Episode One: The WEB Is. . .?

Old Dog Tray

When we think of the World Wide Web, it should not be as a silly alliteration for a passing fad. Although the WWW came about by convenience and accident, it has accelerated its usefulness into near dependence for many people and for most businesses. The days of "wait and see" are over. The Web is here to stay. Nonetheless, defining the Web is not easy or obvious. Most people would conclude that it is a "technical" wonder. But actually it's a mess of old technology juxtaposed to provide us with new usefulness. It's a tangle of phone wire, radio waves, old "junker" computers and many "junkie" computerists. It's fun and informative, but above all, it's a new method of communication; and then again, not so new.

"Technical wonder?" In classes I have taught on the subject, I often sing, "What's technology have to do with it?" to the tune of "What's Love got to do with it?" Other than the infrastructure, which has been gilded to girdle the world since the second World War and the PC revolution, the essence of the Web is NOT technology. It was devised for universities to share their scholarship. In fact, because there was some technology involved, a new formatting language was devised to put the technology in the background. This of course was HTML, Hyper-Text Mark-up Language.

Hyper-Text, or the ability to link words and phrases to "further information", footnoting and cross-referencing, is no more than exits on the information super highway. If we were on vacation, they would be signposts reading "Scenic Overlook Ahead", "Historical Interest Point 2 miles", or "Grandma’s House – over the river and . . ."

Mark-up Language is an old typesetting device used in editing and formatting. You take a plain, old piece of text, Mark it Up in red with Mark-up language and the typesetter knows exactly how to arrange the type. Mark-up Language is older than me. Tags used for photo typesetting and languages like CORA have been around for many years before the Web. In fact, for those of us who remember the ancient days of word processing, in 1983, let's say; we used TAGS to tell our old, non-Hard Disk, Personal Computers how to format documents.

So what's new? "Simplicity", that's new. What’s new on the Web; we can create and receive clear, well formatted, well-illustrated documents in a simple, intuitive manner, OR we can also have the opportunity to create dismal, poorly designed documents that need another revolution to clarify them. The most important thing; however, is, it is our "choice." We can go to the Web and surf (and stay) or shut the machine off and play poker. We can design the Sistine chapel or the crapper of Baron Munchausen. Our "choice!" BUT, and this is a big but (thus in caps), we can do all this with relatively "little expense."

Aha! The key to it all! "Relatively little expense." It is almost, if not cheaper than, telephone communications. We all know how clear and cheap the phone company makes it for us. I have 5 phone bills; 1 in New Jersey for local calling, 1 in Pennsylvania for local calling; 2 long distances bills for those 2 sets; and the ever popular wireless phone (bill). Add them up - $170 per month. For what? Am I paying for their expansion of quality cable in Zimbabwe? I make very few long-distance calls (that's what the phone at work is for, he he) and local calling is confined to a dinner reservation and on-line connections. What am I paying for? Great communications? No, I am paying for the "technology" - all those unseen cables. All those unseen phone repair people. All those invisible operators and assistances and tri-tones and multiple choice automatic voice routing crap that has made a simple "Hello! Watson I need you," into "Can you hear me now? Good, I'm glad you can't!" What was a democratic form of communications has become autocratic; or rather technocratic. It's the American way.

Revolution Anyone?

The World Wide Web, with its inexpensive method of communications is nothing less than a revolution. It allows any piss-ant, like myself, to pick up a book, learn a little language, learn a little design and launch a little page. I can say what I want, where I want and how I want, regardless of the odds against my voice being heard above the gazillions of others who have discovered democracy on the web. You can even be democratic in a areas where government does not allow you to express an original thought.

The only way to stay democratic on the Web; however, is to remain independent of the "corporate" web. You might say, this is a slam on corporate America; that Corporate America is trying to suppress democracy and free thinking in the work place; but actually, when I say the "corporate" web, I speak not of the corporation; but those little pieces of the organization that stake a claim to the web to the exclusion of others. These are the technical departments, the marketers and branding police; and the web design companies that provide a venue to keep the Web complex and burdensome. Not all technologists are technocrats; nor are all market professionals burdensome; and, certainly, there are some good, non-parasitic web design companies out there in the dark.

Here’s an example from the PC world of the late 20th Century. Prior to the Web revolution, there was a revolution in DeskTop Publishing (DTP); there still is. At one time, publishing and the publishing process was the sole domain of professionals. It was a complicated, professional and expensive process, which involved several key people. With the advent of such software programs as PageMaker and QuarkXpress, one could design, typeset, photo-layout and even print professional looking pages using equipment you already possessed. It also eliminated several people in the process and reduced everyone to a "publisher of one." This is what I call, the "democratization of the publishing process." Think of it - You too can be a Peter Zenger! The power of the press! Now, this does not eliminate the Publishing Industry or we would not be sipping mocha in our favorite Borders; however, it opened a vast creative void that otherwise would have spent its time on the couch watching repeats of Friends. I do remember the time when publications were complex deals. I now see assistants and secretaries doing design work of all kinds. Who does the executive typing? Why the executive, from his laptop on St. Croix. Now, that's democracy!

