You know when you’ve got some news or an idea you’re dying to tell someone, but can find no one who has the faintest idea what you’re on about?
I’m trying to learn some advanced Web design. Briefly, websites were originally done pretty much like you might lay out a document or design a magazine spread. You put things in their place, they stayed there. The more modern way is to use a ‘content management system’ (CMS). With this you just design the template of your page, then upload your content. The user enters search terms, and a page containing what they want is created for them.
This is obviously a lot more complex, as your website is now essentially a computer program. But there are plenty pre-existing systems you can use. WordPress, the one behind the blog you’re reading, is a fine example.
I’m using the CMS called Drupal because it’s widely said to be the most flexible and capable of all, and if I’m going to the trouble of learning any it might as well be one I can use for other things. But lord, I bit off something chewy. It has that vast sprawling-ness so typical of popular Open Source Software projects, and the learning curve is vertiginous. It’s made out of modules; a core with all the basics built in, then countless others you can add for greater functionality (and complication). I parachute into this jungle with little idea of how to tell a tree from a tiger.
But sometimes things are hard for wholly wrong reasons. I was stuck there for weeks – well, hours spread over weeks – because something really basic didn’t work. You see I want a site I can upload cartoons to, so that people can search through them. But Drupal 7 flatly refuses to display images in search results. Imagine how annoying that would be on eBay. Of course I thought that this was my fault, that I’d just got one of its (many, many) settings wrong. But I discover eventually that it’s a bug. The only solution – or at least the only one simple enough for me to implement – was to add a whole other module that did it right.
So I have solved my first real CMS problem, and went to bed tonight with the basics of my new site actually working. Whereon I find I’m too excited about the damn thing to actually get to sleep.
Can we please apply the brakes of sanity to that? Imagine if there was a law against “habitually” reading books about violence and hatred. Or indeed about habitually reading anything. Or a law against conversations about violence and hatred? Unthinkable. Yet those are the only two things you can do by visiting a website. Read, and discuss. A website is just a form of document after all – indeed, the form that is rapidly replacing books, newspapers and magazines. Yet leaders are eager to make sure that the replacement for printed literature is a thousand times more circumscribed, monitored and controlled than literature has been the birth of democracy. And not only controlled, but controlling – because now we have books and newspapers that can read you back, check you out when you check them out, write reports on you. If it sounds like an old Soviet Russia joke, there’s a good reason for that.
But surely monitoring people’s reading habits is unthinkable in a democracy? Nope, not at all. In fact such laws already exist. It’s just that they’re specific to child pornography. But all around the world, laws that undermined a basic principle of democracy for just that one extra-super-special, won’t-someone-think-of-the-children case are being broadened and repurposed – precisely as predicted.
All you need to pull this off is an urgent threat to security. Say, the threat to security that a shooting spree by one madman who’s now dead so clearly represents. Once you establish the principle, it becomes perfectly legitimate to police people’s reading. And so easily, you have made it a crime to be the sort of person you think might commit a crime.
Yesterday I was discussing QR codes, and the possibility of turning the actual text in magazines or on posters into links. I see no reason why in the very near future you couldn’t go to a Web page, video or other online resource simply by pointing a phone at a printed URL. These methods could help revive the flagging newspaper and magazine industries, by introducing a much greater integration between the printed page and the Internet. For example you could easily share a magazine article with Facebook friends.
An idea that I can see supplanting even this though is a form of steganography – that is, encoding links and other data into pictures, in such a way that they can be read by machine without being visible to humans. Actually this is already used for anti-forgery systems; Adobe Photoshop for example will refuse to handle scans of Euro notes because it recognizes a pattern hidden in the design. The same method could turn photographs into clickable links when you look at them through your phone.
And print designers will absolutely love this. Not only do they not require blocky codes or funny fonts, they can make tired elements like www and .com finally vanish from their pages. So these I think will be with us pretty soon. Until they’re eventually replaced by RFID ink.