a way that is above the level of documents, if we do this then we get reuse of data around the concept. That’s just what Linked Data is all about, allowing us to break free of the document layer by focusing on URLs.
By thinking about the web as a web of (identifiers for) interconnected things, not a web of pages means that when I watch a TV programme online it’s not the page on iPlayer (other players are available) that matters to me instead it’s the URI of the programme and it’s that URI that I bookmark. This means that whatever device I use, my iPhone, laptop or IP enabled TV, it will use the device appropriate view. But because we’re talking about URIs and HTTP isn’t just a different way of tuning into a set of presets it also means, as Nicholas Negroponte puts it:
My VCR of the future will say to me when I come home, “Nicholas, I looked at five thousand hours of television while you were out and recorded six segments for you which total forty minutes. Your high school classmate was on the ‘Today’ show, there was a documentary on the Dodecanese Islands, etc…” It will do this by looking at the headers. The bits about the bits change broadcasting totally. They give you a handle by which to grab what interests you and provide the network with a means to ship them into any nook or cranny that wants them.
Designing the web in this way, by thinking about what real world objects people care about, giving them all URIs and then linking them up and linking them to the rest of the web – building the web the linked data way – means you can use the network to not only deliver content but also let people discover more content, mash content together to create new stories.
This as I see it, abstracting the problem above the document layer, is a very sensible way to help make computers more ‘human literate’ because people can stop thinking about webpages and instead start thinking about the stuff that matters to them – whether that be a TV programme, a music track, a book, a person, or a holiday. And whether they access that thing on their desktop computer, mobile phone or IP enabled TV set.