Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Cover to Cover #7

Originally published in The Peak, Volume 16, Number 3
March, 2000

I haven't read this article in years. I think I enjoy my memories of the old BBS days more than the book reviews themselves. 

Stepping Into the Parlor
My first introduction to the concept of a web of computer users came in 1986, when I was 17. A high school friend, knowing that I enjoyed creative writing and technology, showed me how to “log in” to the first electronic bulletin board systems, or BBSes. With a computer, a telephone line, and some exotic peripheral called a modem, I could send text from one computer to another and exchange story ideas, gossip, and jokes with people I might never meet face to face. I purchased my first modem when I started university, and soon I was hooked, spending more time in front of my old Atari monitor (featuring glowing white text on a blue background – wonder of wonders, I didn’t go blind) than in the library doing research. The process of logging on was often frustrating – because most BBS operators had only one phone line leading into their server, only one person at a time could use the BBS. Busy signals often echoed for hours in the tiny confines of my dorm room. Once successfully logged into the board, the text crawled along at 300 baud. There were no fancy graphics, other than primitive stick figures drawn in ASCII. And it was local; most BBSes in Edmonton were self-contained, not connected to the outside world.

But the BBSes provided fascinating messages from people with fanciful aliases like Hyperion Mok and Benchmark and Cardinal Fang and Fex Semlin. It was a place where you could shed your mortal guise and become whoever or whatever you wanted; all that counted was the quality of your interaction. Together, my virtual co-authors and I spun tall tales of magic and wonder, each of us adding a chapter once a week or so. The results were hardly art – the finished stories were far too disjointed – but our stories served as hints of things to come.

A couple of years after I completed my degree, all that changed. The BBSes, much as I loved them, were quickly left behind when I was captured by the promise of the next new thing: the World Wide Web. Not only did the Web promise fancy computer graphics and a wide range of interesting places to visit, but you could interact with people from all over the world. Not only that, but multitudes of people could use the Net all at the same time. No more busy signals! (Well, theoretically – as anyone who has used the Web knows, back in the beginning the Internet Service Providers often found themselves a bit overloaded with users, despite having much more sophisticated servers than the independent BBS operators.)

 I leapt in with both feet. In the years since, I’ve come to depend on the Internet and the World Wide Web for everything from research to personal finances to correspondence.

It’s amazing how quickly the Net has become essential. Late in 1999, I received a hand written letter in my mailbox. I was honestly stunned – it had been years since anyone had sent anything other than a brief postcard through what we now derisively call ‘snail mail.’ I immediately sat down and responded in kind, and was shocked by how arduous I found the process. No simple push of a button would send my response on its way – I actually had to find an envelope, seal it, go to the post office, buy a stamp, and, finally, toss it into the outgoing mail slot. But I wasn’t annoyed – the act of actually mailing a letter had become so novel that I relished the experience. Similarly, it’s been ages since I’ve stepped into a bank or paid a bill personally; practically all of my household affairs are now handled through the Net.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I became so caught up in the wonder of the Web that I didn’t spend much time considering its origins; soon it became just another essential appliance, like my oven or TV set. The Web seemed so technologically complex that I doubted any serious investigation into its creation could provide anything more than a chorus of yawns.

Actually, it turns out that the story is a fascinating one. For anyone interested in the history of the World Wide Web and its future, two new books, each with a different but complementary perspective, provide a fascinating insight into the tangled world of the Web.

Weaving the Web

Tim Berners-Lee with Mark Fischetti

Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent the Internet, but he did create, on his own, the structure that actually made it useful on a global scale: the World Wide Web. His firsthand account, though a little dry and technical, is nonetheless a captivating look into the development of the Web. More importantly, it is a glimpse of a powerful personal vision that is in the process of transforming our global culture.

According to Berners-Lee, he first conceived the notion of a World Wide Web while working at CERN, site of the famous supercollider where great minds smash together atoms in the hopes of uncovering the secrets of the universe. His explicit hope is to “connect anything with everything.” Appropriately, Weaving the Web is a story of consensus. Though Berners-Lee created the Web, its widespread adoption required the co-operation of hundreds of scientists, engineers, and other professionals. The author describes how, in the space of a few short years, the Web began as a simple tool to exchange data between CERN scientists to a global information warehouse.

Today, Berners-Lee serves as director of the World Wide Web Consortium, the non-profit body that co-ordinates Web development. His work on W3C forms much of the narrative, from the Consortium’s creation to its current initiatives. Without rancor, he describes the clashes with colleagues and the struggle to make the Web a tool not just for the elite, but for the masses.

Especially useful are Berners-Lee’s discussions of current Web shortcomings. He talks about the need for better measures to protect the privacy (not to mention crucial data like credit card numbers and health care information) of surfers without impairing the efficiency of the system. I was shocked when, just a few weeks ago, I discovered that it took just the click of a mouse for Internet Service Providers to make “carbon copies” of all their customers’ e-mail. While I’m not concerned about my own provider, I found the discovery sobering. Berners-Lee asserts that an easy-to-use encryption program should be available to all Web users, to ensure that only the sender and intended recipients can read information sent through the Internet. But it may be difficult to accomplish – currently, the US government considers such encryption programs as munitions, and thus subject to some pretty severe regulations.

