Wednesday, January 26, 2000
J. Harmon Grahn, Editor
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I haven't talked much about this in the past, but I do keep a quite short list in my mind of individuals I hold in highest esteem, admiration and respect – not necessarily because their lives are without blemish or flaw, but because they have observed and grappled with Life, and made significant contributions toward illuminating its mysteries or improving its condition for many human beings. Carl Jung is on my list. Leo Tolstoi is on my list. Victor Hugo is on my list. P.G. Wodehouse is on my list. I even aspire someday to add my name to my list.
Meanwhile, I have decided to add another name to my list of most esteemed, admired and respected individuals: Tim Berners-Lee.
Who is Tim Berners-Lee? He is according to his recent book, Weaving the Web,1 the single individual who conceived, designed and implemented the World Wide Web which now plays such a ubiquitous and active part in global commerce; and he continues to shepherd and nurture its evolution through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) [at www.w3.org].
While the Web is a complex mix of many ideas, technologies and techniques, the germ of the foundational concept behind it may well be a notion Tim had while still in high school. He comes from a family of mathematicians who were early comers to computer technology; and in the 1950s, he writes, his parents "were full of excitement over the idea that, in principle, a person could program a computer to do almost anything." A computer, however, "typically keeps information in rigid hierarchies and matrices, whereas the human mind has the special ability to link random bits of data."2 Somehow the challenge of giving computers the free associative capability native to the human mind stayed with Tim through the years. This is, in my estimation, a fundamentally "new paradigm" concept, and that it has actually been implemented in the global system known as the World Wide Web strikes me as a particularly auspicious miracle for the future of humankind on Earth.
The challenge of linking computers so they can share data was already being addressed, notably by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the U.S. during the late '50s and early '60s of the past century.3
The World Wide Web is naturally not the only scheme on the Internet for distribution of information among computers and their human users. There are numerous others, such as gopher, a pre-Web product of Paul Lindner and Mark P. McCahill at the University of Minnesota; FTP (File Transfer Protocol) in widespread use for sharing files across the Internet; NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol) for similar access to Network News; WAIS (Wide Area Information Servers) developed at Thinking Machines by Brewster Kahle for searching large databases; and of course HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) developed by Tim Berners-Lee.
In 1980 Tim took on a software consulting assignment at CERN4 in Geneva. The environment at CERN is highly cosmopolitan, in which scientists in a wide spectrum of disciplines mingle from all parts of the world, converse in a commensurate variety of languages, and employ a chaotic hodge-podge of computer hardware and software. There is a widespread willingness among the researchers at CERN to share information freely amongst themselves; but in 1980 there was no easy means of doing so, particularly among the diverse computer systems employed in their research.
The name "Enquire" came from the title of an old Victorian volume in Tim's childhood home outside London: Enquire Within upon Everything. That was his vision, and its actual implementation rests upon three vital components for enabling computer hardware and software systems of any description to share anything at all that may be stored in digital form: a) the URI specification system, a carefully designed but extremely simple universal protocol for addressing files or objects of any description located on computers connected to the Internet anywhere; b) the HyperText Transfer Protocol, HTTP; c) HyperText Markup Language, HTML.
The crucial protocol was the Universal Resource Identifier (URI), which is actually a superset of the more popularly familiar "URL" (Universal Resource Locator), and consists of a few basic components that together identify the location of any resource on any system in the world employing the protocol. The first part of a URI / URL identifies the transfer protocol appropriate to the resource being addressed, followed by a colon and a pair of slashes; as in "ftp://..." or "gopher://..." or "http://..." or "wais://...." Once the protocol has been specified, the next part of the URI specifies a particular server, or computer connected to the Internet; something like "www.thisone.com" – as opposed, for instance, to "www.thatone.com". Having identified the transfer protocol and the server, the URI then goes on to specify the exact item to be retrieved; so we may have something like "http://www.thisone.com/index.htm" or "http://www.thatone.org/images/pix.jpg" – in the latter instance for a particular .jpg image file located in the "images" directory on the "www.thatone.org" server. This concise, universal protocol makes it possible for users of systems sharing the protocol to embed at any point in any document, a link to any file on any server, anywhere. It renders all the information on the Web as a single vast, and vastly cross-indexed, "book" in which one may today literally Enquire Within upon Everything.
