Tags: history

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sparkline

A brief history of the World Wide Web by web developers

The web will be so much better when we have images.

The web will be so much better when we can use more than 216 colours.

The web will be so much better when we have Cascading Style Sheets.

The web will be so much better when we have Cascading Style Sheets that work the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when we have JavaScript.

The web will be so much better when we have JavaScript that works the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when people stop using Netscape Navigator 4.

The web will be so much better when people stop using Internet Explorer 6.

The web will be so much better when we can access it on our mobile phones.

The web will be so much better when we have native video support.

The web will be so much better when we have native video support that works the same way in different browsers.

The web will be so much better when Flash dies.

The web will be so much better when we have more than a handful of fonts.

The web will be so much better when nobody is running Windows XP anymore.

The web will be so much better when nobody is running Android 2 anymore.

The web will be so much better when we have smooth animations.

The web will be so much better when websites can still work offline.

The web will be so much better when we get push notifications.

The web will be so much better when…

Everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.

The voice of MOL

The latest issue of Spaceflight—the magazine of the British Interplanetary Society—dropped through my door, adding to my weekend reading list. This issue contains a “whatever happened to” article about the military personnel who were supposed to crew the never-realised MOL project.

Before Salyut, Skylab, Mir, or the ISS, the Manned Orbital Laboratory was the first proposed space station. It would use a Gemini capsule and a Titan propellant tank.

Manned Orbital Laboratory

But this wasn’t to be a scientific endeavour. The plan was to use the MOL as a crewed spy satellite—human eyes in the sky watching the enemy below.

The MOL was cancelled (because uncrewed satellites were getting better at that sort of thing), so that particular orbital panopticon never came to pass.

I remember when I first heard of the MOL and I was looking it up on Wikipedia, that this little nugget of information stood out to me:

The MOL was planned to use a helium-oxygen atmosphere.

That’s right: instead of air (21% oxygen, 79% nitrogen), the spies in the sky would be breathing heliox (21% oxygen, 79% helium). Considering the effect that helium has on the human voice, I can only imagine that the grave nature of the mission would have been somewhat compromised.

Slight return

I’ve been in a contemplative mood lately, probably because I’ve been time travelling.

This year’s dConstruct—which wrapped up just under two weeks ago—marked ten continuous years of running the event. Ten years!

It feels like a lot happened ten years ago. 2005 was the year that Andy, Richard, and I started Clearleft. The evening after dConstruct this year, we threw a party to mark our decadal milestone. What happened at the Clearleft birthday party stays at the Clearleft birthday party.

I had already been living in Brighton for five years before Clearleft was born. That means I’ve been here for fifteen years now. Before that I was living in Freiburg in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest—that’s where Jessica and I first met. In one of those funny twists of fate, we found ourselves travelling back to Freiburg last week, the day after the Clearleft party. It’s like I was going further and further back in my own timeline.

I was in Freiburg to speak at Smashing Conference. I wasn’t on the line-up though. I was the mystery speaker. I took my mysterious duties seriously, so much so that I didn’t even tell Andy, who was also speaking at the event (it was worth it for the look on his face).

Once Smashing Conference was over, Jessica and I made our way to Prague for the Web Expo. When the website for the conference went live, it looked like a Clearleft school reunion: me, Andy H, Cennydd, Anna, and Paul were all on the home page.

I had been to Prague before …but I had never been to the Czech Republic.

That’s right—the last time I was in Prague, it was still in Czechoslovakia. I was there in the early nineties, just a few years after the Velvet Revolution. I was hitch-hiking and busking my way around Europe with my friend Polly (she played fiddle, I played mandolin). When I visit foreign countries now, I get to stay in hotel rooms and speak at conferences. Back then, I sang for my supper and slept wherever I could find a dry spot—usually in a park or on the outskirts of town, far from activity. I remember how cold it was on that first visit to Prague. We snuck into an apartment building to sleep in the basement.

But I also remember extraordinary acts of kindness. When we left Prague, we travelled south towards Austria. We were picked up by an old man in an old car who insisted we should stay the night at his house with his family. He didn’t have much, but he opened up his home to us. We could barely communicate, but it didn’t matter. I will never forget his name: Pan Karel Šimáček.

I remember walking over the border into Austria. That switchover was probably the biggest culture shock of the whole trip. There was quite a disparity in wealth between the two countries.

When we reached Vienna, we met another couple who were travelling through Europe. But whereas Polly and I were travelling out of choice, they were in desperate search of somewhere to call home. Their country, Yugoslavia, was breaking up. One of them was Serbian. The other was Croatian. They were in love. They couldn’t return to where they had come from, but they had nowhere to go. They peppered us with questions. “Do you think England would give us asylum?” I didn’t know what to say.

