Transcript: The Web at 25

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25 Things You Might Not Know About the Web On its 25th Birthday

Interview with John Naughton

For podcast release Thursday, March 27, 2014

KENNEALLY: Vague, but exciting. So wrote Mike Sendall in March 1989 when responding to a proposal for creation of a new kind of computer network presented to CERN, the high-energy physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. Sendall managed coordination of CERN’s vast computer power, and he had been gently encouraging a colleague who had conceived of a way to link documents and data across the Internet. The colleague’s name was Tim Berners-Lee, and his vague but exciting project gave birth to the World Wide Web. But it took a little while to catch on.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. On the 25th anniversary of the Web, about the only thing we know for certain is that it remains far too early to measure its impact on human society. Occasionally, of course, someone will try to do that, but few manage to take the long view as thoughtfully as John Naughton.

In his columns for the UK’s The Observer newspaper and in bestselling books, including A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet and From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet, Naughton takes his cue from Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism on human invention – we shape our tools, then our tools shape us. John Naughton joins me now from his University of Cambridge office, where he is vice president of Wolfson College. John Naughton, welcome to Beyond the Book.

NAUGHTON: Thank you, Chris. Nice to be here.

KENNEALLY: I’m looking forward to this conversation, because what caught my eye was a column for The Observer that marks the 25th anniversary of the Web by noting 25 things you might not know about the Web on its 25th birthday. We won’t go through all of those. We will link to the article on our website at beyondthebook.com. But I want to talk to you about some of the ones that I thought were the most important. We’ll take them in just the following order. It would seem to be important to start with the Web itself. You make a point, John, that the Web we see is simply the tip of the iceberg. Tell us what you mean.

NAUGHTON: The Web that we know about is the bit that’s indexed by the search engines. I can’t remember how big it is, and I’m not sure that anybody knows for sure, but I’d say something like 40 billion pages. But it is only the tip of an iceberg, because an awful lot of the Web is invisible to search engines for various reasons.

Sometimes it’s because Web pages are behind firewalls of various kinds – organizational, governmental, others. Another reason is that many of the Web pages that we see didn’t actually exist until we requested them by clicking on a link. They’re then assembled by a server somewhere from a whole raft of information and data that’s contained in databases. The pages are assembled on the fly, as it were, before they’re dispatched to your browser.

What it means, essentially, is that the visible Web is huge – maybe, as I said, something like 40 billion Web pages. But the actual scope of the total Web is certainly orders of magnitude greater than that. Somewhere between 400 and 700 times bigger, perhaps. So it’s an absolutely, an unimaginably vast system.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. A point that you want to stress is that the Web itself is not even the Internet. It’s one iceberg in a sea of many other icebergs, if that sea itself is the Internet. Tell us what that means.

NAUGHTON: That was one of the most startling things I discovered. Many years ago, I wrote a history of the Internet – how it came to be and how it was built and designed. Because of having become a historian of the Net, I used to do a lot of teaching, consulting, speaking, lecturing, and so on about it. Over those years, I met a lot of people who were obviously very interested in the Net and very concerned about it and so on.

One of the things that struck me very early on was that many of these people, including some people who were very senior, who were very well informed – I’m talking about corporate CEOs, I’m talking about government cabinet ministers and major figures in journalism and newspapers and so on – many of them thought that the Web was the Internet. I was absolutely appalled by this, because what they clearly failed to understand was the difference between, as it were, traffic and roads.

In searching for some sort of metaphor that might help to explain this, I came up with obvious ones – for example, the idea of a railway system. A railway system has two components. It has its basic infrastructure – the tracks and signaling and things on which trains run, and then it has various kinds of trains. It has express trains and goods trains and stopping trains and so on. If you want to apply that metaphor to cyberspace, then the Internet is the infrastructure. It’s the tracks and signaling and so on. The Web is just one kind of traffic.

The point of the distinction is that although the Web is very important, and as we’ve just been talking, very large, it’s actually often not the most important thing that’s running on this infrastructure. The infrastructure is what really matters. Because if you don’t understand that the infrastructure matters, then you’re failing to understand what the significance of the Internet is.

Sometime after, when I was working on this book, I went to a symposium organized by Britain’s Royal Society, which is, I guess, our equivalent of the American Academies of Science, organized by Tim Berners-Lee, who was the inventor of the World Wide Web. Over coffee, he was asking me how the book was going. I told him about how shocked I had been to discover all these people who thought the Web was the Internet. He looked at me and said, you know, it’s even worse than you think.

