Awakened grains of sand

Many people assume that web thinking comes naturally to anyone born after 1990. Yes and no. Yes, the experience of 21st-century digital natives is qualitatively unlike what all prior generations shared, as far back as the dawn of genus homo over a million years ago. But no, the virtual dimension hasn’t fundamentally changed us — at least not yet.

Consider the physics of things in the real world. As hominids we have a million years of experience with the properties and behavior of physical things. And as individuals we have lifetimes of such experience. Based on those experiences, here are some things we know:

  • If I give you a thing then it’s yours until you give it back. We can’t both use it.

  • If I want to make a collection of things, I get a bucket and put things into it. A thing is either in the bucket or it isn’t. The same thing can’t be in two buckets at the same time.

  • If I invite you to work on a project using my collection of things, you have to visit my house.

In the virtual dimension none of these laws apply.

  • I can give you a link to a thing, and we can both use it. If either of us improves it, we both share the improvement.

  • If I want to make a collection of things, I can invent a tag that identifies things in a collection. We can invent many tags for many collections. A thing can be in more than one collection.

  • If I invite you to work on a project using my collection of things, you can join me in a virtual place.

As we begin to colonize the virtual dimension, we begin to learn about the physics of virtual things. But we still haven’t fully internalized the laws and properties that govern them. All of us, digital natives included, still tend to treat virtual things as if they were physical things.

Making and sharing collections of things is a common scenario that illustrates the tension between these two different sets of laws. When the things are physical objects — say, coins — there’s no choice about how to collect them.

Scenario 1: Somebody passes around a bucket, people toss coins into the bucket, whoever holds the bucket has the coins.

But when the things are virtual objects — say, chunks of information, existing as web resources, identified by URLs — there is a choice. Somebody can still pass around a virtual bucket, people can still toss virtual coins into it, and whoever holds the virtual bucket will have access to the collection of coins. That’s exactly what happens when we use an email conversation as the virtual bucket. Or:

Scenario 2: We can invent a name for a virtual bucket, and toss web resources into it by tagging them with that name. Now anyone who searches for the tag will have access to the collection of resources.

This new scenario raises important questions. How do we choose a name for the collection? How do we choose a service that binds the name to things in the collection? How do we restrict access to the collection? On what terms are these name-binding and access-control services provided to us?

I can’t answer all these questions at once, so let’s start with the most fundamental one: How can we name things?

In A tale of two dams I made up a tag, WestStDamKeene, that could be used by anyone to co-ordinate web resources related to an ongoing conversation in my city about the fate of the Ashuelot River dam on West Street. The tag is 14 characters long. With 14 characters you can make quite a lot of names. If each character can be a letter or a digit, then there are 36 choices for each character — 26 letters plus 10 digits. There are 3614 strings of 14 such characters. When faced with big numbers like that I turn to my favorite scientific calculator, WolframAlpha. It evaluates the number like so:

In a recent talk I failed (spectacularly) to convey the point I’m about to make, so I’ll try it again and more carefully here. We can make about as many 14-character tags as there are grains of sand on Earth. True, a lot of those won’t be nice mnemonic names like WestStDamKeene, instead they’ll look like good strong unguessable passwords. But there are still unimaginably many mnemonic names to be found in this vast namespace. Each of those can serve as a virtual bucket that we can use to make and share collections of arbitrarily many web resources.

The implications take a while to sink in. Grains of sand are inert physical objects. They just lie around; we can’t do much with them. But names can be activated. I can create a 14-character name today — actually I just did: WestStDamKeene — that won’t be found if you search for it today on Google or Bing. But soon you will be able to find at least one hit for the term. At first the essay I’m now typing will be the only hit from among the 30 billion indexed by Google and 11 billion indexed by Bing. But if others use the same term in documents they post to the web, then those documents will join this one to form a WestStDamKeene cluster.

This isn’t even tagging in the conventional sense. Set aside, for now, the clusters that can form around that tag on Delicious, or on WordPress, or on Flickr, or on Twitter, or even at the intersection of all those tag-oriented services. Consider only what can happen when you make up a never-before-seen term, utter it in a document placed on the web, and invite others to utter it in documents that they place on the web. When we enact this scenario we are, in effect, creating an ad hoc web service that we can use to make and share collections of things related to (in this case) a particular dam project in a particular town. Of course tag-oriented services enhance our ability to make and share such collections. But even without them we can still do it. In the realm of virtual things, names are as plentiful as grains of sand. But they aren’t inert. We can wake them up and use them to co-ordinate our activities.

A tale of two dams

The scene at right is one of the jewels of Keene, NH. The Robin Hood Forest and Children’s Wood, a 130-acre preserve established in the 1890s, has looked like this ever since then. But it’ll look very different this summer when the pond is drained in order to make improvements mandated by the state.

Those of us who live near the park, and enjoy it often, only learned about the plan last fall. And we were very surprised. But the wheels had in fact been turning since the summer of 2008:

On June 17, 2008 the NHDES Dam Bureau issued a letter of deficiency (LOD) to the City of Keene for the Robin Hood Reservoir Dam requiring a number of immediate and long-term improvements to be made. These improvements included requiring the dam discharge outlet structure to be redesigned and constructed to accommodate a 100-year storm 2.5 times stronger than expected for that event.

