30 Dec 95
If 1994 was the year of the Internet, then 1995 was the year of the World Wide Web. By Christmas, URLs (the uniform resource locator, a sort of Web telephone number) were appearing all over the place. You can't browse a magazine ad, watch a movie, veg' in front of the TV, or even drive down the local interstate without having someone's URL shoved in your face. Companies are falling all over themselves and, sometimes, their corporate common sense, to "establish a beachhead" on this new facet of the Internet. Why? To even consider the question, we have to define the Web.
This Tangled Web
In its infancy, the World Wide Web was a forward-looking venture of the rather tech-heavy Internet. Rather than provide raw information via Telnet, FTP and gopher gateways, developers wanted to access information in a neat, easy graphical package that one would read like, well, like a page on a computer monitor. The format for the pages would be determined by an ASCII format called HTML (hypertext markup language) that any computer could read; the files (or pages) would be transferred by HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol); the applications that download and view the HTML files came to be known as browsers.
The browser name stuck because, as with any true hypertext format, each page could link to other pages, other sites ... anywhere on the Internet. The pattern of interlinking gave birth to the name "Web." As you read and jump from page to page, you tend to browse as you might in a mall, stopping here and there to focus more attention on eye-catching or intriguing features. A few years ago, some propeller-heads at NCSA (at Urbana, Illinois, the birthplace of Stanley Kubrick's HAL 9000) wowed the digital world with a nifty, cross-platform browser (runs on my computer, your computer, their computer) named Mosaic, which quickly became what is known as a "killer app." (Marc Andreeson, one of the designers, departed HAL-land for California, to developer a killer-app-eater called Netscape. Nicknamed Mozilla -- a recombinant of the names MOsaic and GodZILLA, a well-known heavyweight -- it continues to munch up about 75% of the market share of Web users.) To date, Mosaic has been oft- imitated, but nothing has really replaced it.
The strength of the Mosaic family of browsers is that the text can be displayed more or less the way you want (you pick the fonts, you pick the colors), and can display graphics and other neat ornamentation. They even support sound and video along with the text. In 1996, Sun's new Java application language allows programs to run right on a Web page. So what began as a simple, text-based wellspring of information has become (all rise) ... a multimedia extravaganza. Sound and graphics are spilling out all over the place. The next generation of Netscape will be so multimedia rich, that its proud papa is likening it to an "application environment." So much for simplicity.
At it's heart, then, what began as a "distributed library," has found new life as a colorful, noisy bazaar of sites providing just about anything to just about anybody. It's even a high school yearbook, with "home pages" for individuals, some of whom probably don't need to have one ... and many of whom don't seem to know what to do with one. The Web has become a giant, multimedia bulletin board, and no one's assuming responsibility for what's posted on it.
Ladies And Gentlemen ... Start Your Servers
If you're thinking about it ... the Web represents a remarkable leap ahead in the technology of communication ... and publishing. Affordable computers are being sold as little more than handy, household appliances, and most come with total software packages with which the owner can write, edit and transmit documents, pictures and sound. With a connection to the Internet (via a provider or online service), the home computer user can develop and distribute a pamphlet or novel to just about anyone in the world -- instantly. This is the kind of publishing and communications ability that was only available to a handful Americans less than a hundred years ago. This shift in empowerment is the kind that men like Thomas Paine might have rejoiced in ... but might never have dreamt of.
The acceleration in technology and connectivity is remarkable ... but not unthinkable. It's easily appreciated; today's generations think no more of it than Depression-era citizens did of radio broadcasts into the home. What hasn't kept pace necessarily, is the content that is exchanged ... or the quality of the content. Essentially, we're still distributing the same kinds of material, with only minor mutations. In fact, if the market is the driving force, yesterday's essay or speech is today's 30-second commercial or newscast sound bite.
Those minor mutations can be alarming. As public media have embraced magazines, motion pictures, television, and video games, the public attention span seems to have been truncated. Education is arguably less effective, producing progressively less literate generations of readers/viewers. This wouldn't be a problem if the quality or concentration of content kept pace, but I don't think that's happened. We have Rush and Oprah and Pauly Shore to stand in for Edward R. Morrow, John Hersey, Rod Serling, and Joseph Campbell.