I said, how is that, Tim? He said, well, there are now about 500 million people in the world who think that Facebook is the Internet. He’s right. Basically, that was when Facebook had only half a billion people in it, so it was quite a while back. And that’s the case. The reason it’s important to make the distinction is because the thing that’s really revolutionary about the Internet is the fact that it is this infrastructure on which things work.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. What Tim Berners-Lee was able to leverage was the infrastructure’s ability to network. I believe that was another point you thought was important to stress about the Web on its 25th anniversary – that it really shows the power of networking.

NAUGHTON: To put it slightly differently, what it shows is the power of an infrastructure that permits permissionless innovation. You have to remember, first of all, the Internet is quite an old technology. It goes back a long way. Its precursor was the ARPANET, which was the military network funded by the US Department of Defense by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA, in the 1960s. The ARPANET was built and funded by the US military between 1966, say, and was complete by 1972.

When it was finished, the question was, well, what do we do next? The answer they came up with was what they called the Internetworking Project. In other words, they started a project to find a way of seamlessly linking all of the ARPANET-type networks that had come into being during the time when the ARPANET itself was being built. That project was led by Vint Cerf, who is now a vice president of Google, and by Robert Kahn, an engineer who’d worked on the ARPANET.

When they were thinking about how do you do this – how do you seamlessly link a whole set of computer networks that you don’t yourself control? Because these other networks were – one of them was French, one of them was British, one of them was the University of Hawaii and so on – they came up with two basic design principles for this new network, internetwork, that they were going to build.

The first design principle was there should be no central ownership or control. And the second one was that the network should not be optimized, should not be designed for any particular application, anything that you know about now. That led to the idea of, first of all, an open network, where nobody owned and nobody controlled and nobody could say you can or you cannot use this.

The second bit of it was they decided we’ll design a very simple network that does only one thing. It takes in data packets on one end and does its best to deliver them to the other end. It doesn’t care what’s in the data packets. It’s completely agnostic about that. So their idea was we’ll build a dumb network, and we’ll leave all the smart stuff to what people want to use it for at the edges. This became known in the end as the end-to-end principle. But what it meant, basically, is that the people who designed the Internet designed an infrastructure that would do only one thing, would not be designed for anything we know about now, and would take almost anything that people could think up and throw at it.

Because there are a lot of clever and interesting and ingenious people in the world who can write software, they came up with all kinds of ideas for applications that could use the Internet. The Internet, because it wasn’t owned by anybody, wasn’t controlled by anybody, basically took whatever they threw at it and implemented them.

That gave rise to what one Stanford scholar calls permissionless innovation. In other words, if you were smart, if you had an idea that could be realized using data packets, if you were clever enough to write the code needed to make those data packets do what you wanted to do, then once you gave them to the Internet, the Internet would do it for you, no questions asked. That’s the key to the explosion of creativity and disruption that the network enabled. The World Wide Web is the first example of that. I sometimes say, when people ask me, what is the Internet, I say it’s a global machine for springing surprises. That’s really what it is.

The first big surprise actually for us was the Web. Because when you think about it, the Web was the creation very largely of a single individual – Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist working for CERN. He has an idea for a way of linking and retrieving documents which are scattered and stored across the Internet. He’s a smart, creative guy. In less than a year, he invents everything needed to make the Web work. He pitches it back to his bosses in CERN, and his bosses in CERN say, well, that’s very interesting, but we’re a physics research lab, not a computer science department and the rest of it.

In the end, after it becomes clear that in a sense, nobody in CERN wants really to do much with this, Tim simply puts it on the CERN Internet server without asking anybody’s permission, and the Internet does the rest. That’s what happens. In the process, you get this huge surprise, which we call the World Wide Web. But it comes from the fact that there was an infrastructure that enabled Tim to do that. That’s what you really need to understand about the Net if you want to understand how important it is.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. And it’s a remarkable thing, because the surprises keep coming. We are speaking today on Beyond the Book with John Naughton, the author of From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet, and we’re looking at some of the things you might not know about the World Wide Web on its 25th birthday.

John, it occurs to me that looking back, and it’s remarkable that you’ve had a chance to speak to Tim Berners-Lee and to the others who were there at the very early days. Looking back, it’s easy to think they got it all right. But you make a point in your piece for The Observer that they didn’t get everything absolutely right. Although they wanted to make the Web a read-write medium from the beginning, they had to pull back from that initial objective, and thereby hangs a tale – and for you, thereby allows the corporations to become dominant on the Web. Tell us that story.

