Some years ago, I had an idea about .plan files. My idea was that a whole bunch of us would use them to communicate random musings, state-of-the-universe updates, and neat URLs to each other. Apparently, at about this time, some other people were using the Web to do this, but I wanted to do it with .plan files.
Many people already had .plan files; a few of them used them for precisely this purpose. Thus, part of one's routine, in this world-wide-plan-web universe, would be routinely fingering one's friends to read their dot files. I decided that the key user-interface hurdle was to make it easy to determine quickly which of one's friends had recently updated their information. I wrote some cheesy perl, and thus was born "plangrab." It kept a cache of last-mod times and ran through a list of usernames to see whether the files had changed since the last time the script had been run.
A primitive tool, perhaps, but it completely transformed the way I read .plan files. Whenever I logged in, plangrab told me who I ought to finger for updates. Suddenly, with almost no effort, I was on top of a few dozen people's for-public-consumption postings about themselves.
Then, I got busy again and forgot about it. Plangrab's user-base stalled out at about four or five, and I never did manage to talk too many people into joining my cult of Frequent Updates. In fact, after a couple weeks of it, I myself dropped out of the cult. None of my grand technical schemes ever came to fruition.
Plangrab, of course, ought to collect the changes for me, instead of just telling me where the changes were. It ought to do a diff, rather than just dumping the entire plan, so that I'd see only the addition. In fact, the .plans would need to be formatted differently, to make life easier for plangrab-like tools. I'd call these new files ".jot files," and I'd have a script -- "makejot" -- that would add a new datestamped jot to the end of your .jot file, ready for pickup by all your friends.
I did zero of this, and in hindsight, it's kind of funny how closely this scheme resembles the user model of the various weblogging tools (at least, in their purest, mass-market forms). Of course, one might well object that .planlogging, by not tapping into the power of the web, completely missed out on the whole point of web-logging.
But, you see, that's exactly my point today: my ideal community of .planners was independent of the Web and its technology. The artistic features of weblogs, perhaps, are closely tied to the web. And people are used to opening them in their browsers and, often, to updating them through HTML forms. But this is all beside the point. The Web was not the unique technology making such a community possible. The Web was merely the one in which that sort of a community actually did take off.
Or rather, I should say, an imitation of that sort of a community. My .jot files were view-independent: there was no layout information (other than the size of tab stops, perhaps) locked into the files. They could be shredded and merged: you'd only need to look at the latest entry in each file, and you could also see, presented at the same time, all the updates from your various .jotting friends.
Ah, the XML vision! So it is, just another one of those thoughts that I'm sure every computer geek had in those heady years without realizing its importance. But so it is, so it is, and when I think about how far the Web is from that vision right now, it makes me just want to slump back in my chair.
This is what I've realized, perhaps, from the Laboratorium thus far. I have realized that I have no interest in surfing through thirty sites in a day, typing in URLs and consulting my mental change log. And I feel sorry for helping to subject others to that experience. The Notebooks here at the Laboratorium were a stream, not a site. And using site technology to push streams at people is just plain rude.
There are all sorts of tools out there that have tried to retrofit an uncooperative Web into closer correspondence with that magic XML vision. Spyonit pings sites for you and tells you when they've updated. Deepleap aggregated wish-list items from across the web into one centrally-managed list. The PowerBloggers list ran through the raw Blogger data and extracted a cruelly ironic version of a change log. All valiant attempts, all bascially doomed from the start.
Someday, I'll see updates from all my friends and all my favorite sites, mingled together in a view whose layout I control. Someday, my email conversations with them and the thoughts I pump out through the Laboratorium will blur at their boundary. Someday I'll be able to pick a link and see what all my favorite commentators had to say about it, and to say about the other commentators' commentary, and so on. Someday, the Web will work like that. But that day will come only when some critical mass converges on a technology that tracks the underlying content amenable to such wizardry, instead of the hodge-podge of heterogeneity we have today.
I'm not declaring war on web sites, or on the artistry of web designers. Web sites are wonderful, and on good days, I still love them. But the news is not a site; a list of links is not a site; a conversation is not a site. Designers are being forced to create designs for things that shouldn't need designs, and they ought to be freed up to put their creativity where it can matter.
And as for me, well, the medium is the message.
And the message is that this isn't the right medium.
The Laboratorium is not going away. All archived content will remain available. I'm not even going to stop updating the site. I'm just abandoning this particular format, and in all honesty, I do not expect to be adding new content frequently or systematically enough for me to recommend that you check this page with any regularity.
If you wish to continue to receive Laboratorium content, send me email and I will keep you informed of any significant updates. (Please note that you wil need to delete the "spam-b-gone" from the To: field in order for this link to work). I have prepared a brief list of answers to various questions about the New Laboratorium Order.
You are reading the Laboratorium, http://www.laboratorium.net on your web browser, and this concludes our regular broadcast schedule.