1995: The year the future began
Debate flares from time to time about just what the World Wide Web was really like in the mid-1990s, a pivotal time when Internet-awareness became a reality. Is it best thought of as the “Jurassic Web,” as a primitive and mostly empty cyberplace? Or ought we be more charitable and think of the early Web as a frontier of infinite and unfolding possibility?
If you were not online in the mid-1990s, the article declares, “you might have missed the tremendous effort devoted to curating, sharing, and circulating the coolness of the World Wide Web. The early web was simply teeming with declarations of cool: Cool Sites of the Day, the Night, the Week, the Year; Cool Surf Spots; Cool Picks; Way Cool Websites; Project Cool Sightings.”
The article ruminated some about the early Web, noting:
“Twenty years ago, the web was still very much a hobbyist pursuit. The dot-com boom, typically dated to the Netscape IPO of August of 1995, was still a year away. In fact, the Netscape browser had not yet been publicly released.”
A hobbyist pursuit: Fair enough. As I point out in my forthcoming book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, most Americans at that time had not gone online, although most people had at least heard about the Internet, and at least vaguely understood that it was a worldwide network of interconnected computers.
Going online in 1995 demanded no small quantity of patience, as even Web enthusiasts readily acknowledged. Web-surfing in 1995 was, as Newsweek magazine put it, akin to “a journey to a rugged, exotic destination — the pleasures are exquisite, but you need some stamina.”
It’s a telling line, one that I refer to in 1995. I also discuss how the Web’s novelty days are subject to clashing interpretations.
It is not uncommon to look back with bemusement and sarcasm, to liken the online world of the mid-1990s as a primordial place, when the Web was mostly barren and boring, and not a place to linger. Technology writer Farhad Manjoo has called that period the “Jurassic Web,” and observed that what was “striking about the old Web [was] how unsure everyone seemed to be about what the new medium was for.”
Manjoo further wrote: “Sifting through old Web pages today is a bit like playing video games from the 1970s; the fun is in considering how awesome people thought they were, despite all that was missing,” by contemporary standards.
“There’s no YouTube, Digg, Huffington Post, or Gawker. There’s no Google, Twitter, Facebook, or Wikipedia,” Manjoo wrote of the early Web.
Right he was.
A somewhat more charitable characterization was offered a couple of years ago by Evgeny Morozov, in an essay in the New York Times. Morozov lamented the passing of cyberflânerie, the pleasure of wandering leisurely online without knowing where one would go or what one might find.
He wrote that the slowly loading Web pages of those days and the unmistakable “funky buzz of the modem” offered “their own weird poetics” — and the promise of “opening new spaces for play and interpretation.”
But the cyberflâneur has faded away, Morozov wrote, adding that “cyberflânerie seems at odds with the world of social media.” The Web, he lamented, is “no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone ‘surfs’ the Web anymore.”
Well, maybe. It’s certainly not difficult to find ways to squander — or lose track of — time online. (A couple of years ago, the New York Times reported on an emergent “time-wasting gap” between children of poor and well-to-do families, which evoked the rich-poor “digital divide” that attracted much commentary in the 1990s.)
It is, in any case, a mistake to look back and smirk at the undeveloped character of the online world in the mid-1990s, to chortle about the “Jurassic Web.” Doing so is to miss the dynamism — and the insistent “coolness” — of the early Web, and to blur understanding of the extraordinary distances we’ve covered online since 1995.
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