These Are the Web’s Good Old Days

Break out the crying towels. Some of the founding fathers and mothers of the World Wide Web gathered in Cambridge, Massachusetts this week for the Harvard University Internet and Society conference and took the opportunity to lament the current state of the Internet.

HTML inventor Tim Berners-Lee offered a brief defense against the frequent complaint that the vast majority of the Web’s one billion pages are useless to most surfers, but the other panelists who were gathered for an opening day discussion had few good things to say.

For the most part, the lamentations focused upon the Internet’s supposed fall from grace. Its creators ruefully acknowledged that the Web is not yet solving society’s ills, and that many of the upbeat predictions made during the early days were filtered through rose-colored glasses.

“Ten years ago, I said the Internet was going to make everything better,” Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corp. and an early Web pioneer, told a packed audience. “That didn’t exactly happen.”

Blame E-Commerce

None of the heavy hitters gathered on the dais actually came out and said so, but just beneath the surface bubbled resentment that the Internet has been hijacked by e-commerce. That sentiment echoed through the audience.

“If you say ‘Internet’ to someone now, they immediately think Amazon and E*Trade,” said one conference visitor. “That wasn’t how it started out.”

The Internet began as a community, say the purists — a place to exchange ideas and information. Of course, in a free market economy, commerce is a necessity. But Web purists seem to believe that having taken over the driver’s seat, e-commerce is now steering the Internet off a cliff.

Utopia Lost

Viewed in a certain light, they may be right. Anyone who has spent more than a couple of years online knows how vastly different today’s Internet is from the original information superhighway. It was not that long ago, for instance, that Yahoo!’s home page included not a single link to shopping. Today, e-commerce and the Internet are virtual synonyms.

When I first began surfing, it seemed there was a limitless world of information out there, waiting to be discovered. That sense of being an explorer in a strange, wonderful land has since been stripped away. Now, search engines categorize, suggest and direct.

Any research topic — even something not at all related to shopping — prompts the search engines to cough up a list of stores that sell books on the topic, along with a slew of barely related product and service offerings.

No one, goes the lament of the founders, seems to remember when Web sites were maintained by universities and individuals as a public service of sorts — when they were repositories of information to be accessed by students and researchers. When the Web was a place where ideas were as free as the medium.

But was life in the old World Wide Web really as blissful as Kapor and the others nostalgically recall? Hardly. The old Web was messy, confusing and frustrating in a lot of ways. Nevertheless, the current permutation is no closer to Nirvana.

Carpe Diem

If Kapor and his cohorts are truly visionary, they should see that what exists now is an opportunity.

Despite the turbulence in cyberspace, e-commerce is here to stay. And even though the purists wish it were not so, money rules online as much as it rules the brick-and-mortar world.

So everyone who once had high hopes for the Internet should just give up and walk away, heads bowed in defeat, right?

Of course not. The fact is that for all that has been surrendered to make e-commerce possible — I am thinking especially of the unfettered, uncategorized feel of the older Web — more has been gained.

Gone are the days when every other site seemed to feature a black background and gold text. Going are the days when a search engine returns 200 links, 75 of them dead. Thanks to billions of investment dollars (US$), the Internet’s infrastructure is better than anything that could have been homegrown by well-meaning institutions and individuals.

Call for Cyber-Activism

In other words, e-commerce has given us a faster, cleaner, easier-on-the-eyes Internet that works more often than it does not. And that Utopia that Kapor dreamed about when he first joined an e-mail group in San Francisco nearly 20 years ago is still a possibility — perhaps even more likely than before.

It’s fine to complain that things have changed, that the old days were better. In fact, it’s practically an American pastime. But rather than lob bombs at the post-e-commerce Internet, wouldn’t it be better to accept those things that can’t be changed and work on those that can?

If they want to make the Internet a better version of society, the founders could spark a new brand of Web activism that works to bridge the digital divide. They could pressure e-commerce giants to do more to open the Internet to all, and work to instill among Internet companies the same type of good citizenship that prompts so much real-world philanthropy.

They could get the big tech companies to donate infrastructure to develop a high-speed, reliable network of free information sites that spread valuable and accurate information on health care, or political issues, or social causes.

The new Web activists could help to set up a Web-like network designed for children, to let them safely enjoy that same sense of online exploration and discovery that adults crave.

Or they could get involved with making the Web truly World Wide, by bringing more international flavors to the Americanized Net.

The opportunity to build a community that fulfills the original promise of the Internet is here and now, and the possibilities are endless. But any Utopic vision of the Web’s future will have to be grounded in the current reality — the one in which e-commerce rules the roost.

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