Design Science

T. +44 (0)20 3772 5404

Science communication
by design

Reflections on the world’s first website and 20 years of the web

Submitted by Phillip Kent
1 May 2013

The ‘web’ is 20 years old (on 30 April). CERN has a project ‘first website‘ to recover the earliest web sites and technologies, and here is their re-creation of the first website.

I felt a genuine thrill looking at this page. I was ported back to my own experience, circa the spring of 1994, launching my first webserver and creating a website. The thrill of that time was about a fundamental change in the distribution of knowledge – the sense of transition from previous-available technologies (ftp, gopher) was huge. I still remember it vividly.

Ha, how primitive we will say, now. Text with hyperlinks. No images, no aesthetically-designed font sets, no page layouts, and so on and so on.

But it’s worth re-looking at that first website for a moment. The motivation is: open sharing of structured information. Publishing by all, for access by all. Operating on open protocols and technologies.

The web today is bloated, over-commercialised, overly-obsessed with ‘graphic design’. Good design is very important, and hard to do. But so much of the time people expend on websites is not ‘good design’, it’s hours spent negotiating browser incompatibilities (lack of adherence to standards!) to make something work for all users. Or fussing around with appearance when information content should be the greater importance.

To be sure, millions of people can publish and share through blogs. What is (still) missing is a shared engagement with structured information at some kind of abstract level (some kind of ‘programming’). The experience is mediated within a graphical lining. There are extraordinarily huge commercial forces whose interest is to keep it that way. Yes, you may blog, but it has to be wrapped around with all the advertising crap that we require (and we offer you a piece of the action [I wrote first – exploitation], a fraction of a penny for every ‘click through’). Big corporations build up this mediated experience to higher and more sinister levels.

This is not the original vision of the web. To be sure, the vision lives on though numerous projects, communities, activities. But it is not winning. Cost is on the flip side of all this. The internet cannot be free, it costs physical energy to store and transport electronic information. If you insist of experiencing the web for free at the point of access (the dual meaning of ‘free’ – free as in speech, or free as in beer), then you must pay for it in other ways.

  • CERN's recreation of the first website from 1993