Some four decades ago
when many of us knew some form of net-based document linkage was coming, just not who would instantiate it and what form it would take, the Spy coined the term “metalibrary” to refer to the collection of all a society’s knowledge, in whatever medium, together with the means of accessing them. He reserved the term “The Metalibrary” for such collection in electronic form, somewhat anticipating the linguistic distinction later adopted for “internet” versus “The Internet”.
The World Wide Web, initiated in the early 1990s has become the framework for that instantiation, for better or for worse. As forecast, it does have cross-linking, and is searchable, but its contents are both less and also other than envisaged. OTOH, there are vast libraries of academic, popular, and news archives that have yet to be digitized and indexed, so are MIA. OTOH, as an unforeseen side-effect of his correct prediction that such a net would, rather than create a global village, instead exacerbate old divisions and hatreds, much of the contents of the Internet today can scarcely be called information, much less knowledge–except with respect to misinformed beliefs, reinforcing the old adage that there is a sucker born every minute. The problem in need of a solution: It does not appear to be in anyone’s portfolio to curate content. Anyone can say or write anything, no mater how absurd, and find true believers.
What else is missing or awry from those old predictions? Art galleries haven’t yet taken up the suggestion that they rent out images of their collections for home display on large high resolution screens. We are only now starting to see roll-down monitors, and smart painted-on-wall monitors are also still to be invented. The smartphone is a growing infant, but has a long way to go before becoming his still fictional PIEA (Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliance) always on with body-embedded interfaces to eyes, ears, and throat. We also cannot yet instantly PICT to others complex images or videos in lieu of text. After all, a picture in the head is worth a thousand words in the bush.
Little or no progress has been made on the necessary microaccounting system needed to give proper credit to authors of material viewed, referenced or linked. Moreover, the Internet is still stuck with the print era legacy of static (backward only) bibliographic references and therefore links. It should be rather simple to make connective references dynamic, so that a new backward link/reference automatically generates a forward one for the original author(s) to approve for addition to their source work and create an ongoing micro monetary credit.
In the case of academic work or the death of an author, journal editors could approve new forward links to later work. To be sure, search engines can typically fill some of this gap, but are, comparatively speaking, clumsier. One is tempted to suggest a curated sub web whose pages link solely among approved peer reviewed contents to certify that the information therein was backed by apparently sound research and valid statistical analysis. If one turned on the appropriate browser filter(s) only pages passing such a test would be seen. “Censorship” you cry. No, just a technological way of narrowing one’s focus to use an appropriate tunnel vision for each occasion–which people already do when they narrow their choice of “news” sites to only those they know agree with their particular political bias. The bottom line on the Metalibrary? It may never after all mature to the kind of information finding tool the Spy envisioned all those years ago. After all, if people don’t want factual information (weren’t those two words used together redundant once upon a time?), just opinions that reinforce their own, the only things they will want to find online are those that reassure their entrenched prejudices, and the tech firms that profit from posts will, like other media outlets, promote inflammatory controversy to make more money.
The role of fiction
The writer of fiction (books, scripts for TV or large screen, even poetry) is thereby inviting the reader into a fantasy world of his/her creation. The world presented may simply be our own, with a story set in contemporary or historic times and circumstances, so that the invitation is relatively easy to accept. In such cases, references to actual persons and events may make the sense of realism quite acute.
The numerous historical fiction novels of G.A. Henty, published in the decades after 1867 are an excellent example of the historical genre. Realism is promoted by casting a young main character as the assistant to an important historical figure, and the reader may readily believe (s)he is vicariously experiencing actual events from the inside. “Future history” science fiction often does something similar–witness David weber’s Honorverse, a Horatio Alger-like space opera megaseries set in a hypothetical far future but with strong historical echos of Britain’s wars with France for supremacy on land and sea, but recast in a clash of galactic sector empires.
