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We will look back on these days, I think, as some weird interlude after the invention of computers but before we actually grasped what they meant for us. The Age we are stumbling towards, I am very sure, is the Age of Data. And when we get there, we will be there because we have sublimated the state-machine mechanics of computers beneath the logical structural abstractions of information and relation, and begun to inhabit this new higher world without reference to its substrate.  

I spent 5 years of my life trying to help bring this future about. That is, in a sense I've spent my whole adult life trying to help bring this future about, but for those 5 years I got to work on it very directly. I designed, and our team built, an attempt at a prototype of what a new data exploration system could be like, and at the core of this was my attempt at a draft of a language for discussing data the way algebra is a language for discussing math. These are the elements out of which this new age's alchemies will be constituted. And there were moments, as the system began to come into its own, when I felt the twitches of power awakening. You could conjure shapes out of data with this thing. It made information malleable, made it flow.  

The computer programmers on the team sometimes referred to the project as a system for "non-programmers", and I've come to think of that as both its potential and its downfall. Programmers never say "non-programmers" as a compliment. At best it's merely condescending, at worst it's a euphemism for "idiot" or a semi-aware admission of incomprehension. For programmers, programming is by definition an end, not a means, and therefore the motivations of non-programmers are inherently mysterious and alien. But what we built was for non-programmers in the same way that a bridge is for non-engineers. That is, the whole point of it was to represent a different interaction model between people and information than the ones offered by, at one end, programming languages, and at the other spreadsheets and traditional database programs. As I said over and over throughout those 5 years, I was trying to get us to do for hyper-connected datasets what VisiCalc once did for columns of numbers. I wasn't trying to simplify; if anything, I was making some things harder, or at least less familiar. This new age is not a subset of a previous age. It is not for lesser people, and its challenges are not of a simpler character.  

And as Google now shuts that system down, literally unceremoniously, and 5 years of my work and dreams and visions are at least nominally obliterated, I feel a little sadness but mostly relief. I'm still very convinced that our tools -- humanity's tools -- for interacting with data are hopelessly primitive. I'm still convinced that it won't make a whole lot of difference what those tools are if kids don't grow up learning how to think about data in the first place. I'm still convinced that I have a blurry, fractured vision of what it might take to change these things.  

But I also realize two more things.  

First, the system we built was only a beginning, and it had hardened into a premature finality long before its official corporate fate was settled. The query language I invented was cool, but the successor to it, which I'm sketching in my head whether I want to or not, is a different sort of thing yet again. And I was never going to reach it incrementally, arguing over every syntax decision on the way. Sometimes you have to just start over. The next one will not aspire to be the Visicalc of anything. It's not better business tools we need. The problem is not that we are alienated from our inner accountants. The thing we need first is not even an algebra of data, probably, but an arithmetic of data. We need an inversion of "normalization" in which you don't write data wrong and then endure six Herculean labors to make it obscurely more pleasing to capricious gods, but rather a way of writing it in the first place with an inherent expressive gravity towards truth because more true is always more powerful. This is a task in applied philosophy, not programming and not engineering and not even science. We need to imagine what Plato would have done when his record collection got too big for his cave.  

Second, I still believe that we all deserve better tools, tools more suited for our actual tasks and needs as people whose lives and choices and options are increasingly functions in, not merely of, information. But in the process of exploring what I mean by that I've become a non-non-programmer myself. At my new job I am an engineer. And sometimes, when you think you know what the better world looks like, you can bring pieces of it up out of your dreams. You can walk where the new paths will be. With enough belief, you can walk where the bridges will be. I will come back to these paths, one way or another, but you never do great things by imagining what people you don't understand might want for purposes you don't grasp or embrace. You should trust your own judgment only where you love beyond reason. Anybody could do nearly anything with Needle, and the business cases for it all involved hypothetical big companies doing hypothetical big things with hypothetical big data that repeatedly never actually materialized (and might have been hypoethical if they had). But left to my own invented devices, I always ended up using it for music data.  

So I have followed my own love, and my own obsessions, deeper into that data. At my new job, I am trying to make sense of the largest music database in the world, which is a lot more fun than what I was doing before, and harder, and of rather more direct and demonstrable relevance to anything. On my own, I will continue the music projects I started in Needle. The Discordance evolved out of empath, and so I've evolved it back in, with less marginalia but maybe more coherence. For the Pazz & Jop I've built a stats site far more specific than I could ever have done in the generalized environment of Needle. These will grow as I play with them, and probably there will be other things. I spent 5 years trying to build fancy tools, but it's pretty amazing what you can do with just a hammer. I was Needle's most dedicated user, but in the end, both sadly and happily, I don't actually need it any more. Nobody will miss it more than I will, but maybe nobody will really miss it very much. The moral, I think, and maybe even the ethic, is that these systems do not matter. This isn't the first system I worked on only to see it shut down, and it won't be the last. Software is the epitome of ephemera, necessary in aggregate but needless in every mundane specific.  

But the things we learn from these systems stay learned. Even the ways of learning remain ways after their original demonstrations disintegrate. This is another phrasing of the point about this Age, in fact: the flow from Data to Information to Knowledge to Wisdom is not a function of syntax or platforms or prevalence or virtualization. It is something we do, to which the technology is merely witness. We must teach our children how to think about data because the data survives where the systems fail. We must teach ourselves to be children again in this new Age, because its most transformative truths still await discovery, and are anything but mundane or needless, and we will never recognize them unless we can recall what it felt like in our hearts when everything was amazing and new and ahead of us, and the act of waking was an invitation to wonder to show us a way.
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