Skip to main content

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 And MP3 will certainly be superseded before long.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.

Originally posted to Flywheel on Sun Mar 14, 2010 at 05:55 PM PDT.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Excellent diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bablhous, millwood

    There is still time to ensure those dreams don’t become our nightmare.

    any action items?

    Also, I would like to get in on the ground floor of these revolutions, or at least take advantage of them. How can an ordinary person do this?

  •  in the years immediately (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bablhous, Flywheel

    preceding the advent of the WWW, there were all sorts of projects and theories for how the new world of hypermedia should work. George Landau and Ted Nelson as well as many less famous but quite interesting people were proposing systems much more coherent and complex than the very rudimentary HTTP/HTML system which ended up triumphing and pushing their ideas to the side. The crudeness of HTML was also its strength as its simplicity and ease of implementation led to its widespread adoption while other systems were still abstract theories or academic laboratory experiments.
    We are now attempting to impose some sort of order, but these innovations will be fighting an uphill battle against the entrenched and  exponentially ramifying kudzu patch. Did Gutenberg have to deal with anything like Internet Explorer?

    Plangentarchy: dictatorship of the whiners

    by Perry the Imp on Sun Mar 14, 2010 at 09:07:51 PM PDT

    •  Thanks (0+ / 0-)

      The next parts survey the usual suspects... Bush, Licklider, Nelson, Engelbart, and Berners-Lee. And then a bit about Shannon for good measure. I'd like to know more about Landau. Haven't found anything useful via a quick search. Can you provide a pointer or two?

      Though Gutenberg didn't have to contend with that plague on humankind known as IE6, my understanding is that he did get quite a bit of grief from his investors.

      I made a ranked-choice/IRV app on Facebook... @gitis on Twitter

      by Flywheel on Mon Mar 15, 2010 at 06:27:28 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for this diary. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I quite enjoyed it and look forward to more.

    Do what you can with what you have where you are - Guild of Maintainers

    by bablhous on Sun Mar 14, 2010 at 11:50:33 PM PDT

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site