Even historical romance, deeply flawed as it often is by the liberties taken when authors project contemporary values, motives, and actions and ideas into a story set centuries ago in a very different society where they would not have arisen, can still believably entertain and even instruct. Likewise science fiction whose “science” is improbable or impossible, fantasy whose sword and sorcery admixture is foreign to any known or plausible reality, or a story whose “world” has been incompletely built–say, lacking any treatment of key societal elements such as religion, politics, family, character motivations, believable military action, or meaningful relationships–can still capture one’s imagination and provide an entertaining temporary escape into a fanciful existence.
Such is certainly true of the Spy’s own Alternate History fiction, which itself exists within a genre that places the reader into a world like our own but with one or more departure points from our historical reality. A genre favourite “what if?” starts with the allies losing WWII. His begins (essentially) with Brian Boru surviving the 1014 Battle of Clontarf and establishing an enduring Ireland, then explores such ideas as a thirteenth to fifteenth century industrial and scientific revolution, a different order of technology development, and plausible consequences thereof. Ireland winning at Trafalgar and Waterloo in the early fifteenth century anyone? His goal was, yes, to entertain readers, but also to provoke them to think about the interactions among society and technology, and the ethical underpinnings thereof.
The point is that an author’s client-participant willingly accepts an offer to suspend disbelief by entering a nonexistent world for the purpose of being entertained and possibly instructed. To be sure, some take things farther, so Science Fiction conventions are always replete with costumed characters from Star Wars, the Royal Manticoran Navy, even the Royal Swiss Navy. He has yet, however, not seen anyone costumed as Mara Meathe, Rhiannon, Nellie Hacker, Lucas Caine, Paladin, Samadeya, or Pelik. Well, a few of them he describes as two metres tall, so it might be difficult.
For the most part this is all harmless fun, and nothing very new. Indeed, some physicists believe the idea that we live in one universe of a multi-verse of alternate universes based on differing decisions, is plausible or even necessary. What the Spy failed to forecast was that the online world would enable escapes from reality sufficiently profound that many participants lose track of reality altogether, or perhaps more accurately, substitute (live mostly or entirely within) a virtual reality–one that might range from the harmlessly entertaining to soul-destroying and dangerous to us all. One answer to the Fermi paradox, after all, is that once enough individuals have access to sufficient technology to destroy a civilization, it’s demise becomes inevitable.
In the former category are the people who ply the wide-area games involving finding imaginary characters or little electronic gismos secreted in thousands of locations all over the world (including one right outside the Spy’s home, BTW), the prize being nothing more than the satisfaction of success. A little more concerning is the long-standing trend for many people to live in an on-line gaming world. The Spy once opined both that (a) some might grow to have eyes shaped like monitors, and (b) if aliens ever showed up, future decision makers would be thoroughly conditioned to shoot them out of the skies without it occurring to them to ask who they were or what they wanted.
Firmly in the latter category are the people whose lives are lived in the seamy underworld of alternative outcomes (my candidate really won that election but the ballot counters cheated), conspiracy theories (the government has a secret agenda to control us), or denial of reality (there were no moon landings, 911 was faked, the earth is flat and climate change and COVID don’t exist). These are but a few of numerous examples where the facts are easy to determine, but some people prefer to live in an alternate reality. They Spy will here only comment that very few people (and likely no governments) are capable of organizing a conspiracy, and that most of what people view as poor outcomes are consequences of incompetence or wishful thinking rather than malfeasance on the part of the actors, and of disappointed expectations by the viewers. In short, conspiring on a fake is difficult but deluding oneself is easy.
Beyond the Metalibrary
Seizing upon the obvious here, Facebook (a key enabler of alternate realities or MetaVerses) has bitten the biscuit, bowed to the “real” unreality, shamelessly swiped the Spy’s old vocabulary, and changed its corporate name to “Meta”. The Facebook product/brand will presumably now be marketed as merely one component under the broader umbrella suite of virtual experiences that will allow its user/addicts to exist full time in an alternate reality of their own design and choosing. Hey, the technology does for the most part already exist–what is at issue, as always, is the ends for which it is used. ‘Course, there’s also the motivation to ensure that dirt accumulated in the grotty trenches of one brand does not stick well to the umbrella brand. (AKA “deniability”.)
