08 March 2006

Splog in a Box?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away - well, in California, about 1994 - O'Reilly came out with something called "Internet in a Box". This wasn't quite the entire global interconnect of all networks in a handy cardboard container, but rather a kind of starter kit for Web newbies - and bear in mind that in those days, the only person who was not a newbie was Tim (not O'Reilly, the other one).

Two components of O'Reilly's Internet in a Box were particularly innovative. One was Spry Mosaic, a commercial version of the early graphical Web browser Mosaic that arguably began the process of turning the Web into a mass medium. Mosaic had two important offspring: Netscape Navigator, created by some of the original Mosaic team, and its nemesis, Internet Explorer. In fact, if you choose the "About Internet Explorer" option on the Help menu of any version of Microsoft's browser, you will see to this day the surprising words:

Based on NCSA Mosaic. NCSA Mosaic(TM); was developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Distributed under a licensing agreement with Spyglass, Inc.

So much for Bill Gates inventing the Internet....

The other novel component of "Internet in a Box" was the Global Network Navigator. This was practically the first commercial Web site, and certainly the first portal: it was actually launched before Mosaic 1.0, in August 1993. Unfortunately, this pioneering site was later sold to AOL, where it sank without trace (as most pioneers do when they are sold to AOL: anybody remember the amazing Internet search company WAIS? No, I thought not.)

Given this weight of history, it seems rather fitting that something called Boxxet should be announced at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, currently running in San Diego. New Scientist has the details:

A new tool offers to create websites on any subject, allowing web surfers to sit back, relax and watch a virtual space automatically fill up with relevant news stories, blog posts, maps and photos.

The website asks its users to come up with any subject they are interested in, such as a TV show, sports team or news topic, and to submit links to their five favourite news articles, blogs or photos on that subject. Working only from this data, the site then automatically creates a webpage on that topic, known as a Boxxet. The name derives from “box set”, which refers to a complete set CDs or DVDs from the same band or TV show.

As this indicates, Boxxet is a kind of instant blog - just add favourite links and water. It seems the perfect solution for a world where people are so crushed by ennui that most bloggers can't even be bothered posting for more than a few weeks. Luckily, that's what we have technology for: to spare us all those tiresome activities like posting to blogs, walking to the shops or changing television channels by getting up and doing it manually.

It's certainly a clever idea. But I just can't see myself going for this Blog in a Box approach. Perhaps I over-rate the specialness of my merely human blogging powers; perhaps I just need to wait until the Singularity arrives in a few years time, and computers are able to produce trans-humanly perfect blogs.

What I can see - alas - are several million spammers rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of a completely automatic way of generating spurious, self-updating blogs. Not so much Blog in a Box as Splog in a Box.

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