Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,227th Meeting

President Ruth McDiarmid called the 2,227th meeting to order at 8:15 pm October 26, 2007 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club.

Ms. McDiarmid announced that dues notices will be mailed within the next month and encouraged us to be generous. She made the parking announcement. The recording secretary read the minutes of the 2,226th meeting, in a difficult, troubled way, and they were approved.

Ms. McDiarmid then introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Robert Kahn of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives. Mr. Kahn spoke on Managing Digital Objects on the Internet.


The internet is now about 35 years old, Mr. Kahn began. It is not only operating, but operating on a scale none of us imagined, throughout the world. Yet there are calls all over for major revisions, for a “clean slate” internet. Those of us intimately involved respond to those criticisms by saying, if you have a solution to this problem, tell us about it and we will implement it. If you can tell us how to deal with viruses, or how to handle security, we can put that into the internet. There is no need to start over.

Very few things last as long as the internet. The technology in the transportation system, for example, undergoes constant change. The technology of the internet is virtually the same as it was 35 years ago. It is doing the job for which it was designed.

Many people think they have a pretty good idea of what the internet is. If you ask them, they will say, it’s the routers, switches, and so on.

To me, the internet is the demonstration that we could put all the pieces together and have it function as a whole. All we are doing is transferring bits.

Congress passes laws about the internet, even while they do not seem to know what it is. The Federal government has adopted a definition that is fairly global. It includes the underlying pieces, the intermediate pieces, and the applications.

Now, I propose a new definition. Instead of the original intention of moving bits, I am going to talk about it as a system for managing objects. By digital objects, he apparently meant digital representations of objects, that is, data files which can be transformed into representations of physical objects or events, such as a book, a picture, or a song.

What does it take to feel comfortable with your information on the internet? You can’t find your medical records, financial information, or a company’s project records there. The reason is that you, or someone, do not want that information on the internet. While there is talk of an “open architecture” of the internet, it will not be allowed until there is a way to control availability. Medical information you might want to share only with your doctor, and then perhaps only under certain circumstances. Today, the only way to control information is with a password. The only way you are going to feel comfortable putting all that information on the internet is with a well-orchestrated encryption routine.

In principle, there is no reason you could not put everything that ever happened in your history in a protected area so you could access it. There are people who are walking around with cameras recording. They call it life-blogging. They reduce it to bits and store it. You never know, maybe in the future, people will want to look into the early history of some famous person to see what happened to him in his youth.

You could store information so that you could look back and see that 20 years ago you sent an email to someone on some subject. If you are going to have that ability, you will need a system for organizing and retrieving it.

The half-life of a URL today is about six months. The editors of electronic journals would like them to be put on an electronic shelf so someone can come back a hundred years later and read them. Pictures on the wall could be digitized and stored indefinitely.

What is needed is for each object to have a handle, an identifier that tells the user what the object is in such detail as to let the user know whether that is the object, or an object, that he is looking for.

How many of you in the audience know what a book is, he asked. Most people, he said, would take something out of their briefcase, hold it up and say, “That’s a book.” But if you go to a bookstore, you might find on a shelf ten identical books. They all have the same ISBN (International Standard Book Number). Why? It’s the same book. It is ten copies of the same book. The book is the simple way it is structured. The digital equivalent of something like a book or a movie is the data structure.

A system to put handles on digital objects must have an identifier machine, a platform that is independent of the data structure of the objects. The identifiers must have multiple elements. Each element is expressed as a type of element and its value, so it can be understood by different computer systems.

The handles, or identifiers, can be used by owners of digital objects to indicate what one can and cannot do with a given DO (digital object). It can be used to manage items of value and other interests such as digital cash, bills of lading, and similar value constructs. It could enable a person buying a hamburger to trace the whole history of the cow.

It is not an enforcement means, although it can be used as such. How would you like to drive your car on an interstate set up so that when you reach 56 miles an hour, your car is lifted off with a giant magnet?

The International DOI Foundation was set up to manage the handles in the electronic publishing industry. The system is working and now has about 30 million handles in it, but great questions remain about broader systems. For example, if you move a file from a computer to a server, it may take a couple seconds. If you move a folder into a DOI-type system, the folder might have hundreds of objects in it. Each one must have an identifier that indicates all the ways the DO may be used and not used. These problems compound.

Concluding, Mr. Kahn said he believes this idea, redefining the internet as a way of managing digital objects instead of a system of moving bits, is a very powerful one. He is hoping and working to have people around the world “buy into it.”

During the question period, Mr. Kahn was asked about archive problems. The questioner remarked that he had some Beta tapes of a daughter’s wedding. Over long periods, even languages change. Mr. Kahn said that compatibility is a large and growing problem. There are data tapes in storage that cannot be read with machines currently being manufactured. Filing and storage are also problems. For an individual, digitizing and putting objects on the net can be a solution, but ultimately, the format compatibility and storage problems must be handled by someone.

Another questioner asked if it’s possible to have a system for handling objects so the handle does not ever have to change. Mr. Kahn said it is, if you can get someone to manage it for you, but it does have to be managed.


Ms. McDiarmid thanked our speaker. She presented a plaque commemorating the event and welcomed him to a year of membership in the Society. She announced the next meeting, and finally, at 9:47 pm, she adjourned the 2,227th meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 46
Temperature: 13° C
Weather: Rainy

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala
Recording secretary

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