Is the World Wide Web for luvvies and VCs – or for all of us?
Part 1: In which we look at what the Greatest Living Briton got wrong (and right)
Analysis The Web turns 25 years old today, and its inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has written yet another declaration of rights – a "Magna Carta" – to mark the occasion.
These incessant anniversaries are proof that journalists and media luvvies love looking backwards rather than reporting what's in front of them - warts and all. But especially not the warts. And it's also proof that web people can not resist the self-indulgence of penning a manifesto.
The web does not lack manifestos, declarations, decrees, charters, proclamations, or lists. Many were written in bedrooms; all have the sickly insincerity of a Hallmark greeting card. Perhaps a Web Manifesto is the zenith of all listicles, a kind of Holy Listicle Scripture.
Nobody could reasonably disagree with Berners-Lee's commandments at their most vague and generalised. But these windy declarations are really vanity products, to remind the world how self-righteous the writer is. Much as some people like to advertise: "I've done my recycling. Have you?" others like to declare: "I use the Web. I am more virtuous than thou. My manifesto proves it." It pays to look behind the curtain.
Before we can look forward, though, we have see what the web is good at and bad at - but before we can do that, we have to establish what it is, exactly. And how we all got here.
A bastard publishing format
The World Wide Web was essentially a quick hack; it was a piece of improvisation. It just happened to be a hack the world found useful at the time: electronic publishing using machine readable tags, or markup, to give things in documents meaning and describe how they appeared, had been evolving throughout the 1970s.
By the mid-1980s, it was moving something from only IBM customers could use to an open format everybody could use. The landmark was the first SGML specification, published in 1985. Its roots are described here - in the most important Web document nobody has ever read. SGML was rich and promising indeed.
Writing in 1971, Charles Goldfarb described the fundamentals:
The principle of separating document description from application function makes it possible to describe the attributes common to all documents of the same type. ... [The] availability of such "type descriptions" could add new function to the text processing system. Programs could supply markup for an incomplete document, or interactively prompt a user in the entry of a document by displaying the markup. A generalized markup language then, would permit full information about a document to be preserved, regardless of the way the document is used or represented.
So SGML was about a lot more than presentation, the coat of paint on the toy. It allowed classes of documents and even "mini-languages" to be defined, and link to data outside the document. It could yank in databases and everything processed had a meaning.
By the late 1980s, everyone involved in professional technical publishing was getting ready for the SGML revolution, and one of these was a contractor in technical publishing at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee. He took the basic elements from what would be another instance of an SGML markup language and lashed it to the client/server architecture of the the academics' network. He wanted something much simpler and immediately useful. SGML was all about doing it right - and it was complex and formal.
The brilliantly clever bit of Berners-Lee's proposal was the simplicity - he'd created an instantly useful document management system. For a while, as the internet was opened up, Berners-Lee's HTML was just another navigation system alongside Gopher and WAIS. But by the end of 1994 VC money turned an academic side project into Netscape, and from that point on, the world would have to work with HTML.
So, we've been struggling with the compromises and omissions of the hack ever since.
In 1992, Berners-Lee revised HTML to make it more SGML compliant, and less anarchic: browsers would henceforth present (more or less) the same results. It was only in 1996, with the development of the XML and XHL specs, that some of what Berners-Lee, in his scramble to make something small and useful had omitted, began to be restored.
Equipped with these, document links can have multiple sources and targets. XML grappled with semantics, too, giving tags meanings. Style sheets were another plank of '80s-era SGML publishing, and attempted to sort out the presentation mess - separating the look from the document itself. They popped up for the web in 1998. Berners-Lee himself has been hawking the semantic web for almost 20 years.
So if you want a glimpse of "the future of the web" today, strictly speaking, you only need to look at what Berners-Lee left out (and what XML and other specs “restored”, to some extent) 18 years ago. I put restored in scare quotes there, because, incredibly, much of it has yet to be implemented - and some of the most mind-blowing parts have been completely forgotten. A search for XHL only brings up the first reference to the technology on the third page of the Google search results. We have to live with the consequences.
Try, for example, searching for articles or blog posts on Thai politics published in December 2013 - with the date as part of the query. You can't. Google's
related: directives merely hint at what the web could look like. For all the PhDs at Google, Microsoft and Facebook, the web we use today is far dumber than it should be. That's not all that "didn't happen". The web developed in ways that precluded some quite interesting business innovation, too.
And now for the Good News. It's even worse than you thought
The positive side of Berners-Lee's hack is that the web has evolved to support new kinds of publishers and publishing formats. You can wrap angle brackets round anything, and a browser will be able to read it. Twitter is today's easy-to-use IRC channel. Facebook is what email became.
No, Tim Berners-Lee didn't invent the internet...
Yet these are proprietary systems that move at the pace of their slowest developers. For all their talk of being “platforms”, they guard access to participation quite jealously. To knit them together in a way that's useful for you - using something like IFTTT - is also clumsy and obtuse.
Many of us naively once assumed that innovation would "sediment down" to become an open internet protocol, and innovation would be on the client side. So Twitter today should be an open RFC protocol - and IFTT a simple well defined macro language. (ISPs once bundled such basic services with their accounts). Clever developers would outdo each other to produce nicer and smarter client software that used these protocols. It hasn't happened. Instead, all the investment and speculation goes to server companies. The VCs bet each time on creating a new corporate fiefdom.
When someone lauds the "innovation of the web", or its "openness" just point out they're fetishising not just a specific technology, but a very particular way (or bias) in directing capital. Try pointing out how much more innovation there could be. Try it for the hell of it - I bet the reaction will be as if you swore in church.
Now if all this sounds churlish and begrudging - it isn't meant to be. It is intended as a reminder that we need to be much more ambitious what we demand from technologists, so they're more ambitious and thoughtful about what they do. If we simply gawp in slack-jawed wonder, as people tend to do on tech anniversaries, then the technology won't be as good as it could be. Or should be.
Berners-Lee must surely regret not doing a better job between 1989 and 1993, given his subsequent emphasis on semantics. Yet gawping seems to be the default mode of media luvvies. The fact the web's 25th anniversary follows only three years after its 20th also suggests a pathological need to gawp and clap - and avoid the difficult questions.
Media luvvies also tend to conflate the web with the internet. The evolution of the internet has its own problems, all of which are fixable one way or another. Some of these problems stem from the web-centric way of doing business; that is, the political structure of the economy that the web and its VCs created, which we keep being told is inviolate and sacred. Alas, Tim Berners-Lee subscribes so narrowly to this view, he isn't going to be much help. His solutions will make the individual more powerless.
What we really need isn't another Magna Carta for the web companies but more of a trade union for us, the people who make and use the web. But I'll address that in Part 2.
Happy Birthday Web, however old you are. ®