Entry #3

The History of the Web = The Evolution of Paper

September 28, 2019

This is a loose idea that has been playing around in my mind for a while, ever since I first learnt about the history of HTML. However, I find the intuition extremely hard to articulate, so in this entry I will attempt to clarify my thinking with illustrations.

The idea is: webpages are an evolved version of paper. Or: webpages are the papers of the digital dimension. This digital dimension enables new properties — such as multimedia, interactive elements, and simultaneous, remote access across the globe — which are impossible in the physical world of physical papers. Through technology we are constantly escaping constraints we accept as impossible.

What do I mean? Let’s trace the history of HTML.

Pre-1989 — Research Papers

First, there existed research papers. Plain, unchanging, physical research papers that could not be linked together. If one paper referenced another, you would have to hunt for it. It is physically impossible to display time-based media such as music and video.

1989 — Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist at physics lab CERN, envisions a web of interconnected research papers. He wonders, ‘What if we could not only enable remote access to papers, but also connect them through hyperlinks, allowing an immediate jump from one paper to another?’ With this idea, the seeds of the Web are planted.

At this point, we have research papers uploaded to the digital realm. They are still plain, colorless, and do not display time-based media. However, unlike before, remote access and hyperlinks are possible, enabling a wide spread of papers (and therefore a wide spread of ideas). 

1993 — Mosaic

The NCSA develops Mosaic, an early commercial browser.

The release of Mosaic is pivotal. With graphics and other new features, it is poised for commercial use, allowing the Web to break out of academia and spill into the mass market. This is the browser that popularizes the World Wide Web.

Now, our previously plain, hyperlinked research papers are not so plain — they include colors and graphics!

2019 — Today

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

What began as just an uploaded, hyperlinked research paper now has taken on a vast array of new properties:
  • Time-based media such as videos, music, and even interactive code art 
  • The ability for two distant individuals to edit a single document at once
  • Through the touch screen devices that these pages live in, the ability to tap, swipe and slide to interact with the page

All of which were impossible just 30 years ago with a plain, static research paper.

The first I learnt of HTML's history, I thought of Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Arthur C. Clarke

(Look! Paper with time-based media printed on it! An impossibility in our muggle world, but possible in the wizarding world of Harry Potter AND the digital world of webpages!)

Through digital tools, we have found loopholes to bypass physical impossibilities. We generally accept that it's physically impossible to display video on paper, yet video is possible and even commonplace with webpages, the digital evolution of paper.

The same progression can be seen in maps and the GPS (for the first time in history, we have maps which pinpoint our location in real time) and books to Kindle (we have books where we do not need to force the pages down, take up less space, etc)*.

Point being, is that through technology, we are constantly escaping constraints we accept as “normal.”

Whether those constraints might actually be healthy for us, is another question.

Tangential sidenotes

  • *The Kindle is designed to make the reading experience extremely convenient.
  •  Related Tweet  

    (Though, I like physical books as well — something about having to deal with the pages gives it presence. Makes you more mindful of the physical world.)

  • This is one of those posts where my writing is super loose, which I wrote about in Entry #1. I’m sure there are all kinds of holes in my thinking, but hopefully the idea has some sense of direction 😅

  • There are also properties of paper that are lost in digital documents.
    • In this sense, perhaps we are not making 'progress', but rather, constructing 'alternatives'. That is because each medium (paper and digital) each has its own advantages that are lost when translated to the other medium. I feel that this is tangentially related to Weiwei Hsu's Space of Computing.
    Some of my thoughts on digital paper interfaces + OCR (Part of a thread)


Berners-Lee, Tim. “The World Wide Web: A Very Short Personal History.” W3C, World Wide Web Consortium, 7 May 1998, www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/ShortHistory.html.

Kemp, Simon. “Digital 2019: Global Internet Use Accelerates.” We Are Social, 30 Jan. 2019, wearesocial.com/blog/2019/01/digital-2019-global-internet-use-accelerates.

Longman, Addison Wesley. “A History of HTML.” W3C, World Wide Web Consortium, 1998, www.w3.org/People/Raggett/book4/ch02.html.