|The Information Revolution: The Not-For-Dummies Guide to the History, Technology and Use of the World Wide Web|
|summary||A guide to the World Wide Web that strays into shadowy territory|
The author's goal in writing this particular book is, first, to create a somewhat comprehensive overview of the World Wide Web. This is not to say that this book is an Internet Yellow Pages, like the myriad website guides that came out during the Web's early days. Rather, the book approaches the concept of the Web from the perspective of a total Web "newbie", discussing its precursors, its creation, its evolution and, to an extent, its future. For total newbies, this may seem a bit too thick (hence the book's subtitle), but for others much of the material will seem too basic; at one point, the author states that it's a surprise to most people that the web was created for the purpose of publishing as well as reading content. Such a fact is hardly a surprise to the average Slashdot reader, and certainly not to the masses currently posting on MySpace, YouTube, LiveJournal, and other MixedCaps websites which encourage self-publishing.
Overall, the book succeeds fairly well as a history and an overview. The stickier issues occur when the author occasionally drifts away from "unbiased history" and closer to "hopeful prophecy." One goal of this book, in the author's words, is to "to help others recognize and appreciate how the Web empowers individuals and why the egalitarian composition of the Web is so important and revolutionary." Later, he states that "no one individual or organization can argue that they have a larger or more prominent location on the Web because the Web does not include any type of hierarchy that makes such distinctions possible." This is true on a basic structural level, but anyone who knows about Google Page Rankings, the limitations of "free web page" providers and other issues (such as the net neutrality battle brewing in Congress) knows very well that there's a definite hierarchical structure to the Web. Joe Bagadonutz' Geocities Tribute to Donuts is certainly less prominent than the Tim Hortons home page when it comes to donuts; even if on a theoretical level they're both equal under the eyes of the Web, in the real world all websites are not created equal.
The book is divided into nine chapters (numbered 0 through 8), each covering a different facet of the Web in roughly chronological order. The first three chapters cover the creation and structure of the Web, and are presented in terms of what people did to get the Web to where it is today. The next three discuss the Web in terms of Information, Multimedia and Business, and discuss where the Web is today in terms of what it provides to you, the consumer. The final three chapters cover more personal matters, including home pages, Internet security and privacy, and the Web's Semantic future.
Chapter 0, "The Pre-Web Internet and Information Management," covers about 5 decades of time, from the 1940s through the creation of Mosaic in 1993. It discusses the gradual creation of what we now know as the Web, including both specific technologies such as Archie, Gopher, WAIS, etc., as well as more basic functions such as searchability and the notion of hyperlinks.
Chapter 1, "The Web is Born," spends a lot of time with Tim Berners-Lee, dwelling in the 1990s. It covers topics such as the first website (at info.cern.ch, which no longer exists), the multi-platform Mosaic browser, the Web being declared public domain, the browser wars of 1994, and the ultimate triumph of Internet Explorer. Though comprehensive, the chapter has a tendency to skip around in time, sometimes going back and forth from 1995 to 1994, then forward to 1999 and back to 1995; a purely chronological structure might have proven more readable. The material here also tends to dwell a bit too much in the realm of what could have been, sacrificing some relevant detail about what actually was. For example, some amount of time is given over to discussing "the Web that was lost," the NeXT computer and browsers with self-publishing tools built right in. However, Internet Explorer is acknowledged only in terms of its original Mosaic-based version (described as "weak" and "slow"), and its ultimate victory in the "Browser wars" is mentioned only in passing in a sentence that mentions Netscape being bypassed in 1999. Whether or not Microsoft is the "bad guy" is irrelevant; more equitable coverage of their victory would seem to be in order here.
Chapter 2, "The Mechanics of the Web," is a bit crunchier, discussing everything from DNS to HTML in some detail. It is perhaps the most illustrative example of the book's difficulty in appealing to a single audience, because much of the material here is not technical enough for geeks, while simultaneously being a bit too thick for total amateurs. There are also several minor details that will have geeks groaning: previous chapters referred to the triad of HTTP, HTML and URI (as on page 82), but here it's suddenly HTTP, HTML and URL (on page 110), and a sample of HTML code on page 139 is missing a tag.
