The Web as a Cathedral


In 1994, I had the honor of being among the first group of Americans to visit central Bulgaria after communism fell there.  It was a remarkable trip in many ways, but the thing that has stayed with me most vividly over these years is the marvel and awe that swelled within me when we visited a breathtakingly magnificent cathedral, brimming with truly glorious works of art and craftsmanship.  Every direction I looked, every spot that met my eyes whether near or far, was stunning.  It was an incredibly inspiring yet humbling experience.

Then, just one year later, an oddly similar feeling was evoked within me the first time I “dialed up” and connected to the World Wide Web.  How ridiculous, some might even say blasphemous, the comparison is!  Yet, there it is.  My eyes are actually tearing up as I write this.

A cathedral is a monument to the God I believe in, and whether or not you believe in Him, too, perhaps I can persuade you, as crazy as it might sound at first, that we should consider treating the Web as a cathedral to *something* that is much bigger than any one of us.

Great Cathedrals took centuries to build.  Carpenters, artists and craftsmen gave their lives to a project they would never see finished.  They toiled and sacrificed without fully knowing what it would someday become, but with the faith that whatever its ultimate form, their own little piece of it would be as splendid as they could possibly make it.

And they expected no credit.  We don’t know their names now because they didn’t record their names then.  It wasn’t for their own glory that they labored.

Brick layers, glass makers, sculptors, architects, painters, cabinet makers, weavers, goldsmiths, engineers…it’s overwhelming to consider all the varied talents and passions that people brought to the one effort that benefited all.

All of us, together, who contribute to the Web are building a great cathedral that will not be finished within our lifetime, no matter how old or young you are.  But too many times – and I include myself in this! – we forget that we are serving the one World Wide Web and self-centeredly build a cathedral to ourselves alone out of human followers and on-paper valuations.

The Open Movement has it right, I think.  Sometimes Open feels like an affliction, like a disease that is eating away livelihoods.  But open source developers are doing generous and noble work.

For me, and feel free to disagree and share you own perspective, a problem comes in when we confuse “open” with “free.”  The engineers and artisans who built the cathedrals were all paid in one way or another.  They and their families had to have food and shelter, after all.

I believe there is a good way to have an open Web that does not doom talented, hardworking people to the poverty of having to give all of their work away for nothing.  I further believe that we can throw open the doors to allow people the world over to make a living off the Web no matter what their talents and sensibilities and personal resources might be.  Geek or not.  Social or not.  Wealthy or not. 

The secret is The Square Triangle, which I have talked to deaf ears about for the past three years.  Perhaps with this damaged economy, when people are looking for new answers that don’t depend on Free alone, the Square Triangle can gain some traction.  I’ll explain it once again in the next day or two.

In the meantime, I think I’ll see if I can find my photo album and old video tapes that record that Bulgarian trip.  It was awesome, in the truest sense of the word.  My wish is that for everybody around the world, the Web will become just as awesome every day as my first experience of it was.  If people can make a living and thereby afford to express their passions and talents as we continue to build the one Web “cathedral” with all of its countless varied treasures, I think it will be.



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