A great bit of web history spelunking in search of the first websites that allowed users to interact with data on a server. Applications, if you will. It’s well written, but I take issue with this:
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.
This often gets trotted out (“the web was intended for scientists sharing documents”), but it’s simply not true that Tim Berners-Lee was only thinking of his immediate use-case; he deliberately made the WWW project broad enough to allow all sorts of thitherto unforeseen uses. If he hadn’t …well, the web wouldn’t have been able to accommodate all those later developments. It’s not an accident that the web was later used for all sorts of unexpected thingsâ€”that was the whole idea.
Anyway, apart from that misstep, the rest of the article is a fun piece, well worth reading.
Apophenia is the name for that tendency in humans to see patterns where none exist, to draw connections, to make links.
Every conspiracy theory is an example of apophenia. But you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to experience it. We do it all the time. We see shapes in the constellations in the night sky. We see faces in just about everything.
Today, I would like to engage the apopheniac in you.
A is for Anchor
An anchor is an odd device to represent a link. I can even remember seeing anchor symbols used in the interfaces of rich text editors. If it wasn’t an anchor, it was a chain. I suppose that was meant to represent a link …because chains have links.
This looks pretty familiar to us today. There’s an A Element with opening and closing tags, some text in between, and an HREF attribute for the destination. But there’s also a NAME attribute. This has since been deprecated—now we can just use an ID attribute on any element. The idea was that A elements could be used to create destinations for inbound links. They were, if you like, anchors within a page that other pages could tether themselves to. Each anchor is given a unique identifier (unique within the page, that is). Here, the identifier is simply the number zero, because this page was created by a programmer and in the mind of a programmer, counting begins with zero.
This use of the A element—using NAME attributes to create in-page anchors—never really took off. But the other attribute, the HREF attribute, that spread like wildfire. It’s short for hypertext reference, and in this particular instance, the reference is to another page in the same directory on the same server. It’s a page about hypertext.
Hypertext is text which is not constrained to be linear.
The term was first coined by Ted Nelson. He didn’t just talk about text either. He also coined the term hypermedia. He coined lots of interesting words. He talked about things being deeply intertwingled. He also coined the term teledildonics, but that is not directly relevant to hypertext or hypermedia.
If hypertext is text which is not constrained to be linear, how did we ever manage with good old-fashioned non-hyper text and non-hyper media? We used archives.
Concepts and Problems of Man’s Interaction with the Body of Recorded Knowledge
Explorations in the Use of Computers in Information Storage, Organization, and Retrieval.
I love the scope of that first part, looking at the body of recorded knowledge.
It’s interesting that he talks about knowledge, not information, not data, but knowledge. How does data become information? How does information become knowledge?
The Library Of Babel is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, who I think of as the poet laureate of hypertext . He imagines a vast library that is filled with data, but frustratingly short on knowledge …because this library contains not only all the books ever written, but all the books that could ever possibly be written, with every possible permutation.
Here’s how it works:
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries… The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides… each bookshelf holds thirty-two books identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters.
Let’s figure out how many books are in the Library of Babel. First, we need to know how much data each book holds.
There are eighty symbols (or letters) per line, and
40 lines per page.
There are 410 pages in each book.
Multiplying 80 by 40 gives us 3200, the number of symbols on each page. Multiply that by 410 and we get a total number of 1,312,000 symbols in each book.
We have two other pieces of information to work with. Borges tells us:
The orthographic symbols are twenty-five in number.
That’s 22 letters, the comma, the period, and the space.
Here’s the crucial bit of information that ensures that the library has boundaries:
In the vast library there are no two identical books.
Knowing that, we can calculate the number of books in the library. It’s the number of symbols (25) raised to the power of the number of symbols in each book (1,312,000).
25 to the power of 1,312,000 expressed in base ten is 10 to the power of 1,834,097. Remember that’s just the number of books: a figure that’s over 1,834,097 digits long. That number wouldn’t fit inside one book in the library (which, if you remember only holds 1,312,000 symbols).
