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The web as we know it was invented by a British academic working in Switzerland. (See "The World Wide Web as an Engineering Paradigm," the story of the web http://www.larryblakeley.com/Articles/monthly_articles/engineering_paradigm_www_abstract.htm) Is a Nordic academic working in Britain about to redefine it forever?
Frode Hegland, a researcher at University College London, wants to change the basic structure of information on the net.
Hegland's project, Liquid Information http://www.liquidinformation.org/, is kinda like Wikipedia meets hypertext. In Hegland's web, all documents are editable, and every word is a potential hyperlink.
Hegland is based at University College London's Interaction Centre http://www.uclic.ucl.ac.uk/ and collaborates with Doug Engelbart http://www.iath.virginia.edu/elab/hfl0035.html, inventor of the mouse. Engelbart refers to Hegland's project as "the next stage of the web."
"I love the web, but it's a shitty toy," declared Hegland. "(It's) a first movie of a train coming into a station."
Hegland's idea is simple - he plans to move beyond the basic hypertext linking of the web, and change every word into a "hyperword." Instead of one or two links in a document, every single word becomes a link. Further, every link can point to more than one place, pulling up all kinds of background context from the web as a whole.
Click on a politician's name and find out who donated to his or her campaign. Click on a town name in a news story and find out what else has happened there.
"We feel that a large part of the history of technology, digital and otherwise, has been about the production of information," Hegland said. "It's time to focus on consumption, to help people navigate through information and get relevant information into their heads."
The project started in 2003, but Hegland has been thinking about interfaces and information for a long time. "I've been working on these ideas since 1991," he said. Then the web happened.
When Tim Berners-Lee first developed the web at CERN, he intended it to be an interactive back-and-forth, akin to projects like the Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page (also, see Wikipedia http://www.larryblakeley.com/academic_research_search/wikipedia_encyclopedia.htm). But in the monolithic web of today, you're either a consumer or a producer, never both at the same time.
Liquid Information takes Berners-Lee's ideas and runs with them. Hegland's experimental system is geared toward allowing users - not just writers and editors - to make connections. Instead of just viewing websites, readers can change the way information is presented, or relate it to other information elsewhere on the web.
The Liquid Information project's homepage proudly states, "You can think of this project as an effort to turn web 'browsers' into web 'readers.'"
Currently, the project offers a basic demo: a live version of the CNN website http://www.liquid.org/hyper3/hp3/HP3_Menu?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cnn.com%2F, where hovering over any word causes a context-sensitive menu to appear.
The menu offers a series of options - users can Google the word, highlight it, get a dictionary definition of it or show only paragraphs which contain it, among other things.
But this is only the beginning, Hegland insisted. The Liquid Information project has much grander aims. Eventually, users would be allowed to process information in any way imaginable. For example, if readers prefer "The New York Times" to Wired News, or Fox News to AlterNet, they will be able to add subsets of preferred sites to hyperword menus.
"Users will need to be educated and some people see this as a problem, but people are pretty smart," said Hegland. "The days of baby steps when everything is shown to users are over.... Today, the web is a collection of handmade, one-way links. That's it as far as interactivity is concerned.... Legibility is important, but legibility with interactivity, or deep legibility, is crucial to help us follow connections, explicit or otherwise."
"There's plenty of information out there and Google gives us the tiniest fraction of an idea of what's possible," said Bruce Horn http://folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story=Joining_the_Mac_Group.txt&sortOrder=Sort%20by%20Date&detail=medium&search=bruce%20horn, the veteran programmer behind the original Macintosh file browser, the Finder. "(But) data is not information, which is not knowledge, which is not wisdom. If people were able to find out things quickly and easily, for example how people in politics had been voting, they'd be able to make better decisions."
Horn said Google is moving in a parallel direction. The search giant's recent moves into desktop search, the scanning of library books and the purchasing of old Usenet posts point toward Google's view of the internet as a "network operating system," dedicated to information.
But Horn said Hegland's motives are rather different.
"This isn't about being the next Google," Horn said. "The goal is to try and change the world for the better - not necessarily to make a ton of money."
- "Information Wants to be Liquid," Jason Walsh, Wired News http://www.wired.com, January 25, 2005, http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,66382,00.html