New Context Conference — Tokyo

October 3rd, 2006

Last week I was in Tokyo for the New Context Conference — the future of the Web, which was hosted by Joi Ito. Here’s a partial translation of the conference program.

There were a number of Japanese speakers, and then a set of folks Joi had arranged to come talk. I was only able to attend the first day, as I spend the second day focused on Mozilla Japan activities. But the English part of the first day was fascinating -– I only hope my contribution was as interesting as that from the other speakers I heard. After the introduction the conference started with a four short summaries.

The first summary was that of Claudio Prado, the Coordinator for Digital Policy for the Brazilian Minister of Culture. Claudio has a vision of the Internet being useful as a matter of culture. He describes the Internet as different from other media because it brings cultural diversity rather than homogeneity. I think of this as similar to talking about the “long tail” where many different ideas can flourish that would be impractical in other settings. But the idea gains flavor and humanity and a new level of excitement when viewed through Claudio’s lens.

In his allotted 10 minutes, Claudio talked about efforts in Brazil to bring the ability to participate in the Internet to people otherwise left out of the “modern” age. In this case “participation” means the ability create and share content, not simply navigate through existing content. The Brazilian government has started a program to provide tools to people and see what happens. Claudio describes this effort as helping bring people directly from the 19th century into the 21st century. In other word, bring the Internet era to people who have still not experienced industrialization.

Later on in the conference someone described this movement from 19th to 21st centuries as a “metaphor.” Claudio was adamant that this is not a metaphor, it is a description of what is actually happening. My time traveling around Asia years back helps me understand exactly what Claudio means. I remember the sense of dislocation at watching Chinese villagers in the Tibetan foothills carry water from the well on two buckets across the shoulders (I don’t have my photos handy, but here’s a good one already online) – and carry those water buckets back to dirt-floored homes with TVs blaring. Now Brazil is trying to bring Internet participation to groups of people similarly not connected to 20th century modern life. As an example Claudio later described ways people have found of sharing music that would otherwise never be published at all, and subsequently even building businesses based on this. It was fascinating.

Next David Isenberg talked about the “stupid network.” His point is that the Internet is an unusual and valuable network precisely because it was built to carry information packets rather than particular information types. He contrasts this to networks like the broadcast (TV, radio) and phone networks, which were built to carry a particular type of information. The separation he describes reminds me of the separation between “logic” and “presentation” that is often useful when dealing with data. David describes how this “stupid network” allows for “innovation at the edges” of the network rather than tied to the type of information for which the network was built. His point is that this allows more people to participate, a greater variety of activities by more people, and an extreme degree of flexibility. David continued with a set of comments about how the Internet can be approached in such a way that protects existing stakeholders -– the existing networks, the telephone companies, the media companies, government processes -– or it can be approached in a way that leaves the network as flexible and open to new ideas as possible. He closed with a plea for the latter, and all in about seven of his allotted ten minutes!

I spoke about the state of open source, about how people no longer wonder if open source can work, if it can produce great software, or if it is reasonable to be using and deploying it.

Then Tantek Celik talked about microformats. Tantek started by demonstrating how easy it is to convert an address found on a webpage into a format where people can simply click to add that address to an address book. No copy and pasting, no hand-parsing of fields –- it’s done through addition of simple markup. My summary of Tantek’s message is the idea that microformats are essentially markup about as simple as HTML, but which allows for richer data types than basic HTML. (The official description of microformats is somewhat more precise 🙂 The idea is appealing. The simplicity of HTML, the ability to view the HTML source for a web page, to cut and paste it, modify and reuse it was a powerful early driver of web participation. All sorts of people who wouldn’t think of themselves as programmers could view HTML source, cut and paste parts of it and create their own web pages. Brendan and I talk often about the importance of keeping participation easy, and so Tantek’s message about microformats resonated.

I don’t know how well all this came through in translation, but it was certainly interesting to me.

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