⨳ 11 June 2021
The digital experience has outgrown the names we commonly use. Now is the time to think deeply about what we call it.
The Internet is a bad name. We could have done much better. The same is true for The Web.
We’ve used many names to describe the technological experience that began with messages we could send from one computer to another and has expanded to encompass the majority of interactions we have on a daily basis; many of them are useful labels for discrete parts of the whole that have, over time, become the common vernacular for the whole.
Some of us call the whole thing The Internet, when technically, the internet is — as once unfortunately put — a “series of tubes,” or the physical infrastructure which enables digital communication. Sometimes we call the whole thing The Web, which is actually the name for some of the file-based content layer accessible via the tubes; some, because — again, technically — it doesn’t include content that can’t be reached by a URL. We’ve stumbled into naming conventions due to the complexity of the whole and the time it has taken for that whole to mature and unfold over our culture. We’ve needed a name for that thing so we can talk about it with one another, and as long as we all know what we’re talking about, the name itself shouldn’t matter much, right? Actually, I think it does.
In the early days of the Internet, many of the first technological pioneers referred to what they were building as the Information Superhighway. That one didn’t stick, and we should be glad for that. It focuses on the speed of it all, something which certainly needs no extra emphasis. Back then, it took the better part of a minute to load a small, pixelated image — hardly fast by any means. Today, information travels so fast that it’s no longer the speed of transfer we feel, but the speed of creation and existence — the speed of information itself. A name which focuses on that aspect of our digital world would hardly benefit anyone’s psyche.
Similarly, The Internet can be conceptually parsed and found wanting. It’s about the internal, unseen network that powers it all. Calling this digital world we’ve constructed The Internet is like naming a room after the knob of its door. And The Web — a thing made by one creature to catch and kill another, a tangled structure of interconnections — is no longer an image that serves us well. Conceptually, it was never right, but today, when most content is technically not part of The Web, it’s mostly a misnomer.
So what would have been better? Each of these names was invoked to refer to a piece of the technological whole and was used so frequently that it became a pragmatic shortcut for the whole itself. The Internet is the digital world’s Kleenex. But there was another, early piece of the digital whole that had a perfect name. We used it too early and let it go too easily.
Mosaic was the browser software that exposed many of us to the internet and the web for the first time. It should have become the name for the entire experience. A better name is not just about clarity, though that matters quite a lot. The right name would have allowed us to better understand, protect, and nurture this thing for what it truly is — the first civilization-wide, simultaneous, collaborative cultural expression in human history.
The first web browser was created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990. He called it WorldWideWeb. Sometime later, in order to clear up immediate name confusion between the browser and the Web itself — the World Wide Web as indicated by the www before every web address — Berners-Lee renamed the browser Nexus. This was an excellent name. Nexus means connection in a conceptual way; it can refer to an overlap or meeting of ideas as accurately as a junction of wires or roads. Its explanatory scope beyond the physical and into the idea space is what made it a great name. It’s too bad it didn’t last.
Meanwhile, another browser was being created by a group of researchers at the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, both programmers working at the NCSA, collaborated on a new piece of software they hoped would improve upon Berners-Lee’s Nexus. At that point, web pages were text only, and though the concept of a text hyperlink created a flourishing of interconnected information, it lacked a visual expression. Andreessen and Bina fixed that by creating Mosaic, which included both a more visual interface — graphical, clickable buttons for navigating and configuring the web browsing experience — but also introduced the image tag into the hypertext markup language (HTML) that powered the web itself. That enabled creators to put images onto their pages. There were other improvements in Mosaic, too, that assisted it in ushering more people than ever before into the digital space. It was so good that Tim Berners-Lee gladly endorsed it, forwarding Andreesen’s announcement to internet user groups in January of 1993. You can actually read that message today; it’s been archived by Google for posterity.
