A Pin Prick on the Timeline of Humanity

by Anthony Casey threading through
Published on  — #btp_17

We had this web lark licked didn’t we? We built millions and millions of pages. We knew it all. Then everything went and changed. Now it’s all up in the air, people are panicking and arguing about what’s right all over the shop. It’s all gone to hell. Or has it? Well let’s just stop, take a breather and think about where we sit in the grand scheme of things.

The internet, as most people know it – the World Wide Web – was announced to humanity on 6 August 1991 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

That makes the web just Twenty-One years old. 21.

Buildings have taken longer to complete. Wars have been fought over more lengthy periods of time. There are TV soap operas with more history and backstory.

If you were to plot those 21 years on the entire timeline of modern human existence – something like 200,000 years – it would barely be a pinprick on the diagram.

Illustration by Sam Hardacre (@nocturnalmonkey)

The Spark

From its initial purpose as a tool for sharing academic and scientific documents, the web rapidly became a truly global technology. This was in no small part due to the openness and relative accessibility that underpins its architecture.

At first, however, the only way to access and write for the web was via the browser that Sir Tim had developed himself, and it all lived on a single server – his NExT cube. However, by the end of 1992 there were servers springing up at academic locations all over the world and development had started on the first ‘proper’ web browser – Mosaic.

On 30 April 1993 the web went truly public as Sir Tim and CERN rely released all the software and code needed to run the web to the world. By mid-1993 there were 150 websites, at the end of the year that number had jumped to 623.

In 1994 the technology saw a major step away from academia and into the mainstream. Netscape released the first commercial web browser (named Mozilla). Also in that year students David Filo and Jerry Yang started a guide to the web. They called it Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle, you probably know it as Yahoo!

The web’s popularity exploded from that point. At the turn of 1995 there were 10,022 web sites, by January 1996 the figure was 100,000. It was at the million mark by the time 1997 had finished.

The rest is, as we know, history.

This is for everyone

Twenty One years.

So in that small 21 year timeframe the web has gone from sitting on Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s desk in Switzerland to becoming a revolutionary tool that has changed the social and political landscape of entire nations. It has been an agent for change on a truly global scale, and caused a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the realm information distribution.

You only have to look at the Arab Spring to see the very real effects this power can have. The web has become a lifeline to millions of people through its ability to provide an uncensored platform for peoples thoughts. It is also a power that scares the life out of every government on the planet.

It has become such a natural part of our lives that it’s so very easy to take it for granted. Even for someone like me, who didn’t experience the web until I was 17, finds it incredibly difficult to remember life without it.

All in just 21 years. Never before has a technology so fundamentally shifted the entire planet’s thinking so quickly.

We have only just begun.

Back down the timeline

Technology powering change, however, is by no means a unique phenomena. In around 1440 a similar thing happened.

A man in Germany by the name of Johannes Gutenberg invented a machine that could recreate exact copies of set passages of text on multiple sheets of ‘paper’ – the printing press. A million hand copyists would eventually celebrate the new found longevity of their eyesight as the print industry was born.

Printing had a similar effect on the world that the web has had today. It shifted the balance of power that written knowledge controls. People from a much wider variety of social and economic backgrounds could now benefit from the power that the printed word provides. Books were no longer the preserve of the super rich or the church – it became The Democratization of Knowledge (which the web has only accelerated even further and taken in new directions).

The timelines for two technologies of web and print, however, are vastly different in length. For instance it took half a century – 50 years – for the printing press to spread to just 270 cities in Europe.

It took another century to pass until, in 1605, the first regular weekly newspaper arrived.

It was nearly another century after that before the first daily paper became a reality.

The Times didn’t get the first automatic printing press until 1812.

Even the medium of paper, the mass manufactured pulped wood we know today, didn’t exist until 1870.

The timeline of print is comparatively lengthy – around 600 years of relentless progression, development and knowledge gathering.

Obviously the world was a different place back then. Distance and geography was a much bigger barrier to rapid progress than it is today. Even taking that into the equation, 600 years is a long time for an industry to thrash out the best ways of doing things.

You have to start somewhere

The early days of the web were controlled by the academics and geeks of this world. This gave the technology a really solid, expandable and open foundation. It is why the technology flourished.

As it became popular, the initial aims of the system were expanded to new audiences. This led to new types of users discovering the power of the technology and pushing it in new ways.

Forward thinking members of the print industry were among the first people to take an interest. They saw a lot of similarities with what they were doing, and how the web could be an exciting new age for their industry. With them came the 600 years of history, knowledge, folklore, experience, terminology, techniques, workflows, practices and Lord knows what else.

The web obviously has common bonds with print. They both work with words and content. They both harness the powers of typography and images. They both are in the business of distributing information and knowledge. So it was an easy and logical step to incorporate that into the web’s early thinking.

To ignore all that information would have been daft.

It is also important to remember that print is merely the most obvious influence. Retail, TV, radio, banking, telecoms, architecture, art and many more industries, disciplines and crafts have all left their fingerprints on the timeline of the web.

