Week 4: 1989–1994
Hypermedia: The World Wide Web
In the late 1980s, the Usenet group rec.arts.movies channeled its users’ cinephilia into an increasingly comprehensive list of movies, actors, and directors while offering a forum for rating movies on a scale of one to ten. Col Needham, a young computer engineer at Hewlett-Packard in Bristol, combined these two projects in a package of database scripts in 1990, creating what would later become the Internet Movie Database several years before the popularization of the Web.
By 1994, IMDb was already one of the most popular websites in the world when a movie parlor game swept across popular culture. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon first appeared on MTV’s The Jon Stewart Show when three college students explained their belief that Kevin Bacon was, as they put it, “the center of the whole acting universe.” Stewart tested the idea, leading with the comedian Joe Piscope. They rattled off the now-familiar script: “Joe Piscopo worked with Danny DeVito in Wise Guys. Danny DeVito worked with Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Coocoo’s Nest. Jack Nicholson was in A Few Good Men with”—pumping their fists in unison—“Kevin Bacon.” The game would go on to be the subject of a book, appear in a sitcom and Visa commercial, and turn up as a staple assignment in computer science classes. While it is possible to imagine Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon arising without the Web, the game so perfectly tapped into the power of computer databases and the unique features of hypertext that the phenomenon deserves to be thought of as the cultural flip side of these new information technologies.
This week we’ll look at the early years of the Web, considering the introduction of hypertext, the rise of the graphical user interface, and the first web browsers. We’ll also go back to an important, though never built, precursor to the hypertext concept, Vannevar Bush’s postwar vision of the Memex, a personal work station meant to provide researchers with a way to navigate the ever-expanding archive of scientific texts. Using this comparison, we’ll see what ongoing problems hypertext and web browsers sought to solve and what cultural assumptions they perpetuated, given that among the proposed uses of Memex’s search and retrieval mechanism was to match queries to criminal records, prefiguring today’s concerns about racial profiling and predictive policing. Ruha Benjamin calls this problem “The New Jim Code” to call attention to the infrastructures of racial bias that have been built into the internet. After all, search results only turn up what is in the database to be found. How that information is compiled and linked together determines in large part what users will see. In a similar way, it is notable that Samuel L. Jackson (no. 12), Morgan Freeman (no. 20), Whoopi Goldberg (no. 121), Denzel Washington (no. 293), and Pam Grier (no. 429) all stand higher on the Center of the Hollywood Universe List than Kevin Bacon (no. 543). That Bacon became the figure of a general principle of connection is somewhat random, but it is also worth considering whether the datasets of popular culture in the 1990s spit out a biased result.
• Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.
• Paul Ford, “What Is Code?” Bloomberg, June 11, 2015.
• Sanjana Varghese, interview with Ruha Benjamin, Guardian, June 29, 2019.
Primary Sources and Artifacts
• Tim Berners-Lee, “The WorldWideWeb Browser,” “What Is Hypertext,” and “A Little History of the World Wide Web,” W3.org, n.d. The inventor of the World Wide Web recounts programming the first web browser, explains hypertext, and provides a timeline of web breakthroughs.
• Tim Berners-Lee with Mark Fischetti. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web, by Its Inventor. Harper Business, 2000.
• Ruha Benjamin. Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Polity, 2019.
• “Technology, Optimism, and Race ft. Ruha Benjamin,” The Received Wisdom Podcast, October 29, 2019. Interview begins at 15:30.
• “Chapter 1,” Internet History Podcast, January 25, 2014. Part 1: Mosaic. Part 2: Creation of Netscape. Part 3: Netscape, the Big Bang.