Aaron Swartz's Programmable Web: An Unfinished Work

Greg Bates
Mar. 26 2013, 08:00AM EDT

In February, Morgan and Claypool Publishers released a 54-page unfinished work by Aaron Swartz on A Programmable Web. It begins with a focus on the architecture of the web,  and moves on to "what it means to build a program on top of the web."  Of APIs, he writes,

"Too often, an API is bolted on top of an existing application, as an afterthought or a completely separate piece. But, as we'll see, when a web application is designed properly, APIs naturally grow out of it and require little effort to maintain."

Mentioned in the abstract is a topic central to his concerns, "exposing your data to be queried and copied and integrated, even without explicit permission, into the larger software ecosystem, while protecting users' freedom."

[caption id="attachment_49870" align="aligncenter" width="435" caption="Aaron Swartz in 2008, photo credit Fred Benenson"][/caption]

Here I want to focus on his concluding remarks about the semantic web. He starts with an incisive overview of the leaps the web has made possible, from a unified address system for any document to how REST made documents searchable, and brings us up to today,

"...now we can ask whatever questions we like, or do processing that can’t even be put in the form of a question at all. Combining these dumps from different data sources, the possibilities are endless."

Rather than presume to paraphrase the ideas of a genius, I simply offer Swartz's final words on the subject at the end of the book, with a plea--read the rest. Here is his answer to "where do we go from here?",

"...the real idea behind the Semantic Web: letting software use the vast collective genius embedded in its published pages. Think of all the places software uses APIs or databases: your spellchecker queries a website to find the definition of a word, your addressbook does a search to see if your friends are online, your calendar downloads a page to keep you posted on upcoming events. Now, imagine these programs weren’t limited to one particular site, but could draw on the intelligence of the Internet at large.

Your spellchecker can suggest related or alternate words, or just keep up to date with the latest slang. Your address book can tell you where your friends are right now and what they’ve been up to lately. Your calendar can keep an eye out for events you might be interested in.

It’s easy to make fun of these kinds of visions. My father, upon seeing such demos, always used to ask, “But why does your toaster need to know about stock prices?” And perhaps, ultimately, they’re not worth all the effort. But the Semantic Web is based on bet, a bet that giving the world tools to easily collaborate and communicate will lead to possibilities so wonderful we can scarcely even imagine them right now.

Sure, it sounds a little bit crazy. But it paid off the last time they made that gamble: we ended up with a little thing called the World Wide Web. Let’s see if they can do it again."

To read Swartz's manuscript is tough going. Not because it is hard to read; it is so accessible, so cogent, so powerful. What makes the reading hard is the glimpse it provides of what our future would have held had he lived.

Greg Bates A writer for Programmableweb since 2012, Greg is a freelance writer and a maniacal editor of dissertations and term papers. - Follow me on Google+