An account of the mother of all demos, written by Steven Johnson.
Friday, August 5th, 2022
Monday, April 4th, 2022
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.
Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022
“Be linkable and accessible to any client” is a provocative test for whether something is “of the web”.
Monday, January 31st, 2022
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.
Monday, January 24th, 2022
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.
Sunday, January 16th, 2022
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.
Thursday, January 6th, 2022
Today, the distant future
It’s a bit of a cliché to talk about living in the future. It’s also a bit pointless. After all, any moment after the big bang is a future when viewed from any point in time before it.
Still, it’s kind of fun when a sci-fi date rolls around. Like in 2015 when we reached the time depicted in Back To The Future 2, or in 2019 when we reached the time of Blade Runner.
In 2022 we are living in the future of web standards. Again, technically, we’re always living in the future of any past discussion of web standards, but this year is significant …in a very insignificant way.
It all goes back to 2008 and an interview with Hixie, editor of the HTML5 spec at the WHATWG at the time. In it, he mentioned the date 2022 as the milestone for having two completely interoperable implementations.
The far more important—and ambitious—date was 2012, when HTML5 was supposed to become a Candidate Recommendation, which is standards-speak for done’n’dusted.
But the mere mention of the year 2022 back in the year 2008 was too much for some people. Jeff Croft, for example, completely lost his shit (Jeff had a habit of posting angry rants and then denying that he was angry or ranty, but merely having a bit of fun).
The whole thing was a big misunderstanding and soon irrelevant: talk of 2022 was dropped from HTML5 discussions. But for a while there, it was fascinating to see web designers and developers contemplate a year that seemed ludicriously futuristic. Jeff wrote:
God knows where I’ll be in 13 years. Quite frankly, I’ll be pretty fucking disappointed in myself (and our entire industry) if I’m writing HTML in 13 years.
That always struck me as odd. If I thought like that, I’d wonder what the point would be in making anything on the web to begin with (bear in mind that both my own personal website and The Session are now entering their third decade of life).
I had a different reaction to Jeff, as I wrote in 2010:
Many web developers were disgusted that such a seemingly far-off date was even being mentioned. My reaction was the opposite. I began to pay attention to HTML5.
But Jeff was far from alone. Scott Gilbertson wrote an angry article on Webmonkey:
If you’re thinking that planning how the web will look and work 13 years from now is a little bit ridiculous, you’re not alone.
Even if your 2022 ronc-o-matic web-enabled toaster (It slices! It dices! It browses! It arouses!) does ship with Firefox v22.3, will HTML still be the dominant language of web? Given that no one can really answer that question, does it make sense to propose a standard so far in the future?
(I’m re-reading that article in the current version of Firefox: 95.0.2.)
Two-thousand-twenty-two. That’s 14 years from now. Can any of us think that far? Wouldn’t our robot overlords, whether you welcome them or not, have taken over by then? Will the internet even matter then?
From the comments on Jeff’s post, there’s Corey Dutson:
2022: God knows what the Internet will look like at that point. Will we even have websites?
Dan Rubin, who has indeed successfully moved from web work to photography, wrote:
I certainly don’t intend to be doing “web work” by that time. I’m very curious to see where the web actually is in 14 years, though I can’t imagine that HTML5 will even get that far; it’ll all be obsolete before 2022.
Joshua Works made a prediction that’s worryingly close to reality:
I’ll be surprised if website-as-HTML is still the preferred method for moving around the tons of data we create, especially in the manner that could have been predicted in 2003 or even today. Hell, iPods will be over 20 years old by then and if everything’s not run as an iPhone App, then something went wrong.
Someone with the moniker Grand Caveman wrote:
In 2022 I’ll be 34, and hopefully the internet will be obsolete by then.
Perhaps the most level-headed observation came from Jonny Axelsson:
The world in 2022 will be pretty much like the world in 2009.
The world in 2009 is pretty much like 1996 which was pretty much like the world in 1983 which was pretty much like the world in 1970. Some changes are fairly sudden, others are slow, some are dramatic, others subtle, but as a whole “pretty much the same” covers it.
The Web in 2022 will not be dramatically different from the Web in 2009. It will be less hot and it will be less cool. The Web is a project, and as it succeeds it will fade out of our attention and into the background. We don’t care about things when they work.
Now that’s a sensible perspective!
So who else is looking forward to seeing what the World Wide Web is like in 2036?
I must remember to write a blog post then and link back to this one. I have no intention of trying to predict the future, but I’m willing to bet that hyperlinks will still be around in 14 years.
Sunday, January 2nd, 2022
Out of all of these metaphors, the two most enduring are paper and physical space.
Friday, December 10th, 2021
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).
Thursday, November 25th, 2021
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.
Monday, November 15th, 2021
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.
Friday, November 12th, 2021
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.
Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021
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.)
Wednesday, September 29th, 2021
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.
Tuesday, August 31st, 2021
A wonderful bit of spelunking into the annals of software interfaces by Elise Blanchard.
Tuesday, July 20th, 2021
My last long-distance trip before we were all grounded by The Situation was to San Francisco at the end of 2019. I attended Indie Web Camp while I was there, which gave me the opportunity to add a little something to my website: an “on this day” page.
I’m glad I did. While it’s probably of little interest to anyone else, I enjoy scrolling back to see how the same date unfolded over the years.
’Sfunny, when I look back at older journal entries they’re often written out of frustration, usually when something in the dev world is bugging me. But when I look back at all the links I’ve bookmarked the vibe is much more enthusiastic, like I’m excitedly pointing at something and saying “Check this out!” I feel like sentiment analyses of those two sections of my site would yield two different results.
But when I scroll down through my “on this day” page, it also feels like descending deeper into the dark waters of linkrot. For each year back in time, the probability of a link still working decreases until there’s nothing but decay.
Too much has been lost already. The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone.
In one sense, linkrot is the price we pay for the web’s particular system of hypertext. We don’t have two-way linking, which means there’s no centralised repository of links which would be prohibitively complex to maintain. So when you want to link to something on the web, you just do it. An
a element with an
href attribute. That’s it. You don’t need to check with the owner of the resource you’re linking to. You don’t need to check with anyone. You have complete freedom to link to any URL you want to.
But it’s that same simple system that makes the act of linking a gamble. If the URL you’ve linked to goes away, you’ll have no way of knowing.
As I scroll down my “on this day” page, I come across more and more dead links that have been snapped off from the fabric of the web.
If I stop and think about it, it can get quite dispiriting. Why bother making hyperlinks at all? It’s only a matter of time until those links break.
And yet I still keep linking. I still keep pointing to things and saying “Check this out!” even though I know that over a long enough timescale, there’s little chance that the link will hold.
In a sense, every hyperlink on the World Wide Web is little act of hope. Even though I know that when I link to something, it probably won’t last, I still harbour that hope.
If hyperlinks are built on hope, and the web is made of hyperlinks, then in a way, the World Wide Web is quite literally made out of hope.
I like that.
Wednesday, May 12th, 2021
Thursday, March 11th, 2021
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!
Friday, February 19th, 2021
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.
Thursday, February 18th, 2021
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.