The feeling of power

posted 10 April 2005

Being a programmer with an interest in web design in 2005 is an amazing feeling. Everywhere I look, I see the technologies that I live and breathe being put to use. Hastily, yes, inexpertly, yes, and all too often by people who were the lowest bidder rather than the people who knew what they were doing. But the fact that the clueless person who hired someone to (say) design a train ticket ordering kiosk in ASP on Windows* was aware enough of the value of the Internet to even decide to hire anyone for that job is one that thrills and excites me.

It's hard to explain, to anyone else, why the sight of a touch-screen web kiosk on Argyll street should make me giggle with glee. I mean, I'm the web developer, right? The endless utility of web technologies should surprise me less than anyone else, right? But there are three main reasons why the ubiquity of web technologies makes me giddy.

The first and most obvious reason is a smug sense of satisfaction: I know how this stuff works, and you sheep don't. Ha ha! For I have all the mental maturity of a five year old who's had too much sugar. The sight of yet another (usually poorly designed and/or broken) web kiosk is just so much more job security for me. The ones who, back in 1996, said that e-commerce was a buzzword that wouldn't change anything, and that the grandiose visions of the Internet being available on every street corner were just pipe dreams really are being proven wrong every day, and much sooner than I expected they would: though I have to remind myself that it is 2005, fully a decade after I jumped onto the already-moving Internet bandwagon.

The second is a sense of incredulity that comes from the really intimate relationship I have with web technologies. Unlike most programmers who occasionally spit out web stuff, or web developers who learn the language without questioning its precepts, I have approached the web and Internet technology in general from both directions, and as much as I love these technologies, I know that they are, at best, an ad-hoc solution to the problem at hand, and more frequently an ad-hoc solution to a completely different problem. In the same way that tool use and language have produced the bulk of the human brain, but the whole edifice is still a grossly oversized lobe sticking out of the top of a confused and angry lizard brain, the modern web has been repeatedly stretched, twisted and mutated to support the ever-expanding range of uses to which it is being put. I am amazed that people trust this technology to do anything, far less the business-critical functions to which it is increasingly applied.

And finally it is a just pure joy that the web really is living up to my expectations. My dreams, and the dreams of the hundreds and thousands who sweated to build the technologies I use, are being constantly realized. In 1997 web developers announced to the world that the day of the middleman was over, and that travel agents and electronics stores would die as everyone shopped online in the perfect market and found the best deals for themselves online. Today, there are still travel agents and electronics stores, and the market is far from perfect, but hardly anyone now would just walk into a shop and choosing an item without researching models, prices and reviews online first. The web is no longer an amazing new technology, it is a mundane, everyday technology. That is a triumph.

Do not, however, think I am taking any credit for all of this. In the evolution of the Internet, I have been nothing more than an early and enthusiastic cheerleader so far. I understand the technologies that power the web, but I didn't shape them. The companies I have worked for have not pushed the envelope, technology-wise. And I am sure there are other people in other industries who have experienced the rush of possibilities. In the past, they might have been builders of railroads and electricity grids, and today I am sure microchip designers, and possibly nanotech and biotech specialists know the joy of riding this wave. I know that even in relation to web technology my position is far from unique, though I will contend that it is rarer than you'd think.

But there is a temptation to call the game too early, to say "the web is here now, it's everyday, the exciting times are over". I believe nothing is further from the truth. The exciting times have only just got started after a decade. Consider when electricity, a new type of network, was new and exciting. Networks were flung up across the world and soon electric light was an everyday experience, just as web browsers have blossomed everywhere. But with information networks spreading ever further and growing ever more capacious, the browser is the simplest, most trivial thing you could think of to plug into the network. The technology is barely out of its infancy; it has a long childhood to go and a painful adolescence yet to face, but eventually it will be a revolution as deep and fundamental as even the wildest pipe dreams of the mid-90s.

And yes, I have a humble proposal, currently eating up every moment of my waking life, about how that childhood will go. It may fail, but there is no reason to believe that it cannot succeed. Embracing the Internet and learning about every facet of it that I can has been my career and most of my life to date, and it was undoubtedly the smartest thing I have ever done. But if my big dreams come true -- and I admit that they are huge and ridiculous dreams, but so was the Internet, and it happened -- then the smartest thing I will ever do is yet to come.

* A decision roughly along the lines of a little pig choosing straw as a load-bearing structural material.

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