Rethinking web connections

Jon Udell was in Blacksburg this week. An expert of the interwebs (a term probably balked at by Udell), he is somewhat of an anomaly among the masses of web users. It is one thing to use the internet (the majority); it is entirely another thing to be a web-thinker (Udell). Or, so I learned during his talk on Thursday at the Inn at Virginia Tech.

On a personal level, my attempts at being a Luddite have failed miserably as my colleagues, family and friends expect me to communicate by web connection. As much as I appreciate social connections in many forms, the internet perpetually leaves me with blurry eyes, a headache, and a longing for actually lying on Ka’anapali’s sands, climbing the Alps, or actually 🙂 at an old friend. As my dissatisfaction with the internet continues, I often stop and wonder why so many web-users are downright obsessed with (what I originally considered to be) a machine (computer, I___, phone, etc.). Even as an educator, my dream career would be to hold class in a kitchen or the backcountry, just to ensure that the teaching tools we use are not tiny robots. However…with GPS and the Kitchen Robot, who knows?

And so, if I truly am dissatisfied with such a powerful instrument, utilized by billions to run multi-billion dollar companies, entire non-profit entities, political campaigns, becoming a Youtube star…there is only one answer: I am using the internet incorrectly; or, not to its fullest “capability” (as per Udell’s verbage).

Post-discussion, I am floored! Yes, this is the reason why my head spins every time I attempt to navigate the network above.

Udell began his presentation by offering 4 keywords that are fundamental to understanding the web: Resources (dissertation, dataset, calendar), Representations (HTML, PDF, XML, iCalendar), Links (http://…), Names (1. an organization: fedex.com, 2. a tracking number: 86978394029004938, or any other possible entity).

Ok, great. Now why is this significant? Well, because “every Fedex package has its own home page!” At first I did not think of the tremendous capacity here, but then Udell showed us a very long hotel registration URL with identity markers, or codes for things like date, how many rooms, price, etc. written out by a human and sent to his email address. Similar to this scenario, a human being is behind Fedex.com documenting every movement of a package and communicating it to the sender/receiver. How AMAZING is that!? (a sentiment also expressed by Udell himself).

Connection. Layers of connection. Layers of connecting human beings. Layers of connecting human beings to a higher understanding; a complex set of knowledge that in the past has taken centuries to comprehend. And we wonder why it feels as though the world is turning faster than ever! Well, is it because our brains are functioning at a different pace?? To re-focus this entry, lets consider Doug Englebart. His motivation behind the internet was that of global collaboration in order to save the world. How do you even begin to bring 7 billion people together to merely scratch the surface of our world issues?–give em a computer and the internet. Now, the environmental concerns that result from the production and distribution of cheap electronics is another discussion altogether, but still something I always consider every time I turn on my laptop. Can we sacrifice the environment for a couple decades in order to raise enough awareness to get people to care, and then hopefully discover ways of collaborating on less resource-intensive levels? Perhaps, but I still have my reservations.

On a community level, however, Udell has optimized the online calendar. Not only does he manage his town’s calendar, but he visits other towns (like ours) to teach us how to connect more effectively. This was very impressive to me, and it was great to see many town folks in the audience get excited about the potential to make a comprehensive calendar for our area. The objective: get individuals to use a publicly accessibly calendar that, when you add an event to your business/org calendar, it is uploaded to every other calendar that is already connected. We would essentially be creating an effortless community network of all  happenings. Ah, the future!

A comment/question that was brought up from an audience member: “and what about true wisdom? Is the internet providing this sort of learning? I do not believe it is.” This made me get a little fuzzy inside. Even though I am far from a Luddite, there is a certain Thoreau-esque philosophy I have attempted to stress to my peers even when immersed in the network jungle. As much as we can jump from link to link and Google this and Google that, the knowledge that we gather can only go so far. As any behavioral researcher knows, for us to actually learn something, it takes a personal discovery (sometimes repetitively) in order for something to sink in. Maybe this is wisdom, or at least the beginning of it. Perhaps what the web can do is spark creativity…and then it is up to the user to make sense of it and do something great with it. Englebart may not have been too far-fetched in claiming global connectivity as savior of the earth.

To combat my network dissatisfaction, I think I will decrease my facebook usage, and increase the usage of pages that I have complete authority over, such as this blog.

Oh, and check out this website: http://www.wolframalpha.com/ It will blow your mind.

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