Constructing the Digital Universe

January 20, 2006

The Digital Universe in 2006

Filed under: Digital Universe - The Future — Larry Sanger @ 8:13 pm

I want to explain how to take the long view of the Digital Universe project–at least the view of the coming year.

It would have been silly to judge the future of graphical user interfaces based on the first Macintosh. It would have been silly to judge Wikipedia based on the state of the project after just six months.

Similarly, it is of course silly to judge the future of the Digital Universe based on its first release which has been billed as a "prototype." The purpose of this release is to give future users a rough idea of what we're working on–and to invite the future leaders of the project to get on board, to make it better.

Personally, I was persuaded to get involved with this project because I saw its potential, not because I was impressed by what I saw so far. (Although that was pretty impressive–flying around the solar system and "local group" portals is lots of fun, even if it's not yet endless amounts of fun, as the future version will be!)

Here's just some of the potential I see for 2006:

  • We'll very likely start a public wiki encyclopedia project this year, managed by experts. It will be like, but importantly different from, Wikipedia. A parallel wiki encyclopedia project will also eventually be opened up to ordinary educated people, but we will require that people use their real-world identities and abide by sensible, enforceable rules.
  • Probably, a digital Earth will be fired up. You'll be able to zoom around a 3D Earth and the result will be increasingly integrated with portals, in the same way that you can click on "Mars" in the Solar System portal right now and get to the Mars portal that way.
  • Our "interim Steward" program will get started, and we'll have a general, expert-built taxonomy and Web directory, and a multimedia portal-building tool that is coming close to the testing phase. In time, the public will be able to contribute to these efforts as well–and they'll be empowered to use the same tools to build their own personal portals.
  • We'll organize an initial group of Stewards to serve on an interim Board of Stewards, who will designate what the future "information coalitions" will be–and we'll start actually organizing some of those coalitions.
  • A community, both expert and public, will kick off. We'll have mailing lists and various collaborative projects to work on. We'll together debate and give preliminary approval to a community Charter that we will agree to follow in creating the Digital Universe. There will be project mailing lists, an academic journal, and the kick-off of governance bodies–all in 2006.
  • Our very impressive group of 3D software thinkers/engineers, the Emma working group, can be expected to accomplish great things this year. I am particularly excited about a tool one of our guys is working on, that will allow ordinary users to author and save 3D widgets in the DU.

We can't make any promises (always a risky business with such uncharted terrain as we're exploring), but I think these things will happen this year.

As more and more people are introduced to the concepts behind the Digital Universe–which, and please trust me on this, are not instantly obvious, although they are extremely compelling when finally grokked–there will be an increasing groundswell of interest in and support of what we're doing. I think that groundswell will get started this year. I hope that a monograph I'm working on, "Constructing the Digital Universe," will help introduce the concepts and motivate participation for those who need "the long version." (Which I certainly would want, personally.)

This is a free and public project. Our content will be open content. Our tools will (once in a more developed state) be open source. We together will create the world's first free, truly authoritative general information resource. The world desperately needs a reliable free Web–and, since the need is so great and since it will, in time, become so obvious, it will happen, sooner or later. We, of course, want it to be sooner, and there's no question that we are taking our first and very promising steps.

I could go on and give you the longer-term, pie in the sky vision. Sometime I will. But I think what can, together, do in 2006 will be compelling enough by itself–and worthy of your support and participation, both expert and public.

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