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news and thoughts on and around the development of the iCite net
by Jay Fienberg

Semantic web 2003: not unlike making music on a TRS-80 in the 1970's

posted: Aug 3, 2003 8:53:40 PM

This is another commentary on user interfaces and interactions, with regards to the contagiousness of semantic web and microcontent technologies. This continues on comments I made in my recent post on Email, the web and the contagious database.

(Coincidentally, Eugene Kim just posted a good commentary, Do We Need the Semantic Web?, which has also provoked some interesting comments, many of which seem related to this.)

So, this begins with a story about my childhood:

In the 1970's, when I was a kid, I used to take classes on Saturdays at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles (links to cool stuff, check it out). This is actually where I first learned about computers (in about 1973, when I was five, I got to use and play a game on a computer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory connected on the *net).

One class I took many times was a model rocket class, taught by a man I only remember as Mr. Popperwell. It was a fun class that exposed little kids to the excitement of sharp knives, spray paint, decals / stickers, various toxicities of glue, dangerous combinations of electrical circuits and explosives, sandpaper, balsa wood and paper tubes, and, the culmination of all of this, launching Estes rockets in the gigantic parking lots of the Los Angeles Coliseum (complete with NASA-like countdowns, of course).

TRS-80 On the last day of class one year, Mr. Popperwell brought in his new TRS-80 computer, to show us the future of the personal computer. And, the highlight of his demonstration was the computer playing music (I remember the music being a Bach piece, but I just might be remembering Switched on Bach).

As part of this music demonstration, Mr. Popperwell explained and showed us in detail how he created the music. The process involved creating a list with the numeric frequency and duration for each note of music. So, a note of music for 1 beat might be added to the list like:


That's as in: 400Hz and 500ms. So, a whole piece of music might look like a long list list:

(it was actually even more complicated than this)

I remember that Mr. Popperwell was excited imagining a day in the future where other parameters could be added to the list that would affect the volume and timber of the notes, and to when a computer could play more than one note at a time. But, on that day, the music we heard was still pretty much a collection of beeps.

Jay's room I work on the iCite net and write this blog at home, in the same room where I have my music keyboard synthesizer. So, in between sessions of typing on my computer keyboard, I am often playing music on my music keyboard. And, when back at my competer keyboard, I often can't help notice the difference between the user interfaces and what they produce.

Although the music keyboard and musical sound has tremendous creative possibilities, I nevertheless think what is fun about creating computer programs is in a similar spirit of creativity. But, in both cases, there are layers of technology between me (the human) and the expression that another human might enjoy or make use of.

Even with acoustic instruments, there are mechanisms. I can grab my guitar behind me and there is nothing between my finger and the string, but the mechanism of the finger board and resonance of the guitar's body are essential in shaping that musical tone—and in making music.

With the semantic web, it seems like most everything being done right now is on the level of the mechanism of sound. Like Mr. Popperwell's vision of the future of his TRS-80, the vision of the semantic web is focused on more parameters of information and on more nuance of the relationship of that information.

I think this is important in the way that creating better guitar fingerboards or better synthesizer sound algorithms is important. In other words, musicians often like better musical instruments and make use of their increased nuances to make and/or inspire more and better music.

With the semantic web, I don't think we even have many musical instruments yet, at this human interface level. The focus is really on the mechanics, in this case, of data and information. It is like having a TRS-80 and being focused on getting it to produce two musical notes at once or having control over the volume or timbre of the notes.

With my music keyboard, there is a very different focus. Even when I choose to use a sound where I can't control the volume or timbre and where I can only play one note at a time, the user interface of the music keyboard inspires a musical approach to the "information" at hand.

The web is already pretty exciting—some people are making creative "musics" with it, and lots of people are tuning in. But, I think the semantic web adds little to that dynamic right now. It isn't accessible enough to affect how "web music" is being made or how "web music" is being heard—the interfaces are not there yet.

But, I think, in the context of new user interfaces through which people find new creative ways to express themselves and their relationships—and collectively participate in that expression, the semantic web can extend the range and nuance of our creative web.

So, with the iCite net, I am looking at creating a kind of musical instrument that capitalizes on the semantic web. I know other people are thinking about and creating interfaces too, and want to encourage that.

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Comments and Tracbacks

Comment by: Danny ·
posted: Aug 4, 2003 5:32:31 PM

An analogy I very much appreciate, see :

Comment by: Randy Popperwell ·
posted: Jan 3, 2006 5:19:03 PM

That was my Cousin Gearld Popperwell. He loved Music and Science and loved to teach. He passed away about four years ago at the age of 60. He taught me to love Classsical Music. Please alway remember Gerry .

trackback from: Raw Blog
posted: Aug 5, 2003 2:05:14 PM
title: Making Music

the iCite net - Semantic web 2003: not unlike making music on a TRS-80 in the 1970's I reckon Jay's...

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