This is the powerful province of hypertext and HTML, the third vital component of Tim's invention. HTML is simply a markup language for formatting plain text, in much the same way an Editor would markup a typed manuscript for publication. With HTML it is possible to specify font, size, color, background color, emphasis and many other features of document layout and design. But easily the most powerful feature of HTML is the ease with which documents throughout the Internet may be linked together at will; so an individual seeing a document pertaining to something shim is publishing or has published on the Net, may insert into shim's text at any point a link to that very document. Thus documents and ideas that may never otherwise have been associated may be directly linked from anywhere around the planet, facilitating the free association of thoughts and ideas that so inspired Tim from his youth.
This in practice turns out to be an organic process quite analogous in some respects to the way brain cells form vast and complex networks of interrelated synapses, or physical connections between and among individual cells – but on a planetary scale. With the expansion of the World Wide Web we are witnessing, "even as we speak," the emergence of a "Global Brain" substantialized in the hardware, software and telecommunications infrastructure that combine in the Internet; and of a "Global Mind" composed of the synergistic sum of the individual human minds brought into contact with one another by means of that infrastructure.
But it didn't all fall into place automatically. Just because an (at the time) obscure programmer came up with a brilliant system for sharing digital information among diverse systems, this did not in itself ordain that the world should inevitably be swept by the tidal wave that became the World Wide Web. It was fortuitous, however, that Tim initially developed these protocols while working at CERN, for by 1992 CERN was the largest presence in Europe on the Net, and a major driving impulse behind Europe's expanding use of the Net.
In October, 1990 Tim began writing the code for the World Wide Web. He wrote a browser program for interpreting HTML and executing hypertext links; and a server program for hosting HTML documents. He registered with the MIS department an alias address for the host server at CERN, initially his personal NeXT computer on which he had developed the Web: "info.cern.ch"6 and put up the first global Web site, consisting of notes and specifications on HTTP, URI and HTML. But although the World Wide Web was a potentially global information system, it was still largely unknown; nobody outside of CERN had a browser for it; little information was as yet available, and hence little motivation existed for using it. It was the classic "chicken / egg" problem often encountered by new innovations. Here is a potentially vast new information resource, but because it is brand-new, there is no information on it. So how do you motivate people to put information on the information resource and render it actually useful?
Tim enlisted the assistance of Nicola Pellow, a math student from England, also working at CERN, to write a better Web browser that made absolutely minimal assumptions about the hardware system running it. "The least common denominator we could assume among all different types of computers," Tim writes, "was that they all had some sort of keyboard input device, and they all could produce ASCII (plain text) characters."7 Additionally, Tim programmed the browser to access not only files using the HTTP protocol, but FTP files as well. This at one swell foop made an enormous wealth of information already on the Net immediately available to the Web as hypertext pages.
Another potential "problem" for Tim was justifying his Web project at CERN. After all, his job description was not to create the World Wide Web and alter the course of human history, but simply to engineer programming solutions of direct applicability at CERN. One of these, however, was making the CERN phone directory available to all CERN personnel – a task generally handled individually by keeping a window open on each work station to the phone directory database on the aging CERN mainframe. A bit of collaboration with Bernd Pollermann, charged with maintaining the mainframe and a wide variety of centralized CERN information, resulted in a version of Tim's Web server running on the mainframe; which in turn made it possible to publish anything in Bernd's information library as hypertext Web pages. Meanwhile, Nicola's browser was ported to the entire gamut of computer systems at CERN, so no matter what hardware any individual or group was using, they all had access to the same information through the Web.
The result was not very spectacular to look at, maybe, but it was sufficient to demonstrate some of the advantages of cross-platform availability of information, i.e. regardless of the hardware employed either to obtain it or to store it. This was of significant value to the cosmopolitan high energy physics community, and in 1991 the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) started up the first Web server beyond CERN.
