Web Design: The First 100 Years

Unless you are an airplane nerd, you would be hard pressed to distinguish the 787 from its grandfather.

And in fact, this revolutionary new plane flies slower than the 707.

The basic configuration of an airliner has not changed in sixty years. You have a long tube, swept wings with multiple engines mounted underneath, and a top speed of around 900 kph.

So what happened to the future?

.. The Russians got in on it too, with a plane derisively called the Concordeski. This proved too loud and unreliable for passenger service, so it ended up being a transport jet. It carried fruits and vegetables from Central Asia at twice the speed of sound.

..Because the technologies we had were good enough. It turned out that very few people needed to cross an ocean in three hours instead of six hours. On my way to this conference, I flew from Switzerland to San Francisco. It took eleven hours and cost me around a thousand dollars. It was a long flight and kind of uncomfortable and boring. But I crossed the planet in half a day!

Being able to get anywhere in the world in a day is really good enough.

.. So despite appearances, despite the feeling that things are accelerating and changing faster than ever, I want to make the shocking prediction that the Internet of 2060 is going to look recognizably the same as the Internet today.

.. Intel could probably build a 20 GHz processor, just like Boeing can make a Mach 3 airliner. But they won’t. There’s a corrollary to Moore’s law, that every time you double the number of transistors, your production costs go up. Every two years, Intel has to build a completely new factory and production line for this stuff. And the industry is turning away from super high performance, because most people don’t need it.

.. So the world of the near future is one of power constrained devices in a bandwidth-constrained environment. It’s very different from the recent past, where hardware performance went up like clockwork, with more storage and faster CPUs every year.

..But all this exponential growth has given us terrible habits. One of them is to discount the present.

When things are doubling, the only sane place to be is at the cutting edge. By definition, exponential growth means the thing that comes next will be equal in importance to everything that came before. So if you’re not working on the next big thing, you’re nothing.

This leads to a contempt for the past. Too much of what was created in the last fifty years is gone because no one took care to preserve it.

.. Since I run a bookmarking site for a living, I’ve done a little research on link rot myself. Bookmarks are different from regular URLs, because presumably anything you’ve bookmarked was once worth keeping. What I’ve learned is, about 5% of this disappears every year, at a pretty steady rate. A customer of mine just posted how 90% of what he saved in 1997 is gone. This is unfortunately typical.

.. It’s 2014, and consider one hot blogging site, Medium. On a late-model computer it takes me ten seconds for a Medium page (which is literally a formatted text file) to load and render. This experience was faster in the sixties.

The web is full of these abuses, extravagant animations and so on, forever a step ahead of the hardware, waiting for it to catch up.

.. The cult of growth has led us to a sterile, centralized web. And having burned through all the easy ideas within our industry, we’re convinced that it’s our manifest destiny to start disrupting everyone else.

This is the correct vision.


This is the prevailing vision in Silicon Valley.

The world is just one big hot mess, an accident of history. Nothing is done as efficiently or cleverly as it could be if it were designed from scratch by California programmers. The world is a crufty legacy system crying out to be optimized.

.. Marc Andreessen has this arresting quote, that ‘software is eating the world.’ He is happy about it. The idea is that industry after industry is going to fall at the hands of programmers who automate and rationalize it.

We started with music and publishing. Then retailing. Now we’re apparently doing taxis. We’re going to move a succession of industries into the cloud, and figure out how to do them better. Whether we have the right to do this, or whether it’s a good idea, are academic questions that will be rendered moot by the unstoppable forces of Progress. It’s a kind of software Manifest Destiny.

.. Consider how fundamentally undemocratic this vision of the Web is. Because the Web started as a technical achievement, technical people are the ones who get to call the shots. We decide how to change the world, and the rest of you have to adapt.
There is something quite colonial, too, about collecting data from users and repackaging it to sell back to them. I think of it as the White Nerd’s Burden.


This is the insane vision. I’m a little embarrassed to talk about it, because it’s so stupid. But circumstances compel me.

.. Here’s Ray Kurzweil, a man who honestly and sincerely believes he is never going to die. He works at Google. Presumably he stays at Google because he feels it advances his agenda.

Google works on some loopy stuff in between plastering the Internet with ads.

.. If you think your job is to FIX THE WORLD WITH SOFTWARE, then the web is just the very beginning. There’s a lot of work left to do. Really you’re going to need sensors in every house, and it will help if everyone looks through special goggles, and if every refrigerator can talk to the Internet and confess its contents.

.. And if you think that the purpose of the Internet is to BECOME AS GODS, IMMORTAL CREATURES OF PURE ENERGY LIVING IN A CRYSTALLINE PARADISE OF OUR OWN INVENTION, then your goal is total and complete revolution. Everything must go.
The future needs to get here as fast as possible, because your biological clock is ticking!

The first group wants to CONNECT THE WORLD.

The second group wants to EAT THE WORLD.

And the third group wants to END THE WORLD.

These visions are not compatible.

.. We see businesses that don’t produce anything and run at an astonishing loss valued in the billions of dollars.

We see a whole ecosystem of startups and businesses that seem to exist only to serve one other, or the needs of very busy and very rich tech workers in a tiny sliver of our world.

.. We live in a world now where not millions but billions of people work in rice fields, textile factories, where children grow up in appalling poverty. Of those billions, how many are the greatest minds of our time? How many deserve better than they get? What if instead of dreaming about changing the world with tomorrow’s technology, we used today’s technology and let the world change us? Why do we need to obsess on artificial intelligence, when we’re wasting so much natural intelligence?