Today, in response to a minor uproar in the community, you can find that information on the city’s Robin Hood Dam Project Information Page. But that page didn’t exist two years ago, and it’s not how my neighbor who lives across the street from the pond found out about the project. Instead she heard about it from a neighbor who had, I think, encountered some engineers surveying the pond.

There had been nothing secret about the process. The state’s letter to the city was notionally public, as was the city’s decision to hire an engineering firm to comply with the state’s (unfunded) mandate. But these things weren’t public in any way that enabled citizens, in the normal course of their lives, to find out about them. Newspaper reporters are trained to scrutinize these processes, and they try to be the eyes and ears of the community, but they can’t be everywhere. Things fall between the cracks. This project sure did.

Nobody’s happy with the outcome. It’s not just that the pond will be drained this summer in order to enlarge the spillway, leaving an ugly mess and a lot of dead fish and frogs. Or that we’ll spend $600,000 to mitigate what many people think is a minor and questionable risk. There’s also an abiding sense that we ought to have known sooner. Maybe the state’s mandate would still have been non-negotiable, maybe not, but we resent finding out only after it was a done deal.

Thanks to some new web services provided by the city, things are more transparent now, and we have the opportunity to do things differently. But it’s up to us to make that happen. In Gov2.0 transparency: An enabler for collaborative sense-making, I wrote:

  • It’s amazing to be able to observe the processes of government.

  • It’s still a challenge to make sense of them.

  • Tools that we know how to build and use can help us meet that challenge.

Yesterday I was reminded that the Robin Hood Dam isn’t the only one found deficient by the state. There’s also the Ashuelot River Dam on West Street. Last September, a city council committee recommended that the city accept a $16,000 NOAA grant to study the feasibility of removing this dam. Thanks to Keene’s use of the Granicus service, we can review the council’s discussion and vote on this recommendation in its October 7 meeting. And thanks to the permalinks recently added to the Granicus service, I can point directly to that part of the meeting. Here’s some of the discusion:

Councilor Roberts: It’s a feasibility study that in no way requires us to remove the dam.

Councilor Greenwald: This is the slippery slope, the camel’s nose under the tent, the next thing you know, the dam is gone. It’s beautiful, it’s unique, aesthetically and environmentally it needs to stay.

Councilor Redfern: I don’t understand the thinking. We’re going to spend hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, to remove the dam in hopes the fish will return? What if they don’t?

Councilor Duffy: I think a feasibility study will help us balance a consideration between cost and environmental concerns, and explore the pros and cons in more detail.

Councilor Lane: Let’s use this to assess the cost of keeping the dam, as well as the cost of removing it. Personally I have concerns about taking it down, but if we keep it, it has to be maintained, that’s a lot of money too, we need the facts, all this does is use federal money to explore our options.

Councilor Redfern: It says “feasibility study for the removal of the dam,” nothing about an environmental study or an evaluation of the cost of maintaining the dam.

Public Works Director Blomquist: We currently have a contract looking at necessary improvements. We’re under a letter of deficiency from the state, we’ll have to do something, maybe improve the spillway, maybe add a fish ladder. This grant allows us to look at the removal option, which isn’t part of the current contract.

Councilor Roberts: NASA did a feasibility to send a man to Mars, and decided it wasn’t cost effective. If the recommendation comes back that it’s not in our interest to remove the dam, now we have some protection if the state tells us we have to.

Councilor Redfern: What’ll it cost to keep the dam?

Director Blomquist: We’ll need to enlarge the spillway. It’s going to cost us about $600,000 to do the same for the Robin Hood dam, as we’re required to do. We’ll also need to keep the area cleared of trees, so it’ll look very different than it does today, and the community needs to understand that’s part of the commitment to keep the dam, versus removal and restoration of the river to its original course.

Councilor Redfern: Will the state help with removal?

Director Blomquist: No, there’s no money for improvements or maintenance.

Roll call: Redfern: No, Clark: Yes, Lane: Yes, Dunn: Yes, Duffy: Yes, Manwaring: Yes, Richards: No, Roberts: Yes, Greenwald: No, Donegan: No, Venezia: Yes, Jones: No

Mayor Pregent: The motion passes seven to five.

That’s where things stood last October. There isn’t yet broad community awareness about the project. When the issue does surface, it’ll be a contentious one. So I want to try an experiment. I’m proposing the tag WestStDam as a way to loosely coordinate the conversation. I’ll use for items I’m aware of. So far, that tag collects links to the council’s video discussion and its related attachment. I’ll also use the same tag when I post this item and when I mention it on Twitter.

In a city that thinks like the web, others would join me in the use of the WestStDamKeene tag. It would show up on the agendas of future city council meetings when the issue comes back around. It would appear in newspaper articles. It would show up in citizens’ blog posts and tweets. And as a result, it would enable us all to assemble a context in which we can know more, know it sooner, and reason more effectively.