In Too Deep

In Too Deep
Not with a Bang, But a Click

Russ Pitts | 8 Aug 2006 12:01
In Too Deep - RSS 2.0

Tim Berners-Lee, working at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland was building upon the theory of "hypertext," a method of linking multiple documents together by keywords or "links," to create a whole new method of organizing information across multiple sources. Imagine reading a book, then clicking on a single word to produce a definition of that word, without ever once taking your eyes off of the page. Today, this method of "browsing" information via the world wide web is as natural to most westerners as breathing air, but in the '80s, few had even conceived of the idea, much less thought of how to make it happen. Tim Berners-Lee was different.

In 1991 Berners-Lee produced the world's first "web site": essentially an explanation of the work Berners-Lee had done at CERN, instructions for how to use his new invention, and a growing list of web sites, all of which (including the technology responsible for making it happen) he offered for free to anyone who wanted to use them. Berners-Lee's Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) provided a framework for creating, managing and interconnecting vast stores of data, and it was so simple that almost anyone could use it. Almost.

At the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications, an undergraduate named Marc Andreessen was taking the next logical step. Working from Berners-Lee's foundation, Andreessen developed a more user-friendly method for viewing pages constructed using HTML. He created Mosaic, one of the earliest web browsers, and the first to run with Microsoft Windows. Andreessen then used his Mosaic technology to found a company (Netscape) and re-launched his pioneering web browser as The Netscape Navigator. Initially distributed for free, Navigator had finally made the internet's store of knowledge readily available to anyone who could click a mouse. Images, text and soon even video and audio files were accessible via the internet by anyone anywhere. Navigator forced software behemoth Microsoft to develop its own browser, based on earlier versions of the Mosaic technology, which, when combined with Microsoft's best-selling Windows 95 operating system, propelled the web into the mainstream consciousness practically overnight.

By the mid '90s, Berners-Lee, Andreessen and Microsoft had made good on the promise of the information superhighway, developing a system by which an ordinary person, with little or no computer expertise, could browse the web, finding answers to questions they never knew they had and filling their days with the pursuit of nearly limitless knowledge. It was all, literally, just a click away, and the clicking hasn't stopped since.

Those who owned computers and paid for accounts with internet service providers after the arrival of Navigator most likely spent the better part of their time sitting at a desk in front of a computer either A) designing and publishing web sites, B) browsing web sites created by others or C) both. What these innovators soon discovered was the joy to be found in sifting through nearly limitless information, and - by clicking a mouse - examining everything. A web site created by a man in Wisconsin to display pictures of his cats, for example, could contain a link to a site devoted to the making of bombs from household chemicals, which could (and usually did) lead to a site containing another person's half-baked theories on every possible conspiracy since the dawn of time, which would eventually lead the user back to a bona fide (if misquoted) university source on the nature of all of the above.

The usefulness of the majority of this information aside, collecting and examining it became an activity of its own. Very few people would ever make their own bomb, but knowing how to do so was exciting. So was the idea that every bit of information contained in every library in every city of the world could one day be accessed with a web browser, then clicked and examined endlessly.

What is Your Quest?
By the mid 90's, the web had become so thickly populated with data that an entirely new technology, the search engine, had become an indispensable tool to help ease the strain of this embarrassment of informational riches. The earliest search engines were merely web-based extensions of pre-web search technologies (programs like Archie and Gopher), but it wasn't until the 1994 release of the aptly-named WebCrawler that the search engine as we know it today came into being. WebCrawler was one of the first engines able to search the entire text of an HTML document. To find a document anywhere on the web and literally "go" to that site, a user need only type a single word into Web Crawler's text entry box. The answers to most questions and the solutions to most quests could be found, just like in the text adventure games of old.

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