This Wasn't Inevitable

The web hasn't been around all that long—34 years in a couple of months!—but it is a massive part of everyday life for many people; there is some research that suggests the "typical working-age internet user" can spend more than 6 hours per day online. Not all of that time is positive; harassment, tracking, and advertising are nearly impossible to avoid if one wants to interact with others in cyberspace. Surely there must be another way! The current state of the web is intentional, and there were many moments that, had they played out differently, could have created an entirely different web.

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The web wasn't always full of advertising and commerce. In fact, in the early days of the web, commerce wasn't allowed at all:

It's hard to believe now, but until 1991, commercial enterprise on the Internet was strictly prohibited. Even then, the rules favored public institutions and forbade "extensive use for private or personal business."
In the eyes of the NSF [National Science Foundation], the Internet was funded for research, not commerce.... The NSF rule reflected a lingering sentiment that the Internet would be devalued, if not trashed, by opening it up to commercial interests.

Banner ads were first used in 1994 at Wired, and advertisers were hooked. Amazon was founded that same year, and the rest is history. What would have happened if commerce had remained banned, even for a little while longer? What different shape would the Internet have taken? If commerce remained banned, would the Internet have taken off at all?

JavaScript and Interactivity

JavaScript allowed web developers to make their previously static webpages interactive. It was created by Brendan Eich in 10 days at Netscape, clearing the path for even more invasive advertising. I don't mean to be overly pessimistic; JavaScript lets us do lots of cool things, too, like animate parts of our site or add a custom media player. But if the web had stayed static, other technologies like tracking would have also needed to adapt. Would a static web be a more private one?

Alternative protocols like Gemini can help answer this question, and using them definitely feels calmer than the modern mainstream web, but that may just be because there are fewer people there.

Ted Nelson and Project Xanadu

Project Xanadu was first founded by Ted Nelson in 1960. It has links like the World Wide Web, but for the most part, that's where the similarities end. I tried writing an explanation, but I confused myself, so you're better off watching Nelson give a demo of XanaduSpace or interacting with a (totally inaccessible) Project Xanadu demo yourself. There's a lot of columns and a lot of colors.

If Nelson had been able to get Project Xanadu off the ground faster, could it have become the dominant mode of interaction on the Internet? For me, it's more of a fun thought experiment than anything else because I'm so accustomed to interacting with the Internet the way we currently do, but who knows? Imagine XanaduSpace in VR, or with some sort of motion controls; I can get behind that.

Wrapping Up

No wonderfully poetic conclusion tying all of the threads together here! Just wanted to look back at the Internet's past to help us all think about what current and future alternatives could look like. See you online!

This article was created by Amethyst