• 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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