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1 April 2008 / erikduval

The Web That Wasn’t

This evening, I went to a presentation by Alex Wright on “The Web That Wasn’t” – a Namahn event… (Their offices look … really elegant, Joannes is a really nice guy and they offer great food for the mind and the body: thanks folks!)

I arrived a bit late, when Alex was talking about Paul Otlet, a very early and less known Web visionary. When I talk about the history of the web, Otlet is also my starting point. The presentation continued with the usual suspects: Vannevar Bush , Doug Engelbart (kind of depressing that wikipedia shows pictures of mice rather than of the Mother of All Demos), Ted Nelson, Andy Van Dam, …

Alex highlighted the features that were part of the early systems (or visions) but that we lack in the web: bi-directional links, a browser that enables writing as well as reading, links with meaning, …

One of the questions this always triggers for me is whether the web has become The Web That Is precisely because it lacks these features (and we don’t know how to support them in a way that really scales or we don’t really want them or …) or despite the fact that it lacks these features (but we don’t care about them so much that the web stalled) or whether … the reason the web is The Web That Is is something else altogether. I asked Alex during the Q&A and he mentioned the importance of open standards – hurray for our IEEE LTSC and CEN/ISSS work!

While driving home, I realized that the talk resonated well with my current reading of “everything is miscellaneous“, which provides a perspective that might help explain why the web is The Web That Is…

For instance, we have bi-directional links on the web: google tells me that this blog has 183 incoming links and I can see each of those 183. The point is that these incoming links do not need to be registered when someone creates them and that they do not need to be detected when someone needs them. That is the good news. The bad news is that they are probably not complete, nor up to date. But then again, that doesn’t matter most of the time. And this approach does scale…

Also, classification based schemes, like Otlet’s UDC, are so … analog. We can do much better than that in the flexible order-on-the-way-out that the digital realm enables. (And, this flexibility is crossing back into the analog!)

Anyway, Alex really made me feel … special when I realized that I have had personal conversations with all the pioneers he mentioned that worked after Vannevar Bush! I am a lucky guy…

Joannes mentioned that Namahn will publish an interview with Alex in the coming weeks… Enjoy!

One Comment

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  1. David Weinberger / Apr 4 2008 5:23 pm

    Erik, I heard the same talk a few days later. (Thanks for the note on my blog.) And I responded in my talk the next morning pretty much exactly as you did: Appreciating the history but suggesting that the Web succeeded because initially it didn’t have the features that the precursor ideas would have built in. E.g., bidirectional links are fine, but Xanadu requires a central registry of links in order to get them. In other words, I totally channeled you! So I was especially pleased this afternoon to find your post. We are thinking along the same lines.

    — David Weinberger

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