Tim continued to promote the value of the World Wide Web in various forums; but a major breakthrough occurred in 1993 with the at least "semi-free" release of Mosaic, a highly functional Web browser designed by Marc Andreessen and developed by students and staff at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Mosaic was distributed without cost, along with its source code, and it proliferated swiftly across the Internet. Now there was a browser suddenly in widespread use, along with the source code for adapting it to alternative platforms. This is a glowing example of the functional meaning of "Free / Open Source Software," which I will discuss at somewhat greater length below. Andreessen eventually teamed up with Jim Clark from Silicon Graphics, and the two founded Netscape Communications Corporation; employed most of the Mosaic design team, and soon had versions of Netscape Navigator available for the most popular operating systems then in use. The rest, as they say, is history. The World Wide Web continues to proliferate geometrically and has become a major, if not the major conduit for human commerce throughout the planet.
Tim eventually left CERN and founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Laboratory for Computer Science (MIT / LCS) in Cambridge. "The W3C was founded in October 1994 to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing common protocols that promote its evolution and ensure its interoperability." "Tim is now the overall Director of the W3C. He is a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science."8 He is, in other words, following his original vision of keeping the World Wide Web open, free, and global by developing and recommending standards for global applicability of the Web and its protocols. Further information on various aspects of the preceding paragraphs may be found at the following URIs:
I admire and respect Tim Berners-Lee because he has followed his vision throughout his life, from youth until now, and brought it into substantial manifestation as the World Wide Web. By so doing he has quite possibly accomplished more in aid of the massive awakening of the entire human race than perhaps any other human being. That may be going too far, actually, because nobody, including Tim, works in a vacuum; and certainly the power of Tim's work could not have been achieved without countless ancillary conditions having been established by similarly countless other human efforts. Nevertheless, I think it safe to say that the Web would not be the universal connection among human minds it is today had not Tim single-mindedly pursued his vision for a seamless global information space in which anyone might at will Enquire Within upon Everything. That such an information space has actually come into widespread use upon the planet is to me the most spectacular and large-scale indication that the paradigm shift of which I frequently write is indeed in headlong progress at this time, and that the human race is now racing rapidly from under the shadow of the Dark Age that has held us in thrall for at least the past 24 centuries.
As to my recent solicitation for interest in "something 'almost, but not quite, entirely unlike' a 'school,' or an 'academy,' or a 'temple of learning'," possibly to be called a "Cosmunity,"9 what on Earth could more perfectly fit the description than the World Wide Web itself? It's already a Done Deal. Everything is in place and functions flawlessly, yet is open for limitless improvement and evolutionary development. Have you an interest in anything whatsoever and wish to learn more about it? Enquire Within upon Everything! On the Web you can find a mentor, if a mentor is what you seek, who may for a price or without cost assist you incalculably in your quest. Have you something to teach? Somewhere in the world are others eager to learn from you. Some service to offer? There are those who will value it. Some service you seek? There are those who can provide it. The world is a big place; there are six thousand million of us resident upon it at present, and all our minds are now at least potentially in direct communication with one another. This is a staggering development. Nothing like it has ever before been seen, or even dreamed of, in human history. It's the lifting of the legendary curse of Babel.
Another thing that strikes me as significant: the World Wide Web is in fact a global community, a "Cosmunity," if you will; but one entirely different than any community of humans ever assembled in what we can remember of human history. For the World Wide Web exists entirely without "government," without borders or police or administrative "authorities" of any kind. The World Wide Web is simply a community of the individual human beings who participate in it in any way. True, governments and political parties of various description have their various presences in the global community; but the functioning of the community does not depend upon any of them. Even the World Wide Web Consortium has no "legislative powers" regarding the direction taken by the Web. They do research and make recommendations aimed at maintaining the seamless universality of the protocols in use throughout the global community. Participants in the community follow such recommendations, not because we must, but because of the incalculable advantages common protocols afford each of us individually. You can write HTML code, for instance, any way you like; and maybe others will be able to read it, and maybe they won't. But if others can't read it, why bother writing it in the first place? So the W3C has certain recommendations about HTML, which are commonly available to the entire planet, and individuals are at liberty to make their own decisions about their employment.
