An end to the paper internet

Steven Pemberton, CWI, Amsterdam

The Author


About me

Richard GrimsdaleMy university tutor was Richard Grimsdale, who built the first ever transistorised computer.


Grimsdale's tutor was Alan Turing (making me a grand-tutee of Turing).

Alan Turing on UK £50 note


I (coincidentally) went on to work in Turing's old department writing software for the 5th in the line of computers he worked on.



Moving to The Netherlands, I co-designed the programming language that Python is based on.

I wrote part of gcc

Singing with Guido van Rossum


Steven at a computer in the 80'sI was the first user of the open internet in Europe, in November 1988, 35 years ago!


Singing with Tim Berners-LeeI organised workshops at the first Web conference at CERN in 1994

I co-designed HTML, CSS, XHTML, XForms, RDFa, and several others.

I currently do research on declarative techniques.

New Technologies

An image of an early car

Whenever a new technology is introduced, it imitates the old.

Early cars looked like "horseless carriages" because that is exactly what they were.

It took a long time for cars to evolve into what we now know.


ScriptorumBefore the introduction of printing in 1450, all books were literally made by hand (Manu script: hand written). This was a long slow process, and very expensive.

Until the introduction of printing, books were rare, and very, very expensive, maybe something like the price of a small farm.

Only very rich people, and rich institutions, owned books.

In 1424 The University of Cambridge had one of the largest libraries in Europe: 122 books.

Book 1450

Printing in 1568

Gutenberg combined known technologies: ink, paper, wine presses, and added movable type.

Early books

The first page of Gutenberg's bible

For the first 50 years, books looked just like manuscripts.


That was what was expected of a book at the time.

It was where the money was.

They didn't know any different!


The introduction of book printing had several effects:













Image source. Data source.

Information explosion

Before, producing a single copy of a book took several years. By 1500:

And bear in mind, you didn't just "set up a print shop". You had to:

It was a real revolution.

The real book

After about 50 years, readable fonts, and the features we now expect from a book emerged, so that books became what we now think of as books.

Another Effect: Social Turmoil

Giordano Bruno Statue, in Rome where he was killedBefore printing, all information had been produced by the church (even universities were primarily church institutions).

After printing, church and state instituted censorship to control information. Writers were killed or imprisoned for publishing things that weren't approved of. For instance:


Consequently many thinkers relocated to get out of the reach of the church.

"The twin occurrences – that [Amsterdam] became a hub for scientists, and that it became the centre of publishing – fed one another, resulting in the astounding fact that, over the course of the 17th century, approximately one-third of all books published in the entire world were produced in Amsterdam" - Russell Shorto

Printing enabled the rise of Protestantism, and the Enlightenment is ascribed to the availability of books.

Information increase

Scientific journals1665: first two scientific journals French Journal des Sçavans and the British Philosophical Transactions

From then on the number of scientific journals doubled every 15 years, right into the 20th century.

Even as late as the 1970's if you had said "there has to come a new way of distributing information to support this growth", they would have thought you crazy, more likely expecting the growth to end.

(Source: Little Science, Big Science, Derek J. De Solla Price)

The Web

The coming of the internet in Europe in 1988 enabled the Web.

Tim Berners-Lee (and Robert Caillau) created the Web at CERN: first server 1991.

They brought together existing technologies (Hypertext, the internet, MIME types) and created a cohesive whole.

The Web is now replacing books and many other things: Telephone directories, yellow pages, encyclopaedias, train timetables, other reference works are already gone. Others will follow.

Books (as an artefact) will become a niche market. All information will eventually be internet-based.


In many ways, the development of the web has echoed that of the book. It has:


Books created turmoil in society by creating new ways for information to be distributed, which disturbed the existing power structures.

We are now living through a similar information turmoil, since society has not yet worked out how to deal with these new sources of information.


Amsix stats 2023 peaking at nearly 12TB/sAnd weirdly, just as Amsterdam produced the largest number of books in the 17th century, it has the fastest internet switch in the world, currently peaking at 12Tb/s.


The web is still imitating the old.

It is still very much presentation-oriented, not information-oriented.

As an example, I recently had to:

And note that we still talk about Web "pages"

The web imitating the old

A receiptOther examples are tickets, contracts, and receipts.

These are all typically PDFs, with no machine processable elements. They are a picture of a paper version of the thing.

The only thing that has happened is that the paper has been digitised away, and is sent to you electronically. Otherwise it is the same as it ever was.

When will we get the real web?

So eventually books went from pretending to be manuscripts to being proper books.

When can we expect the Web to stop pretending to be the old things, and start being what it really ought to be?

Why did it take 50 years for books to become their real selves?
This question has long troubled me.

When will we get the real web?

So eventually books went from pretending to be manuscripts to being proper books.

When can we expect the Web to stop pretending to be the old things, and start being what it really ought to be?

Why did it take 50 years for books to become their real selves?
This question has long troubled me.

My reluctant conclusion: the old generation of users and producers have to die, before the new generation who had never known the old way can start asking why things are done in such a weird way and start fixing them.


We are still in the "looks like a manuscript" phase of the internet. We are still imitating the old ways.

The technologies are already there to do the right thing, but the real web can't emerge until the paper generation is dead.