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MIT Better World

In Chapter 6, “Pre-Invention of the Web,” Montfort reveals how visionary work by Vannevar Bush, MIT’s first dean of engineering; MIT Professor Tim Berners-Lee; and two other pioneers, Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson, came together to shape the World Wide Web. This excerpt centers on Berners-Lee’s contributions.

Probably even more familiar to us today than the Interstate Highway Network, which was formed, post-Futurama, beginning in the 1950s, is our World Wide Web, a global information system that is now accessible instantly not only at workstations and notebook computers, but also on phones. This system carries a tremendous number of commercial interactions along with an unprecedented store of information, and it also has a recognized inventor. Tim Berners-Lee proposed this system early in 1989 and implemented enough of the system to load the first Web page later that year. He did have support from others on the project, including Robert Cailliau, but Berners-Lee’s work and vision were at the core of the Web, and he is its first author.

The World Wide Web (and the futuremaking work that preceded it) holds several important lessons for future-makers. As is particularly clear in considering Douglas Engelbart’s work and his predecessor hypertext system, an effective vision of the future is one that is engaged with society and builds on personal experience. Engelbart’s vision, like Ted Nelson’s concept of hypertext, involved higher-level concepts connected to specific, concrete ideas and examples. An effective vision is one that can scale up to widespread use and to new types of use, for instance, by groups of collaborators.

Such a vision can draw on utopian modes of thinking and description, and can be exhibited directly as well as described and discussed in writing. And as for the Web itself, related to and in contrast to Vannevar Bush’s early system and some of [Ted] Nelson’s rich concepts of hypertext, this system took root because it was simple enough to be adopted, and because it was open and available to everyone.

The visionary work of MIT Professor Tim Berners-Lee (pictured in July 1994) in inventing the World Wide Web is highlighted in The Future by Nick Montfort. Photo: ©CERN
Nick Montfort The Future

Berners-Lee dedicated the Web to everyone in the world, asking for no royalties, filing for no patents, and ensuring that Web technologies would be unencumbered and free for anyone to use. Instead of becoming a monopolistic system limited to those in wealthy countries with financial resources, the Web—even if aspects of it present problems at times—has, as advertised, become remarkably worldwide and open to all sorts of businesses, universities, organizations, and individuals….

Berners-Lee and his collaborators didn’t make up every concept that is the foundation of the Web—they were aware, directly and indirectly, of existing hypertext ideas. The success of the World Wide Web is surely due to two specific factors beyond determination and cleverness:

First, the Web is a simple system, much less powerful than Nelson would like. Not only does it lack built-in support for specific types of hypertext such as stretchtext, it also doesn’t even have two-way links. A central registry could provide for such links, as well as transclusion [Ed. note: an advanced form of hypertextual quotation] with appropriate payments for authors. But the Web doesn’t require any central authority—or, at least, it requires only the hierarchical aspects of the underlying Internet that were already there. The Web would be much less useful without the ultimately centralized Domain Name Service (DNS) that resolves verbal names such as “” into numeric addresses. But this system was developed in the 1980s, and predates the Web. Once you can convert your domain names into addresses, your requests only need to route through the Internet to locate a Web server and retrieve information from it. A person who wants to set up a new Web server can just set one up without any interaction with a central registry. In the worst case, dealing with a central authority just means the equivalent of registering a new domain.

Letting people know…that the new server is there is helpful, of course, and in the 1990s a new type of business emerged to help people locate Web resources—including hand-made directories (Yahoo!, Open Directory) and search engines (AltaVista, Google). Such services work to patch up the decentralized Web and allow the discovery of Web resources that would otherwise be obscure. But the Web didn’t need to have them in place at the very beginning.

They could, and did, grow up afterward. The Web, as it first existed, was a very simple hypertext system. It didn’t attempt to solve every problem with an elaborate initial design. Second, the standards of the Web were offered to everyone rather than being restricted by patents or copyrights. Berners-Lee insisted that the Web not be encumbered, and there are concrete reasons this may have helped the system to succeed. For instance, one of the Web’s early competitors, Gopher, offered generally similar ways to traverse hypertext resources online and began gaining traction in 1991. Gopher was more limited in some ways, because of its strongly hierarchical format, but also offered some features that the early Web lacked. While not the only factor that led the Web to prevail, Gopher was dealt a blow in early 1993, when its owner, the University of Minnesota, said that it would charge to license its Gopher server, the dominant one. The choice in the early 1990s between a clearly free and open technology and one that might face further restrictions helped to make one of them—the Web—look like a better choice.

…[P]ioneer Ted Nelson isn’t a full-on fan of the World Wide Web, even though this famous system has broadened access to some forms of hypertext. He writes, “Trying to fix HTML is like trying to graft arms and legs onto hamburger… EMBEDDED MARKUP IS A CANCER.” He continues, “HTML is precisely what we were trying to PREVENT—ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can’t follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management.” Without knowing about Nelson’s contributions to hypertext and computing, this may seem like pure negativity; if one knows just a little about history, it may seem like sour grapes. I tend to think that this perspective comes from a different view of what the future could have been. It has particular virtues, but was also complex, more difficult to implement, and required a centralized system for rights management.

On the one hand, a wider array of features didn’t mean, by itself, that Nelson’s system was better. On the other hand, the Web, however successful it has been, is not beyond critique.

As far as future-making is concerned, these are the two, clear lessons from the early success of the Web:

  • The right level of simplicity/complexity is important, even if it means removing some of the features of a vision, and of a systematic future, that other future-makers really love. A vision has to be understood and accepted, and one that is too complex to understand or implement has little chance.Openness, an ability to be shared, and freedom to study and build on a system are really important to whether or not people choose to adopt and further develop new ideas and systems.