Now we have the Web. It's a wholly new format -- the multimedia moniker is, I think, outdated and irrelevant. (It makes me think of musty auditoriums screening colorful slides of smiling people, accompanied by music, narration and sound effects.) This is new media. It brings together text, images, sound, animation, even online Java programs that run almost immediately. The 'Net can bring all this to you in your kitchen, den or bedroom, almost instantaneously. What does it mean? It adds up to an incunabula.
The incunabula is a term that can be applied to the period following Johann Gutenberg's printing of the Mazarin Bible on his new press. He introduced a practical application for the technology by which multiple copies of a written work could be produced (previously a chore that had to be done painstakingly by hand). With his simple innovation, everyone could own a book -- theoretically. Shortly thereafter, the fellow who loaned Johann the money for the press repossessed the thing (apparently the Gutenberg Bible didn't sell well enough), and published the first color book. But following these two breakthroughs, there were a lot of disappointing attempts to apply the new invention. For something like a hundred years, it's said, an embarrassing number of people just didn't get it. The ramifications of printing weren't immediately clear. I'm cuisinarting history, I know, but I can't think of a really ballistic application of the printing press until the revolutions of the Eighteenth Century ... Tom Paine and others working late at night, printing incendiary pamphlets that informed and roused a mass audience into a convention of thought ... or action. The arguable end result? The birth of a new nation.
The 'Net and the Web, together, then, offer every man, woman and child (!) with a computer the power to plug into a vast, global information collective of information and opinion. Some of the only accurate accounts of the events at Tiananmen Square were snuck out of China via faxes and e-mail. An eyewitness to war atrocities in Bosnia posted his personal accounts to a BBS (in Paris, I believe), and from there the communiques were made available to everybody, everywhere on the Internet. Instantly, the world could bear witness to one individual's observations and opinions of small-scale events with international overtones.
But there are a lot of users out there that just don't get it. They are a unaware of the innovative nature of the Web ... or are afraid of the capabilities. (In America's capital, lawmakers are busying themselves trying to invent legal mechanisms to censor the 'Net, for fear that children will be force-fed material that is provincially unacceptable.) In order to play with the new toy, then, these users simply transplant existing material from one media to another. The result are, naturally, Web pages that look astonishingly like other media.
The latest buzzword for content development is cross- media authoring. Apple's latest vision for the Macintosh platform is that you can assemble your images, ideas, slogans, statistics and sound ... whatever ... feed it all into a "manufactory" ... and spit out the other end camera-ready advertisements, brochures, presentations, television spots, radio blurbs and online media. It's a novel concept, that what is produced can be as varied as the material that is assembled for a publishing venture. Without some thought into what's happening in the manufactory, what happens is a simple adaptation, and the content is simply renovated to satisfy the requirements of the medium into which it's pasted. The result: lackluster content, or "digital meat loaf."
Today, the content and rationale of new sites (which are sprouting up faster than McDonald's can serve their next 2 billion customers) are getting increasingly "dumbed up." Moreover, as the graphical capabilities of Mosaic-style browsers have expanded, the conventional Web page has become more of an image-oriented presentation -- which, incidentally, can take a long time to download and view, depending on the receiving equipment. It seems that subsequent revisions of the HTML language are supporting more and more "substance bloat," and HTML designers are happy to indulge in the new capability.
This has resulted in Web sites morphing from shelves of a vast library to one of the following molds:
- Info highway billboard: what was that last site about? Burma Shave, or BOYS ON THE SIDE?
- Information Kiosk: helpful, but not informative in a lasting way. You only need that modem initialization string, anyway, not a whole dissertation on asynchronous communications.
- Magazine: Sure, you read it for the articles, but the full-screen spreads with Kate Moss are what keep you coming back.
- Television: okay, you looked at it for hours, but what did you retain?
It's in this last model that I think the Web will find a stasis of gluttony. As Tim Bray (of Open Text Corporation) mentioned in Wired magazine (October, 1995, "Why I Hate The Web"), the Web is so intuitive, so user-friendly, that just about anyone can make it go. Click the colored, underlined text, that's right, just follow the blue words. Browsing the World Wide Web is no more difficult than scanning channels on your cable TV service. The Web page becomes a screen once again.
