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Beyond projects and documents

Living in a seamless world in time and space

It has become commonplace to say that the arrival of the Internet is an event as significant as the invention of moveable type, but often little is said as to why this might be the case. The invention of moveable type meant that, for the first time, people had the ability to reproduce documents in numbers that enabled the private creation and possession of information on a scale not previously possible. While documents did exist, and there were indeed significant libraries of such documents, the quantitative change ushered in by the printing press revolutionized how people thought about information. The Internet is starting, I believe, to fundamentally alter the notion of what a document is, and will ultimately transcend it altogether.

Documents, since the invention of writing, and greatly increasing with the invention of moveable type, have been discrete units of information. A document has a title, a subject, and deals with particular topic or a particular body of information. Information in the document is largely self-contained. There may be references to other documents through citations and footnotes. There may be a bibliography, or even a glossary of terms. Nonetheless, these are only references, and there is no capacity to “navigate” to these referenced sources and consult them while reading the document. As a consequence, one “reads” the document more or less from one end to the other, and one experiences the document as an essentially discrete entity, and its reading as a discrete event.

With the advent of the Web this is changing and, I believe, will change even more dramatically in the future. References now point to the actual sources, and one can navigate to these other documents at the click of a mouse. Don’t understand a technical term? Click on it and see the definition, or its origins, or a commentary on both the meaning and associated connotations. Wiki-like structures, such as Wikipedia, take this a step further. The document is written for the web and in the web. No document exists in isolation, but more importantly one could say that it becomes impossible to say where the boundary is between one document and the next. The idea of a linear reading of such a document is no longer meaningful. The notion of an article becomes nothing more than a pointer into the web of information.

Dynamically generated documents are also beginning to emerge. Today, most of these are fairly crude advertising vehicles, and most are little more than clever formatting. Nonetheless, I believe we will see more and more effective dynamically generated documents in the future, leveraging technologies that can combine information from multiple sources and which can insert real time information into a partly predefined structure. Simple examples already exist for weather reports, crop bulletins, and the like. Deeper and more complex topics can be anticipated in the near future.

While this web of documents and dynamically generated content push the limits of what it means to be a document, I believe that there are many other areas in which we will move beyond the notion of documents altogether. Consider something like an urban plan. It describes how a city is to evolve in response to change – changing population – changing patterns of industry – changes in climate. It attempts to capture the current understanding of the city, and projects a future – with drawings and maps and text. They are often wonderful documents. But change never stops. There is no boundary to the city. It did not begin at the start of the plan. It does not end with the plan’s conclusion.

Now consider the game SimCity as a kind of urban plan. We would not say that this is a document. Even a “run” of the game would not be seen as such. We change parameters and assumptions and we watch how the city unfolds according to the dynamics built into the game. It is not much of a stretch to imagine a similar more serious model of our city. One that captures the details of the city as it is, from multiple perspectives – physical structures – engineering details – the movement of people and goods – even the lived experience of the city’s spaces. This would be a model of a city that evolves according to the real dynamics of the world, and one which we can preview using our best models of these dynamics. In such a “thing” the real and virtual, actual and simulated intersect. A plan is a scenario – a run of the model – a set of parameters that predict a certain future or range of future possibilities. This is not to say that text is not a part of such a model. Text is a critical component of our ability to understand ourselves and the world. Yet text is now just an element and not the driver.

You may say that what we are talking about is just a simulation model, and that such simulations are often used in the generation of plans. The response to that is both Yes and No. I am talking about an always running simulation – an always evolving simulation which is fed by all of the business processes (environmental monitoring, permit submission/review, land reclamation, land aggregation, etc) that comprise our city, and one which responds to everything we know and measure about current conditions and the current understanding of the changing dynamics. I am talking about a living simulation which can be experienced, like the city itself – an always on, always updated model of the city – a model which can be shared in real time between engineers, architects, planners, politicians, developers and ordinary citizens, and to which everyone can contribute. An environment where interaction, collaboration, competition, and negotiation are continuous and non-stop processes.

I believe this is where we are headed. Beyond projects. Beyond documents. Change is always.

.. human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

BUIRNT NORTON
(No. 1 of ‘Four Quartets‘)
T.S. Eliot