So the number of books in the Library of Babel is not infinite …but it is really, really, really big. To give you some idea of just how big 10 to the power of 1,834,097 is, it has been calculated that the observable universe contains approximately 10 to the power of 80 atoms. There are more books in the Library of Babel than there are atoms in the universe.
And yet, thanks to the World Wide Web, you can theoretically peruse every single one of them.
Jonathan Basile has created libraryofbabel.info—an online representation of Borges’s creation. It contains all possible text. You can browse by hexagon, then shelf, then row, then book, then page. Or you can search for a specific piece of text, because—of course—that text must be in there somewhere.
The very words I am speaking now must be somewhere in the library.
There’s also a plug-in for Chrome so you can highlight any piece of text on the web, and then find its corresponding page in the Library of Babel.
This library has every possible piece of data …but it’s sorely lacking in information (although the online version helps).
A is for All
Having all the data isn’t enough. It needs to be organised—turned into information—for us to make use of it (and hopefully further transform that information into knowledge).
There have been many attempts to organise information. When those attempts are limited to a subset of data—instead of trying to create a Library of Babel—then they can be quite successful.
Carl Linnaeus organised the natural world using a naming convention for describing species—binomial nomenclature.
Melvil Dewey created the Dewey Decimal System to help librarians organise their collections. But this was a proprietary system, not an open standard. So the Belgian librarian Paul Otlet devised a Universal Decimal Classification system. I think it’s fair to think of him as the father of information architecture.
The crazy old uncle of information architecture would be bishop John Wilkins, who in 1668 wrote An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. Centuries later, this would pique the interest of Borges who described Wilkins’s madcap idea in an essay called The Analytical Language of John Wilkins. The idea was that the world could be classified into sounds.
He divided the universe in forty categories or classes, these being further subdivided into differences, which was then subdivided into species. He assigned to each class a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example: de, which means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of the element fire, a flame.
It didn’t scale well.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—inventor of calculus and nemesis to Newton—had a similar idea to Wilkins, but whereas Wilkins was trying to classify information using sounds, Leibniz wanted to use symbols: characteristica universalis. His leap of genius was to realise that if you could do this—represent the world with symbols—then you could perform calculations on those symbols. He described the conceptual framework for performing such operations as a Calculus ratiocinator. Centuries later, Norbert Wiener, the creator of cybernetics would say:
The general idea of a computing machine is nothing but a mechanization of Leibniz’s calculus ratiocinator.
A is for Ada
Leibniz’s calculus ratiocinator was an idea, rather than a real machine. Charles Babbage was a Victorian inventor and entrepreneur who was given seed funding by the British government to create his Difference Engine: a machine for computing logarithmic tables …a computer, if you will.
The Wozniak to Babbage’s Jobs was Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the notorious Lord Byron. Ada’s mother did everything in her power to steer her daughter away from following in her father’s footsteps of becoming a poet. Instead Ada immersed herself in the world of mathematics. It was through mathematics that Ada hit upon the same insight as Leibniz—if we can perform calculations upon symbols, and those symbols don’t have to just represent numbers, then we can perform calculations on anything …maybe even poetry.
In enabling mechanism to combine together general symbols in successions of unlimited variety and extent, a uniting link is established between the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes of the most abstract branch of mathematical science.
The Difference Engine was abandoned in favour of an even more ambitious project: The Analytical Engine. Finally, the world would get a mechanical machine capable of performing calculations on symbols that could represent concepts or thoughts—a thinking machine!
As with so many start-ups, Lovelace and Babbage never quite managed to make it to market. But at least they did genuinely have an incredible journey before going broke.
A is for Alan
The Analytical Engine, like the calculus ratiocinator, remained an idea. It would be another century before we’d get a real nuts’n’bolts computing machine, thanks to the brilliant Alan Turing.
