LMB hack days: Jeremy Keith

An interview with line-mode browser hack day participant Jeremy Keith.

Jeremy Keith at the line-mode browser hack days. The IBM terminal is displaying a version of the first website from 1991 through line-mode browser (Image: Dan Noyes/CERN)

Name: Jeremy Keith
Nationality: Irish
Travelled from: Brighton, UK
Profession: Front-end web developer at design agency Clearleft

Why did you come to the CERN line-mode browser hack days?

I’m absolutely fascinated by web history and where we’ve come from - just a huge fan of the web in general. So any opportunity to be involved in all those interests colliding is great.

Why is it important to preserve the first website?

There’s something about the web that is different to other communication mediums that came before. The web is a very real time medium - we can communicate instantaneously across the world - but it also has this archival nature that’s built into the fact that the URLs are the key “killer app” of the web. Not only can you publish something online but by giving it an address, anyone can access it from anywhere in the world and theoretically, any time. So the fact that the very first website ever made is now accessible from its original URL over 20 years later is kind of mind boggling.

If you think of the way that computers generally work, that just doesn’t happen: CD Roms, native apps, laser discs - whatever it is, there’s a time period built in. They stop working, formats fade away and things just go away and things disappear. That does happen on the web - it happens a lot - but the fact that if we work at it, if we put our minds to it, we can preserve stuff.

Not only is it preserved in the sense that you could look at it in the original browsers that were available at the time, over 20 years ago, but the fact that a modern browser today can still parse and render the first web page ever published is pretty amazing when you compare it to other communication tools. And the original browsers could look at a modern web page and it still be legible.

Why is it important to do this project now?

I think people in some ways take the web for granted. It’s become so ubiquitous and it’s such an amazing technology that we forget to be impressed by it. I think people can be pretty blase about stuff disappearing online. I think this project is a way of calling out the fact that the first web page still exists and is still at the first URL is a cause for celebration. And you have to really work at this.

Also to just show how far we’ve come - to show how the first web page would render on the line mode browser - to show how far we’ve come with our browser technology is an important point. 

Crucially, how much is the same. How much hasn’t changed since those early days.

20 years in terms of most computing things is a ridiculously long time. The fact that the same formats are still being used is kind of unusual.

If we’re looking 20 years into the future, do you think people will still be using this line-mode browser simulator to look back in time?

I sincerely hope that the URL that the simulator will be available at will still be accessible in 20 years’ time. I firmly believe people will still be using HTML. I don’t know about CSS or Javascript, but HTML will be around in 20 years. I believe that even if something happens to this particular instance of the simulator the fact that we’re going to be releasing the code and allowing people to take it and do what they want with it - that’s another important part of preservation - an important part of the web is the fact that it was released for free into the public domain is important.

That’s the case - you’ve got liberal licensing, standardised formats and you’re thinking about the long term. Then year I think in 20 years it’ll still be available.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I’m totally geeking out here. I feel like a complete imposter because there are really smart people here who are talking about recreating entire browsers - which is so beyond my skill level. But I’m just very happy to be here. 

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