WEB Advent 2012 / More Than a Dot

No one knows if it was a man, or a woman, or a child that first did it, but we do know that about 40,000 years ago, someone put a faint red dot on the wall of a cave in Spain.

Humankind has always felt a burning desire to record information and transmit it into the future. What that dot meant, no one really knows. Perhaps it was the first expression of binary?

Perhaps it was just a dot.

7,000 years later, and our ancestors were expressing themselves in the form of horses, panthers, cave bears, mammoths, and much more inside different caves, this time in the south of France. It’s the first example of recorded history, the first transmission into the future.

It took many thousands more years until we discovered writing. The Sumerians started scraping sigils into clay tablets and baking them — an act which preserved them almost forever, and because of it we, know so much about their society and the way it worked.

Now, of course, we have the Web, and the world has been transformed. So much information is available that our biggest problems are sorting, classifying, filtering, and absorbing, and the rate at which information is growing is staggering. In 2010, we broke the zettabyte barrier, and in 2011, nearly 1.8 zettabytes of information was created, stored, and replicated. Numbers aren’t available for 2012 yet, but we can safely assume that it will have been greater, and that 2013 will be greater still.

The scale is phenomenal. If a penny represented every gigabyte of storage that was consumed, you could use nothing but pennies to construct a 1:1 replica of the Empire State Building in New York and still have some change left over for a cup of coffee when you were done with your labors.

As we are creating all this information, the way in which we are realizing we can use it is changing. We’re structuring the unstructured, and turning the unknowable into knowledge. We’re making tools for navigating the data more effectively, and we’re learning that sometimes raw information is knowledge — you just have to know to ask the right questions.

Improvements in the browser technology available is allowing web developers to push the boundaries of what was thought possible. Our interfaces are richer, and the interactivity is far greater than it ever has been before.

It’s not just the browser — far from it. As our processing spills out of our homes and offices and onto our smart phones and smart devices, the Web has ceased to be just about the browser. The Web has become a message bus. A conduit by which information is ferried back and forth, not just from server to client, but from client to client as well. I can share my thoughts and feelings with friends on the other side of the world instantly, and to the extent that sometimes it doesn’t feel as though there is any distance at all.

Each development spurs a rush of new apps and new ways of looking at older data, which creates new data that pushes us forward again. It’s not that our time to market is shrinking, it’s that our time to market has become instantaneous, and our tools and techniques are adapting to cope with that.

However, as the end of the year approaches, I get reflective, and I find myself looking at the Web and worrying about one thing. 40,000 years from now, when our descendants cast their gaze back on the Web, will they understand what we were saying?

Have we preserved the knowledge we’re creating for future generations, or are we just doing the best we can to keep up with the rate that we’re creating it? Can we be sure that we’re doing the equivalent of writing on clay tablets, baked in the sun and made to last forever?

And, once we are sure of that, will our children’s children’s children still be able to make sense of what we have to say, or have we become so myopic that we no longer care about transmissions further into the future than our own lifetimes? Will our apps still serve them as they have served us? Are we the architects of a library, or of Babylon?

I’d certainly like to think we’re creating more than just a dot.

Other posts