Web 1.0 heads and the digital renaissance

Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age
by Paul Graham

Recently I've been using Web 2.0 to describe the evolution of the web from pages to webservices, syndication, blogs, wiki's, etc. It comes mainly from the web 2.0 conference and from talking to miles recently. But I've been thinking about this in more depth. Am I too hard on people around me for being transfixed on web 1.0 and not interested in web 2.0? Well I was thinking that till today.

I was talking to a Student about how his disertation. And he told me his disertation tutor pointed him at http://www.webmonkey.com and http://www.lynda.com, cos he thought they were the cutting edge of the internet. I put my face in my hands when he told me this. And I felt the urge to drop a email off to a couple of key people. He's the key points after the a couple of replies.

From the student
I hope I haven't tarnished this guy's reputation too much – although he has a total 1995 mindset he's open to knowing about the new stuff and he promised to go off and research the semantic web and web standards like a good little student, err tutor.

I think the basic thing this all boils down to (and should form the basis of my dissertation) is that the visual approach to problem solving is getting left behind. Web 2.0 is amazing, but its only powered by linguistic and scientific thinking.

This means that apart from a few examples like nicely designed RSS readers, mezzoblue.com and newsmap, Web 2.0 *looks* and *feels* like shit, and until it looks and feels nice no traditional design tutors will understand it. This is the vicious circle which is keeping visually-thinking designers and artists from getting involved in Web 2.0.

Fair point by the student but flawed because why should web 2.0 have to pull along those who are interested in life long learning and evolving?

From Miles
Err. I think the problem is that visually thinking designers and artists are stuck in 1995 and not getting involved in Web 2.0. There's no point complaining something looks crap if you don't get involved. One would have thought that that's precisely where designers find business oppprtunities. It's not that your tutor has been alienated by all the geek-speak, it's that he hasn't seized the artistic and creative opportunities and got involved. Semwebbers tend to alienate linguistic people and cognitive scientists, too, because their ontologies and semantics are algorithmic, and pay little attention to the way people use language. The difference is, linguists and cog-sci people are getting involved, whilst designers are still saying, I hear you can earn a ton of money if you learn Flash.

Part of this is the tragic two cultures divide in the English speaking middle-classes, but another part is the speed of change. Designers are still gabbing about how the web's not proper design because they can't do precise page layout and font control whilst web 2.0 is moving on with a whole new set of ideas saying, Look, this page layout thing is a bit of an irrelevance. Deal with it and move on – if it even cares what a bunch of quarkheads think.

The point is that creative innovation has always taken place at the nexus of both cultures. As any fool knows from a trip round the national gallery, the revolution in aesthetics in the Renaissance (the reason you can spot a mediaeval painting a mile off, but have difficulty dating post-renaissance painting unless you are an expert) was the marriage of science (perspective, optics) and technology (oil-paints, optical tools) with a new aesthetic vision (expanded trade of European city states, and early colonialism, and the “outside look” that brought with it). Renaissance painters were more like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs than “artists” – they were businessmen (and women), technology innovators, inventors as much as artists.
The ones who stayed painting out-of-perspective pictures of knights, dragons and madonnas on wooden board with gesso, who stayed out of all that Painting 2.0 stuff because it looked and felt shit, and was dominated by technical thinking, those… you never heard of.

A book comes to mind when reading this – Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age. This isnt what Miles is talking about, but the idea of hackers and painters is interesting and consistent with my idea of the current renaissance. The hackers are the painters…

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Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.