My World Wide Web Adventure

On this day, August 6, in 1991, Tim Berners-Lee first posted, on Usenet, a public invitation for collaboration with the WorldWideWeb project. WorldWideWeb is the first web browser and web page editor. The post started something that revolutionized modern life. You are using it right now.

Tim published the first website, which described the project itself, in December 1990. It was available on the Internet from the CERN network. Berners-Lee worked for CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and he invented his service so that scientists could easily share and access information via the Internet.

The infrastructure of the Internet had been around for some years but it was a highly technical system known mostly to academics and scientists. Tim’s idea was to use the Net to connect documents with clickable links (hypertext) and make them searchable.

His August 6, 1991 post gave an explanation of the project, how people could use a browser and set up a web server, and get started with their own website. It had the simple but encouraging headline “Try it.”WorldWideWeb – the browser was later renamed Nexus to avoid confusion between the software and the World Wide Web itself.

The World Wide Web, which became known simply as the Web, is that www that used to be common to web addresses. It is what allows documents and other web resources to be accessed over the Internet. The first Web server was CERN HTTPd. We still see HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) in addresses, more often now with an “s” at the end to show the site is secure – as in https://ronkowitzllc.com.

I met Tim Berners-Lee in 1997. My friend Steve Smith and I acted as advisors for a team of high school students in a website design competition sponsored by ThinkQuest. ThinkQuest was a global competition to create an educational website that was a collection of student-built educational sites. I never met the three students in person until we were given a first-place award and attended the awards ceremony in Washington, DC. Tim Berners-Lee was one of the speakers and presenters. I was quite awestruck to meet Tim and totally intimidated to ask any kind of technical question. It was only that year that I created my own first few websites.

The coaches and kids there from around the world had a pretty good idea of how important he was to the history of the world. Years later, a panel of eminent scientists, academics, writers, and world leaders were asked to make a list of 80 cultural moments that shaped the world. The invention of the World Wide Web was ranked number one. They said, “The fastest growing communications medium of all time, the Internet has changed the shape of modern life forever. We can connect with each other instantly, all over the world.”

The time we spent in DC was very interesting. Our website was called “The Motion Picture Industry: Behind-the-Scenes” and it contained sections on film history, the filmmaking process, interviews with film producers, several self-made short films, their production diary, a movie production simulation game, and a scriptwriting tool. Steve and I played no part in writing the code. That was the point of the competition. We acted as soundingboards and occasionally as “voices of reason.” The kids built the site. In fact, one member was much more advanced than either Steve or me.

The presenter for our category was supposed to be James L. Brooks, the director, producer, screenwriter, and co-founder of Gracie Films. His television and film work includes The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Roda, Taxi, The Simpsons, Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets, and Terms of Endearment. Unfortunately, he never made it there. Soccer great Mia Hamm and Berners-Lee filled in with the presenting part. Both of them were very nice to us.

But Brooks’ wife at the time, Holly, was there and we ended up hanging out with her. She had a brand new not-available-to-consumers digital video camera she was using. I pitched several ideas for The Simpsons (that never got on air) to that camera. Her friend for the weekend was Patty Smyth who was married to tennis bad boy John MacEnroe – but Steve and I knew her as the singer in the rock band Scandal. They were fun to hang out with. Probably more fun than James and John would have been.

We also got a special after-hours tour of the new Star Wars exhibit at the Smithsonian. In our tour group were Sonny Bono and his son. This was not the Sonny of Sonny & Cher days but the Sonny who had been mayor of Palm Springs and was then a Republican congressman from California. He made sure we knew that by wearing a leather bomber jacket with the seal of Congress embroidered on the back. Sonny corrected me on a comment I made about Boba Fett who was his son’s favorite character. Sonny died the following year in a skiing accident.

ThinkQuest was created in 1996 and in 2002 it was taken over by the Oracle Education Foundation and was known as Oracle ThinkQuest. I did several more teams including another winning team in ThinkQuest Jr. for middle school students that was comprised of one of my sons, two of his friends, and a student from the school where I was teaching. I believe the competition itself ended in 2008. The sites seem to have been taken down but I found an archive of parts of ThinkQuest on the Wayback Machine at archive.org and also some other references, including this one from Japan referencing our 1997 winner.

Have You Been Doomscrolling?

scrolling
Image by Mote Oo Education from Pixabay

Have you been doomscrolling lately?

