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

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The ‘Form’ Element Created the Modern Web. Was It a Big Mistake?
WIRED, May 26, 2022
By Paul Ford

“A little HTML widget gave us all-powerful Amazon and Facebook. There’s no closing Pandora’s text box now.”


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.

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About the Author:

Paul Ford is a writer, programmer, and software entrepreneur. He lives in Brooklyn.