A Glorious Wreck

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The Internet is great in practice, but rather weak in theory. I am simultaneously one of the Web's more passionate advocates and one of its most jeering skeptics. How can something this patched together with the proverbial glue and duct tape be so wonderful? How can one of the wonders of the modern world be built upon such an aging, vulnerable and inconsistent foundation?

I think it's extremely interesting that some of the fundamentals that make the Web work were conceived of decades before Tim Berners-Lee came along. What we often see as futuristic, complex concepts that define the Millennial Generation actually reach back decades before we were born, even before Generation X.

Douglas Engelbart invented the first modern mouse out of wood in the late 1960s (Berners-Lee, p. 6). Without it, not only would personal computers be more difficult to use, the Web's usability would also be hindered. Ted Nelson's hypertext concept and Project Xanadu dated back to the same decade (Berners-Lee, p. 5). Hypertext is the essential component of linking websites to each other in non-sequential ways. Without it, there likely wouldn't be a Web. Even the Internet itself saw its origins in 1960s government research. Berners-Lee took these technologies and forged the protocols and languages to force them to communicate.

While these ideas are resilient, they're aging. Some of the thinking that went into the Internet has proved to be short-sighted. IPv4 was just one of the cliffs the Internet and the Web faced. Then there's Blum's "tubes." While the Internet enjoys a nearly spiritual reputation among its evangelists, with data stored in some heavenly "cloud," it's in reality built upon an increasingly imperfect tangle of patch cables and routers; tubes of varying length, capacity and quality.

The topography of the Internet is full of peaks and valleys crisscrossed with superhighways and narrow, winding back roads depending upon where the user lives. But the external structure of that world is built upon a dangerous and unpredictable global landscape where earthquakes can sever the connections of whole continents and throw a society's operating functions into a tailspin, as happened in the Luzon Strait in 2006. (Blum) There are multiple other weak points, like those presented by the "Chicago problem" and other cities that are routing far too much web traffic without feasible redundancy. (Blum p. 109-110)

Even the standards governing Berners-Lee greatest contributions to the web, including HTML, are haphazardly adhered to. The vast variety of different websites spanning the Internet vary not only in aesthetic value and usability, but in how they're coded. They're full of glitches and non-standard coding practices, causing them to malfunction depending upon which of the dozens of different web browsers one might use to access them, which themselves don't seem to follow any sort of consistent functionality.

The Internet is a contradiction, simultaneously resilient and reliable even while its bandwidth, resources and infrastructure groan under the strain of a rapidly-connecting global population. It's a glorious wreck, perhaps best compared to the TARDIS of "Doctor Who" fame: that rickety, oft-malfunctioning wooden phonebox is actually bigger on the inside, housing a vast and wonderful interior controlled by a pseudo-sentient spirit delivering its passengers through time and space.

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This page contains a single entry by harga012 published on February 12, 2013 4:03 PM.

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