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Brian Rinaldi
Brian Rinaldi

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Knowing the Web's History is Critical to Its Present and Future

I've always believed in the importance of understanding history. In college, I was not a Computer Science major, but a history major. History is about much more than understanding the past, it explains where we are today, without which we cannot know where we are going. Imagine you suddenly wake up with no memory of anything prior. You are told that the only safe path is to continue forward, but what is forward if you don't know where you've been?

In technology and development, we focus on the idea of progress. The web platform of today, for instance, is better than the web platform of a few years ago and far better than the web platform of 20 years ago. Defining progress requires an understanding the historical context.

But Why Does History Matter for Front-End Development?

History is uniquely important to the web because the web is a platform where we've committed to essentially full backwards compatibility. This backwards compatibility can sometimes extend beyond the platform itself to even the tools developers use to build on it. Let's take a relatively recent example.

Remember "smooshgate"? This was the controversy that grew over the suggestion of slightly ridiculous sounding method name suggestion of Array.smoosh() to flatten an array. Why was this even an issue? Well, because way back when there was a tool called MooTools that was quite popular, and it used JavaScript's prototypal inheritance to extend an array with the flatten() method. Thus, adding Array.flatten() would have broken any existing site that still ran on MooTools. Jay Hoffman, author of the excellent History of the Web newsletter has a great, in depth overview of this.

Another example revolves around Flash and its impact on the development not just of HTML5 but of many of the tools and frameworks that followed its slow demise. As I talked about in What the Web Owes Flash, the web platform spent some time playing catch up to the capabilities of Flash. For example, the 3D visualizations and games that are now possible on the web through things like WebGL and GLSL shaders were possible 8 years ago in Flash using Stage3D. What was done in Flash has greatly influenced how the web platform has evolved to today.

Understanding the History Makes You a Better Developer

Understanding the history improves the depth of your understanding of the web platform. It takes you a long way from just understanding how a feature works to why it works the way it does. Going back to my analogy at the beginning, it also orients you to what direction is forward. Understanding how we got here and why is the best guide to understanding how we can progress.

The importance of the history of the web is why I created Flashback Conference, which is dedicated to covering new features, tools and frameworks on the web platform while also understanding the history behind them.

Flashback Conference

The conference will be in Orlando (my hometown) on February 10-11, 2020. I really think this will be an amazing and fun event, and I've already got some fantastic speakers and sponsors lined up and ticket are already on sale. I really hope you'll join us.

Also, if you love this topic as much as I do, I highly recommend Jay Hoffman's History of the Web newsletter (and Jay will be speaking at Flashback Conference).

Top comments (3)

infominer33 profile image
⧉ infominer • Edited

Yaaas! I love studying the history of the web... also the history of AI is illuminating :D

Just found the Internet History Podcast today and listened to the history of Google's rise to internet greatness emerging from the ashes of dotcom era...

Lately, I've been working on the history surrounding Bitcoin.. and continue digging into the histories of a number of related areas...

I'm def bookmarking ! Thanks

henrihelvetica profile image
Henri Helvetica

Brian M's podcast is fantastic. I can listen to episodes all day. Ran into Chris Wilson recently (who has his own episode re: Mosaic) @ the Chrome Dev Summit. He hit me with more gems. It's an awesome podcast.

infominer33 profile image
⧉ infominer

maybe you already listen to Libre Lounge there is a good mix of historical context with the latest in FOSS.

TheCryptoconomy is my favorite bitcoin podcast, which in a way is mostly history, since it's audio of essential papers\essays. There are cypherpunk episodes, bittorrent, history of money, about the original MIT hackers, all kind of fundamental technical\social topics re: bitcoin... I really like it so I made a page organizing episodes by category
"True stories from the dark side of the Internet
This is a podcast about hackers, breaches, APTs, hacktivism, cybercrime, and all the things that dwell on the hidden parts of the network. This is Darknet Diaries."
Charlie Schrem's Untold Stories are all interviews w people who were part of bitcoin's early history.

ok... so this one isn't tech related (tho maybe everything is in it's own way), but I find very engaging:

All these are available via apple podcasts, which I like to use as a search engine.. then able to search really well within my curated collection, but also search widely (if not exhaustively) for whichever topic I'm trying to get deeper to the backstory of.

Thanks! I'm looking forward to spending more time w thehistoryoftheweb and that internet history podcast both... love the huge sources I can really dive into