Tags: www

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sparkline

Origin story

In an excellent piece called The First Web Apps: 5 Apps That Shaped the Internet as We Know It, Matthew Guay wrote:

The world wide web wasn’t supposed to be this fun. Berners-Lee imagined the internet as a place to collaborate around text, somewhere to share research data and thesis papers.

In his somewhat confused talk at FFConf this year, James Kyle said:

The web was designed to share documents.

Douglas Crockford said

The web was not designed to do any of things it is doing. It was intended to be a simple—even primitive—document retrieval system.

Some rando on Hacker News declared:

Essentially every single aspect of the web is terrible. It was designed as a static document presentation system with hyperlinks.

It appears to be a universally accepted truth. The web was designed for sharing documents, and was never meant for the kind of applications we can build these days.

I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s fairer to say that the first use case for the web was document retrieval. And yes, that initial use case certainly influenced the first iteration of HTML. But right from the start, the vision for the web wasn’t constrained by what it was being asked to do at the time. (I mean, if you need an example of vision, Tim Berners-Lee called it the World Wide Web when it was just on one computer!)

The original people working on the web—Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Jean-Francois Groff, etc.—didn’t to try define the edges of what the web would be capable of. Quite the opposite. All of them really wanted a more interactive read-write web where documents could not only be read, but also edited and updated.

As for the idea of having a programming language in browsers (as well as a markup language), Tim Berners-Lee was all for it …as long as it could be truly ubiquitous.

To say that the web was made for sharing documents is like saying that the internet was made for email. It’s true in the sense that it was the most popular use case, but that never defined the limits of the system.

The secret sauce of the internet lies in its flexibility—it’s a deliberately dumb network that doesn’t care about the specifics of what runs on it. This lesson was then passed on to the web—another deliberately simple system designed to be agnostic to use cases.

It’s true that the web of today is very, very different to its initial incarnation. We got CSS; we got JavaScript; HTML has evolved; HTTP has evolved; URLs have …well, cool URIs don’t change, but you get the idea. The web is like the ship of Theseus—so much of it has been changed and added to over time. That doesn’t mean its initial design was flawed—just the opposite. It means that its initial design wasn’t unnecessarily rigid. The simplicity of the early web wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.

The web (like the internet upon which it runs) was designed to be flexible, and to adjust to future use-cases that couldn’t be predicted in advance. The best proof of this flexibility is the fact that we can and do now build rich interactive applications on the World Wide Web. If the web had truly been designed only for documents, that wouldn’t be possible.

An associative trail

Every now and then, I like to revisit Vannevar Bush’s classic article from the July 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think in which he describes a theoretical machine called the memex.

A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

1945! Apart from its analogue rather than digital nature, it’s a remarkably prescient vision. In particular, there’s the idea of “associative trails”:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.

Many decades later, Anne Washington ponders what a legal memex might look like:

My legal Memex builds a network of the people and laws available in the public records of politicians and organizations. The infrastructure for this vision relies on open data, free access to law, and instantaneously availability.

As John Sheridan from the UK’s National Archives points out, hypertext is the perfect medium for laws:

Despite the drafter’s best efforts to create a narrative structure that tells a story through the flow of provisions, legislation is intrinsically non-linear content. It positively lends itself to a hypertext based approach. The need for legislation to escape the confines of the printed form predates the all major innovators and innovations in hypertext, from Vannevar Bush’s vision in ” As We May Think“, to Ted Nelson’s coining of the term “hypertext”, through to and Berners-Lee’s breakthrough world wide web. I like to think that Nelson’s concept of transclusion was foreshadowed several decades earlier by the textual amendment (where one Act explicitly alters – inserts, omits or amends – the text of another Act, an approach introduced to UK legislation at the beginning of the 20th century).

That’s from a piece called Deeply Intertwingled Laws. The verb “to intertwingle” was another one of Ted Nelson’s neologisms.

There’s an associative trail from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson that takes some other interesting turns…

Picture a new American naval recruit in 1945, getting ready to ship out to the pacific to fight against the Japanese. Just as the ship as leaving the harbour, word comes through that the war is over. And so instead of fighting across the islands of the pacific, this young man finds himself in a hut on the Philippines, reading whatever is to hand. There’s a copy of The Atlantic Monthly, the one with an article called As We May Think. The sailor was Douglas Engelbart, and a few years later when he was deciding how he wanted to spend the rest of his life, that article led him to pursue the goal of augmenting human intellect. He gave the mother of all demos, featuring NLS, a working hypermedia system.

Later, thanks to Bill Atkinson, we’d get another system called Hypercard. It was advertised with the motto Freedom to Associate, in an advertising campaign that directly referenced Vannevar Bush.

And now I’m using the World Wide Web, a hypermedia system that takes in the whole planet, to create an associative trail. In this post, I’m linking (without asking anyone for permission) to six different sources, and in doing so, I’m creating a unique associative trail. And because this post has a URL (that won’t change), you are free to take it and make it part of your own associative trail on your digital memex.

Anniversary

A funny thing happened when I was in Berlin two weekends ago. I was walking down the street that my AirBnB apartment was on when I heard someone say “Jeremy Keith?” It turned out it was Andre Jay Meissner, one of the founders of the excellent Open Device Lab website. We had emailed but never met before. Small world!

The Twitter account for the open device lab in Nuremburg pointed out that it’s been one year since I wrote a blog post about the open device lab I set up:

Much as I’d love to take credit for the idea of an open device lab, it simply isn’t true. Jason and Lyza had been working on setting up the open device lab in Portland for quite a while when I flung open the doors of the Clearleft test lab. But I will take credit for the “Ah, fuck it!” attitude that I introduced to the idea of sharing test devices with the community. Partly because I had seen how long it was taking the Portland device lab to get off the ground while they did everything by the book, I decided to just wait for the worst to happen instead of planning for it:

There are potential pitfalls to opening up a testing suite like this. What about the insurance? What about theft? What about breakage? But the thing about potential pitfalls is that they’re just that: potential. I’m treating all of them as YAGNI issues. I’ll address any problems if and when they occur rather than planning for worst-case scenarios.

It proved to be a great policy. So far, nothing has gone wrong. And it also served as an example to other people thinking about opening up device labs at their companies: “don’t sweat it; I didn’t!”

But as far as anniversaries go, the one-year birthday of the Clearleft device lab is not the most significant event of April 30th. Today is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of one of the most important documents in technological history: the document that officially put the World Wide Web into the public domain.

Open device labs are a small, small part of working on the web but I like to think that they represent the same kind of spirit of openness and sharing that Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues demonstrated at CERN:

I really, really like the way that communal device labs have taken off. It’s like a physical manifestation of the sharing and openness that has imbued the practice of web design and development right from the start. View source, mailing lists, blog posts, Stack Overflow, and Github are made of bits; device labs are made of atoms. But they are all open for you to use and contribute to.

At UX London I had dinner with a Swiss entrepreneur who was showing off his proprietary native app on his phone and proudly declaring that he had been granted a patent. He seemed like a nice chap, but his attitude kind of made my skin crawl. It seemed so antithetical to the spirit of sharing and openness that I’m used to from the web.

James Gleick once described the web as the patent that never was:

Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web and the Web browser — that is, the world as we now know it — pretty much single-handedly, starting in about 1989, when he was working as a software engineer at CERN, the particle-physics laboratory in Geneva. He didn’t patent it, or any part of it. On the contrary, he has labored tirelessly to keep cyberspace open and nonproprietary.

We are all reaping the benefits of Sir Tim’s kindness and generosity.