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The support of life on our planet consists of two kinds -- metaphysical and physical. ... All that is is physical is energetic. All that is metaphysical is synergetic. ... Only the physical is alterable; the metaphysical is unalterable. ... All the eternal, weightless principles apparently governing both the physical and metaphysical Universe are experimentally detected and digested into mathematical generalizations, of which only a few are as yet known. ... The whole process of generalizing generalizations forms a pyramid whose base consists of all the special cases of direct physical experience. ... The local physical system is the one we experience sensorially: the conceptual metaphysical system is the one we never experience physically but only consider in thought. As we discover in our grand synergetic strategy, we commence all problem-solving most advantageously, at the supreme, terminally comprehensive level of Universe -- that is, at the generalized-principle level.

-- R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics. Macmillan, 1979, v. 2, p. 68-74.

Getting It Together

Chances are if you want to know something, you can find it on the internet. You can make important and lasting connections, advance your research, business or professional interests, and contribute to the discovery, unification and application of knowledge. You can do it now and do it fast. But what do you do to exploit such a vast set of resources? How do you escape from surfing into synergy?

Internet as Organism. In one respect, the internet is like a huge random-access filesystem, with no central directory or universal way to access its contents. Search engines such as Alta Vista tirelesly traverse the web to ferret out content and make it amenable to query, and directory services such as Yahoo organize selected sites into logical hierarchies, although somewhat arbitarily. The net is thus evolving as a self-organizing system, as does any life form, except that it is non-local and invisible. Its neurons and synapses are re-configuring themselves continually into an emergent organism of impressive complexity. Nobody really knows, but it's estimated that the internet has 40 million nodes in 1999 and is growing very quickly (thousands per day). For truly fascinating graphic overviews of this beast, browse The Atlas of Cyberspaces. For related statistical data on internet trends, consult cyberatlas.com. Here's a sample information terrain from the Atlas of Cyberspaces by Sara Fabrikant:

Connection Strategies. When individuals locate each other on the net and discover they have things in common, they often start to formalize their interactions. One of the oldest approaches to organizing a community of interest is to start a discussion (or mail) list. Another way is to start or join a newsgroup, which seems to be an extension of the web, but is really much older. Some people prefer chat rooms, where real-time discussion can take place. Newgroups and chat rooms are good places to meet people, but it is easier to gauge how much you have in common with someone if you both have pages on the web. You also then have platforms with which ideas, data and software can be easily, instantly exchanged.

Web Rings. Over the coming months, we'll be doing our part to help fruitful encounters take place, at least in the areas connected to geoprocessing and mapping. We wish to facilitate developing communities of interest among the people at web sites who relate to us and each other. Since not everyone in a group may enjoy dealing with all members equally, it may not be useful to relate every site in every way at all times. To limit unneeded complexity, web sites can be collected into rings. A ring is a circle or a simple polygon. A webRing places URLs at the vertices of a virtual polygon, so that anyone who encounters one of the sites on the ring can travel to the sites before and after it on the ring, or to a random site in the ring. The ordering is usually simply the order of entry into the ring, rather than signifying especially close relationships to neighbors. The master index at WebRing.org contains about 40,000 rings, each having from 2 to 100 members, but most seem to have under 15 vertices. You can search for rings by keywords and phrases in their descriptions, select a ring that interests you, and go to the starting point to navigate it. WebRing.org describes itself as:

"An extraordinary system servicing three primary World Wide Web groups: visitors, member sites and advertiser-merchants, WebRing remains entirely open and free of charge to both visitors and members. As a leading online navigation aid, WebRing is experiencing a growth rate of over 10% monthly. Daily page requests from visitors exceed 500,000; member sites total over 500,000; rings total over 40,000."

The number of specialties related to geoprocessing is quite large and each may have sub-specialties that relate to one another in unique ways. In theory, the net allows these efforts to discover one another and organize themselves better, but the larger the internet grows the more chaotic it appears. Many of the rings indexed at WebRing.org seem to have arisen organically, and some may stick to a fairly specific topic, such as Microbreweries in Arizona or X-files obsessions. Others have a more general theme (like Geography), and relate sites that range from primary schools to research institutes to map stores. Such rings may have little value for most of their members or visitors; because they don't define and organize their content, access to them may actually be less heuristic than querying search engines such asAlta Vista or Excite.