The enthusiasm around Mosaic was appropriately worldwide. Less than a year after its announcement, Mosaic was featured on the front page of the New York Times business section. The quotes were effusive: “Mosaic has given me a sense of limitless opportunity, which is the reason that I went into computer science in the first place”; “an applications program so different and so obviously useful that it can create a new industry from scratch”; “Mosaic is the first window into cyberspace.” In 1995, Bob Metcalfe, co-creator of the ethernet technology which powers the internet’s local networks, wrote that, thanks to Mosaic, “several million [people]…suddenly noticed that the web might be better than sex.”
Andreessen, in a move that would define his career far more than the creation of Mosaic itself, realized that if he remained with the NCSA, the ownership of Mosaic would remain with it and the potential to wildly profit from it would be lost. He gathered a few colleagues, left the NCSA, and founded Mosaic Communications Corporation, which, in true internet history form, was quickly renamed to Netscape Communications Corporation after a copyright dispute with the NCSA over the name Mosaic. This, to fittingly muddle terms yet again, was not just another one of the countless legally and fiscally banal turns in our digital history, but a truly profound nexus at which the philosophy of the digital experience would be fundamentally and permanently undermined by the preeminence of capitalism. To be free to ride the soon-to-crest tidal wave of licensing revenue, Mosaic simply needed a new name, and in a world in which the dominant digital power was named Microsoft, just about any would do.
The transitional nature of technology in the mid-1990s created a quite dated lexicon with surprising lasting power. Most of the names of the technology and corporations of the time were literal and prosaic. Microsoft is a fine example of this, as is Silicon Graphics, International Business Machines (IBM), America Online (AOL), Compuserve, and so on. There were, of course, less straightforward names invoked in the early days that have lasted, too. Names like Apple and Yahoo!. As playful and non-objective as these names are, they lack a conceptual depth just as those that focus too much on the serious, object-orientation of the technology itself.
A good name, especially for something like software — which is inherently metaphorical — will itself be made of layers of meaning. It should work, in the parlance of intellectual critique, on many different levels. It should connect with the human experience in a manner that speaks to the future by way of those enduring aspects of our past which we choose to carry forward.
According to Internet oral history, Mosaic was named for its design. As the first browser to combine all the existing internet protocols within its architecture, it was, literally and metaphorically, a mosaic — “a combination of diverse elements forming a more or less coherent whole.” Befitting all good names, though, is that nested meaning again — the way the name harkens the past, represents the present, and projects the future. In Mosaic was a reference to an early art form creating uniformity from disparity. In it was also a nod to a contemporary advance in internet expression in its ability to bring visual elements to a web page. And in it, by my retrospective view, was a powerful view to the future — a prediction of the internet and the web as an inconceivably massive, living work of collaborative art.
The history of the mosaic as an art form is a fascinating story that, when generalized, sounds a lot like how we might describe the history of the internet so far.
Before the earliest mosaics, now believed to have been created in the Bronze Age (18th-16th centuries BCE), most remaining art forms were cave paintings, petroglyphs, and various constructions. Like anything made then, they of course drew upon various combinations of natural resources — pigments, water, and walls; the Earth and simple machines — but the notion of assemblage was not essential to their being. They were all, of course, collaborative. But in mosaics were new layers of complexity. Text appeared within visual motifs. The choices of materials and how they worked next to one another was part of the expression. And the diversity of a mosaic’s materials represented mergings and overlaps — nexuses — of cultures. It was a maturing of a collective voice, now more aware of a bigger and more complex world. And, as written so well by this modern organization working to preserve the art form, “One of the most fascinating things about the story of mosaic throughout human history is the fact that it has evolved independently within cultures completely isolated from one another.” Sounds a lot like the story of modern digital technology.
In the days just before the internet became widely known, even before anyone used Mosaic, David Gelernter wrote a book about what we were beginning to build. (I’ll head off any distaste at the pass — Gelernter is understandably controversial for his views on academia, gender, climate change, and evolution. Nevertheless, he had a fascinating and prescient view of digital technology that is no less relevant for what he’s put out into the world since.) He called it a Mirror World. For him, all software — from the small stuff like the portals through which we accessed the internet to the big stuff like the internet itself — was a model of reality, a “piece of the real world” represented in code.