A few weeks later, we were crossing over the alps down into Italy. We got stuck at a service station for two full days. There wasn’t much there, but I remember there was a Bureau de Change with LCD numbers showing the conversion rates for the many currencies of Europe. Yugoslavia was in the list, but its LCD numbers weren’t illuminated.

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Cobh really has become quite the tourist town. Today we—myself, Jessica, and my mother—took a boat over to Spike Island and enjoyed strolling around the fort and taking in the magnificent views. Then we went back across to town and had lunch where the White Star Line office used to be, sitting right next to the pier used to load goods and passengers for the Titanic.

We finished the evening in a pub listening to some great tunes (once the bodhrán player got the hint and left). Plenty of sunshine and plenty of pints. A really nice day.

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My friend Jeffrey has been writing on his website for twenty years. There are very few things on the web that last that long. I’m very, very glad that his website is one of them.

I remember finding Zeldman.com—and Ask Dr. Web, and the Ad Graveyard—back when I was first “going online.” I remember being so grateful for his generosity, but I also remember that what really struck me was the warmth and humility in the writing.

My own website will turn twenty in another few years. I never would have started it if it weren’t for Jeffrey.

100 words 055

Yesterday I wrote about a tenuous serendipitous connection between Spacewar and the creation of the internet. In the appendix to Stewart Brand’s 1972 Rolling Stone article I spotted a reference to the one and only Bob Kahn.

Except it turns out there is more than one Bob Kahn. A kindly email from Jack Dietz set me straight: there’s Robert Kahn who demoed ARPANET and then there’s Robert Kahn who advocated public access to computers.

This has taught me two important lessons:

  1. Names are not the best unique identifiers, and
  2. The best way to get feedback is to publish.

100 words 054

In between publishing the Whole Earth Catalog and spinning up the Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand wrote an article in Rolling Stone magazine about one of the earliest video games, Spacewar.

Except it isn’t really about Spacewar at all. It’s about the oncoming age of the personal computer.

The article was published in 1972. At the end, there’s an appendix listing some communal places where “one can step in off the street and compute.” One of those places—with 16 terminals available—was run by a certain Bob Kahn.

Together with Vint Cerf he created the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol.

100 words 053

When I got back from Bletchley Park yesterday, I immediately started huffduffing more stories about cryptography and code-breaking.

One of the stories I found was an episode of Ockham’s Razor featuring Professor Mark Dodgson. He talks about the organisational structure at Bletchley Park:

The important point was the organization emphasised team-working and open knowledge sharing where it was needed, and demarcation and specialisation where it was most appropriate.

This reminds of another extraordinary place, also displaying remarkable levels of collaboration, that has an unusual lack of traditional hierarchies and structure: CERN.

Bletchley Park produced the computer. CERN produced the web.

100 words 052

There was a Clearleft outing to Bletchley Park today. I can’t believe I hadn’t been before. It was nerdvana—crypto, history, and science combined in one very English location.

Alan Turing’s work at Station X is rightly lauded, but I can’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable with the way we make heroes of those who work in the shadows. After the war, England’s fictional hero was James Bond, the creation of former Bletchley worker Ian Fleming. And now we have GCHQ spying on its own citizens.

Righteousness in the past doesn’t earn a country a free pass for the future.

100 words 046

I grew up in Cobh—pronounced “cove”—Cork, Ireland. There’s a statue in the middle of town; an angel presiding over the figures of local fishermen who lost their lives 100 years ago when a German U-boat torpedoed and sank The Lusitania off the old head of Kinsale. They were attempting to rescue survivors.

On the outskirts of town there’s an old cemetery where a mass grave was dug for the bodies of the Lusitania victims.

Cobh’s history is filled with ill-fated ships. It was the last stop of The Titanic. The ships are now memorialised as pub names.

100 words 040

Yesterday was April 30th. On April 30th in 1993, the world changed. But this world-changing event was marked by the simplest of actions—a couple of signatures and a some rubber stamps.

Twenty two years ago the World Wide Web was placed into the public domain.

When I was at CERN a few years ago with my fellow hackers, Robert Cailliau produced his copy of this document. It passed around the table. When it came to me, I held it like a magic scroll.

“Be careful—there are only two copies of that,” he said. “And CERN have misplaced theirs.”

100 words 037

It started when Jessica relayed something that happened when she was on a cultural walking tour of Sofia two weekends ago. The tour guide asked “Does anyone know who invented the computer?”

Alan Turing? Charles Babbage?

The tour guided pointed to a statue and said, “John Atanasoff.”

