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The web at 30: Down the rabbit hole of history

Where does the time go?

Windsmith/Gifer.com

Unlike some of my my colleagues, I have a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad memory. It works like a movie montage, all fast moving, achronological cut frames and fiction. So when asked to reflect on the World Wide Web for its 30-year anniversary, panic ensued as I desperately tried to remember something relevant. 

Then I turned to the web. 

Thus began a fall down the rabbit hole from 2019 to the 1980s. There I spent way too many hours whacking through the undergrowth of memory lane.

In March of 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee was making history, I was an assistant editor at PC Magazine, writing an advice column on topics such as "formatting a 720K floppy disk to hold 1.44MB."

Surely there would have been at least some mention of such a momentous event in an issue that year? Or the next? Not that I could find. And that's partly because we rarely realize history's being made while it's happening. 

But it's also because we're celebrating an anniversary of the nascence of the protocols and technologies which underlie the web -- HTML, URL and HTTP. They distinguish it from the underlying architecture of the pre-existing internet, but ultimately were a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the web to sprawl globally.

The next and arguably more important 30-year milestone, Aug. 6, 2021, is the anniversary of the first page published on the web. Or maybe it's the anniversary of the first browser, NCSA Mosaic, coming up in April 2023, that delivered sound and graphics to the formerly all-text web.

Without the web, my life would have been vastly different -- I've been covering it and coding it, well, since 720K floppies were a thing. 

Thanks to Google Books and the Internet Archive I've been able to reconstruct my work history through bylines and author bios and find articles I'd assumed were lost forever. I've also been able to separate the facts from misremembered fiction. But a lot of it's still gone, with sites eaten up and spit out by larger owners before they had a chance to be memorialized.

pc-mag-publish-without-paper-grunin-screenshot

A long-forgotten story written during a mostly forgotten time when the web was in its infancy (written during fall 1994).

PC Magazine via Google Books/Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

Through some freak of brain chemistry, I remember my CompuServe user ID from 30 years ago. On a whim, I searched for it today and discovered that in her 2016 book Life by Satellite, Christine Burns had incorporated a 1993 forum thread I'd been involved in about why there weren't more women online. It's a snippet of the past which might as well be someone else's for all the bells it fails to ring.

Hopefully, when the next anniversary rolls around and I've forgotten it all again, these digital milestones of my life will still be freely accessible. Looking back also makes me nostalgic for the idealism and naivete of the early internet era. In the May 30, 1989 issue  of PC Magazine -- which, by the way, featured reviews of 25MHz Intel 80386-based desktop "screamers" -- columnist William Zachmann extolled the virtues of cyberspace. He wrote that, "anybody can participate without leaving the office (or home) ... And unlike Gibson's cyberspace world or Castaneda's world of the shaman, the possibilities of mortal danger are extremely small." 

Or maybe not.