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The web is a miracle

I don’t think the web could happen again.

A public-minded developer, operating in a public service research institution, built an open knowledge-base with no eye on profit or even productizing it. Because of its openness and simplicity, it spread to other like-minded researchers, and then beyond. It wasn’t a product or a startup or a business, and nobody tried to build one around it until much later.

The foundations of the web are pure. And they changed the world.

I wonder what kinds of conditions would need to be true for another platform to be built in a similar way? Lots of people have tried, but none of them have the purity of participation for the love of it that the web has. Even Tim Berners-Lee’s own subsequent attempts are a startup.

Why have we lost that community-hacker sensibility? How can we get it back?

One answer might be that we don’t have the right kinds of research organizations. TBL’s work at CERN was kind of a fluke that happened at the right point in the development of personal computing. There are design organizations, and R&D organizations, but all of them are looking to productize. There’s nobody just jamming on openness platforms with significant institutional support.

Imagine if he’d built the web while trying to test the principles of product design. Desirability: well, who knew if anyone would use the web? Where would that kind of user research have taken him? Viability: it was inherently unviable; just a server living on a NeXT box. Feasibility: who on earth would think that a global hypertext network is feasible? Instead, albeit with a great deal of thought, effort, and skill, he just did it.

Did he hope or expect it would make him a billionaire? No. Did he hope or expect it to get major traction in the way that it has? Also no.

I love startups; I do. I enjoy watching people make things that serve real problems and turn them into sustainable flywheels. But not everything has to be a business, or financialized in any way. Those things are not prerequisites for impact or success. They’re just one way to go about it. The web shows us that there are others, and that purity of thought and intention go a very long way indeed.

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