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The Web’s Diversity

I was listening to Shop Talk Show Ep. 522 about the history of the web. The guest, Jay Hoffman, said something that’s been in my head and I need to write it down to expel it.

He talks about how Tim Berners-Lee had a Next computer, but the Next computer was a machine that cost thousands of dollars and not everyone had thousands of dollars to spend on a computer (then or now, really).

“You could not have built a World Wide Web with people using Next computers,” Hoffman says. Instead, the line mode browser was built to accommodate the “least common denominator” on a network of computers.

“How do you make a website work on any device, despite the fact it was made on a more powerful, capable, and expensive computer?” That appears to be a question that has been around since day one on the web.

In a way, it goes back even further than that. In Two-Bit History, there’s this quote about those involved in making ARPANET, a precursor to the internet.

Possibly the most difficult task undertaken in the development of the ARPANET was the attempt—which proved successful—to make a number of independent host computer systems of varying manufacture, and varying operating systems within a single manufactured type, communicate with each other despite their diverse characteristics.

It’s pretty wild when you think about it.

With the World Wide Web, we are trying to network every computer in the world. How could we ever hope for any kind of uniformity beyond an absolutely minimal baseline?

Imagine trying to get all the humans in the world together and expecting everyone to conform to the same sensibilities — food, formal wear, etc. — for the event. It would be madness. People, cultures, and societies vary so drastically, it makes no sense for the organizers to impose their sensibilities on such a diverse group.

Likewise, does it really make sense for us to impose our sensibilities onto the sheer diversity that is the web?

Though often seen as a weakness in contrast to “native”, the web’s diversity is its strength. If you want interesting, there’s nothing more interesting than wild diversity.

It reminds me of the lofty ambition “E pluribus unum”: out of the many, one.

It reflects an essential truth about both nature and human society – that we are stronger and more resilient together, embracing all of our diversity, than we are apart.

The web seeks to find unity in diversity, not impose homogeneity in it. Browser diversity, framework diversity, aesthetic diversity — we’re stronger, more resilient, and more innovative in our diversity than we would be otherwise.

There’s a difference between viewing something as the “lowest common denominator” which can posture disdain and expect conformity, vs. “a varied member” which postures appreciation and embraces acceptance.