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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The ‘Form’ Element Created the Modern Web. Was It a Big Mistake?

The web was born to publish documents—in particular, physics papers from CERN, the great laboratory where Tim Berners-Lee, the very first web developer, was employed to do smart information things. But technology evolves … Actually, forgive the digression, but technology doesn’t evolve. Everyone says it evolves, but true evolution includes a whole lot of death. Not all software survives, of course (I’m typing this in Google Docs, not on a Xerox Alto), but as anyone who has investigated the Windows control panels can tell you, there’s a lot of decades-old code in our systems. If people evolved like technology, you’d be 6,000 lizards, 30 chimps, and a couple Neanderthals all glued together with an anguished human face stretched across it as a “visual refresh.” </digression>

Anyway, the World Wide Web may be the most proudly agglutinative technology in history. After a few early tweaks and changes (e.g., removing the <blink> tag), HTML has almost never thrown things away, so that every subsequent version of a browser can work with all the web pages that came before. In its earliest days it grew <img> tags to become visual; it grew <table> tags to become tabular—and more than 25 years ago (version 2) it added the <form> element, making it interactive.

It is the <form> element, and the lesser elements that comprise the form, like <input> and <textarea>, that let you put little text boxes and credit card numbers and password fields into the page, along with a variety of drop-downs and checkboxes.

I have argued many times, to the despair of anyone within range, that the <form> element was a pivot point for the entire technology industry. It is what changed the web from a read-only medium for physics papers into a read-write medium for anything. But lately I’m not so sure I think that was a good idea. Perhaps the <form> element was a terrible mistake, the original sin of the web industry. We weren’t ready. Nearly every problem we face on the internet—in society—comes back to this one HTML element.

Point to anything driving us all to distraction and you’ll find <form> at the root: Elon Musk’s tweets, for example, and his bid to buy Twitter? Well, obviously the Twitter text box was born as an HTML form (even if it is now a highly dynamic custom JavaScript thingamajig). But that’s today; <form> also made Musk’s first fortune at PayPal, by allowing people to set up accounts and pay. Jeff Bezos is another one: Amazon without the <form> element is just a big catalog.

What forms enable are transactions. Transactions of all kinds—commercial or social—can be consolidated into platforms, and platforms are where you find your margins. And margins are what yield your fortune, and that’s how you get power. Freakin’ forms. Twitter’s many disasters, Amazon and its global megapower, Facebook’s wall, Google’s search box (and the ads that followed), the Netflix password you share (that they don’t want you to share now that their subscriber numbers are tanking), every forum conversation, every eBay bid, every web-based banking system that logs you out after 10 minutes, pretty much all of Salesforce, every blog post, every leak and hack—all of it comes back to <form>.

Who could have known?

“Well that’s not our problem today,” you might say. “The real problem online is that giant companies are creating enormous machine-learning models that inherit tremendous bias, and they are using that to guide the future of the web.” Exactly: The data they are spidering, all that text, all those photos, comes from people uploading stuff via forms.

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I’ve been given a time machine. Would I send a Terminator back to the web standards meetings circa 1994 to eliminate the <form> element? I don’t know. If anything could defeat a Terminator, it’s attending a web standards meeting. The Terminator would likely end up being assigned to draft a document type definition; who better to define how to parse text than a robot? Besides, if you look at who owns and invests in the companies most likely to create Terminators, it’s the giant consolidated tech firms that were utterly dependent on the <form> element. So any murderous robot intelligence that eliminates <form> eliminates itself. Also, many of the early web folks were do-gooders, so I’d feel guilty taking out a hit on them. Have I focused too much on the Terminator aspect in this scenario? Imagine instead that the web standards people are on a trolley …

Here’s the thing: If it hadn’t been <form>, it would have been another element—maybe one with a more accurate name, like <money-vacuum> or <robot-food> or <privacy-destroyer>. The web was born to distribute information on computers, but the technology industry can never leave well enough alone. It needs to make everything into software. To the point that your internet browser is basically no longer a magical book of links but a virtual machine that can simulate a full-fledged computer. You can run browsers on the computers you run inside your browser on your computer. If I wanted to build a Terminator, I’d probably prototype it using web technologies. And since the web still displays HTML just fine, I’d encourage that Terminator to blog.

It is easy to look back and say: “They should have known what they were unleashing.” But no one ever knows what they’re unleashing. They don’t even know there’s a leash. What is valuable, though, is to look back and think: What could we have done to change the outcome? Could we have created a <form> element that made it easier for small local manufacturers to sell online instead of Amazon rolling everyone up? How would that have worked? A text box that had some kind of privacy control built in, so that all our passwords wouldn’t leak? A drop-down that worked reliably on mobile? Why didn’t we do those things? What aren’t we doing now? In 1994, they were doing the best they could to make a better society using these cool tools. They knew they were going to change the world. Then everyone showed up and proved them right.


This article appears in the June 2022 issue. Subscribe now.

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