Many years ago, in the mid 70's at University of Illinois, I was fortunate enough to have been touched by something called PLATO - an acronym for Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations. At the time, PLATO was a mainframe-based time sharing system with about a thousand custom multimedia terminals - that is, 512x512 graphics, touch screen pointing device, synchronized microfiche and audio, and "always on" connectivity - quite an achievement for the time, particularly given that I was still using coding sheets and Hollerith cards to do classwork.
Although primarily intended as a computer-assisted teaching system, PLATO evolved into the first large scale "online community", with eMail, online discussions, instant messaging, chat rooms, remote screen sharing, and massive multiplayer gaming. We established long-distance relationships for work and for love; we balanced the duality of our real and virtual lives. In short, the tens or hundreds of thousands of us who had a chance to experience PLATO in those days were afforded a preview of what was to come in the Internet era - an era of global ubiquitous communications and interaction.
As many of us who had spent years immersed in the PLATO environment left and entered the "real world", we were shocked and dismayed to find a world lacking electronic connection. And as I entered the business world, it simply made no sense to me that computers were being used solely for computing and "data processing"; the collaborative online work environment that I'd taken for granted, that I'd used day in and day out, was simply missing in action. Our work lives are all about interpersonal connections, our businesses processes are structured into connections amongst people and systems that must be coordinated. What better use of technology than to help people to connect?
And so, for most of my life since that time, it has been my goal to explore what lies at the intersection between people, organizations, and technology. To attempt to utilize technology - to mold it, to shape it into a form such that it can help organizations to achieve a greater "return on connection" from employee, customer, and partner relationships, and to help individuals to strengthen the bonds between themselves and those with whom they interact - online. Because - empirically - collaborative technology has substantive value, in reducing the cost of coordination, in providing shared awareness across differences in space and time.
The way that I explore is to build products, and to see how they are used. To see what works, and what doesn't. To listen, to interact, to refine. Because cooperative work exists at the intersection between people, organizations, and technology, collaborative systems are truly fascinating: in order to serve people effectively, technologists must, for example, understand social dynamics, social networks, human factors. …
The bottom line to "why?" To create real value in a dimension that I passionately believe in.
I'm staying out of the Lotus Notes quagmire ('We spent years and years at Lotus trying to convince people of the "higher order" value of collaborative processes, sharing, and KM. And I learned the hard way that fighting what appear to be natural organizational and social dynamics is very tough'), but am just recording here something I read today, found inspiring and really rather astonishing — not as much for its content as for how Ozzie traces the roots of his vision back to something he was working with in the mid-70s. It made me look out again his more famous posting about Live Clipboard:
I’ve been wondering, “what would it take to enable users themselves to wire-the-web”? … The world of the Web today is enabled by the power of a simple user model – Address/Go or Link, Back, Forward, Home. And certain “in-page” models have emerged from the ether: clicking the logo in the upper-left is Home, search in the upper-right, Legal/Corporate/Privacy/etc at the bottom. How we interact with shopping carts is now fairly standard. But each site is still in many ways like a standalone application. Data inside of one site is contained within a silo. Sure, we can cut and paste text string fragments from here to there, but the excitement on the web these days is all about “structured data” such as Contacts and Profiles, Events and Calendars, and Shopping Carts and Receipts, etc. And in most cases, the structured form of this data, which could be externalized as an XML item or a microformat, generally isn’t. It’s trapped inside the page, relegated to a pretty rendering.
So, where’s the clipboard of the web? Where’s the user model that would enable a user to copy and paste structured information from one website to another? Where’s the user model that would enable a user to copy and paste structured information from a website to an application running on a PC or other kind of device, or vice-versa? And finally, where’s the user model that would enable a user to “wire the web”, by enabling publish-and-subscribe scenarios web-to-web, or web-to-PC? …
I’d like to extend the clipboard user model to the web.
Of course, that was posted in March last year and since then everyone's been asking 'What happened to Live Clipboard?' and 'Where's Ozzie?'. We may have some answers to both these questions this year.
There's only so much partisan OS/platform war one can take. The really important question is that one about the read/write web: 'What would it take to enable users themselves to wire-the-web?'. I love the way Ozzie set that question in the context of 'the wild world of the web', mashups and all: 'mashups demonstrate how quickly a “mesh” can form when the process of wiring together components is made easy'.