Nautilus

The Future of the Web Is 100 Years Old

The Earth may not be flat, but the web certainly is.

“There is no ‘top’ to the World-Wide Web,” declared a 1992 foundational document from the World Wide Web Consortium—meaning that there is no central server or organizational authority to determine what does or does not get published. It is, like Borges’ famous Library of Babel, theoretically infinite, stitched together with hyperlinks rather than top-down, Dewey Decimal-style categories.1 It is also famously open—built atop a set of publicly available industry standards.

While these features have connected untold millions and created new forms of social organization, they also come at a cost. Material seems to vanish almost as quickly as it is created, disappearing amid broken links or into the constant flow of the social media “stream.” It can be hard to distinguish fact from falsehood. Corporations have stepped into this confusion, organizing our browsing and data in decidedly closed, non-transparent ways. Did it really have to turn out this way?

The web has played such a powerful role in shaping our world that it can sometimes seem like a fait accompli—the inevitable result of progress and enlightened thinking. A deeper look into the historical record, though, reveals a different story: The web in its current state was by no means inevitable. Not only were there competing visions for how a global knowledge network might work, divided along cultural and philosophical lines, but some of those discarded hypotheses are coming back into focus as researchers start to envision the possibilities of a more structured, less volatile web.


By the late 19th century, the modern information age had already begun. The industrialization of the printing press, coupled with the introduction of cheap rag paper, had dramatically altered the economics of publishing. Much of Europe and North America was awash in data. Daily newspapers, cheap magazines, and mass-market novels all emerged during this period, along with a flurry of institutional reports, memos, and all kinds of other printed ephemera.

Meanwhile, new communications technologies like the telegraph and telephone were cropping up. Tram and railway lines were proliferating. An increasingly

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