It is defined as the act of scrolling on your device and reading or skimming the endless stream of bad news that hit us daily on news sites and social media. The pandemic, economic hard times, violence in the street and the Black Lives Matter protests are all important stories but seem to all be part of a doomsday scenario.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary people have recently flagged doomscrolling as one of the words it is watching for 2020 for possible inclusion into the dictionary.

The word has appeared in stories in Business Insider, and the close variation, “doomsurfing,” appeared in the New York Times.

Why are people doomscrolling if the news is so negative? It is a combination of a “fear of missing out” (FOMO), a “hurry-up-and-wait” instinct and a real desire to get information on the pandemic and other issues even if that information is incomplete, questionably accurate and depressing.

With so many sources of information at our fingertips, the temptation to doomscroll is seductive to many people.

Your Right to Be Forgotten

painting
   The Past (forgotten-swallowed) by Alfred Kubin, 1901, via wikiart.org, Public Domain

I don’t think the vast majority of us want to be forgotten.

We do a lot of things to try to be remembered: take photos; post things on the Internet; have a headstone with our name. But there is this idea that what we do online never goes away, and some people would like that part of their life to be forgotten.

The Internet is forever. Maybe. Many people have posted things they regret. They delete it but somehow it still exists. Celebrities and politicians have learned that by the time you delete that stupid tweet the damage is done and other people have already copied and taken screenshots of it.

For younger people who have grown up with the internet and social media, the possibility of stupid/embarrassing/incriminating content is much higher since the filters in their brains had not matured.

A friend who deleted her Facebook profile recently discovered that friends were getting friend requests from her and that in a search her Facebook profile link still shows up.

Plus, there is “public information” about you online: phone numbers, addresses where you have lived and currently live, that DUI you got, and that political candidate donation you made.

Do we have a right to be forgotten online?

The “right to be forgotten” is something that is taken more seriously outside the U.S. It has been put into practice in the European Union.

It’s not an easy issue to decide. Your first thought might be that, of course, we should have the right to delete our own posts online. And what about content about us posted by others? There are immediate collisions between the right to freedom of expression and how it crosses with the right to privacy. Do you want politicians to be able to scrub their online history of things they said and regret,  or views they once had and have altered? Would a right to be forgotten diminish the quality of the Internet through censorship and revisionist history?

That is the focus of a Radiolab episode that looks at a group of journalists who are experimenting with being forgotten. They are unpublishing content – articles, photographs, names, entire articles – on a monthly basis.

As the Radiolab website says, this is a story about “time and memory; mistakes and second chances; and society as we know it.”

A Beginner’s Guide to the Internet

The title “A Beginner’s Guide to the Internet” is going to make some readers move on because they figure “I know all about the Internet. I’m no beginner.” Of course you are.

This is 1999. To a viewer who is under 20 years old, this may seem like a film from the 1950s. This is the World Wide Web. You know, the www is a web address. No social media, no streaming video, no blogs. Your web browser was Netscape Navigator or Opera or Mozilla or maybe the Internet Explorer that was pre-installed on your Windows computer.

Google was launched the year before, but no Chrome browsers, just a search page. And a competitor to guiding you along the information superhighway was the Internet portal company Lycos who made this film with John Turturro.

John Turturro was no unknown. The year before we saw in the cultish film The Big Lebowski. In this short film (38 minutes), he plays a history teacher (aspiring comedian) whose car breaks down in Tick Neck, Pennsylvania on his way cross-country to Las Vegas.

While he is stuck there, he stops in a diner, connects his laptop modem to the phone there and dials up his internet service provider’s number.

1999 was the end of the 20th century and just before the Internet (we used to capitalize it) exploded.

Where did you see this film? Definitely not online. A film of that length would have eaten up all my data for a month, and probably wouldn’t have loaded anyway on my dial-up connection. But you get a free rental VHS videotape copy of it at your friendly Blockbuster, West Coast Video stores, or a public school library. It was probably shown in some classrooms.

The film, funded by Lycos, was a good promotional tool and it might have help educate the public about the World Wide Web. Lycos was in 1999 the most visited online destination in the world. In 2000, Telefónica acquired it for $12.5 billion.

There are some now-funny lines in the film. A kid tells Turturro “My family doesn’t own a computer, and my dad doesn’t like ’em. He says facts are facts.” His dad was probably quite happy with the 2016 election result.

The Archival Web


Doc Searls sends out the warning that “Google Condemns the Archival Web.” What web is that? It is the one when the URL is HTTP rather than HTTPS – the “S” for “secure.”  Google’s Chrome browser will mark all those older pages as “insecure” this summer, possibly striking fear in the clicking fingers of many users.

Google says:   “For the past several years, we’ve moved toward a more secure web by strongly advocating that sites adopt HTTPS encryption…Beginning in July 2018 with the release of Chrome 68, Chrome will mark all HTTP sites as ‘not secure’ on every current Chrome browser.”

So many “legacy” websites created in the days of yore, though they will still exist, will have a kind of Google crime tape around them. Will people dare to enter, or be scared off? I would assume all those insecure sites will see a drop off in visitors.

 

So why doesn’t everyone just fix what Google says to fix and make their site “secure?”  Well, there is some cost in money and/or time. For plain old folks who aren’t web wizards, they may not even know what needs to be done. There are old sites that no longer have an owner or webmaster but still exist on the World Wide Web that becomes more of a museum each year. For many sites -like blogs – there is no “cost benefit” to upgrading.

You’ll note that this site is HTTPS, thanks to the folks at WordPress doing the heavy lifting.

 

What happens if you use another browser like Firefox or Safari? I assume all will be well. For now. And you will be able to sneak under that police tape to those other sites – but you have been warned.

Google trumpets that developers have been transitioning their sites to HTTPS and that “progress last year was incredible” – Over 68% of Chrome traffic on both Android and Windows is now protected and over 78% of Chrome traffic on both Chrome OS and Mac is now protected. I am a bit surprised that though they trumpet this stat: “81 of the top 100 sites on the web use HTTPS by default”  I would have thought that 100% of the top 100 sites would have complied.

This in the same week that it is announced that Wikispaces is shutting down. Soon young kids will ask what you mean when you say “Internet.”

Make a mental note for July so that you’re not shocked when you see some warning signs on the information superhighway.

 

Café Culture and Where Ideas Come From

I was quite charmed last year when I made my first visit to Prague in the Czech Republic. I had in my mind a Romanticized version of the city and its famed café culture. In my imagination, it was people sipping coffee on sidewalk table and talking about art and literature. When my wife and I went for coffee and dessert at the Café Imperial, it was certainly much grander than anything I had imagined.

We did find those little cafés too, so I was able to embrace my Romantic version of the city. There is also the well-documented role of  the coffeehouse in the Age of Enlightenment. These informal gatherings of people played an important role in innovation in politics, science, literature and religion.

Next year, I hope to visit the Café de Flore which is one of the oldest coffeehouses in Paris. Located at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Benoît, it is known for its history of serving intellectual clientele. At one time, those tables overheard conversations from existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre,  writer Albert Camus and artist Pablo Picasso.

In science, breakthroughs seem to rarely come from just one person working alone. Innovation and collaboration usually sit at the table together. We are currently in a time when, at least in American politics, collaboration seems nonexistent.

This notion is what caught my attention in an interview I heard with Steven Johnson who wrote Where Good Ideas Come From.

He writes about how “stacked platforms” of ideas that allow other people to build on them.  This way of ideas coming together from pieces borrowed from another field or another person and remixing feels very much like what has arisen in our digital age.

One example he gives is the 1981 record My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne. It is an innovative album for that time in its use of samples well before the practice became mainstream. Eno was inspired by the varied voices and music and advertising on New York AM radio which was so different from the straightforward BBC radio he grew up with in England. He thought about repurposing all that talk into music.

We call that “decontextualizing” now – in this case a sound or words taken out of context and put in a new place. But this borrowing and remixing also occurs with ideas in culture, science and technology.

Unfortunately, ideas are not always free to connect with each other. Things like copyright and intellectual property law get in the way. We often silo innovators in proprietary labs or departments and discourage the exchange of ideas.

I didn’t know that Ben Franklin had a Club of Honest Whigs that would meet at the London Coffeehouse, when he was in England and they would hang out and exchange ideas.

Johnson describes these as “liquid networks” – not so much for the coffee, but for the fluidity in the conversation. These informal networks work because they are made up of different kinds of people from different backgrounds and experiences. Diversity is not just necessary as a biological concept but as an intellectual one.

The Internet was built on ideas stacked on top of ideas. A whole lot of code and ideas are underneath this post. At its best, when I write online I am connecting, if only virtually, with other writers, artists and thinkers, and connecting literally through hyperlinks to those ideas.

I know there are “Internet cafés,” but what about Internet as a café?