Friday, November 21, 2008

And We're Not Amazed

Food For Thought


That's Kevin Kelly sitting in the red chair on a darkened stage. He's talking to an assembly of some of the world's finest minds at a recent TED conference. He's earned their attention by being, over the last 40+ plus years one of the most prescient thinkers on the globe. He not only sees real patterns — which is rare enough — but he has an ability to see the direction in which those patterns are moving. That's a forbiddingly abstract talent and it's always been hard for Kelly to make himself sound sensible when he first points to a pattern. It's only later that his positions come to be taken-for-granted wisdom.

As you might surmise, Kevin Kelly has been a hero of mine for a long time; since the old Whole Earth Review through his work on chaos theory. His sort of integrative, obsessive, reportorial focus on what's truly important is always worth listening to....and even if you are tempted to think that this time it might be a little over the top you should remember that he has pretty much always been right....

This time he's on about the web. How amazing it really is. How amazing it is that we're not just poleaxed by what we've got. How that's only the beginning How the web is turning into an ever-more all-inclusive machine. And how that machine is evolving.



Like the web you could just about take off anywhere in that talk and dip into some really fascinating and important stuff. For instance, Kelly mentions, in quick passing, photosynth. Long-term and retentive readers will vaguely recall that term; I posted on it back when I fell across the technology on the web. Take a look; I think you'll see how it fits his thesis. Then consider: He considers that a throw-away line. There's a lot of meat below that almost-glib surface.

Here in Lafayette we've got to start taking such stuff seriously. It's now inevitable that we will be able to inhabit the leading edge of this brave new world when it appears. We'll have bandwidth to burn in LUS' 100 megs of intranet and the wireless network now abuilding and attached to that hard-wired backbone can provide ubiquity at speeds that will stun. (In my neighborhood mysterious black cylinders are being attached to LUS fiber on a pole on every block. As I walk past with my iPhone NAD a wifi network pops up....) But, frankly, having the hardware doesn't give us the vision. We could use it to just give us "more" of the same—bigger bandwidth, better phones, more fun cable, all for less. And we should do that. But that is the LEAST we can do with our new network.

A network-centric future is upon us. The web will connect, for practical purposes, all points from hand-crafted links, to databases, to our relationships, to the bevy of things we make and use. What ties all that together; what makes it work; is how it is integrated. Right now we're calling it "search" and Google is the god. But simple textural search and link-ranking (which is most of what Google does) is only the tip of the iceberg here.

What the world needs—and what Lafayette and a few other places are positioned to supply—is what will replace search. The new web needs big bandwidth and ubiquity—practically speaking a tightly integrated fiber-wireless network. The next web also needs the huge calculative power that Kelly mention but does not emphasize. Between LITE and ULL's underutilized supercomputers we'll have computational power to do the sorts of pattern recognition and integration that things like photosynth and other database integrative applications will need. Kelly notes that the new web will no be like the old web any more than our web is like television. The new way of making acessible all those things which the web will connect is the crux of the difference. I trust his insights there and can see the outlines of the patterns he points to.

What Lafayette, and other communities with the resources, should be doing is supporting and providing incentives for companies and individuals that want design for what only we can currently do: provide the next generation of integrative technologies—that which will replace search. Any x-prize, any portal, any support that does not take that into account will be missing the boat.

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