Collage by me. Photo of Tim Berners-Lee courtesy of CERN. Collage by me. Photo of Tim Berners-Lee courtesy of CERN.

Harry Potter, and Magic
Metaphors in Technology

August 8, 2019 - A loose thread of thoughts sparked by the history of HTML.

1989 — The seeds of the Web are planted when Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist at physics lab CERN, envisions a web of interconnected research papers.

This web would not only provide remote access to papers globally, but also enable researchers to jump from one paper to the next, seamlessly, through hyperlinks.

Thus, Berners-Lee begins to build his ‘World Wide Web’.

1993 — Four years later, the NCSA (National Center for Supercomputer Applications) develops Mosaic.

The release of Mosaic is pivotal. With graphics and other features, it is poised for commercial use, allowing the WWW to escape the confines of academia and spill into the mass market.
Fast forward 30 years...

2019 — 4.39 billion people across the globe publish, alter, and consume content in the weightless, virtual plane that is the World Wide Web.

From trade to politics, to culture, to science, and even to dating —
it is a space where human activity bustles.

When I first learnt of HTML’s history, my mind immediately leapt to an unlikely connection: Harry Potter

J.K Rowling’s wizarding world is full of enchanted paper tools: moving portraits, maps that track your movement in real-time, diary horcruxes that store pieces of the soul — all of which are supposedly scientific impossibilities.

Yet, technology is full of magic metaphors. Thanks to the GPS, for the first time in human history we have maps that track our movements in real-time. When we publish a thought to social media, we store a piece of ourselves in a far-off server. And scientific papers, originally published on literal paper, evolved into text files on a computer, which further evolved into this multimedia universe we call the “World Wide Web” exhibiting videos, sound, and even interactive code art.

Imagine if you could print a page, and instead of solely printing motionless image and text, interactive multimedia elements on the page printed out as well. You could press a ‘play’ button on the paper to start a video, or hover with your hand to interact with a p5.js sketch1. Such a page sounds impossible, but in fact, through HTML, CSS, and Javascript, that is what we have been doing: building networked, interactive papers — just like something out of an impossible world of fiction. The difference is that these papers currently can only be experienced through a screen2.

No one could have predicted that we could touch a piece of text to materialize a new piece of text. In fact, when Tim Berners-Lee submitted his initial proposal to his boss, the response he received was, “vague, but exciting.” What other common, everyday objects can we re-imagine and evolve within the digital realm?

The web is so embedded into the fabric of our everyday lives that appreciation for its development slips through the cracks of our busy schedules. Yet it is a mark of human innovation, and perhaps a hint of what lies ahead, as we hurtle towards more impossible futures and beyond.

1though I guess that’s what an iPad is approaching 🤔

2 The divide is the translation of atoms — the building blocks of the material world — into bits, the building block of the digital. It’s interesting to look at where these differ, and imagine if we could transfer properties from one medium to another.

  • More flexible and easily manipulable in 3-D space. You can draw and write on it with ease, not to mention fold and cut it. There is so much more variety in ways of interacting with paper.
  • Not limited by the size of a monitor screen. It’s why brainstorming is so much more effective on poster pages. The ability to attach more paper and increase surface size means that you can see all your ideas in one sweeping glance.

  • NETWORKED — we share what we see with others
  • Editable — undo; edit text; move things around with ease
  • Shareable — beyond reaching a wider audience, the standardized typefaces of the web means that poor handwriting is not an obstacle to understanding content.
  • Interactive / Reactive
  • Resistant to corrosion via natural forces.

The closest inventions I can picture to a print-web hybrid are: (1) the touchscreen (for notetaking & drawing with a stylus), and (2) the Moleskine paper tablet. But imagine if we had print newspapers displaying video, or webpages we could fold into 3-D origami.

(Perhaps it would encourage people to interact more with the physical world, rather than through screens. Which makes me think: perhaps AR, which mixes reality and virtual, would drive people to do exactly that — interact more with the physical world!  We have already seen Pokemon Go lure people out of their homes.)

Mixing print and web would help immensely with note-taking. I like to take notes on paper for memory-retention and drawing purposes, but I enjoy the neatness, editing, and easy organization capabilities of web. It’d be great if I could

  1. take notes on paper,
  2. have those notes automatically upload to the computer,
  3. translate my handwriting into a nice, neat typeface,
  4. and then let me edit those notes however I want.

Otherwise, I have to retype all of my handwritten notes, which consumes a massive amount of time. 

Benefits with mixing print and web:

1. <details> toggles, like this. So that we can see all headlines at once, making a document easier to navigate if you're looking for specific information.
I frequently take notes in class and wish I had this toggle feature on paper.

2. Storyboarding and comics
Imagine if you could draw and write your text on the same paper, take a photo with your phone, and the drawings are kept constant while the handwriting is converted to neat text.
And why not go a step further, and have the drawings be converted into vector graphics?


Berners-Lee, Tim. “The World Wide Web: A Very Short Personal History.” W3C, World Wide Web Consortium, 7 May 1998,

Kemp, Simon. “Digital 2019: Global Internet Use Accelerates.” We Are Social, 30 Jan. 2019,

Longman, Addison Wesley. “A History of HTML.” W3C, World Wide Web Consortium, 1998,