I don’t know if this was truly the first time that I saw the world wide web, but it is the day I have chosen to represent that time. It must have been one or two years after Kevin Kelly (Wired magazine) had organized the first cyberthon in 1990.
(I had heard Tim Leary speak, though it had been nearly impossible to understand him. I was sleep deprived and amazed by the sheer abundance of art and energy. I had been injected in the butt with vitamin B-12 by Flash Gordon, MD or Wavy Gravy and I had seen a crude pixalated whale float around in a digital ocean while wearing data goggles and a data glove at Jaron Lanier‘s VPL.)
One day, coming home to Developing Environments, Janet and I ran into David Lawrence from across the street. “You have to come see this,” he said and with that we walked into his studio at Project Artaud. There on a desk was his computer and on the screen was a simple grey page with two images and some words underlined in blue. It was the world wide web, a connected series of documents, joined by the words underlined in blue. The browser was called Mosaic by NCSA and had just been released for the Mac. I think we were all quite excited by what we were seeing – it seemed so promising. Pictures floating around the world in seconds. Imagine that. Apparently with a little help you could even make your own page. It was a great promise.
It is interesting to think about that day. The promise of this large, unregulated media space, what promise it might hold for artists. Exchanging ideas and images over the telephone wires. The images even had 256 colors, provided you had one of the expensive color computers with the big 15″ monitors.
The other thing that strikes me in retrospect is the search for a metaphor for this thing called the world wide web. Mosaic, not the first but perhaps one of the most influential browsers, suggests a patchwork of color, of images and ideas. It was not until later that different browsers like Netscape , Opera and Microsoft Internet Explorer created the navigation metaphor for the experience of moving in virtual space. Surfing the web came after that and the famous information superhighway.
All that , and here we are in 2012. Recently I spoke with a neighbor who admitted to me that he could manage without a telephone and a car, but not without the internet. It seems that the world wide web has evolved more into a vital appliance.
I realized the other day after running into David in front of my building that I rarely think about the extraordinariness of the world wide web in terms of discovery. Though we meet frequently, this time it triggered the memory of that day.
Like those nights when you find yourself along a dark road and suddenly realize with amazement just how many stars there are in the night sky, there are moments when I am reminded about how amazing this web of connections really is. How vast its reach is, how many people are connected by it, and at the same time the billions of people who have never seen it.
As governments and corporations move to limit or dismantle what must be the 21st century version of the Tower of Babel, I try to imagine the confused excitement of those people who are seeing the world wide web for the first time, today.
notes & sources
Travel back in time with the browser simulator at DejaVu or download a piece of history at evolt.org
Documentation collated for the Cyberthon Archival Project
BIBLIOGRAPHY – Cyberspace, Cyberpunk, Electronic Communication, Postmodernism
And you should definitely know about Stewart Brand