Sunday, September 29, 2013

Before the web...

Before the web...  There may be a few of my readers old enough to actually remember the world before the advent of the web (more formally, the World-Wide Web).  Back in those ancient times, if you wanted information about anything at all, you went first to reference books that you owned (or had access to), and then to a library.  For really obscure or specialized information, you might even have to visit a special library.  Libraries had thousands upon thousands of books, magazines, and newspapers you could look through, and often you could even borrow them.

In the years when I was first learning about electronic hardware engineering and software engineering, I spent a lot of time in libraries, searching for obscure bits of information or texts that I could actually understand.  There a vital skill that users of these libraries had to master: using the card catalogs (pictured at right).  The card catalogs were a sort of primitive “Google” for the library.  Each card contained a title, an author, a subject, or (in the case of a few particularly good libraries) keywords as the card's title.  The body of the card gave you some more information about the referenced book, including, vitally, where to find it on the library shelves.  The cards were stored by the thousands in the card catalog drawers.  Anybody could walk up to them and rifle through the cards to find a book.  Anybody could mess up the card order, too, which in some libraries was a major problem.

If you're of a certain age, this was how you learned to retrieve information: navigating the primitive, error-prone, often out-of-date card catalogs.  The alternative was to read (and remember!) every book in the library, so by comparison the card catalogs were wonderful tools, laboriously and lovingly maintained by the librarians.

When the web first appeared, some of the first efforts to “index” the web functionally duplicated these card catalogs with curated index pages.  The original Yahoo! page was famously like this, and that was how I first found things on the web, way back in '95.  But soon “live indexes” appeared that actually indexed every single word on every single page of the web, and these were so clearly superior to the curated indexes that within just a few years those curated indexes disappeared (I couldn't even find one on Yahoo! any more!).  Then Google came along and totally dominated the live index world, which they still do to this day.

It would be hard to overstated the degree to which the advent of the web and live indexes have changed the world.  In my profession (whether electronic hardware or software), they've directly enabled a huge increase in engineering productivity.  Much of this productivity increase comes from one very simple sounding thing: the ability to look up technical information it just seconds.  On a single productive engineering day, I might make a hundred or more such searches, with results in seconds.  Before about the late '90s, each of those searches would have entailed finding a reference book and searching through its index or table of contents – or worse, a trip to the library.  Often practicality dictated reinventing something, or all too often, making do with something inferior, simply because getting the information was too hard.  Today the ability to do online searches is a key part of an engineer's workflow – to the point where, if forced to work offline, we are effectively crippled by the inability to access information.  I keep copies of things critical to me on my laptop (for example, the current JDK's javadocs), but these are a very poor substitute for the web.

Tip of the hat to reader, friend, former colleague, and Idaho real estate mogul Doug S. for this trip down memory lane, provoked by that image.  Doug is busy preparing for the zombie apocalypse, setting up a farm to grow his own food...

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