As far as the Web has come, it’s still not as user-friendly as it could be. If Berners-Lee has his way, soon there will be more intelligent browsers that use human-like reasoning to make connections between kinds of data; web searches will provide far more useful results, cutting down on the need to laboriously wade through the hundreds of links a typical inquiry currently produces.

In the closing chapters of Weaving the Web, the author describes what steps need to be taken to keep it a free and universal medium, accessible to all. He speaks of a Web of Trust to support the emerging relationships springing up between individuals, corporations, institutions, and governments around the world. He urges us to address the problem of access – the current state of wired rich nations and web-impoverished poor nations. He describes a “Semantic Web,” one far easier to use and more intelligent than today’s work-in-progress. And he urges us to keep the web free from the control of any one government or corporation. Berners-Lee even gives us an insight into the specific hardware and software tools that need to be developed to realize the dream of truly “connecting anything with everything,” and, implicitly, everyone with everyone.

Berners-Lee was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest minds of the 20th century; reading Weaving the Web is like taking a peek into what motivates genius, and into the future of the ongoing communications revolution. It is also a call to action, an entreaty to consumers to demand a better Web. We would do well to listen.

The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story

Michael Lewis
In contrast to Berners-Lee, Michael Lewis is concerned less with the structure of the World Wide Web than he is with a man who made it more accessible for millions of people. In The New New Thing, Lewis tells the story of Jim Clark, the manic creative genius behind Silicon Valley legends like Silicon Graphics and Netscape. It begins with an improbable cruise upon a storm-tossed, experimental yacht, and ends with the promise of still more to come from an indomitable, mercurial innovator.

Jim Clark’s yacht, the Hyperion, serves as the symbol for Jim Clark’s never-ending quest for what Lewis calls “the new new thing.” For someone like Clark, the new thing is already old hat; once a concept is conceived, Clark leaves it to others to sort out the details while he moves on to the next wave.

Take, for example, Clark’s creation of the Geometry Engine, a computer chip he developed that made 3D computer graphics possible. It led to the formation of Clark’s company, Silicon Graphics, along with the new science of computer-assisted design and even the special effects in many Hollywood films. But almost as soon as Silicon Graphics was off and running, Clark recognized that the $70,000.00 SG workstations would soon be made obsolete by faster generations of much cheaper home PCs. But Clark made enough money from Silicon Graphics to start up Netscape, the company that triggered the Internet boom on Wall Street – before it had even created a single product. Similarly, once Netscape was off and running, Clark moved on to Healtheon, his vision of a system that would eliminate the teeming middlemen between doctors and patients.

Through the story, Clark works on Hyperion, his massive, computer-controlled yacht, a 154-foot beast with an astounding 197 foot tall mast – among the tallest, if not the tallest, in the world. But at book’s end, after making only a single transatlantic journey, Clark is already tired of his technological marvel and working on the next new new thing.

Clark’s ventures have made him a multibillionaire- Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon were all valued in the billions of dollars - and yet, it isn’t enough. Though Lewis makes it clear that Clark likes money – a lot – one gets the sense that more important than the wealth is the feeling Clark gets from exploring the fringe, from standing at the bow of a ship that dances at the dangerous but lucrative edge of the world. Behind him, Clark leaves equal amounts of wreckage and prosperity – Silicon Graphics and Netscape have each fallen on hard times, but his loyal associates became rich men in his wake, and the Web became much easier to use thanks to Netscape’s better browsers. The ultimate success of Healtheon – now WebMD – hasn’t been determined yet. It will be interesting to see if Clark’s latest venture follows the established pattern of titanic boom followed by relative obscurity.

Lewis spins an engaging story that I found difficult to interrupt. His prose is unpretentious but rich with humanity; each character, from the iconic Clark to his cadre of sometimes bewildered but brilliant followers, is drawn with precise, elegant strokes.

Webs Within Webs
When I finished these two books, I was struck by how the experience of reading them underscored the web-like structure of the world we live in. Marc Andreessen, co-creator of the early web browser, Mosaic, appears in both books, as does, unsurprisingly, Jim Clark. The Netscape vs. Microsoft conflict is mentioned in both books, as is the Microsoft antitrust suit. (John Gutfreund, the central player in Lewis’ earlier work, Liar’s Poker, makes a brief cameo appearance in The New New Thing, standing Clark up when the executive journeys to New York to pitch Silicon Graphics as a publicly traded company.) But the similar stories are far from redundant. Each narrative is an essential strand in the tale of the Web, adding context and depth.

By far the best thing about the Web story is that we, too, each weave our own distinctive strands into it; we, too, are part of the story, with the ability, through email, newsgroup discussions, and our own personal WebPages, to build the kind of Web we want. Will it be a monument to human creativity and understanding…or an elitist ivory tower denied to the masses? Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: the Web is here to stay.

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