Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Giant Programmable Computer

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Web Crystal Ball

"The web is becoming a giant programmable computer,

and that means that people can now collaborate.”
Don Tapscott

In the year 2000, I was scouring the web for engaging sites to help me teach my online Science students, when I happened to get a hit on
The Periodic Table of Comic Books. This award winning site is a 20
th century mashup.

Link to The Periodic Table of Comic Books
It involves a close collaboration between the celebrated content sitting on the site at Web Elements in collaboration with the Chemistry Department of the University of Sheffield, UK, and a splendid 60s style comic book periodic table on the site at the Chemistry Department of the University of Kentucky. This amazing resource has not only engaging colour comic strips but also provides a full complement of data on each of the elements of the periodic table.

A giant programmable computer

When I listened to Don Tapscott’s lines about the web becoming a giant programmable computer in one of his recent video interviews,
I was reminded of Fred Brown’s famous Sci Fi short story, Answer.

The web is changing "the way that we innovate, the way that we orchestrate capability to create goods and services in society". It is "changing the deep structure and architecture of the corporation" and this is likely to bring about "profound changes to every institution in society".

I wondered if it would just be people who would collaborate though. Clearly, there is scope for much, where computational collaboration, far more than is already taking place, could become common.

Compelling style

Tapscott’s visionary manner is compelling. He comes across as a plausible sage. While I have no doubt about his observational skill and his business acumen, I wonder at the implied imbalance and the scale of some of his predicted web transformations.

He speaks of web changes, with most of his forecasts suggesting absolute transformations. “Social networking is becoming social production. This is no longer about hooking up online or creating a gardening community and putting videos on YouTube.” His tone suggests that these will become things of the past - they will simply not happen anymore.

He similarly describes it “changing from being a platform for the presentation of content to becoming a platform for computation”.

I doubt the totality of the web transformations that the pitch of Tapscott’s delivery suggests. There is plenty of space and scope for the web to be “a global platform for collaboration” as well as all the other uses it is likely to be put to and that will include cloud computing and all its developments. As long as humankind is confined to this earth, the capacity of the web to accommodate all of this and more is the nearest we’re ever likely to see of an infinite network.

Clearly there are transformations occurring in the nature of the web, and there always will be. While many of the new avenues that he describes are conceivable, I am sceptical of the exclusive nature of the things the web is supposed to become, according to Tapscott.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Dwan Ev ceremoniously soldered the final connection with gold. The eyes of a dozen television cameras watched him and the subether bore throughout the universe a dozen pictures of what he was doing.

He straightened and nodded to Dwar Reyn, then moved to a position beside the switch that would complete the contact when he threw it. The switch that would connect, all at once, all of the monster computing machines of all the populated planets in the universe -- ninety-six billion planets -- into the supercircuit that would connect them all into one supercalculator, one cybernetics machine that would combine all the knowledge of all the galaxies.

Dwar Reyn spoke briefly to the watching and listening trillions. Then after a moment's silence he said, "Now, Dwar Ev."

Dwar Ev threw the switch. There was a mighty hum, the surge of power from ninety-six billion planets. Lights flashed and quieted along the miles-long panel.

Dwar Ev stepped back and drew a deep breath. "The honor of asking the first question is yours, Dwar Reyn."

"Thank you," said Dwar Reyn. "It shall be a question which no single cybernetics machine has been able to answer."

He turned to face the machine. "Is there a God?"

The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without the clicking of a single relay.

"Yes, now there is a God."

Sudden fear flashed on the face of Dwar Ev. He leaped to grab the switch.
A bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky struck him down and fused the switch shut.
Fredric Brown - 1954, Answer

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