But as well as having a hand in creating the world’s first physical computer, he also presented us with an imaginary machine. This theoretical machine was described as having:
…an infinite tape marked out into squares, on each of which a symbol could be printed.
Like Leibniz’s calculus ratiocinator, a Turing machine would operate on symbols. How many symbols are we talking about here? Remember the Library Of Babel had twenty five symbols to work with.
Two. Two symbols. One and zero. On and off. True and false. With an infinitely long piece of tape and infinite amount of time, two symbols are enough to calculate literally anything.
This reduction of the world into its smallest pieces was the brainchild of Claude Shannon. He coined the term "bit" to describe this indivisible unit of information.
By the way, Turing himself referred to his theoretical machine as an automatic machine, or a-machine. A is for A-machine.
A is for Atlantic
There’s another imaginary machine that serves as a wonderful conceptual prototype for working with hypertext and hypermedia. In 1945 Vannevar Bush published an article in the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think. In this article, Bush describes a machine called the Memex, a contraction of Memory Index.
The Memex is built into a desk. Screens and switches on the surface of the desk allow the user to interact with huge amounts of information stored within the desk on microfilm. This would provide an "enlarged intimate supplement to one’s memory."
Because everyone’s mind is different, no two people would use the Memex in quite the same way. Bush described these individualistic approaches to linking concepts together as 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 information stored in the Memex is the same for everyone, but the associative trails created by the user in navigating this information are unique. Bush also proposed that these associative trails could be shared. Users of the Memex could follow the breadcrumbs left by others.
This is hypertext.
A is for Augmentation
So many ideas about hypertext confined to the imagination! When do we get a working demo?
Oh, and for this demo he just happened to invent video conferencing, the graphical user interface, and the mouse. He also implemented hypertext.
With Bush’s Memex and Engelbart’s NLS, concepts could be linked together, turning them from text storage devices to hypertext storage devices. But for hypertext to reveal its true power, we need a network greater than anything seen up to this point. Towards the end of the mother of all demos, we hear the first rumblings of just such a network.
A is for Arpa
ARPA stands for the Advanced Research Projects Agency.
This government agency turned to our old friend JCR Licklider, author of Libraries Of The Future. His company—Bolt, Beranek and Newman—set about designing a communications system that used this new-fangled packet switching that Leonard Kleinrock was so excited about. With packet switching, information was broken down into discrete chunks, routed around a network independent of each other, and then re-assembled at the destination.
At the same time, this idea of packet switching was independently discovered by Paul Baran at the Rand Corporation, who was trying to find a resilient network architecture capable of surviving nuclear attack.
The packet-switching idea was put to the test with the creation of a new network called the ARPANET. The very first message sent over the ARPANET was at 10:30pm on October, 29th, 1969. It was the command: LOG IN.
The message was sent and… the system crashed after the first two characters. Fittingly, then, the real first message sent over this proto-internet was "LO".
But they fixed the bugs and they kept working on making the system better as it grew bigger. It morphed from being a single network, the ARPANET, into being a network of networks, or an Inter-network, soon shortened to simply Internet.
For this internet to work, it was essential that all the individual networks connecting to it were using the same protocols to communicate. That’s what really makes the internet the internet—regardless of what kind of hardware is being used, there’s an agreement on how to switch those packets around. That’s really all a protocol is: an agreement. They’re more like treaties than code.
Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf were the statesmen crafting the internet’s protocols, and Jon Postel was the diplomat ensuring adoption went smoothly. They wanted a robust network, resilient not to nuclear attack, but to any kind of top-down control. They set out to create a protocol that would work for a network with no centre.
Together they crafted TCP/IP: the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol. TCP/IP is a deliberately dumb set of protocols. The protocols care not a whit for the contents of the packets being switched around the network. It’s a simple low-level agreement. They used to joke that you should be able to implement TCP/IP using two tin cans and a piece of string.
You can then create more complex protocols on top of this simple, low-level, dumb foundation. You can create protocols for sending and receiving email, protocols for telnet, gopher, file transfer protocols that sit atop TCP/IP. Best of all, you don’t need to ask anyone for permission. If you want to create a new protocol today, you can just go ahead and do it. All you need is rough consensus and running code. It turns out that running code isn’t the hard part. The hard part is convincing people to use your protocol. Otherwise you don’t benefit from Metcalfe’s Law:
The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.
Think about it. The first person to own a telephone had a completely useless object. As soon as one other person had a telephone, it suddenly become exponentially more useful. That was the challenge facing the creator of a new protocol at the start of the 90s: that protocol was HTTP—the HyperText Transfer Protocol.
HTTP is one part of a three-part stack: HTTP is the protocol, URLs are the identifiers, and HTML is the format. Together they form the World Wide Web project.
The project was the brainchild of a young computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee. This wasn’t his first attempt at creating a hypertext system.
In the 1980s, he created a system called ENQUIRE. It was named after a Victorian book of manners called Enquire Within Upon Everything, which I always thought would be a great name for the web.
Enquire didn’t work out in the end, but it would influence the design of the World Wide Web project.
Another influence on the design of the system was the place where Tim Berners-Lee was working. CERN—the European Centre for Nuclear Research. It’s an amazing place. The greatest experiment in the history of our species is being conducted beneath the border between Switzerland and France. In the 16-mile wide ring of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, human beings are recreating the conditions from the start of our universe. Protons are smashed together at velocities approaching the speed of light. It’s a truly awe-inspiring endeavour.
When I visited CERN, I expected to be blown away by the science, and I was. I also expected to be blown away by simply being at the birthplace of the web, and I was. But what I wasn’t expecting was to be blown away by how things get done at CERN. There is very little hierarchy. People from all kinds of backgrounds—from Nobel prize winning physicists to students on a Summer internship—collaborate on experiments for pure scientific research.
Trying to manage the flow of information in this collaborative but chaotic place was the challenge that Tim Berners-Lee was trying to solve. You can’t just mandate a particular operating system or piece of software—people at CERN can and will use whatever they want. In the same way that the internet is a network of networks, what CERN needed was some way of allowing all these different computers with different operating systems to share information with each other.
Tim Berners-Lee submitted a paper to his supervisor, Mike Sendall. It had the uninspiring title Information Management: A Proposal. Well, Mike Sendall must have seen some potential, because he scrawled across the top:
Vague, but exciting.
The proposal described:
…a solution based on a distributed hypertext system.
Tim Berners-Lee was very familiar with previous hypertext systems. All of these fed into his project:
Vannevar Bush’s Memex,
Douglas Engelbart’s oNline System,
Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, although it was still vapourware at this point,
Apple’s Hypercard system for the Mac,
and his own Enquire project.
But just creating the code wasn’t enough. He—and his colleague and collaborator, Robert Cailliau—needed to convince the scientists at CERN to use this technology. To start with, they needed a catchy name.
For a while, they floated the idea of calling it the Mesh.
Then they kick around the idea of calling it The Information Mine. But Tim Berners-Lee wasn’t keen on this one. He knew that, whatever name they chose, it would end up getting abbreviated, and he was worried it would look a bit egotistical.
And so they settled on World Wide Web. You have to admire the chutzpah of calling it World Wide Web when, at that point, it only existed on one person’s computer.
Sure enough, it did end up getting abbreviated. Except in this case, there are actually more syllables in the so-called abbreviation—WWW—than there are in the full name.
They even made a logo. Graphic designers they are not. But there is a reason for the green colour of the Ws. Robert Cailliau is a synesthesiac—he “hears” the W sound as the colour green.
And so the web was born. Good job!
Learning from the lessons of TCP/IP, Tim Berners-Lee made sure to keep the individual parts of the system as simple as possible (but no simpler). The World Wide Web didn’t succeed because the technology was the best; far from it. It succeeded because the technology was just simple enough—but also powerful enough—for people to get started with straight away.
Take HTML, for example. There was no official Version 1 specification for this hypertext markup language.
Instead there was a document called simply HTML Tags, presumably written by Tim Berners-Lee. This document listed the entirety of HTML, which was a grand total of 21 elements.
Most of those elements weren’t even invented by Tim Berners-Lee. Instead, he borrowed the vocabulary already being used by scientists at CERN. They were used to writing documents in GML, which is supposed to stand for Generalised Markup Language, but was coincidentally created by three people whose last names were Goldfarb, Mosher, and Lorie: G, M, and L.
There was one element that was completely new to HTML:
This one single element is what enables the HT part of HTML. With this element, and its href attribute, anyone could link to anything on the web. It is brilliant in its simplicity.
Pleased with the way their project was progressing, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau submitted a proposal to present their World Wide Web at a hypertext conference.
They were rejected. Hypertext experts thought the World Wide Web was stupid.
As Ted Nelson put it:
Today’s one-way hypertext—the World Wide Web—is far too shallow. The Xanadu project foresaw world-wide hypertext decades ago, and endeavored to create a much deeper system. The Web, however, took over with a very shallow structure.
He’s not wrong. Hypertext on the web is shallow. It is stupid. Like TCP/IP, it is not smart.
The thing is, if you’re hoping to get mass adoption, being smart is a bug. Being stupid is a feature.
Just about every other hypertext system embodied the idea of two-way linking. There was an awareness at both ends of the link. If the resource being linked to were to move or change, the link could be updated. It’s robust, but it’s complicated.
On the World Wide Web, by contrast, links only work in one direction. If the resource being linked to ends up moving or changing, well, tough luck. The result is link rot. That’s the price we pay for a very simple hypertext system.
But, now that the web has been around a couple of decades, there is a sort-of, kind-of implementation of two-way linking.
It uses the humble rel attribute.
Rel is short for relationship. The value inside the rel attribute describes the relationship of the linked resource to the current document.
<a href="…" rel="…">
Some rel values were officially canonised in HTML.
rel="prev" means that the linked resource has the relationship of being the previous document to the current document.
<a href="…" rel="prev">
rel="next" means that the linked resource has the relationship of being the next document after the current document.
<a href="…" rel="next">
rel="author" means that the linked resource has the relationship of representing the author of the current document.
<a href="…" rel="author">
You get the idea.
Incidentally, there was once a corresponding rev attribute that described the reverse relationship. In other words, the relationship of the current document to the linked resource.
<a href="…" rev="…">
So you could simultaneously say the current document has a relationship of being the previous document to the linked resource and that the linked resource has a relationship of being the next document to the current document.
<a href="…" rev="prev" rel="next">
Confused? Well, that’s why the rev attribute was eventually dropped from HTML. It was just too complicated.
There was an attempt to use the rev attribute in an early microformat called vote-links. This was proposed way back in 2004. Blogs were hot. Political blogs were very hot indeed: Bush Jr.—no relation to Vannevar—was running for re-election in the States, and John Kerry was the challenger. There was much blogging and gnashing of teeth.
The problem was the rise of PageRank, the algorithm that drove Google’s search engine. The fundamental premise of PageRank was that linking to something counts as an endorsement. But there were many bloggers linking to articles that they disagreed with very strongly.
By using a rev value of “vote-for”, authors could explicitly say that this document is a vote for the resource being linked to.
Or by using a rev value of “vote-against” they could make it clear that this document is a vote against the linked resource.
It never really took off because, as I said, the rev attribute was just too hard to grok.
And that’s okay. The whole point of microformats is that they are the very embodiment of the motto of the Internet Engineering Task Force: rough consensus and running code. There just wasn’t enough take-up of vote-links for it to thrive.
Another early idea—that actually preceded the official creation of microformats—was XFN, which stood for XHTML Friends Network: the most Web 1.0 format name ever.
XFN built on existing behaviour. Bloggers would often have a list of links in their sidebar pointing to other bloggers they had some kind of relationship with. If you assume that a URL can represent a person, then the rel attribute is perfect for encoding that relationship information.
I can link to a friend’s website and say that the person represented by the linked resource has a relationship of being a friend to the person represented by the current document: me!
<a href="…" rel="friend">
Or I can link to a colleague’s website and say that they have a relationship of being a colleague to me.
<a href="…" rel="colleague">
And because rel values—like class values—can be space-separated, I can combine rel values into one attribute. I can link to someone and say that they are both a friend and a colleague.
<a href="…" rel="friend colleague">
I still have XFN values in the sidebar of my blog, but again, it never really took off.
Except for one value, that seems at first glance to be completely pointless:
A rel value of "me": the linked resource has a relationship of being …me?
<a href="…" rel="me">
A is for Adactio
My website is adactio.com. I love my website. Even though it isn’t a physical thing, I think it might be my most prized possession.
It’s a place for me to think and a place for me to link.
Nothing unusual there. These are regular one-way hyperlinks.
What’s interesting is that many of those profiles on other websites provide a URL field where I can enter my own website. These third-party profiles then link back to my website also using a rel value of "me".
<a rel="me nofollow" href="https://adactio.com">
(They also use a rel value of "nofollow" to discourage spammers. The phrase "nofollow" makes absolutely no sense as a rel value—you can’t have a relationship of "nofollow" to anything—but it was invented by Google. We don’t get to argue with the 900 pound Google gorilla.)
Anyway, the result of having these reciprocal links, both using rel="me" means that we’ve kinda, sorta got two-way linking on the World Wide Web.
But …so what?
A is for Authentication
Some of those third-party profiles I’m linking to—Twitter, Github, Flickr—have something in common. They allow third-party authentication using OAuth.
If I can log into my Twitter, or Github, or Flickr profile using OAuth, and those profiles have two-way links with my website, then I can “borrow” that authentication flow for my own site.
That’s the idea behind IndieAuth. I enter the URL of my own website. It finds the links from there to my other profiles using rel="me". Then I can choose which one of those profiles I want to authenticate against. Once I’ve authenticated with that service, I’ve also authenticated my own website.
Just by adding a short rel value to some links, I can use my website as a log-in.
My website also has a small write API. The API is called micropub. By combining IndieAuth and micropub, I can log into somebody else’s posting interface using my website, and then use that interface to post to my own website.
These building blocks—microformats, IndieAuth, micropub—have emerged from a small but dedicated group of people.
An Indie Web Camp takes place over two days. The first day is split into discussions of technology and design. The second is all about implementing what we’ve discussed on the first day. I’m always amazed by how much gets done when you’re in the same space as like-minded people.
Still, the technologies being discussed and implemented aren’t the real focus of Indie Web Camp. The core tenet of Indie Web Camp is an idea. It’s a very simple idea, that at one point would have been uncontroversial. That idea is that you should have your own website.
But who’s got time for that? Especially when it’s so much easier to write and share and link using platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Medium. That’s a good point. A lot of the time at an Indie Web Camp is spent reverse-engineering what those services are doing so well, and applying them to personal websites.
Also, we don’t necessarily want to stop using those services. After all, that’s where the people are (for now). Instead we want to figure out ways of making use of these services, while still keeping the canonical versions of what we create under our own control.
There’s a fantastic little Indie Web service called Brid.gy that allows you to not only post from your own site out to third party networks, but also receive replies, and likes, and retweets back at your own site, using another Indie Web building block called webmention.
In a way, webmentions allow a kind of two-way linking. I can cross-post something from adactio.com to Twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook. Then when someone replies on Twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook, I get notified with a ping back to my own site.
All of this is possible because I’ve verified the identity of those third-party profiles using nothing more than a simple rel attribute on a hyperlink.
The Indie Web uses a grab-bag of deliberately simple technologies that combine to create something so much more powerful than the sum of its parts …just like the web itself.