NAUGHTON: I think Tim’s original conception for the Web was indeed a two-way medium. In other words, it wasn’t just about people being able to publish stuff. It was about people being able to amend, modify, comment on and so on what was published as a Web page. But you have to think back to the time. This is the very late ’80s, early 1990s. Most people were using Microsoft Windows-based computers, which were actually pretty feeble, both in terms of their Internet connections and in terms of their operating system. They weren’t capable of doing really very much.

In the end, the sort of pragmatic decision was to build the Web as what computer people call a client-server system. In other words, the important computers were called servers. They were the ones big enough to store large quantities of documents. They were the ones with more sophisticated operating systems, so they could handle many tasks at once. Most importantly of all, they were the ones which had wideband, broadband connections to the early Internet.

What happened as a result of that was that the Web evolved as a system in which people who had access to servers – these powerful machines with broadband connections – could become the publishers of Web material, and the rest of us were passive accessers of this stuff. We were running feeble programs on our computers called browsers, and all they could do was simply request pages from the servers and accept them and read them or whatever. But basically it was a one-way system for a long time.

It was a perfectly understandable and pragmatic decision, but it had major consequences, one of which is that we provided the opening for those who had the resources – the connections to the Internet, the powerful servers, the broadband connections, and the rest – and really gave them a head start. It took us a long time to redress partially that imbalance, to the point where it took maybe a decade for things like blogging and other sorts of user-generated content to become possible. But that period during which the big outfits had the advantages has proved pretty important.

KENNEALLY: John, finally, going back to your book, From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg, the point you make there is to think of media, the publishing that happens on the Web, as an environmental model and not a business or economic model. You make the point that in ecology, if you change the environment, if you change the medium in which the organism lives, you’ll change the organism itself. The parallel example there is, for the media environment, changing society. I think that’s a fascinating point. You really have, I think, begun to help us think about the ways that the Web is changing not only our technology, but changing our society. Tell us more about that.

NAUGHTON: I think that societies are shaped by their media and by their communications environment. When I was writing the book, the thing that seemed to me to be interesting was that when you’re living through a revolutionary transformation, you haven’t really any idea of where it’s headed or what it all means, really. It’s a time of great upheaval. It’s a period when lots of people claim to know where things are going but turn out to be wrong and so on.

I was trying to find a way of bringing that idea of our current incomprehension to make it more real for people. After a while, it occurred to me that first of all, we have been lucky in one respect. That is to say, mankind or humankind has actually been through this kind of revolutionary transformation once before. The guy who triggered it was the only person I know in history who is the counterpart of Tim Berners-Lee. His name was Johannes Gutenberg, and he’s the guy who invented printing by movable type, way back in the German city of Mainz in 1455. The thing about printing is that it was a development that transformed our communications environment and shaped the world for the next 400-odd years.

Then I was trying to think, well, how can we imagine ourselves into the same kind of position? I had this idea for a thought experiment, which was if we take Gutenberg as the precursor to Tim Berners-Lee, and print as a precursor to the Web as a transformation of our communications environment – we can date the moment of the triggering of the Gutenberg revolution pretty accurately. The date is 1455, because that’s when we know the first Bibles were printed.

Then I was inviting people to do a thought experiment. The thought experiment is this. I want you to imagine that we’re back in the year 1476, and that you are an employee of an medieval opinion polling organization, and you are standing on the bridge in Mainz over the Rhine with your clip slate. You are stopping people on the bridge, and you’re saying excuse me, sir, do you mind if I ask you some questions?

Here is question four. On a scale of one to five, where one indicates definitely yes and five indicates definitely no, do you think that the invention of printing by movable type will (a) undermine the authority of the Catholic Church, (b) trigger and fuel a Protestant reformation, (c) enable the rise of modern science, (d) enable the creation of previously unheard of social classes, occupations, groups, (e) change our conception of childhood. On a scale of one to five, what’s your answer?

You only have to do that thought experiment in your head to realize how absurd it was, because nobody in Mainz in Germany in 1476 had the faintest idea that print would do any of these things. Yet it did all of those things and many more things besides. Nobody could have known. Nobody did know. I chose 1476 because we are about the same distance into the Web. What that means for me is that anybody who thinks they know where this is heading is either a fool or a charlatan. We simply don’t know. It’s too early to say.

KENNEALLY: Well, we appreciate your reminder, and we certainly appreciate your telling us to take the long view on the World Wide Web as we celebrate its 25th anniversary. We’ve been speaking today with John Naughton. He is the author of From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet and vice president of Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge. John Naughton, thanks so much for joining us today.

NAUGHTON: Thanks, Chris. It was great to be with you.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow us on Twitter, find Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website, beyondthebook.com.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.