Late 1993, there were about 500 HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) servers on the World Wide Web (Web). Now, every other person on the Internet with some basic computing experience can install their own server and provide "information" (I'm using the term quite liberally here) on the web. I wonder if Tim Berniers-Lee, the person who started the Web project at CERN, really thought it would become the thing that revolutionised the Internet and end-user computing.
And this issue, the ability to put yourself on a soapbox and be heard by the world, and the subsequent consequences, is what I will attempt to address here. First, what does the Web give us that we didn't have before? By posting on USENET news, for example, you're probably heard by a lot more people than having a web server. Well, the main difference is that anything you posted normally was lost within in a few days, so your ideas didn't stay around long enough for everyone to assimilate. On the web, your pages are permanent, and you can promote them as much as you want and people will continue increasing the accesses made. But the Web project would probably be doomed without the software that keeps everything working. Almost every Web browser I've used has been of high quality (which is absolutely crucial), but one of them, NCSA's Mosaic, stands out in terms of availability and accessibility for a variety of problems. Marc Andreessen wrote Mosaic for X and it spread like wildfire when NCSA released free versions of mosaic not just for X, but for a variety of other platforms, again, about a year ago (September). A friend of mine referred to it as "The Program of the Gods".
I happened to get seriously addicted to the Web at the beginning of this year, but I got over it soon. I then realised that all one needed was an anonymous FTP server set up and they could serve documents to the Web. I did this intially, and this is yet another design decision that has been crucial---the Web incorporates several existing information retrieval mechanisms out on the net, primarily gopher and ftp. I never thought gopher would be a big hit, and with the advent of the numerous Web browers for almost any imaginable platform, there really is no need for gopher clients. Why have a gopher server if you can get a http one up running just as easily? There is only a small (depending on how aesthetically pleasing you want your pages to look like---one can waste hours making things look pretty) overhead involved in converting plain documents to the HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the language that Web browsers understand and use to format your text.
The idea behind the Web simply takes Unix philosophy to the extreme. The whole Internet is abstracted as a gigantic file system, and HTML allows you to specify any object on the Internet, be it a movie of comet Shoemaker colliding with Jupiter, GIFs of paintings by Dali, a song you recorded on your 4-track that you have a soundfile of, or things you should know before you delve into linear and nonlinear programming, by linking the locations of these objects to an anchor of your choice. Like Unix, a link could be anything, including other programs, telnet/news/mail/ftp/gopher ports, and or just another section of a document. The touch of button that activates the anchor is all you need to access any particular link---the software figures out the rest for you---if it's a soundfile, it'll play it. If it's a movie or a picture, it will bring up the appropriate viewer, and so on.
This is all very nice, but what it lets you do is also access the latest porn clip, let you see gifs of Kurt Cobain's shotgunned face, contact your favourite astrologer for a consultation on-line, and do on-line shopping. I'm not going to pass judgement on whether these things are "wrong", but as the web grows, it is clear that it is the entertainment side of the web that is thriving. Megadeth is probably is one of the first groups to go all out to advertise a release on the Web (the CD comes with a sticker saying "check out Megadeth, Arizona), and while Megadeth, Arizona is a cool place to visit, it is akin to the junk mail with colourful pictures that you receive in your postbox. It is propaganda.
There are a lot of advantages to having entertainment information available on the net---but it also results in a lot of spam. This is evident not only on the Web, but also in the USENET newsgroups, where the commercial Internet provider industry thrives as millions of subscribers come on line and run amok. A few months ago, an advertisement on the net would've been flamed to ashes. Now there is a weak response, and the people who opposed this are fighting a losing war. Advertisers continue to spam the net. Not to mention the increase in the number "job wanted" or "items for sale" ads in completely inappropriate newsgroups. The number of inane USENET groups created for local objects of worship (I am guilty of this) are numerous. The ease with which computers can transmit hypermedia (pictures/movies/sounds) has not only furthered the Web revolution but is pushing bandwidth to its limits (a state that we may perpetually exist in). All this has contributed to an increase in the noise:signal ratio on the net as a whole, but particularly in USENET newsgroups and the Web.
As Web usage increases, and it becomes more flexible to incorporate some sort of a BBS-type system, like USENET, or USENET itself, in Web browsers, then we will see a exodus from the traditional forms of Internet use to Web use, just as there is a movement from people typing stuff at the prompt to clicking buttons on the mouse to perform local tasks. In fact, I predict that many people simply won't even figure out how to FTP or read news from the prompt, just like many people don't figure out how to do send mail from the prompt and instead type in a number or click on the mail icon for their favourite mailer, since they can do this at the click of a button. Again, this isn't necessarily A Bad Thing.
What this means, however, is that there will be a dichotomy that will exist on the Internet. There will be people who can navigate the Internet only with help of the Web and there will be those who can do both, i.e., use the prompt to do stuff. The advantages that the people who do have access to the internal workings of the system is left to your imagination. But what this is also leading to is the concentration of all the spam on the several networks that compose the Internet to the Web, and hopefully it will leave the traditional forms of Internet use as it were. Commercial advertisers are more likely to find the Web a more viable medium to display their wares than making ephemeral postings on USENET newsgroups, especially given the capability for multimedia plugs. People, visionaries and otherwise, can put forth their agenda with ease. Real information will be much harder to find even with webcrawler search tools. All this will result in The Program of the Gods becoming a metal detector.
Not everything has to be negative: the ability to reach the masses in an unprecedented way will also hopefully lead to an information revolution, where information will be made available free (this is evident in the Web pages of the two camps of the San Fransisco newspaper strike). It will lead to independent reporting of events, and even though these will be biased, the perceiver, facing many alternatives, can discern the relevant bits themselves. The Web, more than anything else, will lead to a society where information is free. While I have always been for this, I just realised it comes with a price---lots of noise. But this might push us to developing better software that will allow one to filter signal from noise in a efficient manner.
There is, of course, the issue of speed---there is nothing like the net for receiving the latest information on the fly. Sure, it might be tainted, but when one's working and if, for example, one wants to check what the latest election results are (why one would want to do this is another issue), just get on your local newsgroup and post a message, if there isn't already a continuous thread going on. We all know how the Web let us view the pictures of Shoemaker/Jupiter collision almost as it happened. This is probably the greatest advantage of maintaining a net-lifestyle. No longer do we have to rely on one or two viewpoints---you can select among several, and information is made available as soon as it is disseminated.
What about the incorporation of computers and networking into our lifestyle? We're holding the First Protein Folding Competition in Asilomar, CA, and the top priority is making sure we have access to the Internet. We would be basically lost without this access, i.e., without being "plugged in". It is interesting how life has changed for some of us. Six years ago, I hated computers and now I cannot go for a few hours without having access to one. Visions of cyberspace as portrayed in the cyberpunk genre are still far away in reality, but a similar affect seems to have been achieved by the people who exist on the net.
When I wrote this article (in 1994), Mosaic was the browser of choice. Since then, Netscape has surpassed it as the Program of the Gods. And Netscape might soon lose that to MSIE.
The Internet isn't just about the USENET or the Web. I'm addressing only certain aspects of it.