I had never heard of him. So of course I looked him up. That led me down the most incredible rabbit hole as I uncovered a courtroom drama filled with invalidated patents and mountains of court records.

Why had I never heard about this? It was eclipsed by a bigger legal drama: Watergate.

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I went spelunking down the caves of the web’s history today. I went digging through the original proposal that Tim Berners-Lee presented to his boss, the late Mike Sendall. I explored the design issues that were raised in the creation the World Wide Web. I rifled through the initial vocabulary of HTML. I watched a video from the web’s twentieth anniversary featuring Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, and Jean-François Groff.

I was able to do all this because my computer was connected to the internet and I was running a piece of software that understood HTTP, URLs, and HTML’s A element.

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The Thracians were one of the first peoples to settle in Bulgaria.

The Romans arrived in the first century.

Four centuries later, Bulgaria became part of the Byzantine empire.

From the fourteenth century onward, the country was part of the Ottoman empire.

That lasted until the end of the nineteenth century, when the country was liberated by Russia.

At this point for some reason, the Bulgarians thought they ought to have a monarchy.

That whole monarchy thing only lasted until the end of the second world war. Then they gave communism a whirl.

Finally they got with the democracy programme.

Hope

Cennydd points to an article by Ev Williams about the pendulum swing between open and closed technology stacks, and how that pendulum doesn’t always swing back towards openness. Cennydd writes:

We often hear the idea that “open platforms always win in the end”. I’d like that: the implicit values of the web speak to my own. But I don’t see clear evidence of this inevitable supremacy, only beliefs and proclamations.

It’s true. I catch myself saying things like “I believe the open web will win out.” Statements like that worry my inner empiricist. Faith-based outlooks scare me, and rightly so. I like being able to back up my claims with data.

Only time will tell what data emerges about the eventual fate of the web, open or closed. But we can look to previous technologies and draw comparisons. That’s exactly what Tim Wu did in his book The Master Switch and Jonathan Zittrain did in The Future Of The Internet—And How To Stop It. Both make for uncomfortable reading because they challenge my belief. Wu points to radio and television as examples of systems that began as egalitarian decentralised tools that became locked down over time in ever-constricting cycles. Cennydd adds:

I’d argue this becomes something of a one-way valve: once systems become closed, profit potential tends to grow, and profit is a heavy entropy to reverse.

Of course there is always the possibility that this time is different. It may well be that fundamental architectural decisions in the design of the internet and the workings of the web mean that this particular technology has an inherent bias towards openness. There is some data to support this (and it’s an appealing thought), but again; only time will tell. For now it’s just one more supposition.

The real question—when confronted with uncomfortable ideas that challenge what you’d like to believe is true—is what do you do about it? Do you look for evidence to support your beliefs or do you discard your beliefs entirely? That second option looks like the most logical course of action, and it’s certainly one that I would endorse if there were proven facts to be acknowledged (like gravity, evolution, or vaccination). But I worry about mistaking an argument that is still being discussed for an argument that has already been decided.

When I wrote about the dangers of apparently self-evident truisms, I said:

These statements aren’t true. But they are repeated so often, as if they were truisms, that we run the risk of believing them and thus, fulfilling their promise.

That’s my fear. Only time will tell whether the closed or open forces will win the battle for the soul of the internet. But if we believe that centralised, proprietary, capitalistic forces are inherently unstoppable, then our belief will help make them so.

I hope that openness will prevail. Hope sounds like such a wishy-washy word, like “faith” or “belief”, but it carries with it a seed of resistance. Hope, faith, and belief all carry connotations of optimism, but where faith and belief sound passive, even downright complacent, hope carries the promise of action.

Margaret Atwood was asked about the futility of having hope in the face of climate change. She responded:

If we abandon hope, we’re cooked. If we rely on nothing but hope, we’re cooked. So I would say judicious hope is necessary.

Judicious hope. I like that. It feels like a good phrase to balance empiricism with optimism; data with faith.

The alternative is to give up. And if we give up too soon, we bring into being the very endgame we feared.

Cennydd finishes:

Ultimately, I vote for whichever technology most enriches humanity. If that’s the web, great. A closed OS? Sure, so long as it’s a fair value exchange, genuinely beneficial to company and user alike.

This is where we differ. Today’s fair value exchange is tomorrow’s monopoly, just as today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s tyrant. I will fight against that future.

To side with whatever’s best for the end user sounds like an eminently sensible metric to judge a technology. But I’ve written before about where that mindset can lead us. I can easily imagine Asimov’s three laws of robotics rewritten to reflect the ethos of user-centred design, especially that first and most important principle:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

…rephrased as:

A product or interface may not injure a user or, through inaction, allow a user to come to harm.

Whether the technology driving the system behind that interface is open or closed doesn’t come into it. What matters is the interaction.

But in his later years Asimov revealed the zeroeth law, overriding even the first:

A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

It may sound grandiose to apply this thinking to the trivial interfaces we’re building with today’s technologies, but I think it’s important to keep drilling down and asking uncomfortable questions (even if they challenge our beliefs).

That’s why I think openness matters. It isn’t enough to use whatever technology works right now to deliver the best user experience. If that short-time gain comes with a long-term price tag for our society, it’s not worth it.

I would much rather an imperfect open system to a perfect proprietary one.

I have hope in an open web …judicious hope.

100 words 019

For a while there on Twitter yesterday, web people took some time to give props to other web people who have inspired them. #HonoringWebFolk was the hashy sack (or whatever that thing is called that the lawn kids use).

There are so many generous people I could mention: Veen, Zeldman, Champeon, Holzschlag, Çelik, Meyer…

But I want to give special mention to an unsung hero of the web: Dean Edwards, a JavaScript genius who created the mother of all polyfills—before polyfills were even a thing. Take a look through the annotated jQuery to see how large his influence looms.

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A Dao of Web Design by John Allsopp is a document that stands outside of time. It was a perfectly crafted message for its own era, and amazingly it’s even more relevant now, a full fathom fifteen years later.

We once took on the tropes of print design and tried to apply them to the web. I fear that today we run the risk of treating web development no different to other kinds of software development, ignoring the strengths of the web that John highlighted for us. Flexibility, ubiquity, and uncertainty: don’t fight them as bugs; embrace them as features.

Cerf rocks

After I wrote about digital preservation and the need to save everything, not just the so-called “important” stuff, Jason wrote a lovely piece with his own thoughts on the matter:

In order to write a history, you need evidence of what happened. When we talk about preserving the stuff we make on the web, it isn’t because we think a Facebook status update, or those GeoCities sites have such significance now. It’s because we can’t know.

In a timely coincidence, Vint Cerf also spoke about the importance of digital preservation:

When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history.

He warns of the dangers of rapidly-obsoleting file formats:

We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it. We digitise things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artefacts that we digitised.

It was a little weird that the Guardian headline refers to Vint Cerf as “Google boss”. On the BBC he’s labelled as “Google’s Vint Cerf”. Considering he’s one of the creators of the internet itself, it’s a bit like referring to Neil Armstrong as a NASA employee.

I have to say, I just love listening to him talk. He’s so smooth. I’m sure that the character of The Architect from The Matrix Reloaded is modelled on him.

Vint Cerf knows a thing or two about long-term thinking when it comes to data formats. He has written many RFCs for the IETF (my favourite being RFC 2468). Back in 1969, he wrote RFC 20, proposing the ASCII format for network interchange. If you’ve ever used the keypress event in JavaScript and wondered why, for example, the number 13 corresponds to a carriage return, this is where all those numbers come from.

Last month, over 45 years after the RFC’s original publication, it became an official standard.

So when Vint Cerf warns about the dangers of digitising into file formats that could become unreadable, I think we should pay attention to him.

Ordinary plenty

Aaron asked a while back “What do we own?”

I love the idea of owning your content and then syndicating it out to social networks, photo sites, and the like. It makes complete sense… Web-based services have a habit of disappearing, so we shouldn’t rely on them. The only Web that is permanent is the one we control.

But he quite rightly points out that we never truly own our own domains: we rent them. And when it comes to our servers, most of us are renting those too.

It looks like print is a safer bet for long-term storage. Although when someone pointed out that print isn’t any guarantee of perpetuity either, Aaron responded:

Sure, print pieces can be destroyed, but important works can be preserved in places like the Beinecke

Ah, but there’s the crux—that adjective, “important”. Print’s asset—the fact that it is made of atoms, not bits—is also its weak point: there are only so many atoms to go around. And so we pick and choose what we save. Inevitably, we choose to save the works that we deem to be important.

The problem is that we can’t know today what the future value of a work will be. A future president of the United States is probably updating their Facebook page right now. The first person to set foot on Mars might be posting a picture to her Instagram feed at this very moment.

One of the reasons that I love the Internet Archive is that they don’t try to prioritise what to save—they save it all. That’s in stark contrast to many national archival schemes that only attempt to save websites from their own specific country. And because the Internet Archive isn’t a profit-driven enterprise, it doesn’t face the business realities that caused Google to back-pedal from its original mission. Or, as Andy Baio put it, never trust a corporation to do a library’s job.

