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<nettime> El Reg: Is the World Wide Web for luvvies and VCs - or for all of us?

< >

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)

  By Andrew Orlowski o In Networks o At 14:56 GMT 12th March 2014


  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

  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 [4]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

  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 [5]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 [6]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
  [7]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 intitle: and 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
  By Veni Markovski - licensed under creative commons (attribution

  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 [8]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

  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.

  Copyright 1998-2014



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