Shared information: it's what makes the web go round

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The Independent Online

I remember the first time I ever saw a personal computer. It was at Laskys, as was, on the Tottenham Court Road, and it was called a Commodore PET. It was quite a large, pyramid shape, with a screen at the top about the size of a chocolate bar. I prowled around it for a while, fascinated. But it was no good. I couldn't for the life of me see any way in which a computer could be of any use to a writer. However, I did feel the first tiniest inklings of a feeling that would go on to give a whole new meaning to the words "disposable income".

I remember the first time I ever saw a personal computer. It was at Laskys, as was, on the Tottenham Court Road, and it was called a Commodore PET. It was quite a large, pyramid shape, with a screen at the top about the size of a chocolate bar. I prowled around it for a while, fascinated. But it was no good. I couldn't for the life of me see any way in which a computer could be of any use to a writer. However, I did feel the first tiniest inklings of a feeling that would go on to give a whole new meaning to the words "disposable income".

The reason I couldn't imagine what use it would be to me was that I had a very limited idea of what a computer actually was - as did we all. I thought it was a kind of elaborate adding up machine. And that is exactly how "personal" computers (a misleading term as applied to almost any machine we've seen so far) were for a while developed - as super adding machines with a long feature list.

Then, as our ability to manipulate numbers with these machines became more sophisticated, we wondered what might happen if we made the numbers stand for something else, like for instance the letters of the alphabet.

Bingo! An extraordinary, world changing breakthrough! We realised we had been myopically short-sighted to think this thing was just an adding machine. It was something far more exciting. It was a typewriter! So we began to develop it as a super typewriter. With a long and increasingly incomprehensible feature list. Users of Microsoft Word will know what I'm talking about.

The next breakthrough came when we started to make these numbers, which were now flying round inside these machines at insane speeds, stand for the picture elements of a graphical display. Pixels.

Aha! we thought. This machine turns out to be much more exciting even than a typewriter. It's a television! With a typewriter stuck in front of it!

And now we have the world wide web (the only thing I know of whose shortened form - "www" - takes three times longer to say than what it's short for) and we have yet another exciting new model. It's a brochure. A huge, all- singing, all-dancing, hopping, beeping Flash-ridden brochure.

Of course, the computer isn't any of these things. These are all things we were previously familiar with from the real world which we have modelled in the computer, so that we can use the damn thing.

Which should tell us something interesting.

The computer is actually a modelling device.

Once we see that, we ought to realise that we can model anything in it. Not just things we are used to doing in the real world, but the things the real world actually prevents us from doing.

What does a brochure prevent us from doing?

Well, first of all its job is to persuade people to buy what you have to sell, and do it by being as glossy and seductive as possible and only telling people what you want them to know. You can't interrogate a brochure. Most corporate websites are like that. Take BMW, for instance. Its website is gorgeous and whizzy and it won't answer your questions. It won't let you find out what other people's experience of owning BMWs is like, what shortcomings any particular model might or might not have, how reliable they are, what they cost to run, what they're like in the wet, or anything like that. You can e-mail them, but your question or their answer - or anybody else's answer - will not appear on the site. Of course, there are plenty of websites where people do share exactly that kind of information, and they're only a few clicks away, but you won't find a word about them on BMW's site. In fact, if you want proper, grown up information about BMWs, the last place you'll find it is at www.bmw.com. It's a brochure.

Same with British Airways. It'll tell you anything you like about British Airways flights except who else is flying those routes. So if you want to see what the choice is, you go instead to one of the scores of other sites that will tell you. Which is bad news for British Airways because they never get to find out what you were actually looking for, or how what they were offering stacked up against the competition. And because that is very valuable information they have to send out teams of people with clipboards to try to find out, despite the fact that everybody lies to people with clipboards.

The people who have got this spectacularly right so far are the guys at Amazon. You go to their site because it's awash with shared information. The more information there is, the more people go there, and the more people go there the more information they generate, and the more books Amazon sell. Of course, they are not afraid of open debate because, unlike BMW, they are not responsible for the product they sell. It will take BMW and British Airways a long time and a big deep breath to realise that they are part of the community they sell to.

But even Amazon has only got part of the picture. Like real world shops they can only record the sales they actually make. What about the sales they don't make and don't know that they haven't made because they haven't made them?

I went on to Amazon the other day because I wanted to order the 1968 Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet on DVD. Turns out it doesn't exist. I could buy it on VHS, but I don't want it on VHS. So the whole transaction was null. There was no way of recording that I came in looking to buy something, and that the something I wanted to buy wasn't there. I only got to select (or not select) from what happened to be available, I didn't get to be able to say what I actually wanted. So I wrote to them about it and, guess what, now you can. They're very smart like that. They are now able to supply the studios with information about what there is actually demand for out there. And on the basis of another - not entirely disinterested - suggestion of mine they are going to start a running poll on which books people would most like to see turned into movies. This is information that no one has ever been able to collect before.

But let us take this one stage further. How often have you looked through a brochure or a catalogue and thought "I wish somebody would write a book about" or "If only somebody made a bicycle with a" or "Why doesn't somebody make a screwdriver that" or "Why don't they make that in blue?" A brochure can't answer you, but the web can.

What is the thing you'd really love to have if only someone had the sense to make one? Suggestions, please, to www.h2g2.com.

© Completely Unexpected Productions Ltd 2000.

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