Remembering OWLTEH, Part 1: the Open Web Installations

Hard to believe it’s been more than a week since the Learning on/with the Open Web conference (OWLTEH) in Coventry. It was a great conference experience for me, and if I don’t stop and take a bit of time to capture some of it I’m afraid the magic might be lost. Also, I’m going to have to gloss the conversations and resulting panel discussion with Tony Hirst and Anne-Marie Scott because that will require its very own post, so I’m saving myriad thoughts about that awesome experience within an awesome experience for a soon to materialize follow-up. That said, Anne-Marie Scott already did a far better job than I will of capturing some of the excitement (and unease) that was generated as a part of that panel, and I am grateful for her work in so many ways.

For me the OWLTEH experience was so good because it was relatively small (I would guess 40-50 people), a brilliant venue (the Coventry Transportation Museum is a gem), free and open to anyone who wanted to come (and a lot of really good people made it), and more than anything it emanated the positive vibes of the organizers, namely Coventry University’s Disruptive Media Learning Lab (DMLL). The event was done on the cheap, and it was energizing in some very fundamental ways—but I’ll touch on that later.

So, while I’m still a bit high on the post-conference experience, that wasn’t the case leading up to it. It’s a lot of work to organize a conference to begin with, but when you are trying to help with that while attempting to build an installation remotely and you have over promised on a series of networked 90s computers, the level of fail can be painful. Needless to say my vision for actually enabling folks to surf the 90s web on period appropriate machines did not materialize. We did have a nice 1997 desktop computer running Windows 95 with various games like the OG Grand Theft Auto, Warcraft II, Duke Nukem 3D, etc., but no web—which makes me sad.

Charlie and Alex modeling the Windows desktop on display at OWLTEH

That said, Rob Farrow’s above Tweet was some consolation, the idea that 90s gaming was the seed of so much of what my kids do regularly now is compelling for me. The Sega Mega, a period appropriate gaming console, with an absolutely gorgeous Sanyo monitor (I want one!) was courtesy of Alex Masters, who was an absolute savior for getting what little I did have working.

But all was not lost because Lauren Heywood rules. While we tossed around the idea of the 90s web exhibit, Lauren made it happen by taking the lead and getting it done—unlike me. It really was cool to see it come together. Below is an image of the intro placards we created above, and for scale this is roughly 11″ x 14″.

I really like the opening paragraph Daniel Villar-Onrubio word-smithed for that one:

“Vague, but exciting.” These are the three words that Tim Berners-Lee’s boss at CERN wrote on the copy of his proposal of an Information System (http://info.cern.ch/Proposal.html), which would eventually become the World Wide Web (WWW). Launched in the early 90s, the Web was imagined by Berners-Lee as a space for knowledge sharing that was by definition an Open Web. Vagueness and excitement, as well as playfulness and ingenuity, also marked the early days of the Web. A time when a still tiny proportion of the worldwide population had the luxury to explore its potential and imagine myriad uses beyond its original purpose. This exhibition aims to convey the spirit of those early days of the Web as a way of rethinking its present and future role in teaching and learning.

He nailed it, and from there we had various community-submitted entries, somewhere between 15-20 sites featuring sites from the 90s web exhibited on a caddy-cornered bookcase from Ikea (Billy to the rescue). A few of the sites featured were Alan Levine‘s various web creations from the era—that guy has a long digital footprint— and I think I’m gonna have to get a separate post highlighting the various entries….damn I knew blogging OWLTEH was going to be an ordeal! 

For my part I submitted two examples, the first was a fan site dedicated to the British 1967 TV series The Prisoner (featured above) with the penny farthing bicycle complementary of the Transit Museum. The brief research I did around this Prisoner fan site (which was also part of a larger Prisoner Webring) led me to UK ISP called Freeserve from the late 1990s that has a pretty interesting story, here’s the label I created

The Prisoner (http://www.the-prisoner-6.freeserve.co.uk/)
The website screenshots captured here from 1998 and 1999 highlight the popularity of amateur fan sites across the web. One of the UK’s most celebrated television series from the 1960s, The Prisoner, had numerous fan sites—a fact demonstrated by the announcement of “The Prisoner Ring,” outlining the various benefits of linking with other similarly focused sites.* This site also provides access to various media such as music (.midi files), video (.avi files), and streaming animation using Microsoft’s proprietary video format Advanced Streaming Format (or .asf) as highlighted here.

As the URL suggest, this site was hosted through Freeserve, a British internet service provider founded in 1998. Freeserve took the bold move of dispensing with subscription fees for dial-up web access, opting for a portion of the telephone charges. Additionally, they provided 10 MB of web hosting space and multiple free email addresses. In two short years Freeserve would have as many as 2 million active subscribers in the UK and be valued at well over £1 billion.

*This refers to webrings, a popular method of highlighting a series of sites linked to one another based around a common theme.

I got taken with not only the budding ISP market in the UK, but also the Dot-com Bubble valuing of tech companies in the late 90s that is easy to forget about in the age of social media insanity where everyone’s got a startup valued in the seven figures. Freeserve was a huge disrupting force for British Telecom, which would ultimately buy them, and strikes an interesting note, at least for me, of what was to come.

My second submission was about the Prof.Dr. website style of the 1990s that Olia Lialina has written about extensively. I already referenced this label on the bava while preparing the exhibit, but to see it as a physical object in the UK was a thing of beauty. But you’ll also note from the above images a collection of open source tools gorgeously designed by one of the DMLL student activators. The color-coded designs feature various open source projects such as Jupyter Notebooks, Mastodon, Twine, Etherpad, and more. The various artistically designed installations and exhibits were indicative of the care and though that everywhere filled the day. The most impressive installation has to have been Rob Hassell and Mat Dalgleishthe’s SIDsynth64: “an 8-bit synthesizer combining obsolete and open hardware.”  Follow that link, and if your too damn lazy, see it in action below:

And, the kind of invisible exhibit highlighting the power of the open web was the conference web presence itself. The spaces where participants added their bios, submitted abstracts, checked the schedule, even added their photos were all built using SPLOTs. Nothing like a return to simple, open web-based tools for a manageable conference. After seeing the innumerable Tweets from the annual EDUCAUSE conference that folks couldn’t manage the deluge of spam from vendors. Jesus, what a nightmare. I take no little solace in knowing there are still folks out there in edtech that actually walk the walk of open and spare us all the blather.

All this and I haven’t even talked about any of the sessions or any of the participants beyond a few of the immediate organizers. I guess Remembering OWLTEH is going to have to be a multi-post series to remember OWLTEH, but it’s worth it!

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7 Responses to Remembering OWLTEH, Part 1: the Open Web Installations

  1. Such a great recap!! I also really love the idea of using SPLOTs as a way to encourage attendee participation before the conference. I think that’s something that Domains17 could have done better, and I’m excited to make these changes for next June!

  2. Grant says:

    That SIDsynth project looks brilliant! I love it.

  3. Reading this has me feeling the warm fuzzies all over again. I (nervously) await your dedicated write up on the panel and chats with Tony and I (note to self, dial back the trolling for a bit).

    The learning and teaching websites of the 1990s was a work of genius – and I eagerly wait to see how Daniel and Lauren ensure it lives on it some form. My modest contribution had me remembering good times as a Lit student, and your reference to the Prisoner reminds me that I meant to share this: https://portmeirion.wales/stay/accommodation/self-catering-cottages
    It’s not cheap, but there’s no bigger thrill than waking up in the The Village every day.

  4. Pingback: Remembering OWLTEH, Part 1: the Open Web Installations – Skate Curated Best of the Web

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