The World Wide Web, in other words, is the first massive experiment on Earth in totally unfettered self governance – and lo! It Works! individuals all over the planet are, "even as we speak," gaining hands-on experience in navigating within a community of self-governing Sovereign individuals. All the nuances are there. Antagonize your neighbor (and your neighbor in this community can be anybody on Earth) and you find negative results coming your way. Be forthcoming, honest and "virtuous" in whatever terms are meaningful to you – and your reputation, and your experience of the Web, will develop accordingly. Each individual in this community stands upon shim's own behavior; each is Sovereign, and each has much to gain by harmonious and agreeable interaction with shim's Peers. This is (in my opinion) a Fact of Life which can only become increasingly evident with time and experience; and it is (again in my opinion) a Very Good Thing.
Now I'd like to close by briefly bringing to your attention the work of another individual who is moving in the "right direction" (meaning "in a direction I like") in the domain of software development: Richard Stallman and the GNU Project at The Free Software Foundation (FSF).
The GNU Project, as you'll quickly learn if you browse any of the above URIs, is dedicated to the development, distribution and support of "Free Software" – meaning software free of "attached strings," not necessarily software that may be had without cost. That is, Free Software includes the source code, so it may be modified in large or small ways, and is free of legal encumbrances prohibiting modification, copying or redistribution. The idea – and there is an article by Richard Stallman titled "Why Software Should Be Free" that discusses this in far greater depth than I am going to do here – the idea is that software is an organic, developing product of many minds, and for a single entity, like a corporation, to claim proprietary "ownership" of the software creates an obstruction to its development that damages society in several important ways.
An example of the spectacular social benefits possible from Free Software is the instance mentioned above in which the NCSA browser Mosaic was released by its developers, free of charge and relatively free of legal encumbrances, source code included. The result was widespread availability of a browser that practically overnight energized the previously only potential power of the World Wide Web. I venture to suggest that when the spirit behind Free Software and the concept of unfettered free association across all platforms, borders and administrative jurisdictions that engendered the Web is prevalent in all domains of human creativity, the resulting wealth and liberty will totally eclipse anything experienced or even imagined by humanity before now. I further predict that when human beings around the planet are effectively joined by a cooperative spirit of freely sharing thoughts, ideas, innovations, rather than jealously guarding them from one another, the resulting cascade of universal wealth, prosperity, comfort, liberty, and leisure will render the most lavish abundance available to only the privileged few during the past Dark Age altogether primitive by comparison.10
Bottom line, I don't know whether we need a new word like "Cosmunity" or "Cosmosity" after all. The essential features of the concept are already in place and their use is expanding geometrically every day. You, or I, or anybody else, are at liberty at any time to propose, or develop, or teach, or promote anything at all we deem worthy of our efforts; and anybody who shares our interests is at liberty to join in the fun, to any extent they wish. Hay! what more can we wish for? Thanks alot, Tim – and everybody else whose combined efforts and interest have made this miraculous circumstance a substantial reality.
Love & Light,
1. Tim Berners-Lee, with Mark Fischetti, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by its Inventor, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1999.
2. Ibid., p. 3.
3. I discussed this over two years ago in an essay in tnp vol. I #7 titled "The Internet as a New Paradigm Manifestation," which you may wish to review for some general background on the gestation and evolution of the Internet.
4. CERN used to stand for the no longer extant "Conseil Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire." Nor is the physics done at CERN any longer confined to the "Nucléaire" persuasion; but the European Particle Physics Laboratory is nevertheless still identified as "CERN".
5. Berners-Lee, p. 4; emphasis in original.
7. Berners-Lee, p. 30.
9. Last edition ["The Year Zero" tnp vol. III #3], I requested feedback, including name suggestions, for "something 'almost, but not quite, entirely unlike' a 'school,' or an 'academy,' or a 'temple of learning'." I mentioned my son Aaron had put forward the suggestion, "Cosmosity" for such a "non-institution," which had a certain appeal for me because the name bears the same relation to "Cosmos" that "university" bears to "universe." Since then an active participant in these discussions, Govinda, otherwise known as Jos, from Belgium, has improved upon the name by suggesting "Cosmunity;" and has further elaborated at length upon various ways of implementing the concept electronically via the Internet. I think "Cosmunity" an even more apt label for what I've had in mind than "Cosmosity," and so, pending further, even superior suggestions, I propose to use it as a generic term designating a "Community of Cosmically Sovereign individuals and Aspirants united by a mutually supportive endeavor to expand our, and aid in the expansion of one another's, consciousness."
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