Out of the tragedy of Aaron Swartz’s untimely departure earlier this year are some of his outputs that endure. One, RSS, through his contribution in the RSS-DEV Working Group, is a cornerstone of syndicated web content distribution, although with the demise of Google Reader, one wonders how long RSS or its successor, the Atom Syndication Format, will survive in a new model of published content. That’s perhaps for another post. Markdown, co-written with John Gruber is a format I’m using to write this text. And there are others.
A more recent output was the unfinished e-book The Programmable Web, available for free download from the publisher Morgan & Claypool’s site. In it, he lays out a brief but amusing history of the web, and, although it’s a first draft and was never updated, he also paints an attractive—if utopian—vision of what the web could be, and why the Semantic Web would be an important part of that.
It reminds me of why I sometimes fiddle with semantic web technologies in my spare time. While it’s a sometimes impenetrable mass of specifications dealing with knowledge models and representations, it is a critical body of knowledge for implementing and traversing a machine-readable web. To implement this vision is to bootstrap the web to a totally new level of unimaginable utility, as the current Web 2.0 functionality would be to our pre-1990 selves. (I’m also cynical enough to believe it would also have unimaginable negative consequences, but then we’ve so far survived the nuclear age too, despite the odds.)
I’m not a futurist or misty-eyed sci-fi fanatic but the combination of knowledge models, open linked data, discoverable APIs, and agents leads to some predictable outcomes. The products can be as pedestrian as the Internet refrigerator that arranges its own restocking and will inevitably display an ad each time you open it. Or as provocative as an undetectable wearable computing fabric that “augments” its owner’s reality, and could change the very nature of “self” and “other”. I think it is the future. Laugh or cry at Google Glass, it’s a pointer to where we’re going. That’s both exciting and challenging, but inevitable. Assuming we survive our more pressing current and future geo-political challenges of course.
The image above comes from here.