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Last Updated: Friday, 12 August 2005, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
It's the system, stupid
We need to stop thinking at the application level if we're going to build a wired world, reckons technology analyst Bill Thompson

Centrepoint in central London
The goal of public authoring is to share local and cultural experiences
Even with an aggressive spam filter to get rid of most of the rubbish the number of items, my e-mail inbox can, as regular readers will know, sometimes go over a thousand.

When this happens I sit down for an hour or four and try to work my way through them all in an attempt to get my life back on track. Far too many still end up in the Do This Soon folder, where they sit until they develop bit-rot and fade from view, but I do usually manage to pull things back into some semblance of order.

One of the delights of the process, however, is finding interesting stuff that people have sent me which I didn't manage to read at the time. The process of filing e-mail is so tedious and boring that a break to read reports and longer messages is a welcome relief.

This week I finally got round to reading the final report from Urban Tapestries, a two-year research project looking at how geographic information systems and mobile technologies could be used to help people and communities share information.

It was run by Proboscis, one of those groups of intimidatingly clever people who occupy nondescript offices around London and do work which nibbles away at the edges of our current models of the world until the whole edifice comes crashing down.

Free and open

For Urban Tapestries, they built a system which lets you write notes that are associated with a particular point in space like a building or street junction. Anyone with a suitably-equipped mobile phone can read the tags when they are in the right place.

They can be viewed over the web too, of course, but the real point was to experiment with place-based authoring in public spaces.

Bill Thompson
we need to stop thinking about individual elements, like blogging tools, browsers, operating systems or even networks, and instead look at the whole system
Bill Thompson
Public Authoring, Place and Mobility comes with the a set of policy proposals, including a call for more openness in the availability and use of geographical information gathered by organisations like the Ordnance Survey, cleaner interconnectivity between mobile phone networks and an inclusive approach to design.

They also want what they call regulatory nurturing of new services, something which is especially important for potentially disruptive technologies as they often sit outside existing business or regulatory models. Wi-fi, for example, relies on having a section of unregulated radio spectrum that anyone can use without a license.

Outside the corporate IT world, locked as always into debates on data architectures and return on investment, much of the serious thinking about the future of computing is shaped by two core ideas: free and open, and this is the intellectual framework for Proboscis' thinking.

Free software, programs that are free to use, remodel, learn from and redistribute, and open everything, from source code to scientific research to government departments, are as important in building a new model of the information society as the concepts of alienation and surplus value were to the construction of Marxism.

It is refreshing to see a serious attempt to engage with their implications that isn't just a call for more GNU/Linux in schools.

Authors Giles Lane and Sarah Thelwall see public authoring as "a powerful force in enriching the public domain through the sharing of information, knowledge and experiences by ordinary people about the places they live, work and play in", something which ties in closely with the ongoing discussion about blogging and citizen journalism.

But Urban Tapestries gives us a much wider context than photoblogging news events, and it shows that we need to stop thinking about individual elements, like blogging tools, browsers, operating systems or even networks, and instead look at the whole system.

Chips everywhere

In the networked world, standalone software doesn't exist, except in very specialist areas, and we're used to the idea that each program has to work with other programs.

A fridge freezer developed by Hoover
Future fridges may gain features whether we want them or not
We need standard programming interfaces and data definitions - sooner, rather than later, since I'm still stuck with my old e-mail in an Outlook data file. And we need to put inclusive design at the centre of our development process.

But there is a lot more to the wired world than just getting clean user interfaces and standards-compliant programs, great though those things are.

We are rapidly moving towards a point where almost every interaction we have with technology will be mediated by software, where the number of electromechanical or even merely mechanical devices and switches will drop rapidly. We're seeing it already in our cars, and it is happening to the machines we use at home.

We are also reaching a point where connectivity is available whenever and wherever we want it, and the temptation to put a wi-fi chipset into every fridge is going to be irresistible, even if the manufacturers don't know what we might do with them.

The danger here is not that they'll be hacked, although we're already seeing scare stories about cars subject to attack over their Bluetooth link, but that we won't be able to cope with the complexity of interactions that these links create and will see a combinatorial explosion of possibilities that will overwhelm us.

This is where Urban Tapestries work comes in, because it gives us some ideas about how we might move forward in designing, building and learning how to use complex systems which embody social practice in technology.

Tagging your local pub so that other people know which is the best beer may not seem like a radical breakthrough, but it is through such playful experimentation that we begin to understand how we can be social beings in a networked world.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital


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