We often talk about places like Facebook, or Instagram, or Medium as walled gardens. Walled gardens are as old as the web itself. AOL was a well-cultivated walled garden back in the day.
There’s nothing wrong with walled gardens. They’re safe spaces. They take care of your enjoyment and entertainment, so you don’t have to.
But there also a bit boring. I certainly don’t relish the idea of spending my days within the boundaries of someone else’s vision.
The Garden of Forking Paths. It is uncontrolled. It is full of possibilities. It’s a bit scary. It takes more dedication to explore. You might get lost. But is that so bad? When was the last time you were truly lost on the World Wide Web, when you clicked through link after link—no cheating by opening new tabs, now—until you ended up somewhere, blinking and asking yourself “what I was looking for?”
I would like us all to spend more time in the garden of forking paths. I would like us all to continue to grow this garden of forking paths. Add your own website to this garden of forking paths. Use it to make more links.
On your website, you can link to this thing over here and that thing over there, and in doing so create an entirely new forking path.
Remember, the web, like the internet, has no centre. In theory I could start from any single A element, and by following all the forking paths, traverse the entire World Wide Web.
That opening hyperlink could be on your own website. One single A element can be the portal to an entire universe of knowledge.
Sometimes it’s nice to step back and look at where all this came from. Here’s Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal from 1990.
The current incompatibilities of the platforms and tools make it impossible to access existing information through a common interface, leading to waste of time, frustration and obsolete answers to simple data lookup. There is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one.
The Web is the printing press of our times; an amazing piece of technology facilitating a free and wide-scale dissipation of our thoughts and ideas. And all of it is based on this near 20-year old, yet timeless idea of the Hyper Text Markup Language.
The greatest experiment in the history of our species is being conducted beneath the border between Switzerland and France. In the 16-mile wide ring of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, human beings are recreating the conditions from the start of our universe. Protons are smashed together at velocities approaching the speed of light. Itâ€™s a truly awe-inspiring endeavour.
Whatâ€™s equally awe-inspiring is the level of cooperation required to accomplish this Apollonian feat. The legal framework for the (literally) groundbreaking work of the LHC was established in the CERN Convention of 1954. Twelve nations initially signed up, later expanding to twenty. Together they would run CERN as a stateless entity devoted entirely to pure science. The only return on investment that was expected was in the currency of knowledge.
This groundwork allowed CERN to become a very special place. Many of the usual hindrances to cooperation have been removed: national boundaries, economics, social hierarchies. Instead, things get done like itâ€™s one giant hack day. Propose an experiment, find out who else is interested in helping you out, and away you go. Nobel prize-winning physicists and students on Summer internships work together.
It was in this atmosphere of collaboration that Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web, aided and abetted by his colleague Robert Cailliau. Today we think of the world wide web as one of the greatest inventions in the history of communications, but to the scientists at CERN, it is merely a byproduct. When youâ€™re dealing in cosmological timescales and investigating the very building blocks of reality itself, the timeline of mankindâ€™s relationship with technology is little more than a rounding error.
Sir Timâ€™s hypertext system was designed to help the scientists at CERN collaborate more efficiently. It wasnâ€™t the only hypertext system around, and it certainly wasnâ€™t the best. On the web, using the laughably-primitive vocabulary of HTML, you could link to any URL regardless of who â€śownedâ€ť it. If that URL were to later disappear, tough luck. Now youâ€™ve got a broken link.
It was a fragile, incomplete system that didnâ€™t come anywhere near solving all the challenges of hyperlinking data. It was, of course, a huge success: its simplicity turned out to be its strength. Although HTML was consumed by computers, it could also be read by humans. Crucially, it could also be easily written by humans. Anyone with access to a text editor could create a new hyperlink-filled HTML document.
Itâ€™s easy for us to look back now and see the webâ€™s strengths inscribed into its founding architecture, but its success was by no means assured. Many of the features of the web that we take for granted today came about by accident. The fact that browsers display URLs â€” and allow you to enter URLs â€” was initially a power-user feature that seemed unlikely to be popular. The fact that people started writing documents in HTML took Tim Berners-Lee by surprise: his markup language was really only intended for index pages that pointed to the real content in other formats.
