Another Nail in the Coffin: the Yahoo! Directory

On the second-last day of the year 2014, CNN put out the headline: “Internet icon dies“. The headline on Google News grabbed my attention, as it was designed to do. I aked myself who?

Through my mind flitted names of various Internet icons: Tim Berners-Lee … Vint Cerf … Bob Kahn?

Steeling myself to face the heart rendering news, I clicked; and found to my great relief that it was only the Yahoo Directory: not a person, but a thing. Several hours later, the original headline was replaced by “Internet icon dies as Yahoo Directory goes dark “.

It’s not that I’m glad to see the Yahoo Directory gone. The Yahoo Directory was one of my great loves, and I will never forget her. She will always have a place in my heart; but she was taken away many years ago. This is not news, it is olds. I have grieved the loss of my old friend for a decade, or more.

In 1993, when the World Wide Web became available to ordinary mortals, it was a challenge to find relevant information. One would start their journey on a ‘Home Page’. It was usually the page of your University or place of work. You also had the option of creating your own ‘Home Page’ by learning the simple rules of HTML – Hypertext Markup Language. A few people did, and web pages began to proliferate.

The HTML protocol invented by Tim (now Sir Tim) Berners-Lee included a search function. One could create a document, and include a search box to search for specific information within it.

It was a quarter of a century ago when we were provided with the ability to create a digital document that could be searched for specific information, and be linked to other documents that readers could access with a simple click. It was the beginning of a revolution that would transform life as we know it.

In the beginning, there were documents that could be searched within themselves, that could in turn be linked to other documents that could be searched within themselves. Readers could read these documents and click to others, as surfers ride waves, going with the flow of information: and thus, the term ‘web surfing’ was born.

Jerry Yang and David Filo did web surfers a great service by taking the randomness out of web surfing by creating an organised directory of websites, that was both comprehensive, and user-driven. The Yahoo Directory, played a big part in making the World Wide Web a viable commercial channel, rather than just a useful tool for academics and researchers.

It was a simple idea. It utilized the existing HTML protocol and created a simple document that was searchable within itself. The document consisted of links to websites categorized and with simple descriptions.

It was this simplicity that created the first global go-to page for users of the World Wide Web.

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Cybernetic Philosophy

It was 1993 when I firsted stumbled upon the website of Principia Cybernetica, and it is still a fascinating, organic, body of work that survives, little changed, as the world wide web has grown around it. It is a profound document to me; a kind of Bible in hypertext and an embodiment of what it claims to reflect upon – the metasystem transition.

Among the gems to be found in the Cybernetica web are links to documents like A Mathematical Theory of Communication by C.E. Shannon, which in 1948 established such fundamental foundations of the digital future we inherited as:

The choice of a logarithmic base corresponds to the choice of a unit for measuring information. If the base 2 is used the resulting units may be called binary digits, or more briefly bits, a word suggested by J. W. Tukey. A device with two stable positions, such as a relay or a flip-flop circuit, can store one bit of information. N such devices can store N bits…

There is a fascinating and classic book, which the Principia Cybernetica team put into digital form after it had been many years out of print: W. Ross Ashby’s An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956).

The subject of these texts tend to be rather arcane, technical, and mathematical; yet on some level are philosophically profound. Shannon’s paper concerns itself with ‘signal-to-noise ratio’, and states:

The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages. The system must be designed to operate for each possible selection, not just the one which will actually be chosen since this is unknown at the time of design. If the number of messages in the set is finite then this number or any monotonic function of this number can be regarded as a measure of the information produced when one message is chosen from the set, all choices being equally likely.

Ross Ashby explains this with a simple and clear analogy:

Two soldiers are taken prisoner by two enemy countries A and B, one by each; and their two wives later each receive the brief message “I am well”. It is known, however, that country A allows the prisoner a choice from

I am well,
I am slightly ill,
I am seriously ill,

while country B allows only the message

I am well

meaning “I am alive”. (Also in the set is the possibility of “no message”.) The two wives will certainly be aware that though each has received the same phrase, the informations that they have received are by no means identical. From these considerations it follows that, in this book, we must give up thinking, as we do as individuals, about “this message”.

We must become scientists, detach ourselves, and think about “people receiving messages”. And this means that we must turn our attention from any individual message to the set of all the possibilities.

I’m going to spend the next few months going through these texts and re-familiarising myself with this fascinating subject.

An illustration showing the concept of the macroscope as compared to the telescope and the microscope

An illustration from Joel de Rosnay’s ‘The Macroscope’, an easy to read introduction to cybernetics and systems thinking.