Since users can hop from page to page as fast as their mouse, trackball or light pen (all of them a simplified TV remote control) will allow, pages have to be lively, exhilarating. They have to GRAB! you. To ensure this, snazzy graphics and way-out designs have become common. Some pages look like an interior decorator barfed on them. It's getting difficult for me to sit still and download screen after screen of ultra-colorful, busy page designs. That they can become extravagantly unreadable seems secondary to the fact that the author has demonstrated a tactical HTML ability, and willingness, to assault your eyes with a Web page that defies indifference. Either you stick around on the page, or flitter off to the next one.
And this is, apparently, acceptable. A major segment of the Web culture, it seems, takes pride in finding, and "bookmarking," the coolest new sites ... and does so at a hyperactive state. My latest version of CompuServe Mosaic came with a blindingly exhaustive list of sites for me to peruse. Advertisements for Internet access hype the availability of "hundreds of the coolest Web sites," ... but I don't want to visit hundreds of sites, just a few that can interest me. I don't want my range of choices to expand exponentially because my attention span (or perhaps it's my patience) cannot be inversely compressed to accommodate them all.
This is the tragic flaw of television,... television does not turn itself off. It's on around the clock, an endless supply of material to be assimilated. So is the Web, but in space as well as in time. Open Text's Tim Bray suggests that just as TV is "chunked up" by time slots, commercial breaks, and video bites, the Web is fragmented into servers, sites, pages and GIFs. But the Web is growing at a monstrous scale. It won't turn itself off. Look around: as technology accelerates, and we assimilate it all, our world gains far more Start buttons than Stop buttons.
It is, of course, highly possible to enjoy browsing the Web. With a great, high speed modem (I'm using a superb US Robotics V.34 28.8 Kbps Sportster internal modem, which makes better connections than a major airline), fast video card and vivid display (Sony Trinitron monitors are a pleasure to look at), the Web is a rather fluid thing. It keeps coming, and coming, and each page brings new surprises to behold. Unlike television, you can control the speed of the flow, and what that flow contains.
The New, True Global Village
Despite all the bombast and gee-whiz wonders of the Web, the bottom line is that it isn't about features, or about information, or sales, or forms, or libraries, or anything inanimate. The World Wide Web is about people -- the Web sites that I linger over and revisit are personality-rich, a collection of digital matter in which the author's individuality comes through. Boring, unimaginative people have boring, lackluster pages; charged, creative individuals (and groups) have pages that come alive.
There are now tens of thousands, perhaps millions of individuals who are self-published. They're creating online impressions of who they are, how they are experienced ... and where they're at. The World Wide Web is the greatest puzzle of all ephemeral creations, a sum of the individual parts, a shifting collage of the human beings who ARE the Web, ever changing, ever evolving. In the new digital, global village of the Internet, the new myth of the online community ... is a Web of a thousand faces.
From THE JARGON FILE Version 2.9.12
"SECOND-SYSTEM EFFECT n. (sometimes, more euphoniously, ‘second-system syndrome') When one is designing the successor to a relatively small, elegant, and successful system, there is a tendency to become grandiose in one's success and design an elephantine feature-laden monstrosity. The term was first used by Fred Brooks in his classic ‘The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering‘ (Addison-Wesley, 1975; ISBN 0- 201-00650-2). It described the jump from a set of nice, simple operating systems on the IBM 70xx series to OS/360 on the 360 series. A similar effect can also happen in an evolving system."
"These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things...."
- Open Text Corporation http://www.opentext.com/
- Toy Story http://www.toystory.com/
- Schwa http://www.theschwacorporation.com./
- Sound Traffic Control http://www.wilder.net/stc/
- The Teen Movie Critic http://www.dreamagic.com/roger/teencritic.html
- The Utne Lens http://www.utne.com/lens/
- Why AOL Sucks http://www.cloud9.net/~jegelhof/
- Word http://www.word.com/
- Korova Multimedia http://www.korova.com
-- D.B. Spalding
(C) Copyright 1995 D.B. Spalding. All rights reserved.
D.B. Spalding is a writer, musician, computer consultant and online sysop; he writes frequently about music, film, computing and the mass- and multimedia. Many of his articles can be found on the World Wide Web at www.korova.com.