The publishing industry survives despite the host of good design and bad typography emitting from the color printers of the world. There were attempts by some technologists to take advantage of the situation. For a time, type-faces were exorbitantly priced; until a "font-war" occurred between Adobe and Microsoft, bringing the prices down. "Software Wars" always benefit the consumer ultimately; although they do complicate the creative life. On the Web, we had the "Browser" Wars, between Microsoft (what is it with Microsoft) and Netscape. The result - better browsers.; the complication - some incompatibility in reading specialty HTML. In short, anyone can pick-up their mouse and write (and publish - God save Kinkos) the great American novel. The only thing missing was the pipeline - the means of distribution. Enter THE WEB.

The Means of Distribution

Since Web Pages are easy to create and upload, the human species now has a method to individually distribute their ideas, designs, messages, religions, hobbies, plans, products, loves, hates, physiognomies (porn), pet pictures, picture of their pets, novels, plays and their passions. "What does technology have to do with it?" If you are looking for an audience for "whatever", you need to consider "people".

The Web is not a machine place; it's a people place. If you want to sell peanut butter, sell it to people - don't let your technical team devise a strategy to manage the security of the network to prevent hackers from getting into the nut jar, so to speak. Just sell the friggin' peanut butter. Hire yourself a community college student (or me) who will listen to your peanutty story about your peanut buttery passion and let the jar rip loose, cheaply and effectively. The Web is a "people" place.

"What does technology have to do with it?" Well, technology does have a place; a backroom place. I do not pay to see a play starring the stage crew; and although the stage crew raises expenses, because they are union, so do actors. Bad example? No, because in many ways, like DTP, Web design is a one-person show - a democracy.

In addition to being an easy, cheap and effective method of communications, the World Wide Web is a source of fun, for the visitor and the web designer. Add constraint to the design, you squeeze out fun for the visitor, or ex-visitor as we call unsatisfied customers. There are many great tools to supplement this fun including PhotoShop and other Photo darkroom programs, Flash for animation and beyond, and interactive languages that are FREE and easy to use, such as JavaScript and PHP4. All of these allow the web designer, that is any person who can read and learn, to become an engine of creating interesting, interactive web pages - that is applications - that is, programming. Well, "thems fightin' words!" Any person who calls themself a web programmer just because they publish successful, well designed, functioning web applications, without going through the pain and suffering of the "programming Holy of Holies," is an impostor. But let's face it, with the Web comes the threat of the "democratization of programming," which makes for bad vibrations in the temple of St. BitsnBytes.

The Dream of Gerontius

For over a decade, the pundits of technology (the technogists) have talked about the wonders of "client-server" technology. I myself published such a work. Guilty as charged! This told of how the Personal Computer is attached to a central server-computer which "serves" files and information to all requesters. One storage unit with many requesting units. One sow with hundreds of suckling piglets – the great mother teat for the world. Shades of Erda!

Client-Server technology had all the great compelling motives, which have come to serve the technologist's reason for living.

1 - It was expensive to implement, but promised savings in the long-run;

2 - however, it took so long to implement, the long run never showed up.

3 - This means lots of projects, applications, applications to fix applications - hundreds of programmers, network designers, walls of requirements, with total involvement of the corporate psyche and culture. In short, a long, drawn-out, expensive, draining, wonderful experience.

4 - And since no one survives the experience, except the technologist, a win-win for the banks who accept the eventual receivership.

The WEB however, spoiled this dream of Gerontius. Who would have thought that cable would be able to sustain continuous transport of information, packet messaging? Who would have thought that the Internet would provide an emailing system, which made every PC a valid address for all other PC's? Who would have thought that some company or companies would create an information interpreting application, which everyone could have for free? (Drum-roll) the Browser. Yikes!!!! A technologists nightmare! But, as you will see, there's an old adage, "if you can beat 'em, join 'em," or "head 'em off at the pass!"

There's another adage. "Hope springs eternal." This book deals with many of the foibles of web design when controlled by the corporate organization. However, I believe the true nature of the Web will prevail. The possibilities are tremendous; in fact, mind bending.

China and Cherokees

I have a master’s degree in Chinese History. What does that have to do with it (or the price of tea in China – he he)? Well, the first time I sat before my browser and in less than a minute I surfed to Beijing University, I was astounded. I was absolutely flabbergasted by the experience. Of course, I was not in China that day. Instead, I downloaded a piece of China. It came to me. We tend to think of ourselves on the Web as travelers. The Web architects have foisted this on us; however, we are actually receivers of information. When we consider as web designers that our designs are actually delivered and distributed physically to other places, the metaphor is more powerful. I write a poem. You are looking for a poem. You download and read my poem. My poem effects you. You need to tell me. You send me email and thank me for writing the poem. The possibilities of human communications are astounding; and I truly believe that all the folly will be overturned. Indeed, that is my poem to you.

So, the Web is a virtual communication environment affording the human species the means to express their humaness and distribute it to the four winds. My Cherokee ancesters invented the only native North American alphabet to express their language, a difficult, but beautiful language. The Cherokee word for writing is Go-hwe-li – which means talking leaves; because, my people viewed the "new" way to communicate as a means of sharing and distributing ideas. You write on the leaves; and the leaves scatter to the four winds. These new-fangled concepts reach back to a fundamental human need to share and to be heard. The Web is nothing more than new leaves in the wind.