Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Where Was It Invented?

A little tat arose during Clay's talk about sources of innovation. Clay had made the claim that most technologies associated with the Internet -- the transistor, the laser, fiber optics, TCP/IP -- were all invented in the United States, and yet we're not even in the top ten nations of broadband acceptance. Someone from the audience brought up the web, which of course was invented in Switzerland (although by an American). I countered that the graphical browser was invented in the US, although some guy next to me insisted that Mosaic reverse-engineered Tim's browser. I had never heard that TBL had a graphical browser before.

Anyway. The point I want to make is less about geography than field. What's interesting to me is that the web wasn't invented by a big computer science research project, but by physicists. It's one of the greatest contributions to information technology, but it wasn't really information technologists who did it (although I'd still maintain that it was the CSists at NCSA who were responsible for its success). This is, I think, one example of computer scientists focus on problems that affect themselves, rather than trying to innovate for a different and new class of users. When I was in CS grad school, you would run your new system -- a new OS hack, a new microarchitecture, a new caching system, whatever -- against a standard set of benchmarks. Those benchmarks were typically things that computer scientists or scientific computing users would employ: simulating water molecules, airflow calculations, big number crunching apps. This is a pattern of use that represents maybe one-tenth of one percent of all users. Maybe. Benchmarking and the whole culture of benchmarking could never invent something like the web.