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The World’s First Web Page

What can I say? Keep it simple, stupid:

A man once told me: “you should learn php”, and I scoffed him. To me, HTML was everything. The idea of adding another layer of elements to this simple information architecture was anathema. I was wrong.

I love hypertext. It is elegant in simplicity and revolutionary in effect, but I should have learned php. Mark Zuckerberg did.

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The World’s Worst Web Page

There’s something quite poetic about it being an Angelfire site:

They forgot the blink tag but I guess it probably doesn’t work in most browsers now. And under construction image shows a poor understanding of the world wide web

Angelfire pages were generally bad, and later came Myspace, which became very popular. Myspace pages were even worse in appearance than Angelfire pages. Rupert Murdoch bought Myspace for $580 million dollars, and everybody left.

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The first photographic image published to the web

The first photo picture posted to the web

The first picture was posted on the World Wide Web by Silvano de Gennaro in 1992

Well, it was widely disseminated in July 2012 as ‘the first image published on the web’ but the original uploader has since semi-denied the fame and glory surrounding this momentous event and has added the caveat that it was ‘the first image of a band‘ to be uploaded to the web.

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The Myth of the Ethereal Internet

The Internet was for some time associated with the ethereal and ephemeral. I remember a wise man sunburned on the back of his neck telling me that the Internet was just a fad and a temporary craze, and that people don’t like to use computers so it will never last.

At the time, I was convinced that the Internet was the end to all the troubles of mankind. It would solve the tyranny of distance for people living in remote and rural isolation. Kids in the outback would have access to the libraries of Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard Universities. Nobody would have to commute to CBDs. The shopping mall would become obsolete. World peace, love and understanding were inevitable. Perhaps we were both wrong, the redneck and I.

But that particular redneck was wronger than me, and a lot of my redneck friends are Facebook friends now. Salt of the earth people who like to hunt and post the pictures to facebook. It’s like having a trophy on your wall without the taxidermist: ethereal in a sense, but by no means ephemeral.

Shopping malls are starting to look more obsolete as we speak, and then we can get around to getting rid of that commuting business, and then finally turn our attention to the issue of world peace.

Hurry up.

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Digital Sculpture

Art is never ‘virtual’. There was a time when anything and everything created on a computer was considered to be ‘virtual’ and therefore unreal/not real. Dispersions of conventuality is the purpose of art: the conventional must be continually destroyed to create new actualities.

Consider the art of Fausto de Martini. His sculpture cybergirl is featured in the header image of this website. Is it virtual art, or real?

Art is always real, no matter the medium. Fausto is as good as Michelangelo.

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An Ancient Geek: Consider a device…

Vannevar Bush was perhaps the father of the Internet

Vannevar Bush was an ancient geek who concieved of the memex device

In 1945 Vannevar Bush wrote:

Consider a future device … in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

I first read his article in 1998 in the (digital) archive of The Atlantic Monthly and found it quite inspiring. I wrote an article about it on my old (web 1.0) website. The Dreamtime of the Internet

In his original essay, Bush posits some interesting, and in hindsight, quaint ideas:

Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. Faster material and lenses, more automatic cameras, finer-grained sensitive compounds to allow an extension of the minicamera idea, are all imminent. Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut.

I’m glad I don’t have to wear a lump on my forehead, but can use my ultra-cool hand held device, the smartphone, to take pictures, but much of his vision has come to pass: dry photography – no need for chemicals, and lenses that auto focus.

You can read his original article As We May Think courtesy of your memex device.

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Cybernet Museum

I was after a domain name and getting tired of trying different names, all of which were already registered. Anyone with experience of trying to register a decent domain name will understand how difficult it can be sometimes. The name came up as a suggestion, and I thought it was kind of interesting. The name sounded a little science-fictiony, encompassed the Internet with that slightly dorky and dated prefix ‘cyber’, and included the curatorial aspect of ‘museum’. I’m interested in history, the Internet, and the history of the Internet, so I grabbed it with the view of posting my musings on the past and present state of this great medium.

What’s in a name?

The word ‘cybernet’ has a bit of a history, so in my first post I’d like to clarify what Cybernet Museum is not about. It’s not about the TV show about video games that aired on the ITV network from 1998-2010.

It’s not about the notorious computer reseller that operated between 1991 and 2004, nor is it about the Cybernet engineering company which supplies the defense and medical industry ‘amplifying human performance through advanced technology’.

This website has nothing to do with the Cybernet computer manufacturing company, that provides computer systems for specialist applications and we are not Cybernet, the largest ISP and data network operator in Pakistan.

But I will sometimes turn to the subject of cybernetic philosophy.

Cybernet Electronics Delta 1 CB radio circa late 1970s

Cybernet Electronics Delta 1 CB radio circa late 1970s

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