‘Out Of The Matrix’

As a follow-on to yesterday’s post which linked to John Perry Barlow’s thoughts in 2006 on his Cyberspace Declaration of Independence written in 1996, here’s an article that takes the storyline back to the early 1990s and reveals how Barlow was introduced to the World Wide Web.

Daniel Kehoe takes up the story:

In 1991 I was writing for NeXTWORLD magazine, which was a lot of fun because I got to work with, and write about, people who were doing fascinating things with computer technology. Working for NeXTWORLD led to writing the book Taking the Next Step (with coauthor Seth Ross) and a short stint at Steve Jobs’s NeXT as a technical writer.

The most innovative project I encountered that year was not NeXT. Rather, it was something developed by Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory. He used a NeXT computer to develop a networked information system for high-energy physicists. If I hadn’t been reading the comp.sys.next Usenet newsgroups carefully, I would have missed the announcement of “a hypertext editor for the NeXT.”

Not many people used “WWWNeXTStepEditor version 0.12.” The NeXT community was small, and many NeXT computer users did not yet have Internet access, which was required to access Tim Berners-Lee’s experimental “WorldWideWeb” documents. To me, the name WorldWideWeb seemed a bit of a conceit since the only users at the time were high-energy physicists at a few research institutes.

Nonetheless, as soon as I’d installed and tried the software, I wanted to get involved. I told everyone about it, including a fellow editor at NeXTWORLD, John Perry Barlow. Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and co-founder of the (then-new) Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote to his friend Mitch Kapor to say, here’s “Something called World Wide Web, which sounds rather like Project Xanadu emerging from the Matrix almost without design. This could be cool.”

If you don’t recognize Barlow’s references, Project Xanadu was a visionary hypertext project that predated the Internet. The Matrix is not the movie universe created by the Wachowskis but rather the totality of computer networks that existed before the commercialization of the Internet (as described by the researcher John Quarterman).

The screenshots of email messages from the NeXT system give this article an added sense of history.

An interesting note in the story is the early interest and involvement of Adobe, who at the time were working on their editable PostScript technology, which would eventually become the PDF document format. Daniel Kehoe initially thought that editable PostScript might be a better means to deliver Tim Berners-Lee’s vision that HTML, but later reflected that:

With the adoption of the Cascading Style Sheets specification (from 1999 forward), my views changed. I’ve come to appreciate that the technical underpinnings of the web are optimal, reflecting both the genius of Berners-Lee’s original vision and the rich contributions of the worldwide developer community.

The article goes on to note how the web and the technology underpinning it have diverged from the original idea that Tim Berners-Lee had of creation as well as consumption, but offers some hope for the future.

I never anticipated that Berners-Lee’s NeXT hypertext project would become a medium to supplant print and television. In 1991, during idle moments, I imagined the world’s books and magazines might be reborn as hypertext (many others had imagined this earlier, including Ted Nelson, with his Xanadu project). But I never honestly believed that Berners-Lee’s software project could change the world. By 1999, as web addresses appeared on billboards and the sides of buses, I started to accept that Berners-Lee naming his project “the WorldWide Web” was not vainglorious but merely prescient. Still, I hope its utility as a platform for commerce does not eclipse our original vision of the web as a means for sharing the world’s knowledge.

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