How Automobiles, Super Highways, and Containerization helped me understand the future of the Web


What follows is a scripted draft of the presentation I gave Friday, January 9th at the OU TechExpo at the University of Oklahoma. Also, below is the abstract I was working off, as you can probably tell the two are often very loosely joined 🙂

This presentation will explore the importance of providing students, faculty, and staff with an innovative, web-based platform for owning, managing and migrating the digital work they create over the course of their academic careers. What’s more, this platform is not a vendor-driven product, but an ecosystem of open source applications that must be central to their critique and creation of the digital world. It’s the backbone for a broader, curricular-wide push for cross-disciplinary digital fluency. In essence, the platform undergirding the pioneering work of Domain of One’s Own at Mary Washington is the open web. More than a learning system or publishing platform, UMW Domains recognizes and codifies the importance of digital agency for each and every learner on campus, and provides the means of enabling this for each individual at scale. The impact of the global information network on our campus community is not imagined or inferred, it is intentionally designed and cultivated. Welcome to the digital liberal arts, and the emergence of the indieweb in higher ed. Can you grok the future?

This talk is building on, at least in my mind, the presentations I gave last year about Domain of One’s Own and the reclaiming of open, personal innovation toolkits at the university—all of which culminated in the EDUCAUSE Review piece, “Reclaiming Innovation,” I co-wrote with Brian Lamb (and Teddy Diggs 🙂 ). The argument was deeply rooted in the idea that much of the culture and technical possibilities undergirding the internet, and later the web, were part and parcel of academic culture. Begging the question why, over the last ten-fifteen years, have universities been in the odd position of buying back much of the innovation they’ve pioneered? There are many complex reasons, but we couldn’t resist highlighting the untold harms of a crack-like dependence on centralized systems for teaching and learning 🙂

For this presentation, the focus was far more on the possibilities of reclaiming that innovation, and how so many developments both technical and cultural—can we separate the two so neatly? Probably not—have been pointing towards another moment in which conversations around ownership, privacy, re-decentralizing the web, etc. are becoming more and more common. This talk was my first attempt towards building a cogent discussion of just these forces, and what they mean for campus culture, IT infrastructure, and the web more broadly. It wasn’t a complete failure thanks to the deep impact folks like Audrey Watters, Kin Lane, and Tim Owens have had my thinking about the limits and possibilities of edtech over the last two and a half years. Although, acknowledging all of the over simplifications, bad analogies, mixed metaphors, pig cannibalism advocacy, and technical inaccuracies are mine alone.

Part 1: “The Web We Lost”

“It’s not about the technology?” is a refrain you often here when discussions around the way technology is impacting our teaching and learning culture. And while it’s often intended to resist the fetishization of tech, which I think is very important, it can often result in a rather uncritical dismissal of just how dramatically technology is changing the cultural landscape we are working within, and has been for quite some time.

To try and make this point I want to share a clip from Orson Welles’s 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons. It’s a film about the declining fortunes of an established Midwestern family, highlighting the social changes brought on by the automobile age.


Welles and Bogdanovich grocery shopping?

A few interesting points about this clip, it was framing this discussion about invention of automobiles almost 25 years after the automobile had been invented. And in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich years later, Welles had this to say about the film:

You see, the basic intention was to portray a golden world — almost one of memory — and then show what it turns into. Having set up this dream town of the “good old days,” the whole point was to show the automobile wrecking it — not only the family but the town.

This moment wherein a technology had such a dramatic change on the culture certainly provides an analogue to our own moment. 25 years after the invention of the web, we might still hear some of the very sentiments in that scene.

For all it’s speed forward, is the web a step backwards? Has it added to the beauty of the world? Or the life of humanity’s souls?  

We might have different answers to these questions, I, for one, can think of many ways it has added to the beauty of the world and the life of humanity’s soul, but as Joseph Cotten’s character notes, regardless of what I think….

….the web has come. Almost all outwards things are going to be different because of what it brings. It will alter war, and alter peace. Our minds will changed in subtle ways because of the web. Did the web have any business to be invented?

Rather than begging the question of whether or not the web should have been invented, I think the more interesting question is what kind of web do we have 25 years after its invention?

A question a number of people have been asking, one popular example of just this is Anil Dash’s talk “The Web We Lost” at the Berkman Center in 2012.

In the early days of the social web, there was a broad expectation that regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites, instead of being dependent on a few big sites to host their online identity. In this vision, you would own your own domain name and have complete control over its contents, rather than having a handle tacked on to the end of a huge company’s site. This was a sensible reaction to the realization that big sites rise and fall in popularity, but that regular people need an identity that persists longer than those sites do

Audrey Watters, in one of her ten amazing top edtech trends posts, focuses on the IndieWeb (more on that anon) and quotes Arizona State University journalism professor Dan Gillmor on how…

We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet the most important medium in history: a decentralized platform where the people at the edges of the networks — that would be you and me — don’t need permission to communicate, create, and innovate.

