Memoirs of a Tech Optimist

I was in graduate school in the early 1990’s when I became interested in the emerging field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).  A core objective of HCI was to design novel technologies for humans to interact with computers.  

To offer a flavor of the time for the uninitiated (or the young), we still revered the Internet enough to capitalize the first letter, access to it was pretty limited and email was a novelty. Usenet was de rigueur for online communities.  William Gibson, my all time favorite novelist, was posting to alt.cyberpunk introducing enthusiasts to the concept of “jacking in” before the Matrix became a movie.

Then everything changed.

Steve, our CS department system administrator mentioned this thing called a World Wide Web Browser.  He pointed me to the source code for Viola, which was a popular precursor to the later dominant Mosaic browser.  I wasn’t sure I wanted the added work, but what really sold me was that he offered to increase my disk allowance from 8MB (yes, megabytes) to 64MB so I could run the build.  There was no looking back.

Big Changes in Tech

It may seem that we see big technology events happen all the time.  After all CES has been going on since the 1960’s, but some technologies are truly transformational.  

The web and the browser made the promise of interactive knowledge a reality to everybody.  The things is, I wasn’t too excited about the Web when I compiled the Viola browser.  Web pages were not that cool.  The real excitement and opportunity came a while later when Mosaic morphed into Netscape and put Javascript in the the browser. We could now build web apps, buy stuff on eBay and pay using Paypal.  Fortunes were made and careers were launched – mine included.

I’ve been getting a distinct feeling of deja vu these days. I was interested enough in virtual currencies to have been impressed with the elegance the Satoshi Nakamoto paper  and later lose some bitcoin on Mt Gox, but it was mostly out of scientific curiosity.  

Then I noticed that people were building other apps on Bitcoin’s blockchain.  Namecoin, this clever distributed domain name registration service that doesn’t actually have a centralized registrar extended Bitcoin.  OpenBazaar, a distributed marketplace without a central authority reminded me of eBay.    The Ethereum blockchain platform now allows me to add programming logic to assets, a lot like Netscape allowed me to add interesting behavior to web pages.  These all seem like niche nerdy experiments.  Until they’re not.  

Although blockchains have become more visible in the last year or so, I believe we’re still witnessing the nascent beginnings of a significant technology shift.  Sometimes called Web 3.0 decentralized blockchain applications could well bring us to a whole new world of opportunities.

Enjoy the ride.



Memoirs of a Tech Optimist

2 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Tech Optimist

  • March 29, 2017 at 10:57 pm

    Faisal, I used email in the 80s on the job (okay, computer companies), and right away I thought I could never work anywhere that didn’t have email. I saw Mosaic in January 1994 at a conference, where Larry Smarr (head of the lab at U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where it was born) revealed it. I didn’t understand the significance fully at the time but clearly this room full of digerati was impressed. The browser made the internet fun and visual and interactive. Things will continue to evolve, as you say, with more in store on this ride.

    (I also remember seeing the internet for the first time in the local public library. The librarian asked, “Where do you want to go?” I had no idea and suggested a school, I think. What came up was all text, on a teletype if I remember correctly, line by line. So I wasn’t too keen on it yet either.)

  • April 5, 2017 at 8:03 pm

    Ah, Mosaic!How far we’ve come and yet how similar the innovations pushing us forward now look to these early ones. I now work for OB1, the company building OpenBazaar, and came across this post in our web alerts. I just wanted to stop by and say it was a nice jaunt down memory lane & say thank you for mentioning our marketplace in your Big Changes!


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