The Web; Europe and the US; Diversity and Harmony

Draft for a Time International article on the Web, and the question of whether Europe will necessarily be dominated by the US.  June 1996. Edited a bit in 1997. The Time International article was seperately edited and is therefore different.

Ok, so the first thing you imagine is that the future of networking in Europe is going to be much like that in the US, only a few years behind. and there's plenty of reasons to think that. It's the Anglophone market block of North America which gives the US launch of anything a jump start on the a Eurolaunch. Its the cultural deference that the US is a nation of doers rather than talkers. There's the lack of entrepreneurial spirit, which in Europe sometimes we believe left for good on the Santa Maria and the Mayflower. Gimme a break...

When I designed a global hypertext system, and decided for better or worse to call it "World Wide Web", I was pretty much a European - an Englishman working in Switzerland and living alternatelly in France and Switzerland. I belonged to a number of different overlapping communities. I was also a member of the international community of high energy physics, and of another community, the global internet community of the strange, informal, tolerant and predominantly technical people who sent news articles and electronic mail over the Internet. Neither of these communities were related to geographical borders. Since then, the spread of the WWW has left many people asking whether in a few years the geographical boundaries will be completely irrelevant, and if they are, what will be left.

This leads to some fundamental questions as to what it will be like to exist on this earth when we all have access to the network. Things are changing very rapidly, and any doubts we have about the developed world being online are rapidly disappearing. Predictions of the effect on society range from the horrific to the idyllic, and sometimes the difference between the those two is a matter of point of view. I'll consider some worries about that far off future, but first let's think abut the next few years.

The Web has rushed through the United States like a forest fire in a way it cannot in Europe. The heat of excitement in the content already on the web fuels the pouring of greater and greater resources into providing more content, more facilities, better organization and cataloging. The spread of servers fuels the spread of the clients and vice-versa, as each morsel of information, no matter how esoteric, is available to anyone who may be interested in it throughout that largely mono-language monoculture which is, (in broad oversimplification typical of a European!), the United States. There is an incredible economy of scale.

Europe, however has firebreaks between its cultures. The vicious circle of growing server deployment and readership exists, but it happens slower. If you put up a web page on, say,  the local breeding grounds of the gerbil, you will attract gerbil fanciers only of your on language. If you start a discussion on the delights of Real Ale, the wine-drinkers further south won't contribute to your audience. Add to this the historical fact that the Internet was invented in the US, and that in European states in the past an emphasis on an independent set of protocols has manacled the development of communications, it is not surprising that Europe seems to be following the US a few years behind.

That is not to say there are not a lot of things which European states can do individually and collectively to make things happen faster. Allowing a stiff open competition for getting Internet packets into and out of people's homes as cheaply and efficiently as possible is part of it. Telecommunication monopolies cannot fall too soon. Although in the US the market seems to be set for funding the long distance links indirectly through individual subscriptions, there is no evidence to me that this is working for international traffic. When people ask whether there is a possibility that the Internet effectively grind to a halt under the load, I answer that it already has. The transatlantic public Internet is overloaded to an appalling extent: access is slow to unusable. In the long term, many argue that the problem of bandwidth is in the "last mile", from the nearest exchange (sorry, the nearest Internet router) to your home. In the short term, though, I am quite happy to browse at 28.8kB if only my share of the long distance links can keep up. For Europe as an entity to hang together in cyberspace, it must have good international links within and to the US. If market forces are not paying for this, then as a non-expert in telecommunications policy I can only conclude that it is up to the governments to step in and fix it. Bandwidth is one of the simpler things to fix.

If all the saturated international links were suddenly to be upgraded to ten times there bandwidth, I am sure they would be saturated again the moment folks found out about it. There is a lot of potential use of the web now which is just abandoned because it is so excrutiatingly slow. The moment that the time it takes to follow a hypertext link is again more like a second or two, use will soar again. And if you believe Europe getting on line, this is what you are after.

Yes, a lot of people in Europe mostly browse the US, as that is where most of the content is. If anyone should think that slowing down transatlantic traffic is a solution to this, let them think again. To do so would be to give up and imagine that once Europe has caught on, that it will have nothing to say for itself, nothing to create, no culture to put across and celebrate. If you think that, stop reading, stop thinking.