And to quote Audrey Watters herself from her IndieWeb post:

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 11.26.06 AM

Image credit: Alan Levine

The Open Web has increasingly become the Corporate Web, with powerful monopolies controlling key features like “search” and “social,” not to mention the underlying infrastructure that’s always been theirs – telecommunications, the “series of tubes” themselves. We have poured our lives into Internet technologies – our status updates, our photos, our messages, our locations, our fitness regimes, our movie preferences, and more. We have poured our lives into data silos, where our personal information is now mined, the value extracted from it by companies for companies.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 11.26.30 AMAnd even the inventor of the web himself, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, went on tour for the 25 anniversary of his invention to say “it’s time to re-decentralize the web.”  He in many was calling for a bill of rights for the web:

Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture.

Something Berners-Lee said during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” last year that was particularly striking and came during his response to a question about whether we can preserve the open web. He noted:

It is up to us. It is an artificial creation, as are our laws, and our constitutions . . . we can choose how they work. We can make new ones. Our choice.

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 11.26.47 AMWhich is particularly striking for me right now because I just got finished watching the HBO series John Adams, which is all about this very thing. Creating the reality we exist within (as well as the deep problems of golden age history), and in many ways challenges Welles’ vision of the automobile in The Magnificent Ambersons. It is not inevitable that the web will wreck the good old days. It’s an artificial creation, and we can reclaim agency in how it works.


Part 2: A Brief History of Academic Technology

So how has academic technology worked at universities over the last 25 years? George Siemens, who so graciously allowed me to use the following frame for this brief history before its publication (big fan!), breaks it down into  four stages:

1) Computer Based Training and Websites

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 3.28.07 PM

2) Learning Management Systems


3) Social Media, Portfolios, and MOOCs



For the purposes of this post I am abbreviating the text/slides I include here. This section of the talk was taken from my previous discussion of the ~spaces during the 1990s, the rise of the LMS circa 1999, the mixed reception/adoption of social media for teaching and learning at universities throughout the oughts, the explosion of MOOCs in 2011, and the concomitant fallout.

4) Distributed, adaptive learning, and competency models


For this fourth stage I reframed/interpreted Siemens’ idea of distributed and adaptive learning vision to coincide with part 3 of the talk, “Reclaiming the Web,” by discussing how UMW is the locus of an initiative supporting faculty, staff and students to re-decentralize control over their work. Domain of One’s Own at UMW as the example. I didn’t touch on competency models at all, but I want to revisit this in the next version of this talk.


Part 3: Reclaiming the Web

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 3.35.38 PM

One of the immediate problems for setting up Domain of One’s Own was thank it really hadn’t been done before. This isn’t to say  it “revolutionary,” quite the contrary, it’s trailing edge technology—web hosting had been around for over decade when we were running our pilot. What was revolutionary providing any and all students, faculty, and staff their own domain, as well as an “user innovation toolkit” to start exploring different open source applications that they administer and control.

This is an example of the the GUI Interface wherein the community can control their slice of the server, one way of understanding this is thinking of Domains and web hosting in relationship to a house and street address [I’ll spare you, dear reader, the awesomeness of this metaphor in this post, but you can explore it in all its grandeur here.]

DoOO CPanel

And part of the power of such an approach might be see more practically through managing and controlling your various resources online. Something Jon Udell discusses quite eloquently in his 2007 EDUCAUSE talk “The Disruptive Nature of Technology.” Using Gorden Bell MyLifeBits as one, extreme, example of someone who is archiving everything they have—every “lifebit” is being digitized and made searchable. In effect, he will have a comprehensive digital archive of his life–not unlike The Truman Show—although voluntary 🙂 Something which raides an important question, where are your lifebits stored? Who owns them? Do you want you digital photos, videos, writings, emails, etc.? Is that an archive that has some posterity beyond your own time here? If so, whose managing it if not you?


Gordon Bell’s Total Recall


All of which dovetails nicely with a broader movement around these very ideas: The IndieWeb. and the best and most definitive framing I’ve yet to read is in this article from Audrey Watters, part of her year-end tech trends series. Essentially, the indieweb movement is focused on three principles:

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 3.41.35 PM

And one of the ways at thinking about these principles technically, is through an approch they refer to as POSSE:

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 3.43.45 PM

Or, “publish on your own site and syndicate everywhere.” An excellent example of which is the IndieWeb publishing application Known, which allows you to post to your own domain, and push out to various social media sites like Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, SoundCloud, etc.

One of the founders of the IndieWeb movement, Amber Case, who I actually realized was featured as part of the new generation of scientists in, I believe, National Geographic while standing online at a grocery store (Don Delillo was right!). Her exploration of the implications of technology on our idea of self is really powerful, and pushes us to think about some of the deeper issues that undergird the control of who we are online.


Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 3.37.16 PM

A self or identity that is produced through various participation architectures, the act of producing a virtual or digital representation of self by filling out a user interface with personal information.

Facebook and Twitter are examples of the templated self. The shape of a space affects how one can move, what one does and how one interacts with someone else. It also defines how influential and what constraints there are to that identity. A more flexible, but still templated space is WordPress. A hand-built site is much less templated, as one is free to fully create their digital self in any way possible. Those in Second Life play with and modify templated selves into increasingly unique online identities. MySpace pages are templates, but the lack of constraints can lead to spaces that are considered irritating to others.


From earliest times, humans had tools like hammers that extended our physical self. Today’s technology extends our mental self. It’s changing the way we experience the world.



Part 4: Web Futures and the Resilience of Transportation Metaphors or, an Epilogue of Sorts

Amber Case echoes the questions we  started with in this talk. Namely,  how are our minds changed in subtle ways by new technologies? How do they challenge or reinforce some op our assumptions about identity? Furthermore, how does this impact who owns our data? I could just as easily have ended this discussion there, questions that initiatives like Domain of One’s Own are trying to engage by integrating digital fluency into the curriculum.

But one more thing before I go…transportation metaphors. While working on this talk I was struck by how well The Magnifcent Ambersons example with the automobile mapped on our own cultural moment with the web. What’s more, the brilliant exhibit at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum “American on the Move,” inspired me to think about the realtionship.


US 66 Sign from the Smithsonian Institute’s “America on the Move” exhibit

The Information SuperHighway is one common metaphor, and for many it was the metaphor used to introduce the Internet more generally. The web being the interface through which it became visible. In fact, in Howard Rheingold’s 1995 interview about the web on Frontline, this very metaphor comes up immediately.


Riding the Information Superhighway

And the transportation metaphors have persisted pretty consistently, take the following image to explain Net Neutrality. Even more compelling if you are from the Washington DC area given they recently introduced a pay-per-use toll road model for 40-odd miles of highway on the I-95.



In fact, it might be argued that the transportation metaphors power of explanation are in their immediate concreteness. Which might suggest why “The Cloud” is such a problematic, mystifying metaphor. Suggesting your stuff is out there “somewhere,” rather than being clear it is simply on someone else’s machine, not yours. The cloud introduces an obfuscation of the concrete, material realities underlying this technological revolution, which is exactly what the IndieWeb, Reclaim, Domain of One’s Own, etc. want to try and make intelligible.



Which brings me to yet another transportation metaphor which has been helping me to understand the changing nature of IT infrastructure right now. Docker, which explains its technology using the containerization analogy—which revolutionized shipping over the last 50 years—represents a powerful insight into how servers are becoming virtualized, portable, easier to manage, and potentially much, much cheaper. Not unlike what containerization did for shipping since the 1970s—after they were standardized and the US Navy backed this method during the Vietnam War.

All of which brings me to my companion video for the opening bit on Automobiles. Here is Frank Sobotka from Season 2 of The Wire sitting through a presentation on the containerization of the Baltimore Port, and it’s resulting impact on his union.

This talk is unfinished. But, fortunately, I’ll have a few more attempts to try and make sense of it. Particularly this last part, namely explaining Docker, containerization, the changing nature of IT, and it’s impact on edtech. But, I’ll have to save that for my next talk.

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6 Responses to How Automobiles, Super Highways, and Containerization helped me understand the future of the Web

  1. Perhaps this is your Grand Unified Theory of Reclaim, it really pulls together in a complete frame your ideas, especially loving the transportation theme bookended by the Ambserons and Wire clips.

    It reminded me a bit of the early web days and Gore’s “Super Highway” metaphors. Right down the street from where I lived they had built the overpasses for a future highway (now knowns as the 101 near Scottsdale) and they sat there for years before the rest of the road was built. This was my metaphor for this grand new world, when our home connections where tiny little dirt paths of dialup (of course it has come to be with high speed to the home).

    My old info highway page is at least archived (and gets me thinking about what its metaphor is)

    Keep on reclaimin’ down the highway.

    • Reverend says:

      Man, that early 1994 blog post is priceless, so you were always a shit talking mother brother! 🙂 Like the GIF, what’s old is new again. Transportation metaphors #4life!

  2. Tim Owens says:

    You’re a man of many metaphors, and I’m a big fan of them. The transportation thing is really interesting and it hadn’t dawned on me just how often we use it in speaking of the web. And of course its relation to Docker and the idea of containerization as revolutionizing shipping transportation (I know, I’m getting ahead of your next post, can’t wait to read it!). You’re dead on that the “Cloud” has become this opaque representation of what isn’t actually terribly complicated and that obfuscation is in part driven by a business model that thrives on a lack of understanding when it comes to the underlying technology.

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