It’s hard to explain the monumental character of the changes ushered in by the worldwide web, which turned 30 years old yesterday (and so, by its own cultural standards, is too old to exist anymore). Some have compared the web, along with the internet, to the invention of the car, or the harnessing of electricity, or even the invention of fire. These are all reasonable comparators, particularly in the case of electricity, which, in its way, also connected the world.
But I’d like to suggest something different: that when Tim Berners-Lee wrote the code that became the worldwide web, he was far more like the first shipbuilder who made a seaworthy craft. I’ve often compared the internet to the ocean, it’s a metaphor that fits all manner of situations. I believe that the internet should be regulated like the seas (freedom, transparency, global cooperation and commerce), I believe teaching children about the internet is like teaching them to enjoy the ocean but to respect it as a dangerous place beyond their control — which is why we, literally and figuratively, have waded into the ocean and the internet with our own children.
The internet confounds us because it is definitively a human creation, but we can’t encompass or understand it — it is a paradox of our own creation. Water is a paradox too: it covers the globe but nowhere do we live on it in numbers; it gives life to every plant and animal, unless they ingest too much, in which case they die; a single coin cannot float but millions of tons of precious metals drift in happy suspension through the oceans; it connects us, it sunders us, it intrigues us, it ignores us.
The internet is the ocean, the web is the boat. It sits atop and navigates the endless fathoms of information, data, content, thought, image, sound, fury, tragedy, and triumph of human activity created, posted, and shared throughout the world. And, for most of us, there is never a need for our boat to dip below the surface to explore the unplumbed profundity of the depths.
It’s important, I think, to recognize what that boat-ocean metaphor means. The web, and indeed, the internet are not the output of human thought and activity, they are the means by which we gain access to that output. Just as a book is not the information it contains, and Magritte’s pipe was not a pipe, and the person you display on your Instagram is not really you, the web and the internet are metonyms for the knowledge and content they access and present to us. But the boat is not the ocean, and the internet is not everything it contains.
This is why the idea of the internet as a library doesn’t work now, if it ever did. A library is a repository of information, a collection of curated works. The internet contains many libraries, but where in the library do we place the work I do for clients on, in, and through the internet? Or a video chat between a child and her grandfather? Or a proposal? Or a purchased bicycle? Or a networked game? Or a crime?
A library, too, is a passive place, something acted upon. We go, we take a book. The web is an active tool, our ship, and it requires our constant attention and our care, if we hope not to sink. Many have heard the famous line from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” It is a stunning phrase, capturing again the paradox of the sea. But the line just before should be remembered, too: “Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink.” The ancient mariner sails his ship across a planet covered in water, and yet the boards of his boat still shrink and warp as though they were in a desert. We can only navigate the seas if we understand the dangers, and try to harness the potential together. Sir Tim built the boat; we have to set our course.
Here’s to many more years of happy sailing to you.