Where did the Web Come From?

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 1995

Historians of technology are fond of telling us how long it takes for technological innovations to reach widespread use. They say that twenty-five years is the expected interval, and they assure us that this interval has remained constant throughout the century. The telephone, television, and fax machine, for example, all took twenty-five years to reach popularity. That is the way the world works, they say.

But what about the web?

A couple of years ago there was no web. Suddenly, it’s ubiquitous. And as if ubiquity isn’t enough, it’s still growing.

Where did the web come from? Where is it going? I can’t answer either question. I’ve spoken to many of my technical friends about this, and no one else seems to know about this either. None of us saw it coming. One day there was nothing; the next day there it was, fully deployed.

My first suspicion in something born so instantly to perfection is an alien origin. There was probably a meeting somewhere on a distant planet where they debated whether or not it was time for earth to have the web. “They’ll only botch it up,” the opponents probably argued. “They’ll put all kinds of garbage on it, and ruin our good idea.”

But the alien web proponents and liberals obviously carried the day. “The earth has all kinds of talented people, just waiting for a new way of getting their material out to the public,” they undoubtedly said. “Wonderful things will happen; just wait and see.”

I realize that not everyone buys this alien theory. Some people believe in invention and cause-and-effect analysis. They trace the origins through HTTP, the hypertext transport protocol, and HTML, the language for creating hypertext documents. Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues at CERN specified the web, and then the group at the University of Illinois created the Mosaic browser. The next thing you know, there is this explosion, and the web envelopes the earth. Pow! Zap! That sort of thing.

Of course, this HTTP explanation only goes back about a half dozen years. So the advocates of slow and measured progress observe that the Internet is 25 years old, and assert that we needed the Internet to make the web possible. Therefore it still takes 25 years to achieve commercialization, QED. By using this kind of reasoning I’m sure we can trace the web back to Pliny the Elder. It is a little known fact that he invented almost everything. Very little known fact, actually.

Basically, I have no patience for this convoluted chain-of-invention reasoning. I prefer to think of the web as an emergent phenomenon in the scientific sense. For example, the bee hive is often given as an example of such a phenomenon. They say that you can study an individual bee all you want, but you will never see nor be able to predict the behavior of the hive. That is what they say, of course, but I will have to take their word for it, because I haven’t gotten close enough to a bee to ask anything about hives.

So the question in HTTP is whether the seed of the web is visible. If we studied the DNA, or whatever HTTP has inside it, would we see a microscopic web lurking there? I suspect not. I believe that the web was largely a social invention -- something that the people of world created whole cloth in a hive-like fashion from the embryonic material being stirred on the Internet.

Moreover, perhaps the world works differently now, in that innovations can be promulgated instantaneously throughout the world electronically. This is especially true when the software being promulgated is free. I often wonder what would have happened if Microsoft had invented the web, and had marketed the web software through Egghead Software and the like for $129 a copy. Then would we have had a web? In contrast, if there is free stuff, and you can get it without leaving your home or office, there certainly is the potential for a big hit.

Of course, you might look the gift horse in the mouth and ask if the free software does anything worth doing. At first the answer is basically no. It enables you to access hypertext documents in a wonderfully easy and powerful manner. However, there aren’t any such documents to access. But as soon as any one person generates such a document, it can be immediately accessed by anyone else with the software. Value is immediately created, and other people are incented to create documents. The more such documents that are created, the more valuable the whole system becomes. Bang! We have ignition!

Thus my theory is that the web arose from the chaotic behavior of a delicately balanced packet eco-system. Somewhere in Argentina, perhaps, a butterfly flapped its wings. A gentle breeze was felt in Brazil. Storm clouds gathered over New York, and a hurricane blew in Europe. The web was born. An instantiation of chaos theory: Deus ex machina.

Whatever the origin, the web is here, and it is changing our view of information, society, and business. Perhaps most importantly, it is proving the efficacy of the long believed and hoped-for Field of Dreams approach -- if we build it, they will come. The people of the earth have been empowered by the web, and there has been an incredible outpouring of creativity and professionalism by amateurs everywhere. The realization is slowly dawning on professionals that they will have to compete against free information, software, and entertainment on the net. When you empower a few amateurs, it’s not much competition. However, when you empower tens of millions, surprising things happen. Some of those things are breathtakingly good. It’s both scary and exciting.

Meanwhile, there is a bird in South Africa that has dropped a clam on a rock. Another conference is taking place amongst the aliens. I’m feeling the tremors of a far-away earthquake. Is another web-like thing on its way? Who knows how the world works anymore?

Robert W. Lucky