That many more will follow the pied piper into their own fantasy world is inevitable; that exodus is well under way. The real issue is will they withdraw from the real world altogether and thus be harmless, or will they demand that reality must become conformed to their fantasies, and destroy the Fourth Civilization before it can mature? Perhaps this too, and not nuclear war, is a plausible answer to the Fermi paradox. Perhaps Pogo was right in saying “we have seen the enemy and he is us”. Perhaps we could add that while the Canaanite idols of old were statues of their town lord or Baal, ours have become people, causes, and our own fantasies–we want to go beyond fiction and invent our own future, then compel everyone else to live in the imaginary world of our own invention.
On to the mundane:
The Spy takes passing note of Apple’s new M1 MacBook and Monteray introductions. He has ceased to be an early adopter of new technology, for first versions of products are rarely all (or even most) of what the manufacturer’s bumph claim they are. He will consider upgrading a couple of years into this technology. But he does wonder why the M1 chip, which was supposed to do more better faster on less electricity, needs a 140 Watt battery and charger. Will there be a market for insulated kilts? At least Apple did bow to customer demand and re-introduce two ports and the old Magsafe connector. Too bad its software team did not account for the new notch, and managed to introduce connectivity issues in Monterey, some of which have been back installed in Catalina. But such are par for the course. Wait for the update to the update to the update.
The recent break-in at his home has him looking at security options (also sometimes sighing over insurance company errors). So far he sees numerous technical variations on and incompatibilities among cameras, hubs, alarms, data storage (SD, local hub, or cloud), viewing and reporting options. Typical of many technology products, the Spy–a big fan of standards and therefore of mix and max interchangeability–sees little of this. The many dozens of different dongles on his shelves attest likewise. In the old days it was easier, and much cheaper, to make one’s own RS-232 cables for each pair of devices. Can’t do that now, as many products have built-in conversion technology.
Oh, and speaking of the Spy’s castle, it is long past time for him to replace those old, cheap, sweaty, non insect-proof, aluminum-framed windows his subcontractor installed back in 1992. Lots of choices in glazing and frames, place of manufacture, installation techniques, reputation, and spiels to believe (or not). The most irksome thing about getting quotes: a sales person who slags a competitor’s products for supposed comparative shortcomings that a little research subsequently proves are contra-factual. Suffice it to say however, that thirty years of innovation in building windows has produced products that, apart from being mostly a type of glass, are as little like their ancestors as a TRS-80 is like a MacBook pro 16.2.
And, as a final word, it appears that another biscuit must be bit, and that a move for his Arjay Enterprises into a new server is in the cards, so to speak. Again, there are many choices. Some providers no longer offer dedicated machines, but do everything in the cloud. The Spy is not a fan–too many points of failure. Others do not provide all the software he needs, but leave key items up to the box renter’s own providence. Many choices. Oh, and along the way, he discovered a bug in CPanel that leaves temporary installation files behind, filling up the root directory. Solution: periodically clean out the /tmp partition manually or do a graceful reboot (which includes such housekeeping). He’ll tell you more about this project in a couple of months when all is done.
Meanwhile, see y’awl next time–DV.
–The Northern Spy
Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics and Assistant Dean of Science at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He completed his fifty-first year as a high school and university teacher in 2021. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He was co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (dead tree and online formats), since the early 1980s, and he’s been a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. from 1972 to 2021, where he now continues alone, but depends heavily on family to manage.
URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises:
The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com
opundo : http://opundo.com
Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org
WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net
WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net
nameman : http://nameman.net
General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books:
Author Site: http://www.arjay.ca
Publisher’s Site: http://www.writers-exchange.com/Richard-Sutcliffe.html
The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ): http://www.arjay.bc.ca/EthTech/Text/index.html
Other URLs of relevant interest:
BC Government COVID site: http://www.bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19
TWU COVID Info: https://www.twu.ca/covid-19-information