The Null Device

An accident of history?

This month is the 15th anniversary of the creation of the first web page, and ultimately the World-Wide Web; an occurrence made more remarkable when you think that something like that could not arise today, because the brief window of the possibility of disruptive technologies has largely been closed by powerful vested interests aware of their consequences:
Imagine a network with the opposite design. Imagine that your terminal came hardwired from the manufacturer with a particular set of programs and functions. No experimenting with new technologies developed by third parties instant messaging, Google Earth, flash animations...Imagine also that the network was closed and flowed from a central source. More like pay-television than web. No one can decide on a whim to create a new site. The New York Times might secure a foothold on such a network. Your blog, or Wikipedia, or Jib Jab need not apply. Imagine that the software and protocols were proprietary. You could not design a new service to run on this system, because you do not know what the system is and, anyway, it might be illegal. Imagine something with all the excitement and creativity of a train timetable.
The web developed because we went in the opposite direction towards openness and lack of centralised control. Unless you believe that some invisible hand of technological inevitability is pushing us towards openness I am a sceptic we have a remarkable historical conjunction of technologies.
Why might we not create the web today? The web became hugely popular too quickly to control. The lawyers and policymakers and copyright holders were not there at the time of its conception. What would they have said, had they been? What would a web designed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation or the Disney Corporation have looked like? It would have looked more like pay-television, or Minitel, the French computer network. Beforehand, the logic of control always makes sense. Allow anyone to connect to the network? Anyone to decide what content to put up? That is a recipe for piracy and pornography.
Then again, the WIPO-sanctioned, corporate-controlled walled-garden web would have probably met with an underwhelming reception and withered away like AOL or the original MSN, while, somewhere, an underground, decentralised network evolved by a series of accidents. Unless, of course, they banned and eradicated the original, anarchic Internet and replaced it with Internet 2.0™, a network designed from the ground up for control, and somehow managed not to send the communications-dependent world economy into a depression in doing so.

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