But there was one key factor in the webâ€™s success that was not an accident. On April 30th, 1993, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau placed the web into the public domain. This was by no means a fait accompli â€” the temptation to monetize this burgeoning hypertext system must have been hard to resist. But, perhaps inspired by the selfless spirit of cooperation and collaboration at CERN, they gave their gift to the world and asked for nothing in return.
Almost twenty years later at the 2012 Summer Olympic games in London, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was lauded in the opening ceremony. Watched by a global audience, he passed on one message regarding the world wide web:
This is for everyone.
If I want to write an HTML document, I donâ€™t need to ask for permission. If I want to publish that HTML document at a URL, I donâ€™t need to ask for permission. If I want to link from that HTML document to any other URL anywhere on the web, I donâ€™t need to ask for permission.
Steve Jobs once said, â€śYou donâ€™t need anyoneâ€™s permission to be awesome,â€ť which is somewhat ironic, because to publish something in Appleâ€™s App Store, you definitely need permission.
The terms and conditions for Appleâ€™s App Store make it very clear that this is not for everyone:
We view apps different than books or songs. If you want to criticise a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song.
The web is an uncontrolled mess where anyone can link to anyone else. The App Store is cultivated walled garden where it isnâ€™t even possible to link between apps. All of the individual apps available from the gatekeepers of the App Store are fenced inside their own little plot of land.
Still, the experience of using these pre-filtered apps can at times feel superior to the experience of using an old-fashioned website. Native apps can be â€śricherâ€ť and more immersive than anything that can be experienced through a web browser. Perhaps they even portend the death of the web as we know it.
When I first started making websites back in the â€™90s, there was a rival technology that was â€śricherâ€ť and more immersive than the web: CD-ROMs. Microsoftâ€™s Encarta was an encyclopaedia on a disc, complete with images, video, and audio. But CD-ROMs were also isolated islands. While the experience of using any individual CD-ROM was easily greater than the experience of using any individual website, all the CD-ROMs in the world couldnâ€™t collectively compete with the experience of using the wild lawless world wide web. So it is with the App Store. Native apps will no more destroy the web than swimming pools will destroy the ocean.
At this point, you may have dismissed my opinions as those of a Luddite afraid of change. Here I am criticising the new shiny App Store while Iâ€™m defending a clunky world wide web thatâ€™s more than two decades old. But make no mistake; Iâ€™m criticising walled gardens like the App Store precisely because they are not a step forward. They are attempting to turn the clock back and return us to the world before the web.
The world before the web was a world of atoms, not bits. Unlike bits, atoms take up space and thereâ€™s only so much space to go around. Thatâ€™s why we needed tastemakers and gatekeepers to decide which atoms would be placed on which shelves. In that world of consumers and producers, record companies, publishing houses, and film studios decided what would be published. These organisations existed in order to tell us what we would consume â€” which books we would read, which movies we would watch, which songs we would listen to.
Those are the very same organisations that greeted the App Store with open arms, not because it offers something new, but precisely because the walled garden promises a return to a world of producers and consumers. Hereâ€™s an opportunity to put the genie of the web back in its bottle.
I donâ€™t believe it will work. The spirit of the web â€” that of free and open access and sharing â€” has already infected the world.
The web was born in an environment of openness, sharing, and collaboration. The spirit of CERN influenced Tim Berners-Leeâ€™s work. In giving away that work for free, Sir Tim showed the world that the old permission-based value systems would no longer define the culture of our society.
Steve Jobs was right: you donâ€™t need anyoneâ€™s permission to be awesomeâ€¦if youâ€™re publishing on the world wide web. Or, as Andy Baio put it:
The ability to link to any web page without permission is part of what makes the web great. Anyone who says otherwise is a poopy pants.