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Web Design - The First 100 Years, by Maciej CegŇāowski

Stashed in: The Web, Software!, Teh Internets, Blogs!, Awesome, History of Tech!, Singularity!, For Milo, History of Tech, Accelerating Returns, The Web

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Very very long but amusing and personal look at the history of the web which concludes: the technology is basically as good as the world needs... but what are we planning to do with it?

The Web is a little more than 25 years old.

I think we have no idea what The Web will look like 75 years from now.

This article predicts the Web of 2060 will look the same as now unless we screw it up.

Today I hope to persuade you that the same thing that happened to aviation is happening with the Internet. Here we are, fifty years into the computer revolution, at what feels like our moment of greatest progress. The outlines of the future are clear, and oh boy is it futuristic.

But we're running into physical and economic barriers that aren't worth crossing.

We're starting to see that putting everything online has real and troubling social costs.

And the devices we use are becoming 'good enough', to the point where we can focus on making them cheaper, more efficient, and accessible to everyone.

So despite appearances, despite the feeling that things are accelerating and changing faster than ever, I want to make the shocking prediction that the Internet of 2060 is going to look recognizably the same as the Internet today.

Unless we screw it up.

And I want to convince you that this is the best possible news for you as designers, and for us as people.

The defining feature of our industry since the invention of the transistor has been exponential growth.

Exponential growth is one of those buzzwords that has an exact technical meaning. It just means that something keeps doubling, over and over again. Pop science authors never get tired of telling us that we have poor intuitions for exponential growth.

For example, here is Britney Gallivan posing with a sheet of paper folded 11 times.

If she could fold that sheet 50 times, the paper stack would reach nearly to the Sun. And it would be half a proton in diameter.

(It's folding that last proton that's really hard.)

This example illustrates the two things you need to know about exponential growth: it lets you get to large numbers very quickly. And it always runs into physical barriers.


We are moving from desktops to laptops, and from laptops to smartphones. Some people are threatening to move us to wristwatches. 

In terms of capability, these devices are a step into the past. Compared to their desktop brethren, they have limited memory, weak processors, and barely adequate storage.

And nobody cares, because the advantages of having a portable, lightweight connected device are so great. And for the purposes of taking pictures, making calls, and surfing the internet, they've crossed the threshold of 'good enough'.

What people want from computers now is better displays, better battery life and above all, a better Internet connection.

What is the Web for?


This is the correct vision.

The Web erases the barrier of distance between people, and it puts all of human knowledge at our fingertips. It also allows us to look at still images and videos of millions of cats, basically all of it for free, from our homes or a small device we carry in our pocket. 

No one person owns it, no one person controls it, you don't need permission to use it. And the best part is, you are encouraged to contribute right back. You can post your own cat pictures.

Why is this not enough?

cat on internet meme imgur

The feline vision of the Internet is fundamentally a humble one, because it does not presume that developers and designers know what they are doing. There are no limits on what people (and cats) can get up to once you link them together. On a planet of seven billion people and millions of cats, the chance that you are going to be able to think of all the best ideas is zero. Someone is always going to come up with something you never expected. A web that connects people in a way where they can contribute gives its authors a chance to be surprised.

We've seen this play out time and again, in that the most productive and revolutionary aspects of web culture came out of left field. The idea of a free, universally editable encyclopedia sounded insane. The idea that a free operating system could run half the Internet was insane. That volunteers in blog comments could write collaborative math papers with some of the most brilliant mathematicians in the world sounded insane.

A currency based entirely on cryptographic hashing still sounds insane, but it sure is interesting. 

Even the world wide web itself is the product of a physics nerd winging it, and convincing his colleagues to try out something new.

The Internet is full of projects big and small whose defining trait is that they came out of nowhere and captured people's imaginations. It's also full of awesome cat videos. The key part of this vision is that the Internet succeeds by remaining open and participatory. No one acts as gatekeeper, and it is not just a channel for mindless consumption.

The three visions of the future of the Web lead to radically different worlds.

If you think the Web is a way to CONNECT KNOWLEDGE, PEOPLE, AND CATS, then your job is to get the people and cats online, put a decent font on the knowledge, and then stand back and watch the magic happen. 


If you think your job is to FIX THE WORLD WITH SOFTWARE, then the web is just the very beginning. There's a lot of work left to do. Really you're going to need sensors in every house, and it will help if everyone looks through special goggles, and if every refrigerator can talk to the Internet and confess its contents.You promise to hook up all this stuff up for us, and in return, we give you the full details of our private lives. And we don't need to worry about people doing bad things with it, because your policy is for that not to happen. 


And if you think that the purpose of the Internet is to BECOME AS GODS, IMMORTAL CREATURES OF PURE ENERGY LIVING IN A CRYSTALLINE PARADISE OF OUR OWN INVENTION, then your goal is total and complete revolution. Everything must go.The future needs to get here as fast as possible, because your biological clock is ticking!


The first group wants to CONNECT THE WORLD.

The second group wants to EAT THE WORLD.

And the third group wants to END THE WORLD.

These visions are not compatible.


When I talk about a hundred years of web design, I mean it as a challenge. There's no law that says that things are guaranteed to keep getting better.

The web we have right now is beautiful. It shatters the tyranny of distance. It opens the libraries of the world to you. It gives you a way to bear witness to people half a world away, in your own words. It is full of cats. We built it by accident, yet already we're taking it for granted. We should fight to keep it! 


I agree with Maciej. The Web is a way to connect knowledge, people, and cats. 

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