Saturday, May 08, 2010

We can call the circles nodes, and the arrows links.

In providing a system for manipulating this sort of information, the hope would be to allow a pool of information to develop which could grow and evolve with the organisation and the projects it describes. For this to be possible, the method of storage must not place its own restraints on the information.

This is why a "web" of notes with links (like references) between them is far more useful than a fixed hierarchical system. When describing a complex system, many people resort to diagrams with circles and arrows. Circles and arrows leave one free to describe the interrelationships between things in a way that tables, for example, do not. The system we need is like a diagram of circles and arrows, where circles and arrows can stand for anything.

We can call the circles nodes, and the arrows links.

Tim Berners-Lee of CERN in Information Management: A Proposal, March 1989, May 1990

This is the paper credited with laying a conceptual foundation for the World Wide Web.

I find it interesting that in this early approach Berners-Lee is confronting hierarchies, especially since early expressions of the Web were slavishly hierarchical (Yahoo's endless list of links, anyone?). It's only in the last few years that social architectures like those behind Facebook and Twitter have threatened to unseat the chain of command (although, even in these contexts, the corporate sponsor lives behind the curtain).

Computer scientists Eric Freeman and David Gelernter also dismissed hierarchies as inefficient in their seminal lifestreams work -- work that I believe deserves more credit for informing the social architecture of the information streams that lie behind so much of the social web.

Reading Berners-Lee's paper this morning, it struck me that so much of political history has been about this same confrontation -- the enforcement of hierarchy by folks who have skin in the game, and the challenge of the same by people being served the crumbs.

And even though today's Internet has not succeeded in dissolving hierarchies (and perhaps would be less useful if it had), it did leave me to wonder how this conceptual model, which now informs the lives of so many of us, will shape the political leanings of future generations, simply by being the primordial soup of known experience.

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