I shouldn’t admit it, but — what the heck. I haven’t read the Sprawl Trilogy. Until this weekend. After falling prey to another round of the seasonal crud, and with the long Memorial Day weekend in sight, I dove in.
The books aged extremely well. It was too easy to ignore the awkward artifacts of the 80’s culture and go with the smooth and intricate flow. It felt just right. Not the mind-boggling, monolithic Stephenson’s universe that pounds you with all its kilo-page might. It was gentler and more focused on the characters, rather than the surrounding gadgetry and sound reasoning behind its existence.
Anywho. I walked away inspired. The Sprawl was a tantalizing illusion, my brain spinning in a vertigo of subconscious attempts to fill in the missing engineering details. But in riding this high, I also felt disappointment. It’s 2009, for crying outloud. Where are the AIs? I mean those that can reasonably fool a Turing test? Where are the consoles that connect you directly to the full sensory representation of the Internet? And hovercrafts?! I want my frickin hovercrafts!
How is it that we are still tinkering with a 10-year old hypertext format, asymptotically trying to make it work right on our respective rendering engines, bolting new steel plates on the old wooden boat as it creaks, sinking further under the weight of our add-ons? How come there’s a whole echelon of computer industry burning midnight oil congealing bits of CSS, HTML, and JS into the scary, scary nonsensical frankensteins that we call Web sites? And how come it is so hard to build and grow these sites — not to mention use them?
Where have we gone wrong? Perhaps it was the naive notion that HTML wasn’t just an accidental leader of the rising wave, that it was somehow special, because it was just like text and thus “easy of use?” I shudder even typing these three words. Or was it the idea that the Web is what it is and shouldn’t break it? Or maybe it was us, proclaiming that content is king and that the vehicle didn’t matter? We’ve become content with what we’ve got. Even new aspirations, however alien, look suspiciously like the same old stuff.
But yes, we are where we are. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be anywhere. Right? Riiight. We have this spec, called HTML5 and we’re trying to make it work. It’s better than what we have today, and it is a step forward. But on the big scheme of things — is this what we need? Small, painful incremental steps on the burning coals of the Web as we know it? Is this taking us somewhere? And if it is, are we there yet?
Are we there yet?