My dad told me that Paris would be deserted in August, and right he was. Les Parisiennes leave the capital en masse, leaving behind (so Pascal tells me) only those who work in the tourism industry, a grumpy bunch who would also rather be enjoying the crisp waters of the Bay of Biscay and and all points south. Understandable. As I look out of my hotel window in the IXe arrondisment, it ought to be bustling, and it isn’t.
But I’m here, meeting my new colleagues at Mozilla Europe, in the top secret Mozilla underground bunker once used by the Scarlet Pimpernel himself*. This is the week that I started working for Mozilla, and if I’m permitted one deadly sin before breakfast, I’m proud to work for Mozilla.
On arriving at my hotel late on Tuesday night, I put the TV on for some company. CNN makes a decent enough room-mate, he can be a little dull, and at times rather excitable, but at least we speak the same language. Brushing my teeth, I half-watched an article about the development of an invisibility suit, which might go into production “in our lifetimes”. Poppycock? Possibly not, according to our presenter: after all, 50 years ago, who would have dreamed that we would have a robot on Mars?
The answer is, of course, absolutely everybody. Most thought we would have men on Mars by 2008. Heck, in 1975 they thought we’d have have people leaving our solar system by 1999. Had our presenter never heard of Jules Verne, or Isaac Asimov? In 1958 I would think the consensus would have been that in 50 years’ time we would all be floating around on solar-powered scooters, eating pills instead of food, not suffering from incurable illnesses and generally being pretty space age. But we’re not. We’re still fighting wars, driving cars, eating Coco Pops and conspicuously not all swanning around in skin-tight silver suits.
Living memory in 1958 could recall a slew of incredible advances that challenged the imagination and only seemed to be accelerating: pasteurisation, the motor car, powered flight, the jet engine, nuclear fission, space travel – giving rise to incredible expectations. While for some, it might be hard to remember a world before Twitter, I think it’s also fair to say that the pace of change could never meet the expectations of a half century ago.
Apart from in one area: information and communications technology. The Internet, and specifically the Web, certainly does match my, and I suspect most other peoples’, childhood imagination of what the future would be like. Moreover, I think we imagined many qualities about it which are still emerging today: its ubiquity, its unregimented nature, its fundamental openness. In the late 1990s, there was a campaign at the time called “Any Damn Browser”, which argued (as I recall) for adherence to Web standards. It failed. By about 2002 if, like me, you were using a non-Internet Explorer browser, many web pages could fail to work.
Firefox changed that. Its adherence to standards, customisability and source code have also been one of the chief stimulants to web development since. Firefox opened the web, and at a time when such an achievement seemed highly unlikely. We now have a competitive browser market. And part of my new mission here at Mozilla is to help people in Europe to make a conscious choice for tool they use to participate on the Web, and to help make sure that the variety of choices they currently have endures.
The Web is developing at a bewildering rate right now. Long may it continue.
* Not entirely true.