For Amusement Only, Really

Some writers have embarrassing juvenilia. I have that too, actually, but mostly I have embarrassing academia. The death of Douglas Engelbart a bit ago struck me a bit because his “mother of all demos” was a fairly sizable topic within my dissertation, which, of course, nobody will ever see because it’s a dissertation and nobody ever sees those, and revising it into a book is not really a priority given my estrangement from academia.

Accordingly, I’m serializing it here on a “whenever I’m hard up for content” schedule. I make no guarantees of its readability, quality, or entertainment value. Indulge me. It took a long period of my life and it seems like it should have some sort of a home.

I also make no guarantees that parts of it are not abandoned mid-revision, or that the citations are not in the odd markup language used by the citation manager software I used when writing it. In any case, hopefully someone will be entertained by this. It is, of course, academic writing, with all of the associated stylistic tics and occasional dryness. 


On August 6, 1991, at 3:31 PM, Tim Berners-Lee, an employee at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) made a post to the alt.hypertext newsgroup responding to a seemingly innocuous question by Nari Kannan, who asked if there was any development towards “hypertext links enabling retrieval from multiple heterogeneous sources of information.”  In his response, Berners-Lee described a project he was working on that would do just this by creating a protocol, HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), via which hypertext files could be requested and returned by servers on the then-nascent Internet, complete with links that would, if followed, use HTTP to request files from other servers (Berners-Lee). The project was called WorldWideWeb, and this Usenet post marked its public debut.
This historical moment poses something of a problem for a media theorist. What, role does or did this moment play in terms of the World Wide Web as it is today? On the one hand, from a historical perspective, it is factually the case that Tim Berners-Lee created key parts of the basic technology that underlies the World Wide Web. On the other hand, the development of the Web does not slot so easily into a sort of “great man” theory, and there is a degree to which the centrality of this single event to the history of the Web belongs more to myth than history.[1]Associated with this dualism is a significant problem: on the one hand, there are clearly a set of events in the history of any medium that are historically significant in its establishment as a functional piece of technology.

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