But even the Internet Archive, wonderful as it is, suffers from the same issue that Aaron brought up with the domain name system—it’s centralised. As long as there is just one Internet Archive organisation, all of our preservation eggs are in one magnificent basket:

Should we be concerned that the technical expertise and infrastructure for doing this work is becoming consolidated in a single organization?

Which brings us back to Aaron’s original question. Perhaps it’s less about “What do we own?” and more about “What are we responsible for?” If we each take responsibility for our own words, our own photos, our own hopes, our own dreams, we might not be able guarantee that they’ll survive forever, but we can still try everything in our power to keep them online. Maybe by acknowledging that responsibility to preserve our own works, instead of looking for some third party to do it for us, we’re taking the most important first step.

My words might not be as important as the great works of print that have survived thus far, but because they are digital, and because they are online, they can and should be preserved …along with all the millions of other words by millions of other historical nobodies like me out there on the web.

There was a beautiful moment in Cory Doctorow’s closing keynote at last year’s dConstruct. It was an aside to his main argument but it struck like a hammer. Listen in at the 20 minute mark:

They’re the raw stuff of communication. Same for tweets, and Facebook posts, and the whole bit. And this is where some cynic usually says, “Pah! This is about preserving all that rubbish on Facebook? All that garbage on Twitter? All those pictures of cats?” This is the emblem of people who want to dismiss all the stuff that happens on the internet.

And I’m supposed to turn around and say “No, no, there’s noble things on the internet too. There’s people talking about surviving abuse, and people reporting police violence, and so on.” And all that stuff is important but I’m going to speak for the banal and the trivial here for a moment.

Because when my wife comes down in the morning—and I get up first; I get up at 5am; I’m an early riser—when my wife comes down in the morning and I ask her how she slept, it’s not because I want to know how she slept. I sleep next to my wife. I know how my wife slept. The reason I ask how my wife slept is because it is a social signal that says:

I see you. I care about you. I love you. I’m here.

And when someone says something big and meaningful like “I’ve got cancer” or “I won” or “I lost my job”, the reason those momentous moments have meaning is because they’ve been built up out of this humus of a million seemingly-insignificant transactions. And if someone else’s insignificant transactions seem banal to you, it’s because you’re not the audience for that transaction.

The medieval scribes of Ireland, out on the furthermost edges of Europe, worked to preserve the “important” works. But occasionally they would also note down their own marginalia like:

Pleasant is the glint of the sun today upon these margins, because it flickers so.

Short observations of life in fewer than 140 characters. Like this lovely example written in ogham, a morse-like system of encoding the western alphabet in lines and scratches. It reads simply “latheirt”, which translates to something along the lines of “massive hangover.”

I’m glad that those “unimportant” words have also been preserved.

Centuries later, the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh would write about the desire to “wallow in the habitual, the banal”:

Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.

Isn’t that a beautiful description of the web?

Mindcraft

As something of a science geek, I’m a big fan of the work of the Wellcome Trust:

We support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health.

I was very excited when Clearleft had the opportunity to work with them—we redesigned the Wellcome Library a while back. That was a fun responsive project, and an early use of a pattern portfolio as the deliverable.

We’ve been working with them on some other projects since then. We helped out with Mosaic, their terrific magazine site. I really enjoyed popping in to their fantastic building to chat with their talented designers.

The most recent Clearleft/Wellcome collaboration is something called Mindcraft. This started as a completely open-ended project—no one was quite sure what form the finished result would take. Over time it developed into a narrative-based series of historical events brought to life with browser technologies.

I didn’t work on this project but I loved watching it come together. The source material made for an interesting work environment.

Crazy wall Maps and legends.

Graham and Danielle did the front-end development, bringing Mikey’s designs to life, once Rich and Ben figured out the flow (all overseen by Jess).

The press release for Mindcraft describes it as “immersive” which immediately sets alarm bells ringing in expectation of big, scrolljacking pages …and to be honest, Mindcraft does have elements of that. It’s primarily intended to be visited on a large screen with a fast connection (although it’ll work on any sized-screen). But I think it manages to strike a pretty healthy balance of performance and “richness.” It certainly doesn’t feel gratuitous. The use of sound, imagery, and interaction is all in service to the story.

And boy, what a story!

Mindcraft explores a century of madness, murder and mental healing, from the arrival in Paris of Franz Anton Mesmer with his theories of ‘animal magnetism’ to the therapeutic power of hypnotism used by Freud.

I suggest you put on some headphones, make your browser window fullscreen, and start your journey.

It’s creepy, atmospheric, entertaining, and educational, all at the same time. I really like it. And I’m not just saying that because of Clearleft’s involvement. Like I said, I’m a science geek.