Building the infosphere, portals should revive
A thing I always loved in Dan Simmons' Hyperion, is the accessibility of information in the infosphere. A space where the information you need is there and accessible. Currently, the web is far from being that, but it's changing, slowly. I would like to be able to track those changes, and I'd like in 50 years (if I'm alive) to tell that story. I'm not that interested in the underlying protocols, machines, connections, routing, but on what we put on top of that... (2 hours go by)
While my primary intent was to speak about W3C RDF and how it could be integrated into our habits, I've taken a look back on Gopher. Gopher was already almost abandoned when I first knew what a modem was, but today I wanted to check from my eyes what it is. So I downloaded WSGopher, and installed it on my company provided laptop. First surprise: it works. I'm so much used to beta/bleeding-edge/"in the hype" software that this has a very special taste. According to the about box, this version (1.2) is from 1994, Microsoft managed to keep a good backward compatibility (the PC runs Windows 2000). Once you have chosen your home server (I took gopher.quux.org), it's intuitive and very easy to use.
How Gopher is different from HTTP? A Gopher server has a hierarchic organisation for serving documents, and it manages server-side symbolic links across servers. On the contrary, the directories structure on an HTTP server has no meaning. It was primarly used to reflect the filesystem where the documents reside, and now with dynamic content everywhere, few servers are really accessible through URL. Look at this three urls :
http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc3118.txt gopher://gopher.quux.org/0/Computers/Standards%20and%20Specs/RFC/docs/rfc3118.txt http://www.ixus.net/modules.php?name=Rfc&rfc=3118
The third one is an abomination, it uses the search part of the url scheme to represent a hierarchical navigation and gives us a detail of implementation. This happens because the HTTP servers have been twisted very much since the introduction of CGI, and human-friendly URLs are too often the least concern. On the other side, HTTP was primarily the transport layer for HTML documents, and those documents are built around an hyper-linking facility (navigation, and after, images). The hyper-linking is the core of the relationship HTML/HTTP, with HTTP as a dumb server, whereas Gopher stands for itself. It is better explained in the gopher:// manifesto(alternative link):
Gopher is an infoserver which can deliver text, graphics, audio, and multimedia to clients. Keeping documents "link clean", making linking a function of the server info-tree and not in the doc, layout is kept to its most frugal minimum, and is standard across all docs. No graphic design means its the ideal navigable interface, a hypertext Eden. It gives simplified usage for sight-impaired users, same contents for wired/wireless, and requires no capital investments in layout and "design". Gopher is real -- and it was fully functional in 1992, even without advertisements!
The fact is I felt immediately comfortable gophering, it's so straightforward, like weblogging. The www has become a difficult place to crawl today. I remember (helped by my mail client) Dave Winer saying:
I heard someone say the other day that they don't use bookmarks anymore, they just go to Google and type the name of the site and it takes them there. (And gives them a few more ideas on the way.)
Driving in the car the other day I found myself wishing I had Google so I could complete a thought I was working on. Had to wait till I got to my friend's house. On arrival I asked if I could use his browser. A funny new social construct.
There is something terrible in those paragraphs, the idea that we have no more points of reference on the web, just a big indexer and a dozen of weblogs. Of course Google doesn't prevent us from having bookmarks and maintaining them, which is... time consuming. We have known three terrible years for personal pages, where some majors free webhosters have disappeared, the survivors putting more and more limits on resource consumption, and the raising of the advertisement. Most of my bookmarks from this time went to the dust bin. Beside me, there is still my faithful books, true references.
That brings me back to the infosphere, a space directly accessible, with easy access to its content. Gopher was an answer, the current www is not, but that doesn't mean it's no good. Simply, we need accessible reference information. Gopher brought us that via its hierarchical structure, the www could possibly bring us that via a better categorization, perhaps with RDF.
side note: once again I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to say before I started to write, the result is a mess.