In general, a circle of friends isn't usually simply-connected, despite the implied topology. Usually there will be one or several central figures -- like Jerry Seinfeld -- to whom everyone else relates and usually checks in with first. Members of circles often interact independently of the major figures, and some may be less closely affiliated than others (such as Newman). Web rings are like this too. One site in a ring is the administration node, and requests for membership must be processed there, even though they may be made via the central point (webRing.org).

Intersecting Rings of Interest. We believe that to be most useful to their participants, web rings should limit their size and scope. If their publishers come from a large and diverse population (e.g., are in some way concerned with geoprocessing) they are likely to have certain overlapping concerns, both general and specialized, local and global. The diagram to the right shows how this might work for a small set of web sites. Each site belongs to two rings of four nodes each. Certain pairs of sites (1 and 6) (2 and 3) and (4 and 5) share two rings, and thus may share more aspects of content than sites that happen to be adjacent on one ring. For example, sites 1 and 6 might be geodata producers, sites 2 and 3 might be GIS software vendors and sites 4 and 5 might be GIS user organizations. Ring A is a mix of data producers and vendors who must provide tools for using the data; ring B connects the producers of data with consumers; ring C relates tool-makers to those who apply the tools. While the same connections could be built into three overlapping discussion lists, creating rings linking web sites creates more opportunities for learning, feedback and collaboration. We are exploring a way to extend the scope of rings, and solicit your participation and comments on the proposed structure sketched out below.

three webrings of six sites

Collaborative Geoprocessing. Today in geoprocessing communities -- not just in research circles -- roles between data and software producers and users are blurring as new tools and techniques simplify data capture, integration and analysis. End users develop tools that vendors end up distributing, and public agencies contract vendors to develop databases. Many of the tools are built using scripting languages and GUI construction kits, and may be reusable. More and more are based on the Java language, which while not currently as easy to work with as, say, Visual Basic, yields more secure and robust code and is native to the web. As web-based geoprocessing strategies proliferate, roles of institutons and ways of solving problems will change dramatically. Users functioning as developers may want to take inventory of tools already available before coding their own software. In order to be useful, foreign tools need to be documented and adhere to appropriate standards. A good recent example is OpenMap, a JavaBeans toolkit developed at GTE-BB&N as a demonstration of software standard efforts being coordinated by the OpenGIS Consortium and data standards codified by the U.S. Federal Geographic Data Committee. OpenMap modules are available for free downloading, and other Java geoprocessing software can be obtained from sources such as GISlinx. These and other resources are catalogued in our web resources directory.

A Ring of Rings. As the diagram above illustrates for a very simple set of rings, geoprocessing and cartography can include many affinity groups. Members can share interests in technology, specific tools, application domains, disciplines, institutional affiliations, types and scales of geodata and beyond. As a given site may have multiple interests, it can end up participating in several sets of rings. Likewise, rings should be able to contain other rings, to allow people to navigate through their subject matter quickly, as through a file directory. Some of the principal areas that our interests touch have a natural hierarchy that we have expressed here. Other organizations are of course possible, and we would like to hear your opinions about our scheme and possible alternatives to it. The present plan, starting at the top, looks like this:

Planet Ring is the master ring through which six second-level rings may be accessed. All sites in any of these rings automatically belong to Planet Ring. The master ring itself does not have any member web sites, however, only sub-rings. It thus functions as sort of a "United Nations," populated not by individuals but by delegations. Two-way communication among all members might be enabled by a Planet Ring Discussion List, which all individual representatives are free to join. In addition, a polling mechanism can be established that to enable changes to the ring structure to be proposed and voted on. As far as we are aware, there are no rings that operate in this way, so some technical problems may need to be solved before something like Planet Ring can be established. Within Planet Ring are six second-level rings; three are scale-determined and problem-oriented, and the other three are technological, institutional and solution-oriented.

World Ring. A place where those involved with whole systems and works on a global scale can connect.

Region Ring. For studying states regions, conurbations, ecosystems, and phenomena without boundaries.

Urban Ring. Focused on growth, governance, planning and management at neighborhood-metropolitan scales.

Field Ring. Disciplines that use and affect developments in geoprocessing, organized at a high level.

Tools Ring. Focused on activities, special expertise and inputs used in geoprocessing.

Tech Ring. Technologies specific to geoprocessing applications and infrastructures that support them.

In these conceptual illustrations, each of the second-level rings has six third-level rings connected to it. They are depicted as linked only to neighbors, but the intersections can be more dense, depending on how they are shared among sites. In fact, sites can belong to rings that have different parent rings, in essence serving as hyperlinks between rings.

More to come....




Copyright © 1999 by Geoffrey Dutton.