An account of the mother of all demos, written by Steven Johnson.
Imagine a world without hyperlinks or search:
Take WeChat as an example. It is home to the vast majority of China’s original writing, and yet:
- It doesn’t allow any external links;
- Its posts are not indexed by search engines such as Google or Baidu, and its own search engine is practically useless;
- You can’t check the author’s other posts if open the page outside of the WeChat app. In other words, each WeChat article is an orphan, not linked to anything else on the Internet, not even the author’s previous work.
Search engine indexing is key to content discovery in the knowledge creation domain, but in a mobile-first world, it is extremely difficult to pull content across the walled gardens, whether or not there is a profit incentive to do so.
Again, the issue here is not censorship. Had China relaxed its speech restrictions, a search start-up would’ve faced the same level of resistance from content platforms when trying to index their content, and content platforms would’ve been equally reluctant to create their own search engines, as they could serve ads and profit without a functional search engine.
“Be linkable and accessible to any client” is a provocative test for whether something is “of the web”.
Chip Delaney and Octavia Butler on a panel together in 1998 when hypertext and “cyberspace” are in the air. Here’s Octavia Butler on her process (which reminds me of when I’m preparing a conference talk):
I generally have four or five books open around the house—I live alone; I can do this—and they are not books on the same subject. They don’t relate to each other in any particular way, and the ideas they present bounce off one another. And I like this effect. I also listen to audio-books, and I’ll go out for my morning walk with tapes from two very different audio-books, and let those ideas bounce off each other, simmer, reproduce in some odd way, so that I come up with ideas that I might not have come up with if I had simply stuck to one book until I was done with it and then gone and picked up another.
So, I guess, in that way, I’m using a kind of primitive hypertext.
Don’t see making your own web page as a nostalgia, don’t participate in creating the netstalgia trend. What you make is a statement, an act of emancipation. You make it to continue a 25-year-old tradition of liberation.
If you’re interested in so-called web3, you should definitely follow Molly White.
How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains? How many people must be scammed for all they’re worth while technologists talk about just beginning to think about building safeguards into their platforms? How long must the laymen, who are so eagerly hustled into blockchain-based projects that promise to make them millionaires, be scolded as though it is their fault when they are scammed as if they should be capable of auditing smart contracts themselves?
The more you think about it, the more “it’s early days!” begins to sound like the desperate protestations of people with too much money sunk into a pyramid scheme, hoping they can bag a few more suckers and get out with their cash before the whole thing comes crashing down.
Out of all of these metaphors, the two most enduring are paper and physical space.
We invite software developers to do their part, by
- ensuring their users can conveniently obtain a link to the currently open or selected resource via a user interface; and
- providing an application programming interface (API) to obtain or construct a link to that resource (i.e., to get its address and name).
Any application that could be done on a blockchain could be better done on a centralized database. Except crime.
I’m not alone in believing in the fundamental technical uselessness of blockchains. There are tens of thousands of other people in the largest tech companies in the world that thanklessly push their organizations away from crypto adoption every day. The crypto asset bubble is perhaps the most divisive topic in tech of our era and possibly ever to exist in our field. It’s a scary but essential truth to realise that normal software engineers like us are an integral part of society’s immune system against the enormous moral hazard of technology-hyped asset bubbles metastasizing into systemic risk.
Who is the web for? Everyone, everywhere, and not only the few with a financial stake in it. It’s still this enormously beautiful thing that has so much potential.
But web3? That’s just not it, man.
Exactly! The blinkered web3 viewpoint is a classic example of this fallacious logic (also, as Robin points out, exemplified by AMP):
- Something must be done!
- This (terrible idea) is something.
- Something has been done.
I think Web3 is propelled by exhaustion as much as by excitement. This isn’t apparent on the surface, but I believe it’s there, lurking just below. If you’re 22 years old, Twitter has been around for about as long as you’ve known how to read. YouTube is fixed as firmly as the stars. I honestly don’t know how that feels, but I wonder if it’s claustrophobic?
There are so many astute and accurate observations in Robin’s piece that I kind of want to quote them all.
Web3 promises rewards — maybe even a kind of justice — for “users”, but Ethereum doesn’t know anything about users, only wallets. One user can control many wallets; one bot can control many wallets; Ethereum can’t tell the difference, doesn’t particularly care. Therefore, Web3’s governance tools are appropriate for decision-making processes that approximate those of an LLC, but not for anything truly democratic, which is to say, anything that respects the uniform, unearned — unearned!—value of personhood.
Ah, this brings back memories of hacking on the WorldWideWeb project at CERN!
(Not the original one. I’m not that old. I mean the recreation.)
Internet users use fewer different websites today than they did 20 years ago, and spend most of their “Web” time in app versions of websites (which often provide a better experience only because site owners strategically make it so to increase their lock-in and data harvesting potential). Truly exploring the Web now requires extra effort, like exercising an underused muscle. And if you begin and end your Web experience on just one to three services, that just feels kind of… sad, to me. Wasted potential.
A wonderful bit of spelunking into the annals of software interfaces by Elise Blanchard.
A wonderful look at the kind of links we didn’t get on the World Wide Web.
From the memex and Xanadu right up to web mentions, this ticks all my boxes!
Thirty years later, it is easy to overlook the web’s origins as a tool for sharing knowledge. Key to Tim Berners-Lee’s vision were open standards that reflected his belief in the Rule of Least Power, a principle that choosing the simplest and least powerful language for a given purpose allows you to do more with the data stored in that language (thus, HTML is easier for humans or machines to interpret and analyze than PostScript). Along with open standards and the Rule of Least Power, Tim Berners-Lee wanted to make it easy for anyone to publish information in the form of web pages. His first web browser, named Nexus, was both a browser and editor.
I’m excited by this documentary project from John! The first video installment features three historic “pages”:
- As We May Think,
- Information Management: A Proposal, and
- the first web page.
A browser extension for bookmarking and annotation.
I like the name.
Feel bad because your favourite artists aren’t getting any income from Spotify? Here’s a handy tool from Hype Machine that allows you to import Sportify playlists and see where you can support those artists on Bandcamp.