The “History of the World Backwards” comedy was launched on BBC 4 on 30 October 2007. The joke is based on time being reversed: “Today’s opener sees Nelson Mandela enter prison as a sweet-natured Spice Girls fan, but emerge from a long incarceration as a terrorist bent on the armed overthrow of the state.”
How might this apply to the history of the World Wide Web, from its global success in 2007, through to its sad demise in the early 1990s? And what are the longer term implications for its demise? Here are my thoughts. What are your views? And if anyone fancies writing their own blog post in this style, I’d suggest using the tag “history-of-web-backwards” (or, indeed, history-of-foo-backwards, if your main passion is in ‘foo’).
The global pervasiveness of the World Wide Web in 2007 appeared to guarantee its long term success. Sadly the sceptics who argued that the Web was just a mere fad proved to be correct, with a steady demise over a period of ten years, leading to its complete disappearance by 1990.The WCAG 2.0 guidelines, which were due to be released in 2008, were expected to bring about the much-promised dream of universal success to Web resources, exploiting the potential of much richer (and usable and accessible) user interfaces based on Ajax, Flash and related technologies, whose popularity had been successfully demonstrated in a series of global experiments provided though the benevolence of companies such as Google and Yahoo!
Sadly political changes in the UK led to the release of a government mandate which banned such technologies, in an effort by a socialist government to prevent the decline in use of public services. The lead taken by the UK government was followed throughout the rest of Europe with European legislation being enacted which suppressed any technological innovations which had not been approved by the sinister-sounding WAI organisation. The EU also funded the development of an automated robot which would report on deviations from approved practices (the naming and shaming robot).
Although these moves were initiated by the government, the side effects destabilised the commercial sector. Facebook, an incredibly successful social networking service in 2007, lost users from this peak and, despite the mass demonstration, coordinated on the THEY ARE TRYING TO SHUT DOWN FACEBOOK – PETITION TO KEEP IT! INVITE ALL! group (which had over 1.6 million users in November 2007) the uncertainty ultimately led to Facebook’s demise. The writing was on the wall when Microsoft’s withdrew its investment in the company in 2007. Facebook’s response was to return to its roots in the US, but failed to sustain its momentum across US universities, eventually choosing to provide a niche service at Harvard University. Even this proved not to be sustainable and, in despair, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founders, chose to go to university in order to try and find an alternative career.
What nobody had expected, though, was the growth of the anti-globalist movement supported by left and right wing militant organisations. Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft were found to be funded (using a possibly illegal manoeuvre known as ‘tax breaks’ ) by the US government, and where suspected of passing on secret data on an organisation known as Al Quaida (a terrorist organisation in the twenty first century who, to the astonishment of many, eventually received significant investment from the US government to help expand the US’s plans to open up a marketplace in Afghanistan). In contrast the right wing groups campaigned that social networks were leading to a breakdown of the family as a social unit.
Despite Rupert Murdoch’s investment in MySpace (which proved to be a financial disaster) these combined pressures led to the demise of all of the social networking services. A mass campaign of disobedience by young people (who called themselves the ‘Hoodies’) resulted, with the protesters taking to the streets. This failed, however, and, in a remarkable consumer revolt, household throughout the country cancelled their broadband subscriptions. The demise of the broadband industry had predicted side-effects, bringing to an end plans to invest in high definition TV and digital TV. On a personal level, although critical of his invention many felt that the UK government was being rather unfair in ceremonially stripping Tim Berners-Lee of his knighthood.
By 2000 the majority of users had abandoned their interest not only in social networks but other networked services. The Web eventually retreated to the walled ivory towers of academia. There was a renewed spirit of camaraderie within this group, who felt they were keeping alive the original vision of the Web, based on notions of user generated content and trusting the user. However the conservatives were in the ascendancy, and institutions responded by investing large sums of money in Content Management Systems (a phrase which caused so much consternation that the term ‘CMS’ had to be used as a euphemism). Organisations then mandated use of CMSs – which so disillusioned those involved who were working on the Web (“they’re forcing every page to look the same; it’s a Stalinist nightmare world we’re now living in“) that, by 1995 only a handful of stalwarts were still employed in the profession.
By 1994 the writing was on the wall, and everyone knew the the Web would soon cease to exist. The W3C was formally wound up as a company and had vacated its US offices at MIT. The decision to delete all W3C documents did take many by surprise – although AltaVista did make a valiant attempt to index the few documents which remained on the Web.
Not all was gloom, though. CERN made a decision in 1994 to host the final international WWW conference – an event so significant that it became known as the ‘Woodstock of the 1990s’.
By 1990 there was little interest in the Web. A small group did try to revive some aspects of the Web by developing Gopher. But this was simply a strictly hierarchical distributed menu system and – without even having any social networking capabilities – its short life span was inevitable.
Life in the 1980s is certainly much simpler. But is this a better life? Or would people in the 1980s wish to return to the more vibrant and connected environment which was the norm in 2007? Possibly – but someone called Douglas Adams has just released a trilogy of five books (although the last two are no longer in print) which is shortly to be made into a radio series. And Douglas argues for a return to the simplicity of our live as apes – and is wondering whether the move from the ocean, 20 million years ago was, in retrospect, a mistake :-)
Please note that this parody of the BBC programme is meant to provide mild amusement. I do not wish to imply that the current UK government is socialist. The WWW conference in 2004 was, however, described as the Woodstock of the 1990s. I will leave it to the readers to determine for themselves examples based on fact and those provided for comic effect.