These influences have served the web extremely well. Their existing knowledge has helped the web continually move forward far beyond it’s initial purpose. With stunning results.

Limits

There are, however, limits.

The first books that came off Gutenberg’s (and his contemporaries) presses tried to closely reproduce the old style works that had been meticulously hand crafted by monks for centuries. They borrowed ideas and processes about how books should look and be produced. It took many years before the ideas of modern printing to develop and stand alone.

New technology needs something to borrow from, to allow it to gain foundation in society, something to make it more palatable and accessible. Acquired knowledge from similar, existing technologies and practices allows early pioneers to solve problems and guide early development.

At some point, however, the new technology will break entirely new ground. New, never before seen problems will need to be solved. There will be cultural leaps and changes as expectations around the technology grow. The technology itself will become capable of much more, with new opportunities presenting themselves.

That borrowed knowledge is a finite source. There comes a point where it can no longer provide all the answers.

We are here

We are at that stage now with the web. In fact we have been here for quite a while now. Probably longer than we’d like to admit. It is only now that the inefficiencies of our borrowed knowledge have been so sharply exposed. Chiefly by the increasing ubiquity and dizzying variety of stable, usable, always on, web connected devices.

For a good decade or so building websites was relatively straightforward. Screen sizes evolved slowly and linearly. Browsers were an issue, but the bugs were largely known and workable. We could be fairly sure people would be sitting at a desk, and we could be almost certain they were using a mouse and keyboard to interact.

In the last few years all of that has changed. Screen sizes are going crazy, devices and browsers are multiplying daily, people are accessing the web on buses, walking down the street, in their cars, on the train, while watching TV, on their TV. It has become become chaotic.

So chaotic that the foundations of print and other industries that the web is built are now struggling to cope with these new problems. Which in turn causes more chaos, more questions and even more design and technological conundrums.

Barely a day goes past without a designer or developer commenting about a lack of tools, or workflows, or good practices, proper web education, poor infrastructure, or whatever else. Our tank of borrowed knowledge is starting to get very close to empty. We are at a point where there are no longer ready made answers to the problems we face day-to-day.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the moment and think everything is going to hell.

You know what? That is understandable. It’s healthy to rant and rave a bit. As many, many people in the web industry have done.

But let’s keep things in perspective.

Dao it

None of this is new.

Clever people have known it for a long time.

“What I sense is a real tension between the web as we know it, and the web as it would be. It’s the tension between an existing medium, the printed page, and its child, the web. And it’s time to really understand the relationship between the parent and the child, and to let the child go its own way in the world.”
John Allsopp – The Dao of Web Design – April 7, 2000

That paragraph was written over THIRTEEN years ago. You’ve probably read the “Dao of Web Design” before, but I bet you had forgotten just how relevant it still is today. The technical and code parts are a little old fashioned (IE for Mac *shudder*), but the overriding message is just as useful today as it was back in 2000.

If not more so.

But it goes back even further than Mr Allsop

“Well established hierarchies are not easily uprooted;
Closely held beliefs are not easily released;
So ritual enthralls generation after generation.”
Tao Te Ching; 38 Ritual

That is one of the ancient Chinese rituals that John quotes in the piece. It is still frighteningly accurate. It’s a very sharply observed comment on the human condition.

Don’t Panic!

These sort of collective feelings of not knowing all the answers that the industry is having right now are perfectly normal human reactions to change.

Especially at just 21. It’s a very young age in the grand scheme of humanity. A bit of bewilderment and confusion is to be expected as the industry starts to grow away from its relatives and strikes out alone.

It should also come with feelings of hope and excitement.

It’s OK to not know all the answers. It’s OK to make things up as we go along. This is all new territory now, we can make our own industry. It is something to embraced not feared.

Maybe we should try to enjoy the unique opportunity of carving out our place on the timeline.

How do we do that then?

The simple answer is that it is down to us.

The print industry took 600 years of evolution to master working with finished, static, one-way communicating, pieces of paper. We have to stop relying on the past. We have to embrace the true, flexible, intangible nature of our medium.

As cheesy as it sounds, that means getting a bit lost before we can find ourselves.

It’s very easy to get mired in the pragmatic Now of everyday life. Sometimes there is a real need for us to be able to pause and project forward. There’s a lot to be gained from a bit of daydreaming and wondering how things could be.

We have to ask ourselves if we are trying to solve the right problems, or are we falling back on the crutches of old practices, trying to force old methods into areas they just won’t fit.

One of the most important things we have to remember is that we are still largely generation zero as far as the web is concerned. We remember a time before global connectivity. There is a whole generation just coming through now that knows nothing else. Web Natives.

Web Natives with minds capable of greater things, minds that aren’t so sullied with thoughts of the past. Minds, however, that need moulding the right way. We need to pass on our knowledge and experience in the right way. To acknowledge the past and our roots, but preach the future and press home the possibilities.

The fact that nothing has ever been set in stone. Or paper.

Above all we have to remember that the web is just 21.

At 21 the web has already changed the world.

At 21 we are barely getting started.

Twenty one. It’s an exciting age to be.

Sources