So in Europe we have a challenge to communicate more between cultures. The great thing, of course, is that if one does go to the effort of bridging the gaps, the rewards are so much greater. The web removes the geographical impediment to mixing - but will the cultural barriers survive? Will we end up with a global monoculture, or a mix of cyberspace meeting places of unlimited variety? We have to gaze into our crystal ball, imagine a wired European household.

Let's suppose we end up with screens everywhere. I call them "screens" rather than "computers" or "televisions" because that is primarily what you experience, and because the insides of a computer and the insides of a TV will become indistinguishable. Imagine we have a big screen in the living room, a small portable one on a bracket on the kitchen wall, and enough pocket-sized ones that, like ball point pens, no matter how many you lose you can always find another one. Each provides a window onto the universal information space, the Web, though they differ in the quality and speed of access.

In your (Dutch, say) suburban home, the kitchen screen's preset buttons are set to your favourite places: the weather map, the school Parent Reminder page, an oldies station and the family's mailboxes. One is set to the web site of a small italian town twinned with yours, where you were learning some language and art from some net freinds in the rotary club there. Ready for a change of culture, you link though to Italy while filling the dishwasher. Each of you has been brought up with a different slant on the Renaissance painters, and you are fascinated to learn more about the Italian scene.

Suddenly  your conversation is interrupted as in skates your eldest, with a crowd of friends, He has just reached the age of digtal choice. Your rights to select material suitable for his viewing have ended, and he flourishes his newfound adultcard with mock carelesness as he authenticates himself to the livingroom screen. The preset buttons now all glow with his personal choice of gruesome entertainment. A face floats across the screen: te search machine has shown him a random one of the 643,768 people world over whose personal reading profile is identical to his. Pretty cool figure, he smirks. To be on the top of the normal curve you have to surf carefully, and always stick to straight media gulch sites. It takes a certain sense to select only the places which you can guess the majority of your teen group will be chosing. He knows that though he might live in a small town in the Netherlands, he is right in the center of the main trend, he feels the strenth of being exactly in tune with all his seen and unsen colleagues. And he knows he wears and eats exactly as they do.

You feel uneasy about this, and discuss it with your Italian friend. She is concerned too, though she has a refreshingly different attitude to the problem. Her eldest is just the same, but she is convinced he will be over it by the time he's nine. Your offspring are making a headlong dash for the oblivion of conformity. But aren't you also quiety mixing your Dutch and Italian cultures, and silently htreatening both?

European countries have been studying the pros and cons of sharing or protecting their culture for a long time before the Web came along. We have lost Cornish, but there is an attempt to preserv French by law. It is reasonable to be worried. Most of the structre of our society has been based on geographical boundaries of one sort or another. The stability of kingdoms has been determined by such geographical constraints such as the time it takes to gather troops, or ride to the capital with a warning of incoming invasion. A huge amount of the hierarchical structrue of or world is based on the two dimensional space which the Web is pulling from under our feet. However, my observation of that early Internet culture was that geography-free though it was, it ended up dividing into smaller and smaller enclaves of person specific interest.

In fact, theer are two equally frightening prospects. On the one hand is the descent to the lowest common denominator, often represented by  US fast food and cartoons, with the loss all that is rich and diverse.  On the other, is an extreme of diversity. When anyone can filter mail so that they can read only mesages from people who think the same weird things as themselves, and when what they read on the Web they only find by following links from sites of the same strange cult, will they be able to gif themselves intoa cultural pothole so deep and so steep that when eventually they physially meet a real person on the street, the lack of common understadning will be total, and the only fom of communication left will be to shoot them?

The key to avoiding each of these is in our own individual behaviour. The univerality of eth web includes the fact that the information space can represent anything from ones personal private jottings to a polished global publication. We as people can, with or without the web, interact on all scale. We are like pixels in a mandelbrot set: we are part of the detail on every level of scale.  By being involved on every level, we ourselves form the ties which wevae th elevels together into a sort of consistency, balancing the homogneity and the heterogeneity, the harmony and the diversity.  We can be involved on a personal, family, town, corporate, state, national, union, and international levels. Culture exists at all levels, and we should give it a weighted balanced respect at each level. In Europe, there is perhaps one more level of culture.  Our job of maintaining that balance is just that much more difficult, and that much more rewarding.

(c)TimBL 1996,1997