Chapter 3, "The Information Web," discusses means of sharing and searching for information on the Web. Much of the coverage is fairly broad in scope, such as the concepts of information filtering and "push vs pull," but specific technologies such as cookies, bots, spiders and proxy servers are also given a few pages each. Some of the author's conclusions here will seem a bit odd to those more familiar with the Web. For example, on page 151 he directs readers to research various search engines to determine HOW they search, in order to pick the best one for a particular search; such a direction seems well-meaning but impractical at best for most people. A few pages later, he says that "many companies have found that unrestricted access to the Web leads to a significant amount of lost work time...". Not backed up with specific stats or a citation, it's questionable why such a statement is presented here in this format. This is nitpicking, however.
Chapter 4, "The Multimedia Web," takes us back into the crunch, covering specific technologies such as various audio types (mp3, midi, RealAudio), video types (quicktime, Real, mpeg) and true multimedia (java, flash, vrml). As elsewhere, what's most notable is what's absent, with no mention of Windows Media; love it or hate it, it's arguably the predominant format on the Web, and it seems disingenuous to simply omit it, for whatever reason, particularly when lesser technologies (QTVR, and even Yahoo's Fish Cam) are covered.
Such "errors by omission" become more apparent in Chapter 5, "The Business Web," which, as the title suggests, covers businesses that have succeeded and failed on the World Wide Web. Failures covered include WebVan, Kozmo, Pets.com, eToys and GovWorks, and successes include Netscape, Amazon, Ebay, Yahoo and Google. The coverage of Google and Netscape, in particular, represents the most serious issues I have with the chapter, and the book as a whole. Google is covered mostly as a search engine, and while Froogle, Answers and Groups are mentioned, the author goes so far as to say that "individuals do not have the same kind of incentive to return to Google that they have elsewhere," a statement that obviously does not take into account Gmail or Google Talk.
More egregious is the coverage here of Netscape as a success story. In the three pages devoted to the company, we learn about its 1995 IPO, SSL, SuiteSpot, Communicator, and its becoming a subsidiary of AOL in 1999. However, there is not a single mention of AOL's shirking Netscape in favor of IE, the buggy (and late) Netscape 6, or, in fact, anything to indicate that Netscape had a rough patch. We all know this particular emperor lost his clothing; why not mention it? Search Google for "Netscape downfall" and you get over 100,000 hits; here, you don't even get an inkling that anything is wrong. Perhaps it's merely an oversight. Later, on page 237, Netscape Communicator is mentioned along with IE as one form of free Web software, with no mention of Firefox, Opera or Safari, all of which (according to my own web stats) have a far greater share of the market than Netscape at this point.
In Chapter 6, "The People Web," the author's intended audience becomes a bit more clear, as he asks "Do you have a home page? How about your son or daughter, or perhaps your grandmother?" In short, he is speaking to moms and dads, not geeks or grandmothers or even teens. On page 247, a recitation of the things websites can be used for includes baseball card collections, health issues and music, but not porn or shareware. Turn the page, and the author prompts you to "pick your favorite celebrity, go to a search engine such as Google, and enter his name. Unless you have chosen someone relatively obscure, you will be amazed at the number of sites that are found. What is truly impressive, however, is the quality of many of these sites." Even more impressive, and yet not mentioned here at all, is the plethora of websites given over to celebrity nudes. Yet later, ample space is given to discussion of job hunting, web dating, and genealogy, but blogging is discussed with nary a mention of either LiveJournal or MySpace, making it feel as if this particular chapter was written a few years ago. This is not a discussion of what's on the Web; it's a discussion of what you want your mom to think is on the Web.
With that in mind, Chapter 7, "The Shadow Web," is all about how to scare your mom by telling her about how scary the Web can be. This is the chapter she's going to ask you about the next time you're over for dinner. In the author's words: "The shadow Web captures and tracks our movements as we browse and click our way across the Web. It knows which browser we use, which operating system is on our computer, and roughly, if not exactly, where we and our computer are located." While true on some level, the deeper implication here is that the Shadow Web is like something out of a movie starring Will Smith and Sandra Bullock, in which the bad guys are always watching you, everywhere. To be sure, there are concerns (NSA monitoring, wiretapping, etc.) but here even mundane things like Cookies and Web bugs are made out to be spookier than they are.
On Banners: "The amount of data generated by these banners is enormous; it is all about us and our use of the Web; and it is accumulating at an exponential rate."
On Web logs: "So every time you load a Web page, at least one Web server, and often more than one, adds a series of lines to its log files with information about you, the date and time, and the requested information."
On Web bugs: "...it could just as easily be recording that YOU loaded the page..."
