Typography for the Web of Information

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Foundation Technologies

At it's most basic and general level, the Web is a technology.  Built atop many layers of software and hardware, the Web the product of years of research and commercial software development.  It would be beyond the scope of this document to detail these technologies in great depth, but in order to facilitate an aesthetic, we must first understand the underlying technologies which drive the Web.

Web Origins
First and foremost, it is important to differentiate the Web from the Internet. The Internet is a physical network of computers; the Web is the browseable, viewable, readable, searchable information source which resides on top of the Internet.  Often, these terms are used interchangeably, but the distinction is important.

Most trace the conceptual origins of the Web to CERN(1), the European Organization for Nuclear Research.  In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee(2) and his colleagues envisioned a system for creating a sort of group-editable information store, which would allow scientists to publish, edit, and disseminate their findings over the burgeoning Internet.  Predominantly limited to scientific, academic, and, military use, the Internet's potential was recognized, but there was no easily accessible way to utilize it without extensive computer knowledge. 

Berners-Lee's 1989 publication of Information Management: A Proposal, would expand upon concepts first explored in the Fifties and Sixties, namely the concept of a decentralized, nodal, communicative information system, commonly known as Hypertext.(3)  The Hypertext concept, coined by ACM's Ted Nelson in 1965, described a sort of 'living' text, in which text could be 'linked' to other text, eventually creating a 'web' of information. As stated by the W3C: "Hypertext is text which is not constrained to be linear."(4)

By 1993, pioneering experiments at CERN had laid the foundation for the modern Web.  The WorldWideWeb Project, as it was known, had created many of the fundamental tools necessary for Web serving and browsing.  While the Web was unknown outside of academia, and lacked many of the graphical, usable tools now ubiquitous and indispensable to Web use, the groundwork for http (hypertext transfer protocol), had been laid.  HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) emerged as a subset of SGML as a lightweight manner to 'mark up' (describe) textual data.

That same year, Marc Andreesen would release the first graphical Web browser "Mosaic for X" a UNIX-based client which would become the precursor to the widely used Netscape browser.  Within a year the NCSA would release Mosaic for all modern computing platforms.  Within 2 years Web traffic would triple, CERN would abandon the WWW project, and the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) would be founded.

The NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications) at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign would play a crucial role in the development of the web through the 1995 release of Rob McCool's NCSA httpd, the first truly modern web server.  The easy installation and use of the httpd enabled Web servers to be installed on nearly any UNIX system, and would contribute to the rapid growth of the web.

Since 1995, Web servers and browsers have continued to evolve from their simple beginnings, into complex software packages which have become fundamental to modern computing.

Base Technologies
The impact of these most basic technologies cannot be understated.  The simplicity and efficiency of Web software is arguably the most important factor in it's popularity.The technologies of the Internet itself are also cortical.  These technologies,well-established at the birth of the web, would mold the web both technically and ideologically.  Briefly, these technologies include: the UNIX operating system, which runs Web software, BIND (Berkeley Internet Name Domain ) which allows for the familiar 'www.something.com' naming syntax, and TCP / IP, a suite of networking protocols which allow for data transfer over a physical network.

The NCSA httpd, which would later become the Apache httpd, is the most popular Web server in use today, and one of the most widely used pieces of software of all time.  Combined with Mosaic / Netscape, and the lightweight http messaging protocol, these packages form the backbone for Web service on the Internet.

Most importantly, most, if not all of this software remains free and open.  This means the source code for these packages, the actual programmer's code, is freely available for anyone to modify and distribute.  Without this, it can be argued that the web may never have reached it's current state of popularity.  The academic concept of free software and a free idea exchange remains intact with the work of Richard Stallman's FSF and GNU foundation, as well as the work of thousands of volunteer engineers throughout the world.

Current Technologies
Networked computing, or computers communicating with each other, is a concept built in to each and every commercial computer sold today.  Networking is seen as critical, and allows for complex information systems to operate regardless of physical location.  Business, government, and personal computer users have grown to depend on services offered by networked computers.  The Internet and Web are probably the most visible of these systems, but non-Internet networking remains in use in many critical information systems.

Programming, the ability to specify command routines for the computer to execute, is the fundamental use of a computer; computers in themselves are useless, it is software which gives the machine purpose.  Since the NCSA httpd, the Web has possessed a rich suite of programming tools, ranging from user-oriented scripting languages to more fundamental network programming.  Simply put, everything on the web is the result of programming, and no Web site could exist without thousands of lines of dependent code.  Current Web programming technologies are allowing for the creation of Web-based applications, which have proven a cost-effective way to offer large-scale services to large groups.

With the growth and popularity of the web, the volume of data has increased exponentially, causing increasing difficulties in managing and organizing this data.  Modern browsers have added capacity to display images, sound and video, as well as numerous other media. The CMS (Content Management System) has emerged as a way to simplify and streamline large-scale digital document production.  Drawing on technologies already in use in the pre-Internet era, modern CMS' allow non-savvy users to create, publish, and organize data, often publishing this data to the web, print, or other media.  Most large organizations rely on complex CMS and DM (Document Management Systems) to handle their vast amounts of content.

Future Technologies
In keeping with the vision of the Web's founders, the future of the Web lies in it's role as a universal data exchange: a place where information of all types can be published, sorted, searched, and retrieved.  This concept of open dissemination of information is unique in it's scope: not since the printing press ha such a breakthrough in publishing been created.  That being said, the current incarnations of Web technologies have not met this challenge, instead seemingly having been diverted into the realm of commerce.

While commerce-driven web technologies have fueled software development on the Web, it has done little to advance the actual exchange of data which forms the essence of the Web. Proposed technologies using 'self-describing' data, through XML (eXtensible Markup Language) attempt to supplant the document-centric Web and allow for a more seamless exchange of heterogeneous information.  The concept of a Web Service, despite being red-hot marketing hype, promised to separate the programmatic web from the literary, allowing authors to concentrate on the what, instead of the how.

Finally, it appears that in just over ten years the Internet and Web have become commodity.  The ubiquity of Web publishing on the personal, commercial, and national level has breached the boundaries once imposed by physical publishing.  While commodity status serves to solidify the web as a concept and technology, the realities of the web show that no paradigm is safe from complete upheaval.  As the discussion shifts from technology to design, it becomes evident that the commodities of technology form the basis for creativity.