Mining the Interwebs | Day 8

With our explicit focus shifted away from Ruby, today was mostly a review of HTML and CSS. Beyond mere conceptual reiteration, we delved into the interesting world of data mining and visualization. For our task at hand, however, using Ruby was inevitable – we had to use the Nokogiri gem, after all – but the emphasis was on the structuring and presentation of such mined data through the markup language and style sheets, respectively.

Although I had read up informally on HTML and CSS in the past, it was nice to have it all laid out so concisely. Internalizing today’s lecture, I see HTML as the skeleton and CSS as the flesh – the two together create a vessel, but one without life. JavaScript, in this metaphor, would be the animating force that gives the vessel facial expressions and movement – nonetheless, this vessel would still lack a soul. Content is the soul of a web page; content is king, as they say, and everything exists in web development to enshrine the content. The internet is merely a channel of communication and one would be a fool to get lost in the intricacies of the medium, losing sight of its teleological orientation: the transmission of information. As such there are many ways to provide the vessel with a soul, as content comes in many forms. Contributing original text, images, audio, and video can be considered a form of direct ensoulment – manifesting new life into your web vessel. However, for every primary level of existence, there are always secondary and tertiary derivatives that mock the original form – that’s where Nokogiri and data mining come in.

Rather than originating life, data mining is the bastardization of content for utilitarian ends. It is not life manifest, but life recycled and recombined to serve the wishes of its coding master, so to speak. Here, we are creating chimeras. Accepted as an axiom here is that the internet is channel of communication – to recombine and represent existent information is still communicating something, but it is at a lower level. Of course, this is all occurring within the human flavour of creation, in which recycling and recombination are fundamental tenets – everything’s already been said – and, yet, there is something off about data mining. If we could personify web pages, original pages with genuine content would be free men, whereas these secondary tools would be mindless slaves – that’s what feels off. When engaging with Nokogiri to extract information and then parse it, I feel like I’m instantiating a digital slavery of sorts and dirtying my hands.

I’m losing myself in an incredible tangent at this point, but the extended metaphor of originating life in a vessel brings me to a solemn thought on the nature of language. The adepts of the past have never left but merely changed the medium in which they engaged. Language has always been the truest magic – logos is the root of creation. The spellings that were once restricted to small groups and communities can be broadcast around the world at the tap of a key and the click of a mouse. However, beyond languages of interpersonal communication, these programming languages have their own domain-specific magic of sorts. Forget the days of sigils, sacrifices, and summoning – you can now code your own tools to do your bidding.  The mages of our time no longer wear robes – they’re sitting on beanbags and coding away.

Overall, I think what I’m getting at here is that it’s easy to see the code that one is creating as purely data, as an exercise in logic. However, this logic is not divorced from life – it interacts with life and helps to shape it by virtue of what it facilitates. Rather than depersonalizing the code, it helps to think of it in human terms, to embody the seemingly lifeless with the life that it secretly contains. Language is an animating force and to refuse to see it in its proper light is to distort its true potential. If one were to see each line of code as a cell contributing to the life of a breathing organism, there is much philosophical and psychological enrichment to be attained. Change the way you think about your coding, and the code itself changes. Programming gives life to logic and logic to life – open your eyes to its dignified stature and you are thereby empowered in your act of creation.

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