In 1980, Tim Berners-Lee, an employee of CERN (the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland), was looking for a way to share documents and information with mainframe computer users no matter where they were in the world. He ultimately combined the use of hypertext with networking, calling his creation the “World Wide Web.” He intended the name to distinguish his new interconnected approach to information sharing from the linear, hierarchical system he believed it would replace.
Although I was an early adopter of computer technology — I took a loan to buy my first computer in 1981 — my technological trajectory intersected with Berners-Lee's creation more than 10 years later in the heart of California's Silicon Valley. While I was visiting my rocket-scientist younger brother, David, in his NASA office at Ames Air Force Base in Mountain View, he showed me something on the computer that he called a “browser.” He “downloaded” several documents — song lyrics, as I recall — and explained how the underlined words would “link” to other documents, which in some cases were accompanied by the image of the person who had created them. Too slow, I remember thinking while waiting for what seemed like hours for each new document to load. Too undependable; it will never catch on.
When you're wrong, you're wrong. And it wasn't the last time. Ten years ago I struggled to see the value in something called a Palm Pilot. David said it would replace address books and paper calendars; sure it will, I winked. Wrong. Five years ago, the rocket scientist was among the first 300,000 owners of an iPod. He said it would let you carry all of your music with you wherever you went; I wondered why on earth you'd want to. Wrong again.
This summer, David showed me a portable computer keyboard made up entirely of light projected from a device about the size of a small aspirin bottle. He says some of his co-workers have already used it to replace their regular keyboards.
I'm still no futurologist, but now I'm much better at seeing what's right in front of my face — especially if it's part of my brother's gadget collection. This newfangled keyboard isn't just wireless, it's keyboardless. I can't help thinking that's a metaphor for something. In my own work we're investing in technology that will not only reduce our reliance on paper-based systems, but also make it easier for us to publish material to the Web.
David saw it coming 15 years ago. You want to argue with a rocket scientist? Be my guest.
Sal Alfano, Editorial Director