Beyond linking

by Bob DuCharme

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This weblog has been an experiment for me. By keeping it focused on linking, my plan was to accumulate ideas about linking technology over history and to gather feedback about those ideas as I researched a potential book on it. I tried to examine all the linking technologies that led up to the web, starting with the twelfth century. I wrote about a nineteenth-century linking application that used typed, one-to-many links and that remains a multi-million dollar business, and I wrote about the use of unique IDs in usenet postings that allowed for linking on the Internet in 1982. I looked at more modern linking technologies and the role of metadata in these technologies such as trackback, RSS metadata, and the linking possibilities opened up by Jon Udell's work with streaming audio.

Like a lot of weblogs, mine ended up focusing more on interesting new things that showed up. One nice bit of linking technology that alerted me to a lot of new developments was a feed I created for all new entries tagged with the word "linking." An overly large proportion of these turned out to be by and for the search engine optimization crowd, whose mercenary attitude can be a bit annoying, but I can't help but be fascinated by their tremendous efforts to quantify the value of a link in dollars and cents.

I've decided to start a new weblog on my own domain without such a narrow theme. I still promise never to discuss what I had for breakfast or my new favorite CD. Linking is a form of navigation of information, and there are other information navigation technologies that use or don't use computers. I've been more and more interested in the assembly, organization, and retrieval of information throughout history, and would like to discuss those more. Doing it under my own domain name instead of on O'Reilly will give me more control over the weblog and therefore give me more opportunities to play with the various aspects of blogging technology.

I've learned from recent reading that most histories of computers focus on computers that specialized in the most advanced math possible for their time, which was as much of a niche application in 1900 and 1945 as it is now. Many key tasks that we use computers for today—particularly database tasks—were being carried out by automated, usually electrical machines since the nineteenth century in a separate but parallel history to the Collosus-Mark I-ENIAC-EDVAC history of computers that you typically read about. Did you know that during World War I the U.S. Army could run automated queries against a database to find, for example, French-speaking soldiers with a chauffeur's license? Lately, I've been fascinated by large-scale database applications that predate any database technology that geeks currently take seriously. A lot of people now consider any pre-relational technology to be prehistoric; that's a pretty limited perspective.

The history of computing and computing applications (oddly, often a separate field of research) has a lot to teach us about the problems and innovations we're working on now. I'm sure I'll be spouting opinions on more developments as well, especially XML-related ones, which I've worked with and written about a lot since the days when XML was a four-letter word. When I see interesting linking-related news, I'll probably add new entries to this O'Reilly weblog, but my main weblog from now on will be If you follow only one of these, that will be the more active one.