You, you, you. The Web is tracking YOU personally. This is at the very least misleading. Certainly, these technologies track and record information about our computers, our IP addresses, our Internet connections. And certainly, they can track more if we log in or give them permission. Nothing that the author says in this regard is untrue. But here, the discussion of these technologies intentionally takes a personal tack, and the only comparison I can draw is to those websites that pop up and warn you that "Your IP address has been recorded." Of course it has. That's how it works.
Certainly, it's useful to understand what other people know about you, but it doesn't seem helpful to incite this level of distrust, particularly when the author doesn't provide any solution to the problem. About all he can do is provide this little bit of snark to close the chapter: "Read all the privacy statements you want. The one thing they all have in common is an acknowledgment that information about us and our use of the Web is being routinely recorded." Go ahead, read whatever you want. Throw your hands in the air. There's nothing you can do. It's bad enough that some of our parents don't want to buy things online with her credit card; if they read this, they might not even want to turn their computers on any more.
An anti-commercial, pro-open source bias is also clear in this chapter. The author mentions that his shadow Web first appeared "when commercial Web sites started to appear on the Web," and calls banner affiliates "Organizations that Live Off Our Movements." Why he didn't just use the word "parasites" is not clear, since it's obvious that's what he meant.
Chapter 8, "The Semantic Web," plays Paradiso to chapter 7's Inferno, providing "a vision for the Web of tomorrow" which has as its foundation better classification of links via tagging, with the wider use of XML as the framework for documents and RDF (Resource Description Framework) as the, well, framework for supporting the exchange of knowledge. Some of what's discussed here comes across as a bit hypocritical, especially compared to the previous chapter. For example, page 310 discusses an "agent" knowing your street address and zip code and using it to find stores within a radius of X, but although this involves the Web knowing something about YOU it's presented as less intrusive than the "Shadow Web" knowing your IP address. Even in heaven, it appears we must be tracked.
Later, the chapter discusses the need for a Web of trust, with digital signatures and a web of interconnected, trusted relationships, somewhat akin to what's happening nowadays on social networking communities like Friendster, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, none of which are mentioned here. The ultimate result, the author hopes, is as follows: "If the Semantic Web can establish a global knowledge space out of today's information space, a great many changes in our world and in ourselves will surely follow." Change seems easy to predict; I would have preferred that the author be a bit more bold in his vision of the future of the Web.
The book's Appendix leads off with three pages of timeline through the year 2000 and a chart of the number of sites on the Web from 1993 to 2002, both indications of the book's necessarily limited scope when dealing with a moving target like the World Wide Web. This is followed by 14 pages of Internet Jargon, Netiquette and Emoticons, some of which appear to have been lifted from Dilbert comics, and many of which (e.g., Monkey Bath) have no relevance whatsoever to the book's subject matter. The Index is decent, although the equivalent of one full page is given over to a list of the aforementioned jargon terms, which shouldn't be in the book at all, in my opinion.
Overall, the book provides a good history of the Web and a solid understanding of its fundamentals without straying into the realm of jargon, and it is worth purchasing in that regard for those interested in such material. The problems come later in the book when the author strays into squishier areas, and any "net vet" who's been around since Mosaic will likely question what he has to say.
The author's Open Source bias is also clearly evident in some places (Mr. Okin has among his clients the Open Software Foundation), and for some readers his "blue sky/gray sky" view of things might be somewhat of a turn-off, especially for more jaded readers who are more familiar with the status quo on the Web. At one point, he states that "just beyond the e-commerce portal sites and storefronts and the mass-media newspapers and magazines exists a corporate-free and commerce-free Web of amazing richness and diversity that millions of people have already discovered and that more people are discovering every day."
As with other things, this may be true on a very basic level, but not in any practical sense. Almost every web comic runs banner ads and/or Google Adwords ads. Just about every author (amateur or pro) has got Amazon links and search boxes on his or her homepage. Even Maddox, author of "The Best Page in the Universe" (and one of the most anti-commercial, anti-corporate personalities on the Internet) has a book coming out through Citadel Press; the book briefly hit #1 on Amazon.com as a pre-order only item.
Certainly, such things are a clear sign of the web's empowering, egalitarian nature, which the author rightly lauds. But is that same Web truly, mostly commerce-free? Hardly. The World Wide Web of the future may indeed be Semantic, but that doesn't mean it won't have price tags and bar codes all over it."
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