I find much to like in the phrasing of Mirror Worlds. Both words are timeless and understandable no matter how you widen or tighten your scope of application. They also bring a certain mystery to their image. The world itself isn’t especially familiar, so to create a reflection is to distort, and to explore it is to plunge into the unknown. Hardly an inviting premise.
But in explaining Mirror Worlds, Gelernter makes a point about grasping the whole that I find essential. It’s what, for me, begins to make a compelling case not for Mirror Worlds as a name for our digital reality, but for The Mosaic.
“Mirror Worlds are devices for showing you the big picture, the whole. Every Mirror World has the same goal, in the end: to show you the whole thing at once, the whole whatever this Mirror World is tracking. Yes, you can plunge in and explore the details. You can meet people and chat, transact business, hold meetings and go shopping inside a Mirror World. ?You can leave your software agents behind. But whatever your particular business, you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid achieving something else as well: catching a glimpse of the whole thing.
Grasping the whole is a gigantic theme. Arguably, intellectual history’s most important. Ant-vision is humanity’s usual fate; but seeing the whole is every thinking person’s aspiration…It used to be generally conceded that whole-sightedness — a due respect for what Madison calls ‘the permanent and aggregate interests of the community’ — was a good thing. Today, all sorts of angry factions are proudly dedicated to the methodical tearing-to-shreds of public life…But whether they are in fashion or not, the whole-sighted citizens are the prerequisite to sane public life. This is true on rational grounds and on spiritual ones. You can’t arrive at sound judgements and good decisions without a view of the big picture — knowledge of the facts in each particular case; but still more important, a habit of thought. The habit of going beyond that narrow self-interested slice of truth that is dished out at every inform-the-public affair, no matter who is doing the serving. Spiritually, the ant’s-eye view means not only that your outlook is malformed, but that you are in a dangerous position: damned likely to get stepped on. You are caught inside something you can’t picture and can’t fathom.”
As a designer, I have always been persuaded that the most valuable skill I can build and nurture is the ability to “zoom in” and “zoom out” at will — to take in the big picture and the details both because it is in that movement back and forth that otherwise missed and crucial truths can be perceived. In art school, the rudimentary practice of this was to stand close to a work of art, then at a distance, then back again in order to understand how various elements and details worked together to support a whole. It was necessary to do this because making an adjustment at close range might ruin something working about the whole, perhaps in an unrecoverable way. Making things became a balancing act of proximity. But once one became accustomed to it, the physical myopia of remaining static for too long was almost revolting. Creation is elastic; so must be a body that creates.
In a mosaic, you don’t need to see each bit to perceive the whole. When you view a Chuck Close painting, you don’t need to scrutinize each little unique visual module to see the face they comprise. But you can, if you like. And that’s the beauty of the mosaic. It sustains its interest and beauty and purpose at any frame of view. It satisfies up-close scrutiny and awes those who stand back. Does not the digital world we’ve created do the same?
Like a mosaic, the digital world is better as a system of next-tos — of juxtapositions — not of overs, unders, nested hierarchies, paywalls, and algorithmic blind-spots. It is a surprising, living whole made by all of us all of the time. It rewards those of us who stay close and those of us who try to step out and back. That is what this thing — this Mosaic — should be. But if we don’t call it what it should be, it will only become something else. We are on a path, though, to a broken experience. The algorithm-mapped, convenience-and-capital-driven digital world is one littered with abysses labeled “Here Be Dragons” which contain us within what we already know and frighten us with peril for crossing borders and inhabiting shared and strange syncretistic spaces. We must resist that.
What if we called this thing The Mosaic? What if we embraced that meaning — the one that is beautiful not by difference alone but by its differences occupying the same space? Isn’t that what we — humanity — are all about? One day, this whole will be so sophisticated, so ubiquitous, so difficult to parse from anything else, that a name carrying a partial technological identity will be obviously wrong. It will need a new name then. We should call this thing what it is. It is art.
Pictured above, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.