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The once and future hack

  • 09 November 2012
  • Written by 
  • Published in Profiler

Random Hacks of Kindness events are scheduled to run in both Sydney and Melbourne on 1 December, allowing avid developers the opportunity to do some pro bono code cutting – and reclaim the white hat.

In popular parlance a “hack” or a “hacker” is generally taken to be a negative concept. But according to John Allsopp, who has been involved with Australian Random Hacks of Kindness events for the past couple of years; “In the tech world a hack is a good thing. A hacker is someone able to solve things in elegant, ad hoc and unrepeatable ways.”

Through his company Web Directions and events allied to the Random Hacks of Kindness events Allsopp has been involved in organising a number of hack events, which he describes as; “Getting  people together over 24 hours to do something fantastic.

“Random Hacks of Kindness is about capturing that energy and enthusiasm.” Allsopp points to a hack event conducted shortly after the Haiti earthquake, which managed to turn the nation from one of the worst mapped areas in the world – it was hard for aid organisations to find their way around the ravaged country – to one of the best mapped places in the developing world.

He will be involved in the December event in Melbourne being hosted at Swinburne University.

He might well be one of the oldest hackers there. At 45 Allsopp acknowledges that; “In the world of web I’m kind of old.” Most of his peers are under 30.

He also has a traditional technical backgrounds having cut his hacker teeth in his teens on a TRS80 and then headed off to the University of Sydney to study computer science. He reckons there are today very few web developers with that sort of computer science pedigree.

“We studied algorithms and networks – two important approaches when building more sophisticated applications.” He believes that traditional software engineering capability is very important for developing robust systems.

While his training was valuable, when Allsopp graduated Australia was enduring the ‘recession we had to have’, which left him without work – he didn’t fancy a tech role in defence, finance or government, which were at the time the only ones on offer - and consequently free to wander the world “having adventures”.

In the early 90s however he started developing a hypertext knowledge management system which was distributed online. Although it only ran on Macintosh computers Allsopp claims some sales into the CIA and Boeing.

What he was really learning however was how the internet and world wide web worked – and at that stage he says a lot of web sites were “like plasticene” where multi-coloured content was mashed together and ended up as a big brown mess. “if you looked under the covers it was horrendous - I was concerned about moving us from this approach to more structured approaches.” Allsopp developed a cascading style sheet editor called Stylemaster, which is still for sale, and was also a vocal member of the emerging web community which was pushing for more standardisation and accessibility.

As he explains; “The goal was to get people developing for the web to use standard features and pay attention to certain features like accessibility so you would build something that  even people who can’t see very well can access it, interoperability so (access was) not just in one browser, plus the concept of universality – so that whether you were on a dial-up line in India – or in the NBN world – each have the right to access.”

Today the web feels inherently robust and accessible – but there were battles along the way to ensure it developed with those facets at its core.

 They were not always popular battles to fight. “We were called things like “Standards Nazis”, “ says Allsopp. In 2000 he penned a well-read article called A Dao of Web Design which argued that the web’s flexibility should be accepted as its strength rather than its weakness and outlined a set of principles which embraced that flexibility.

Then of course the world endured the dot com crash, and the sheen went off the web for a few years.

Allsopp claims that the watershed moment for the web was when Microsoft released Explorer 5 which he says boasted; “an ingenious hack to guess if you wanted the bedlam of the past or the organisation of the future,” and then used that insight to render the web site.

“It was a real watershed moment – but it’s not that apparent to people who don’t live in this world. It enabled a sophistication of web sites that wasn’t possible before. Before then things were largely static on the web – this suddenly enabled a whole different approach to more application like web pages.”

It was as web development took off again that Allsopp started running a series of workshops, then fully fledged developer conferences around Australia. From an initial roll up of around 200 people the 2012 Web Essentials event attracted 750 people.

Allsopp is also working on a web history (at webdirections/org/history) which hosts a timeline of the events and thinking that led up to the eventual creation and exploitation of the world wide web.

From a conversation with Allsopp it’s clear that he believes we are only at the very start of what hyperconnectivity and transparency might allow. “People experiment with this stuff at the edge. Think how real technology emerged – small fragmentary experiments. You can’t hide from the implications of your actions, what you eat, what you drink, where you are going and how much energy you are using. How can we use that to encourage and reward ourselves to be better behaved.

“As a society and people and a planet we have some pretty big issues to deal with and we are sticking our head in the sand a bit about that.

“I have a daughter due to be born in January (Allsopp and his wife have three other daughters already) – and she will live to be 100. I will have four children under six who might be here at the turn of the century.

“They are fortunate we’ve developed this global communications network that isn’t controlled by anyone – that’s very important as well – imagine if one company owned the internet.

“We now have kids in India running dial-up who have got access to the whole goddamn world – imaging tapping into the next 2 billion kids that have lain fallow – you’ve quadrupled the capability of the planet.

“We ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Not that Allsopp is entirely Pollyannaish over the future of the web. He’s not too concerned about China or other nation States attempts to control citizen internet activity. Allsopp’s more concerned about the way government and big business is attempting to shape the web subtly or otherwise.

“The biggest challenge is not overt stuff – but we have a Government that wants to listen to every one of our conversations and store them away. People will anonymise – the genie is out of the bottle.

“The more insidious thing is to look at the battle over net neutrality in the US – if you price discriminate in favour of some service over others you end up with the next generation of Googles or Microsoft. The challenge is, do we ossify because incumbents always want to be incumbents and a lack of net neutrality will really impede the ability to compete.

“But we tend to get around it.”


Photo: by kind permission of Drew Mclellan


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