Life, Content Mangagement Systems, and the Answer to Everything

@30 January 2008  

This website is over ten years old, and threatening to become a sulky teenager. It began after almost two lost decades of "career silence" when a career didn't happen, and wasn't really wanted to happen, but the direction of life remained obscure. I had come into my majority entirely without the kind of family and social enculturation which equips a normal person in every culture with the tools and restraints to make them a thoughtlessly happy tadpole in some pond. (The reasons for such a stunted social persona are beyond this topic).

From the outside, and I was always on the outside, the sound and fury of testosterone powered, culturally sanctioned career paths to high salaries, impressive titles, trophy wives and families.. and all the rest of it, always looked kind of silly. At the same time, life's lottery hadn't told me how to spend the loot. The starting assets were mixed. Cash: rock bottom zero. Social status: "working class". Connections: nil. Sex appeal: evidently minimal. Family support: nil. On the other hand, I was as healthy as a horse, and had scored a brain apparently good enough to take on most professions (an Australian navy recruiting board once offered to put me through university as a lawyer, doctor, engineer of any flavour, or whatever), and in one heady year topped out as dux in a mediocre high school. I was stubbornly independent, derisive of the establishment props that supported other tadpoles who were plainly less natively equipped, but painfully shy to the point of incompetence. The missing key, perhaps, was a mentor with the intelligence and faith to offer a credible path into the jungle. Well, there was no mentor. No one gave a damn.

So in the end I had to create my own narrative. To this day, still nobody gives a damn, but the Internet, bless it, has offered a medium for self-definition far richer than the scraps of paper which earlier generations had to be content with. 'The Passionate Skeptic' gave me a voice again, reminded me of who I was, and in some public sense perhaps defined who I was, not that the surging billions out there gave a damn. Why should they? Does it matter?

Ten years ago, the public grammar of the Internet was stuff called html (hypertext markup language). For mere practitioners of human languages, it was a spiky bed of brackets and letters, apparently needed to instruct thick computers on the subtle requirements of formatting text and images for the tastes of human readers. We didn't like it much. It imposed some dumb restrictions. Worse, the mechanics of bracketing played havoc with the flow of our ideas in the creative phase. We looked for ways to "cheat" with WSIWYG editors, and presently the market obliged with programs like Dreamweaver. Over time, we even came to understand html, more or less, and learned to wrangle it a bit in useful ways. My website, is a kind of museum of this progression. Buried deep inside it are web pages that should have been re-formatted years ago, but somehow there has never been the time.

Well, a while ago, now quite a while ago, that vast circus called the Internet rolled on to other things. In particular, it discovered dynamic content management (CMS) for the corporate world, and its equivalent for the lumpen proletariat, blogs. What content management systems and blogs have in common is a pretty rigid, pre-defined structure. The content is stored in databases, not in a slush pile of html pages. The content is presented in fixed styles though fixed windows, generally known as "themes", really glorified templates. It is all pre-set with cascading style sheets (CSS) and server-side scripting like Php. No matter what you input, it is minced through this CMS/blog machine and comes out looking the same. It is a great equalizer. The lobotomized and semi-literate can effortlessly produce pages that look highly polished (at least until you query their vacuity). Hence the 'literary' explosion that has now produced 70 million or more blogs, and billions of pages of corporate website blah. This electronic mob chanting is deafening.

From time to time I have picked at CMS/blog machines, and wondered how to migrate the now denigrated "static" html of my sprawling site to the tidy content of databases. The main attraction has been the incorporation of some way to give readers a voice, assuming there are any readers left out there. A few years ago, they used to send a steady stream of e-mails, but now expect something more instant and public. The voices have fallen silent. The discouragements to website migration are numerous. There is the sheer enormity the operation ( has over 10,000 files). There is the time-consuming need to learn whole new languages like Php, or suffer the indignities of being blogified. Worst perhaps is the sheer sclerotic inflexibility of CMS systems for anyone with a feel for language and visual creativity.

A couple of weeks ago, struggling to figure some way to make a dollar out of this Internet monster (sixty-two is a bad age for income calculations), I dreamed up a new concept for an educational website. Educationally it will be fine. As for the income stream, well that is more problematic. You really need some variant on the seven deadly sins for money making.... Anyway, it took a few hours to mock up a design in html for my brave new venture. It came out looking pretty good. The problem is that this new site will actually have to allow other humans to participate. They will have to log in, create stuff, argue with each other, and so on. Well, you can't do things like that with a static html site. I traipsed out into the marketplace of CMS systems and wikis. Hey, what a jungle. After days of picking apart the blah about every system being the "cleanest" (purity is always a big deal with the officiandos of each culture), fastest, easiest, most versatile, best supported .... I took a stab and spent another four days or so trying to civilize Drupal.

One reason for picking on Drupal was that it was one of the systems pre-packaged with an "operating system on a stick" : a mini version of the Apache web server needed to run Php. Yeah, part of the whole server-side hoopla is that the databases and scripting systems can't run natively on the good ol' Windows systems we all love to hate. You have to work directly in the Internet/Apache environment, or do your sandbox experiments in a specially created bubble world on your home computer. I live in central China, with flaky connections (they even block Wikipedia here), so a desktop environment for trials is essential.

Anyway, Drupal seemed as good as any CMS system to start working with. Reputedly it is better than most, with stacks of modules and themes to toy with. As of this moment, I hate it. The dinky educational website I mocked up in html has been mangled to death by the Darth Vader amputations of Drupal themes and modules. For days I smashed head first into these shiny, inane corporate rule systems, without being able to reproduce a shadow of the website that I want. Life is short, free time is brief. Why can't one of these wretched CMS things let me get on with my messy, old fashioned slush pile of html pages, and just frame them in a doorway where all the other tadpoles can insert their feedback on the margin, set their rss feeds, and do all those other CMS sorts of things?

A few days ago I gave up on Drupal for now and resumed the quest for that magic CMS which could actually deliver what I wanted through my vision, not theirs. The lastest hope is something called MODx. In spite of promises of instant everything, it has taken a day or two to get my head around its basic design premises (yeah, I'm a slow learner), but it does seem to hold possibilities for genuine user control over creating those damned template/theme things without postgraduate qualifications in scripting languages. MODx is young, so promotes itself on potential rather than an installed user base. That doesn't matter if it will manage what is needed. Once you grasp the underlying concepts, its organization is transparent enough, and apparently scalable. We'll see what it can do with the html muck-heap.

Funny how everything turns out to be a metaphor on life, isn't it. The Web was apparently anarchic, but had enough structure in its html grammar to give me a voice and direction. Yet that early web was too hard for the multitude. When it became as easy as a mobile phone to produce blah on, they invaded in their tens of millions, just as they flood into all the careers and roles that are so neatly structured by their societies. The price of mass access was a uniformity of form and function that amputates spontaneous, creative design. So what do you do? Go with the flow, or become a cranky outsider, just talking to yourself?



All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument. Personal names are changed where they might embarrass the owners.


" Life, Content Mangagement Systems, and the Answer to Everything" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2008

return to index
thormay AT

WebSTAT - Free Web Statistics