It's a fine mess we're in

Soundbytes on the World Wide Web

The days of the World Wide Web are numbered. No one can deny that it transformed the internet from a vaguely interesting academic computer network, with some commercial potential, into the core infrastructure that it is today. But it is now time to move on.

Back in 1994, companies were buying internet access from the early commercial providers such as Pipex and Demon and wondering what to do next. E-mail was useful, but copying files was dull and complicated. And while reading Usenet bulletin boards gave systems administrators a way to pass the time, there was little else to do with the expensively acquired link to the "information superhighway". The web - or rather, the Netscape browser - changed this by offering internet users who lacked computer science degrees, or an interest in obscure programming languages, an easy way to find and read documents of all types.

Yet after ten years of worldwide domination, it is time we accepted that the limitations of the core web technologies make it unsuitable for many of the niches it currently occupies. We have to move on, and let the web take its place in history instead of allowing web-centred thinking to dominate the online ecosystem.

Visit any commercial website and use the "view source" command to look at the raw code of the page - the HTML - and you can see the mess we're in. You are likely to find dozens of lines of code put there to figure out which browser is in use, so that the "correct" version of the page can be sent over. Clearly, something has gone wrong.

The early web developers aren't to blame. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the English physicist who invented the web while working at the Cern laboratory back in the late 1980s, was trying to link published research papers to each other. He wasn't planning the global information infrastructure the web turned out to be, so it is not surprising that the technical choices he made no longer serve us well.

A website today has to be interactive, e-commerce enabled, customised and, above all, accessible. You can modify what already exists, just as you can convert a shop to give wheelchair access, but too often the result doesn't satisfy anyone.

Some companies believe that building accessible sites is so complicated that it will vastly increase the cost of any development, thereby rendering the site a commercial failure. These are the people who gave us the original Odeon cinemas site, the online equivalent of an office building with steps to every room, 50cm-wide doors, and signage in an obscure Tahitian dialect.

Good design can produce sites that are both functional and accessible, but doing anything visually interesting on a web page does reduce its accessibility. That is why Tesco decided that it needed two sites; one for the typical user, and one built to accessibility guidelines. However, it could have done something more innovative and built a shopping program that did not use a conventional browser, but linked the shopping application directly to the screen reader or other accessibility tool. The web mindset is so dominant that it didn't even consider it. E-mail, of course, has always been distinct, but instant messaging programs are also installed separately from the web browser, as are the programs that allow millions to benefit from free online phone calls with Skype.

We have tried having all our online services provided through a single client, the browser, linked together in a way that makes it difficult to see what is connected to what, but it just doesn't work. We should have a wealth of collaborating programs, designed to work together, based around sensible user interface standards that are able to deliver the services we need. Otherwise, we run the risk that the internet will stumble, fall, and eventually die away.

Bill Thompson writes a regular technology column for BBC News Online

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide