Ming the Mechanic
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Thursday, October 25, 2007day link 

 Static or dynamic web metaphors
picture Anthony Judge: Transforming Static Websites into Mobile "Wizdomes" - enabling change through intertwining dynamic and configurative metaphors. Always interesting and challenging reading from Tony Judge.

The metaphors we employ to travel the web are extremely pervasive, but almost invisible to most. Same thing with how we use computers in general. I'm sure a lot of folks can't imagine anything different than their computer having a "desktop", even though that's a strangely antiquated metaphor to use. Here we have a mindblowing amount of computational power, and software that can deal with a hundred dimensions just as easily as two, and then we model the whole thing around a copy of our desk, with folders and pieces of paper and a trashcan. With many of the same limitations our desk has, which is exactly what we need to go beyond. Seems silly, but habit is strong, and often we can't see anything other than what we're presented with, and what we're used to seeing.

Here's from Tony's article, about "sites":
There is the interesting possibility that "site" may come to be understood as a static outmoded metaphor for the manner in which people and collectives find it appropriate to engage with the universe of knowledge. Site implies a particular location, especially the location with which the web user has some involvement and which may be deliberately constructed as an articulation of individual or collective identity. From there one can travel to other locations which others have configured to represent their's.

However, whilst the "site" may reflect considerable effort in articulating a static identity -- whether or not it has interactive facilities analogous to those that might be expected in a person's house -- it says nothing about the dynamics of how a person moves and how identity may be associated with that. There may be links to other sites -- like travel books in a home library -- but the dynamics and style of that movement are only partially represented. Even more interesting is the question of "who" moves. There is a sense that an abstract entity, a "visitor", travels to other sites as an observer, a consumer, a tourist -- along the information highway. Possibly some form of link may be brought back -- like a photograph or memento. Arrangements may be made to "keep in touch" through an exchange of addresses. As the person responsible for a site, one may in turn make arrangements to receive such visitors.

The question asked in what follows is whether more fruitful understanding of these processes would emerge from changing metaphor.
Hm, yeah. So, a *site* is kind of like a shrine one leaves behind, while one is out doing other things. It might have a bookcase with your favorite books, a collection of your writings, a picture of you, some of the things you like. Why not the teddybear from your childhood, a jar of your favorite peanutbutter, a wardrobe with your old clothes, and a TV playing your favorite shows?

There are organizations of various kinds that leave an office in their building standing ready for their long dead founder. It has a nice comfortable chair he would have liked, a box of his favorite cigars, or whatever it was he liked. And somebody will come by and clean it once per week, and make sure things look just right.

Is that really the kind of vibe we want in a website?

When we add more dimensions and more tools, people will often just create more of the same. I'm thinking of virtual worlds. One buys a plot of land in Second Life, builds a house, looking just like a house in the regular world, with pictures on the wall, books in the book case, music on the stereo, etc. OK, one has the opportunity of making something one couldn't do in real life, because it is would be either impossible or too expensive. One can have an avatar much more beautiful than one really is, and one can live in a mansion, and own a flying Ferrari. But it is still sort of the same thing. A somewhat static place that will represent what one wants to be thought to be, even while one isn't there most of the time.

Tony offers a bunch of possible alternative paradigms and related models and ideas. A whole bunch. One of the alternatives ways of looking at it:
Rather than constructing a site, and visiting other sites elsewhere in cyberspace, suppose the focus shifted to the "vehicle" in which one travelled. Such a shift in paradigm is evident in the case of people who choose to invest in a mobile home to travel their continent, possibly with little immediate intention to return to a particular physical location. The focus is then on the design of the mobile home (a caravan) and its capacity to move. The "centre of gravity" of identity is then with the vehicle and its enabling capacity rather than with some particular physical space. A similar shift in identity is evident in the desire of people to possess a vehicle that better reflects their sense of identity than the place they are obliged to dwell for socio-economic reasons.

But this possibility then raises the question of how exactly the design of a "vehicle" might be expected to be different from the design of a "site". In the design of a site, considerable effort is put into ensuring that it is a reflection of one's personal (or collective) sense of identity. The aim is to fruitfully distinguish its unique qualities from those of others -- notably to render it more attractive. Website designers now have considerable experience in building a site to this end -- respecting the basic needs of visitors -- navigational needs within the site, clarity of content, etc. If the site is a more personal one, holding notes, photographs and the like, less effort may be put into facilitating the experience of visitors and more into its security features -- exactly as with the priorities of a householder for whom the needs of visitors are not of major concern.

