I, Website

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I am a website
– an ordinary website familiar to all boys and girls and adults
who surf the Worldwide Web (technically, what you are seeing is
just a web page, but the collection of pages around me form the
website). My vocation and avocation is to inform those who visit

You may wonder
why I should write a genealogy. Well, a web spider came to visit
and she told me about this page I,
written in 1958 by a fellow named Leonard Read. So, it
got me thinking and made me realize I’m even more of a mystery than
the pencil in that story.

You see, the
pencil had a small inscription on it, whereas my pages have thousands
of words. The pencil’s label had to identify its type but my words
convey much more than that. They may communicate or inform, they
may persuade or entertain. The words are put together according
to rules that were developed through hundreds of years by people
speaking English. The words themselves are made of letters which
are put together following another set of rules. However,
as in the case of the pencil, no mastermind dictated or forced
these rules on the rest of the people. Oh sure, some kings, presidents
and the like have tried to control or distort the language, but
for the most part, it was developed by ordinary people trying to
communicate with each other.

But the content
of a web page reflects much more than the grammar and spelling rules
of the language. More importantly, it results from the amalgamation
of thoughts and accumulated experiences of the page’s creator: his
upbringing, the subjects in school that attracted his interest,
the books he found compelled to read, the activities he engaged
in on his own, with his friends or family, or at work or other settings,
and conversely, the disappointments or challenges that he faced
and how he dealt with them. Likewise, the books he read, the discussions
he had with others and similar interactions were distillations of
the thoughts and experiences of those other men and women. The only
“mastermind” that directed all this was the consciousness of each
individual involved.

The pencil
in the story was not able “to name and explain all [his] antecedents.”
I am afraid that not even by pointing you at an encyclopedia
(wouldn’t you know it? another website! and it even “speaks” different
languages), would I be able to convey the richness and complexity
of what has made it possible for you to read these words on your
screen. But allow me to give you a flavor of the major components.

Ask an electrical
engineer and he’ll tell you that none of it would be possible without
the “hardware” powering the website and the computer on which you
are reading this. He may tell you about the Intel CPU acting as
the “brain” of the web server, and the several other “chips” (integrated
circuits) that assist or control other hardware such as the disks
where my pages are stored. He may explain that the chips are made
out of millions of transistors. If he is fond of history, he may
bring up the names of Gordon Moore, Jack Kilby, William Shockley
and other semiconductor pioneers. Maybe he’ll tell you that early
computers used vacuum tubes, as did old radios. He may be able to
trace back other significant contributors to using and understanding
electricity such as Thomas Edison, Alessandro Volta, Benjamin Franklin,
Charles de Coulomb, and possibly the ancient Greeks that experimented
with amber.

A software
engineer would remark instead that all the hardware would be “lifeless”
without the web server, operating system and other computer programs.
Indeed, these words are coming to you courtesy of an Apache
HTTP Server
and were originally written on a system running
Debian GNU Linux, both examples
of collaborative efforts of hundreds or even thousands of free and
open software enthusiasts. Maybe you are reading this on a Mac running
OS X or a Dell PC running Windows, other examples of software (and
hardware) jointly developed by multiple individuals. In some instances,
some person may have “masterminded” a project by directing the software
design, but the ultimate test came when the programs were downloaded
or purchased and put to use, and kept or discarded, depending on
whether the software satisfied the needs and wants of the consumer.

A network or
communications engineer might object, saying that the hardware and
software are insufficient without the wired and wireless means of
interconnecting the computers. The electrical engineer would have
to agree, perhaps citing the work of Alexander Graham Bell, Guglielmo
Marconi, James Clerk Maxwell, and again going back to the ancient
Greeks and magnetite. The software engineer would concur, reminding
the others of the work of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and
the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) in developing “protocols”
by which programs can “talk” to each other.

A web designer
would emphasize the elements of style, navigation, design, art,
aesthetics and human communication, relevant to getting the message
across to my readers. An advertising agent would point to the presence
or lack of ads on my pages. An entrepreneur would remind the engineers
that hardware must be manufactured, raw materials must be mined
and so forth.

An economics
professor, like the pencil in the story, would highlight that “millions
of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even
knows more than a very few of the others.” And what is even more
remarkable is that only a handful had the goal of creating this
website in mind. The Apache Server came much earlier and is used
to run millions of other sites. When Linus Torvalds announced his
project via Usenet on August 25, 1991, Tim Berners-Lee’s first website
was barely operational, yet Linux now powers millions of computers
and not only for the purpose of hosting a website. When Jack Kilby
came up with the concepts that enabled him to create the first integrated
circuit, it would have been hard for him to imagine that ICs would
become ubiquitous in so many uses 50 years later.

The professor
would also reflect that when an individual, maybe you the reader,
decides to save some of his or her earnings, perhaps for retirement,
and invests in a company in the technology industry, he or she is
making a contribution, even if small, to keep the company and the
industry moving forward. Conversely, when an individual “consumes”
by acquiring a product or service available on the web, even if
the item is “free of charge,” he or she indicates a preference that
tells web entrepreneurs to direct more of their resources towards
that area.

On the other
hand, the professor would say, when a government entity interferes
in any of these processes, its results are less than satisfactory.
This is easy to see in direct interventions such as taxation of
transactions or regulations that restrict investment or commerce.
It is less obvious in other instances, even when governments are
purportedly acting with “good intentions.” For example, the U.S.
Constitution states that “To promote the Progress of Science” Congress
may grant an “exclusive Right” to inventors for a limited time.
Jack Kilby was one who availed himself of this “right,” but imagine
what could have happened if some of his inventions had been freely
available as much of the web software is freely available today.

So I must say
I agree with Pencil’s concluding remarks: “The lesson I have to
teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely
organize society to act in harmony with this lesson.”

4, 2008

Joe Abbate
[send him mail] is a
computer programmer in Florida and webmaster of FreedomCircle.com.

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