Wednesday December 9, 2009

The Explosive Arrival Of A Monster
by Courtland Shakespeare

One of the most significant turning points in the democratization of knowledge was the IPO (Initial Public Offering) of Netscape in 1995. Every person born since that day will never know what the human world was like before there was a "web browser."

Former computer scientist, Jim Clark, founder of several behemoth Silicon Valley technology companies - including Silicon Graphics Computers (the prime choice of early 3D special effects houses such as ILM aka Industrial Light & Magic) - was also responsible for Netscape.

Clark also helped develop one of the first Very Large Scale Integration systems at Stanford based on what they called the “Geometry Engine” or “pipeline.” It made use of unique hardware for accelerating the specific computations required by 3D.

It’s what made movies like Terminator 2 and Toy Story possible. SGI was the indisputable world leader of the 3D development and authoring platform in the 1990s - despite their extraordinary individual work station price. Each CPU was 2 to 3 times the cost of an average car today.

Recently filing for bankruptcy protection, SGI is now all but forgotten today and so is Netscape, but the technological advancement Mr. Clark's companies represented 15 years ago had the effect of a hydrogen explosion in the realm of information access. Netscape gave people graphical access to computer servers all over the world. In a way, it could be compared to the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1430s.

Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen (who was 23 years old at the time), basically invented the “browser.” It was originally called Mosaic, but no matter what you call it, the browser transformed the “exchange of information” forever. Back in August of ‘95 the stock was set to be offered at $14 per share. On the first day of trading, the value per share reached $75. Clark’s initial personal investment of $5 million turned into $2 billion.

Initially unforeseen by hardware manufacturers and authors of operating systems, it also launched what became known as the “Browser Wars” due to the arrival of Microsoft’s Internet “Explorer” which points us toward the abuse of monopoly law - AOL and Time Warner entered the battle for web dominance and contributed to its headline courtroom drama of the late '90s.

The tip of this info-iceberg recently came into view while I was at a session of café scientifique (a worldwide forum for group discussion and audience involvement about the latest ideas and issues in science and technology).

The first café sessions were held in the UK as far back as 1998, but now they take place all around the world including 15 in Canada. The Ontario Science Centre helps organize and support the one in Toronto. Check them out at

The latest topic asked was, “Is Technology Ruining Our Lives?” and the two speakers were Bryan Karney (Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, U of T) and Mark Federman (Doctoral Researcher at OISE, U of T). Mark calls himself an “organizational philosopher and therapist” and an “observer of the world through a McLuhan lens.” He has been Chief Strategist at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.

What Mr. Federman pointed out was how information has always been the commodity of power. Controlling it was self-reinforcing, but when access became available through the evolution of communication technologies, society basically mounted a monster. The trouble is now how do you dismount?