How then to think about the design of a "vehicle"? Clearly search engines may be appropriately considered as a form of "public transportation". They may even offer facilities to "personalize" the engagement with such transportation -- configuring colours, layout, language, skins, etc.
OK, so, yes, an avatar would be an example of that. You work on designing the part that's moving around, rather than the part that stays behind.

At the same time we're still stuck to some degree with the same metaphors that limits a mobile home to be as much as possible like one's static home, however much one can manage to stuff it into a box on wheels.

One can get very fancy in designing an avatar for a virtual world, but it is still within the realm of some kind of body, without necessarily getting any new perceptions or access to larger amounts of data or anything.

And I'll argue that more useful interfaces would be more in the direction of extrasensory perceptions and out of body experiences. I mean, instead of duplicating or merely enhancing what we do every day in the meat world, we might make a much bigger jump and imagine what we actually might be able to do if unburdened by the limitations of having to drag stuff through 3 dimensions, which takes time and effort.

In principle, the internet-connected information world would allow you to be anywhere instantly and have access to any amount of information in any way you'd want. Do you really need to "travel" to a "site" and read "documents" in order to get to it? Even if it isn't just that, every site has its own metaphors and paradigms and rules and procedures. You need to sign up, you need to figure out the menus, the different "rooms" of the house that somebody presents you with.

That's of course not all that is going on on the web. A lot of protocols and mechanisms are emerging that potentially allow us to access things in our own way, without having to learn the map of somebody's house. Feeds, APIs, etc. Potentially we have some of the building blocks for creating a drastically different experience.

Back to Tony's article. He proposes some sort of structure that you can take with you, which can replace the metaphor of a site. He calls it the "Wizdome". "Wiz" can be for wisdom, as opposed to knowledge. And "dome" because it maybe could be thought of as being spherical, or maybe geodesic.
Combining these two suggested shifts in metaphor -- to the spherical and to the dynamic -- the question for the individual is whether what is required is to design such a "wizdome" from the elements of knowledge accumulated on any current website. Can such knowledge elements be configured spherically in a fruitful manner for that individual? Can a site be "endomed" or "domified"? What kinds of insights and expertise are required to bring about any such "enwrapping" of knowledge -- beyond what the problematic aspects of cocooning? What is to be "encompassed" and how is this to be distinguished from any "encyclopedic" ambition...?

Additionally however, rather than a static dome, can such a wizdome be designed as a vehicle? Or, more intriguing, is it possible that its viability as a structure is specifically dependent on its movement as a dynamic structure -- as much a "whizdome" as a "wizdome"?

Also intriguing is the possibility that, to sustain its integrity as a dynamic structure, the wizdome may have to move in particular ways or to embody particular kinds of movement. It may indeed be capable of "whizzing" around.
Hm, maybe sort of like a merkeba, an interdimensional vehicle, often considered to be constructed of interlocking tetrahedra.

Some kind of vehicle to travel in on the interwebs might constitute progress.

There's me, and there's a whole lot of information out there, which I might want to interact with. I'd like to get beyond that each separate store house of information will build a house for me to visit to come look at it. And we're already halfway there. I read news in a feed aggregator, I choose my own e-mail programs and instant messenger programs. Although each of those have their own limitations, standing between me and what I'd like to do. I can sort of have these different tools at hand even while I travel around. I can chat in an IM program while looking at different websites, obviously. I can stay connected with a feed of messages from my friends on different computers, or on my mobile phone.

But to get further in terms of a different experience in dealling with the information world, is it still something like that the Semantic Web that is needed? That all available information is thoroughly labeled, measured, categorized, so that I could use some completely universal tools to access it in any way I want, rather than having to put up with a million different interfaces. And, since nobody is going to do it for us, will it emerge as a folksonomy?

Either way, some old structures will have to die out before all this inter-connectivity really can live up to its potential. The internet is still a little too much like a thousand channels with nothing on. Oh, there's a lot on, an there are interesting channels, but it is hard to find what you really want, and do with it what you'd really want to do. Because the metaphors are getting in the way.
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