A bold prophecy about the World Wide Web may soon be fulfilled. Many observers have speculated – and some fully expect – that the Web will prove as historically significant as the printing press. Few predictions could be bolder. Gutenberg’s invention is the gold standard for socially transformative technology. It fractured Christendom and marked the beginning of the end for Roman Catholic dominance of Europe, a transition that spanned two war-filled centuries. Rome’s ultimate defeat opened the way to the legal authority of sovereign states, rooted in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.
If Web technology is equally potent, what modern institutions might be pushed aside? What kinds of skills and practices will become as basic to personhood as reading a book? There’s no doubt our civilization is headed for dramatic change. This time, however, we are moving at Internet speed.
Only twenty-odd years have passed since the invention of the Web. The end of its first decade overlapped the turn of the millennium. Not long ago, pundits and politicians were saluting the "dot-com generation." Now, just one decade later, Y2K feels like distant history. Those same people are swooning over Web 2.0 and the rise of "social media." Techie insiders, meanwhile, are heralding the dawn of the "semantic web."
Most people are only superficially familiar with the distinctions between those so-called versions of the Web. The long-term implications must seem even fuzzier. But people generally accept a concept of "progress," whereby familiar things become obsolete. Just as vinyl records gave way to tapes, and tapes to CDs, CDs gave way to MP3. And MP3 will certainly be superseded before long. Economists call it creative destruction.
So, if Web 2.0 – the web of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – is supposedly what’s happening now, then people can accept the idea that Web 1.0 is what came before and Web 3.0 must be what comes next. But these successive versions of the Web are not simply a matter of new things displacing old things. They foreshadow a deep and lasting shake up of global culture. Presuming the prophecy of the Web is someday fulfilled, entirely new ways of living will have displaced old ones.* * *
The seeds of what’s yet to appear were planted long ago, when ideas about the Web were first expressed. To see into the Web’s future – and thus our own – it helps to know what’s been most constant in the drive to build it. Three innovations stand out: hyper-linking, hyper-mixing, and hyper-sourcing.
The prominent innovation of the 1990s was hyper-linking. Its enabling tool, the graphical web browser, provided millions of newcomers the means to navigate a budding information space. It provided the grip for the first waves of web surfing, when people learned to jump across "cyberspace" by typing out domain names or clicking links on a page.
The second decade of hypermedia, the 2000s, saw the flowering of hyper-mixing. Use of the Web became increasingly interactive as new programming approaches enriched the online experience. Old-style page loads and jumps give way to live feeds and instant updates. Easily affordable digital recording equipment allowed venues such as YouTube to build from a base of user-generated content. Tools for manipulating and augmenting that material fueled a secondary explosion of multi-authored mashups and socially-mediated edits.
The third decade of pervasive hypermedia is now upon us. It’s a good bet that this phase will mark the triumph of hyper-sourcing. If so, a qualitatively new class of systems for authenticating content and authorship will emerge. The timing depends on advances in supporting technologies such as digital signing tools, credential registrars, handle houses, and semantic correlators As during the previous phases of the hypermedia revolution, Web-based cultural shifts will surprise us, absorb us, and inflict new vocabulary on us.
It’s important to be aware, however, that these three crucially innovative decades are only steps toward fulfillment of a grand scheme. That scheme is nothing less than a conscious effort by a league of modern-day Gutenbergs to change the nature of what it means to be human.
We need to know more about the inventors who launched us on this course, and where they intended it to lead. Gutenberg spent years developing the materials, devices and techniques necessary for a viable printing press. The people driving the rise of hypermedia have been no less persistent. As one particularly influential programmer described his intentions: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."* * *
The Web’s creators never made secrets of their goals and dreams. In fact, they’ve been remarkably forthright and even outspoken about what they were doing. The story of hypermedia – the story of hyper-linking, hyper-mixing, and hyper-sourcing – is the story of how computer engineers conceived a role for themselves as mighty social architects.
Consider again the invention of the printing press. It ranks not far below Hindu-Arabic numerals, the calendar, the alphabet, and writing itself as an epoch-marking innovation. All these tools entailed cultural shifts that vastly reshaped the human experience. Life after learning to read, like life after learning to control fire, is fundamentally different than life before.
Diffusion of any technology brings with it new skills and practices, and thus affords new capacities for collaboration and agency. But some technologies are truly revolutionary in the way they leverage, extend, and amplify our innate capacity to share ideas. The Web is exceptional among these because its creators were so deeply aware of this fact. Revolutionary capacity building was the center of their strategy.
Humans are not the only animals that use language, but we are the ones who master it. We have learned how to learn. Even more importantly, we have habituated ourselves to value the power of learning how to learn. We avidly augment our capacity to augment. We routinely leap our intellectual frontiers. The creators of the Web understood this urge quite well, and applied themselves to it wholeheartedly. This last point bears repeating. It is central to the historical implications of the Web.
Many inventions – for example Edison’s light bulb– are the outcome of diligent trial and error. A few – penicillin and plastic – are the product of fortunate accidents. And others – the laser, the transistor, and atomic bomb – result from beliefs about certain properties of the physical world. Thus, the theoretical conception of E = mc2 supported work that led directly to the first human-controlled nuclear chain reaction. Likewise, the Web’s creators leveraged various theories of electronics to build a global computer network. But the more salient point, and the one that deserves far more attention, is this: Their overarching goal was to leverage theories of computer networks to build a new kind of human.
What we must understand, therefore, if we seek a clearer picture of the future, is the history of the inventors’ dreams. By exploring how those dreams were made real during the decades of hyper-linking and hyper-mixing, we may gain a better sense of what will come in the decade of hyper-sourcing and beyond, as their remaining dreams reach fruition. There is still time to ensure those dreams don’t become our nightmare.