“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
The Walrus And The Carpenter. Lewis Carrol
We have been researching this subject that turned into Perspectives ever since January 2016, spending most of our(1) waking hours on it, every day. But actually, we started even years before that. As our work progressed and we understood more, incorporated more and saw how this concept of Context was related to so many subjects, the story in our heads slowly grew, encompassing more and more of our previous work and our experiences in thirty-something years in IT. The work tore loose many familiar ideas, like ‘information’ and ‘meaning’, and settled them on a new footing. Words from everyday life took on a new or different, but much more precise, meaning, like role, perspective, action, and context. The concepts behind them interrelate tightly, forming a closed group that is meaningful in itself but where each part is hard, if not impossible, to explain in isolation.
So where to begin? And: whom to address ourselves to? The IT world is always rushing to the next new thing, looking for efficiency rather than insight, driven by money and schedules that always are too tight and by by high expectations. Moreover, let’s not put too fine a point on it, it is often caught up in disastrous projects. Such a world is not very receptive to a story from first principles that will turn everything on its head and will deliver no results tomorrow. So the EU Next Generation Internet initiative was a pleasant surprise, if not heaven sent. Here, at last, seems to be a community of people who are willing to take a step back, are actually in search of a new perspective and reckon with a proper long period (ten years!) between start and finish. Moreover, we immediately recognised the values championed by the NGI as values we hold dear ourselves and that popped up as principles in our theoretical work.
Nevertheless, how to begin? Actually, there are many structures that have no clear beginning. A circle is the prototypical example, but so is a web and it holds true for a network of interrelated concepts, too. As a matter of fact, most organic structures have neither a clear beginning in time, nor demarcation in space (2). To make most of what might seem a disadvantage, we will jump right in: any point should be as good as another.
So we let ourselves be guided by events as they unfold and on this principle we start with an observation one of us (Joop) made while visiting the 30 years of the Web: where do we go next? event in Brussels (March 3, 2019). The observation: our minds are hijacked by the frame of our self-proclaimed opponents in Silicon Valley, as long as we put ‘data’ centre stage! Data may be important if you want to make money on the internet; but it is merely nuts and bolts if you want to build a meaningful new web. Important though nuts and bolts may be, they will not teach you much about architecture, meaning, society, functions, values and goals. I’ve written these ideas up in Stop Talking About Data!.
Here is our program: we will add a story each week, picking an important concept for each of them, and relate those to concepts treated before. Doing so will give more meaning to those earlier stories, so we’ll revisit themes presented earlier, elaborating them as we go.
Finally. I’ve always loved this quote. I do believe in ‘lateral thinking’. The last line supplied the title of a book by O. Henry (Cabbages and Kings), reviewed in the New York Times in 1904 with: “The incidents embracing as they do, a variety of subjects, hang loosely together, so loosely in fact, that at times one finds no apparent connection between them at all, and yet in the end one sees how each is intimately related to the other.” Carrol’s enumeration, too, seemingly nonsensical and whimsical, nevertheless weaves an image, an atmosphere — conveys meaning. We hope our stories will do the same.
(1) Cor Baars & Joop Ringelberg
(2) While you might think your body is well delineated, think again! Consider the multitudes that live on your skin, inside your guts and actually throughout your body en and give a moment’s thought to their influence on your health, your metabolism, your mental health. Then picture how you continually shed these living organisms and pick them up from your environment, and now reconsider your body’s limits again… (further reading: Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes).