Dan Connolly's tinkering lab notebook

Technology that inspires...

Computers... bah! frustration machines! They're slow, they crash, and they lose your work. The Internet just compounds the problem. "A distributed system is one on which I cannot get any work done because some machine I have never heard of has crashed," as Leslie Lamport said.

But they also put you in touch with far away friends and let you share music and pictures and movies.

I have had a passion for technology since I was little. My parents tell me that when I was four, I got Tinker Toys for Christmas and hours later they had to pry me away from them to get me to eat something.

I picked up guitar in my early teens. We don't think of guitars as technology these days, but these instruments have been inspiring people for thousands of years. I took a handful of lessons, but mostly I learned by sitting next to George and Rudy in the church music group.

Live performance is a little scary, but it's great training for public speaking and running meetings. Last November Chris Wilson and I organized a meeting of the new HTML Working Group. The group has hundreds of participants that usually work by email and I had no idea how many of them would show up. Ian Hickson, who is writing the HTML 5 specification, was very skeptical about the value of getting together face-to-face, especially with the sort of structured agenda that is the norm at W3C. He said he was willing to try an unconference, though, and Chris Wilson has live performance experience too (he plays bass, I gather) so we said sure, why not?

Travel is stressful enough without having to leave my guitar at home. I've had one case crunched in transport and I don't chance it much any more, but I managed to borrow a guitar from a colleague. At first, I used it like the lead singer in a band to occupy my hands as I welcomed the meeting participants. But then, inspiration struck and I pitched an InstantGig as one of the unconference sessions. Some working group participants were probably more inspired by the high-tech HTML+CSS as Flash Killer demo session, but according to one account, "It was surreal (but awesome) to be singing Beatles' songs with the key players who invented the World Wide Web."

Do you remember when the Web first inspired you to try it? Was it amazon and ebay? or google maps? or wikipedia and weblogs? In the early 1990's, it was NCSA's What's New and before that, at CERN, where Tim Berners-Lee developed the first Web browser, it was an online phonebook where following hyperlinks was a lot easier than learning how to log in and get around the machine with the phone database.

These days the Web is not just for academic researchers and not just for Silicon Valley start-ups. It's for towns and libraries and families. When I met Ted Nelson in Tokyo in 1997, he had anticipated this change in a book, The Future of Information:

The software world currently corresponds to the Pre-Director stage in movie-making (1893-1904). During those years, when short films were already being shown in theaters, the job of making the movie was given to the cameraman-- because he knew how to work the equipment.That is how it is with software today. Today's software designers are those who only understand the technicalities, and not-- with rare exceptions-- those who understand how to integrate the presentation of ideas to the mind and heart.

That changed in the movie business about 1904, when D.W. Griffith showed that the talent required to make a movie was very different from the technical skill of working the camera: it required a new, unifying ability to weave many parts into a whole.

I remember clearly some of the ways this change impacted my career. I remember the day Michael Dertouzos marched me across the line from engineering to management and the day I just about threw a tantrum when Sally Khudairi insisted that marketing and press relations were essential parts of my job. But I appreciate now that management is the only option when your inspiration is bigger than what you can do on your own and the press is an important link in the structure of the global community. And the Web is not just about computers and networks; it's about presentation of ideas to the mind and heart. It's technology that inspires.