I didn’t see the birth of the World Wide Web, but given the amount of change it’s undergone since my first exposure, I might as well have. I was on the Web when there were merely tens of thousands of pages (instead of billions today), and almost all of it was black Times New Roman on a gray background. It was way uglier, way slower, and way smaller than what we have today.
Sometimes I think back to those early days in my first “real” job at Intergraph, in early 1994, and try to remember whether I had any notion of the eventual cultural significance of this little network that occupied some of my time. I don’t think I did. Most of what I enjoyed online predated the Web–email and Usenet, mainly, with an occasional telnet voyage–and the Web was an occasional sideline. I didn’t have a clue that nearly everyone would eventually say “the Internet” when they meant the World Wide Web.
When I stop to think about it, the Web still blows my mind. Ladies and gentlemen, we live in a world in which if something is known by the human race, and it’s not protected by a corporation, a government, or both, there’s about a 99% chance you can have your eyeballs on it in less than five minutes. Shoot, there’s probably a 75% chance you can have your eyeballs on it in 30 seconds.
Do you remember the world before that was true? I mean, I know most of you have specific memories of things you did before then, but do you remember what it felt like? I don’t. I received my degree in 1992, so I was one of the last college graduates to study without it. What a difference a mature Web would have made! On a lighter note, I remember riding with my mother to Panama City and for most of the trip, we tried to think of the name of the actor who played Agent 86 on Get Smart. I sat up in bed with the thought of Don Adams at 3 in the morning, and actually woke my mother up to tell her. Today it’s a quick trip to IMDB, and you’re done.
Huge swaths of wonder have died with the coming of age of the Web. For nearly any question, you don’t walk around chewing on what the answer might be for any length of time: you Google it, and it’s over. My children will never know a world in which that isn’t true. I think that’s one of the most incredible societal advances of my lifetime. I suspect it’s my generation’s “I walked to school uphill both ways” story to tell our children, actually.