The World Wide Web – all grown up or all grown wrong?

By Jim Rawson on 10th May 2019

The 12th of March 2019 marks 30 years since an ambitious scientist put forward a proposal with an unremarkable title, but a remarkable aim, which was destined to change the world in ways that couldn’t have been predicted.

‘Information Management: a Proposal’ was Tim Berners-Lee’s 20 page paper that set out the blueprint for the world wide web (www). It was a vision that was guided by principles of transparency, openness, collaboration and education.

Since its adoption and development it has enabled unforeseen revolutions such as smartphones, remote surgery, Wikipedia, online shopping and the Arab Spring.

However, drone bombing, terror cell communications, denial of service attacks, cyberbullying and phishing weren’t in his proposal either…

As we pass the 30th anniversary of the world wide web, alarm bells are sounding about the balance of positive and negative forces at play, which Tim Berners-Lee says has changed far beyond recognition from his altruistic vision of 1989:

 ‘Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked. Suppose I could program my computer to create a space in which everything could be linked to everything.’

So how did the cute baby web become the troubled young adult of today –  and is there anything we can do to tame it?

The 1990s Tim Berners-Lee’s boss at CERN described the proposal as ‘vague but exciting’ – evidently exciting enough to allow him to develop the idea, even if it was a little ‘heath robinson’. It’s understood that his efforts to keep the very first web server up and running (by connecting to an uninterrupted power supply) were thwarted when the entire facility was powered down for two weeks over Christmas!

Initially, the web was developed exclusively for CERN’s academic network, but it was soon recognised that the technology could benefit the world. Berners-Lee campaigned to ensure the technology was made open-source forever.

The first ever web server, note sticker that instructs that the machine not be powered down: Wikipedia

Growing up, I can remember my dad (who was a partner in an IT company) connecting to his office network via dial-up. You had to clip a device to the telephone receiver in order to transfer data via as audio and as anyone who was around then will tell you it was neither silent, reliable nor fast!

Original WWW logo, designed by Robert Cailliau: wikipedia

During the 1990s, CERN’S World Wide Web project provided the first ‘browser’ software, and competitors soon followed. Mosaic became the market leader (until around 1995) as it supported graphics and multimedia (gifs and jpegs) and ran on Microsoft Windows which was already the leading operating system. Individual personal computer ownership in the United Kingdom rose from 15% to 37% between ’90 and ‘97 along with a matching growth in processor power and related technologies.

Although the connectivity was available, uptake of actual web browsing was slow in the UK and the US. The market was led by email – most people just didn’t know what the internet was or what they could do with it. The media tried to help with jargon such as ‘surfing the web’, ‘information superhighway’ ‘bulletin boards’ and ‘cyberspace’ and references to the web started to appear in popular culture.

The plot of the 1992 movie Lawnmower Man sees a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan harnessing a computer to power-up the intelligence of a mentally challenged gardener named Jobe. Jobe plans to enter the mainframe and become pure energy, invading every electronic system worldwide via a connected network (could this have been an early prophecy of power-hungry internet giants or the so-called ‘dark web’?)

The first recorded eCommerce purchase took place in 1994 when a large pepperoni, mushroom and extra cheese pizza from Pizza Hut was ordered via PizzaNet. This whet the appetites of Amazon.com and eBay, who wanted a slice of the action and incorporated in 1995.

By 1996, email usage had increased to around 80% of PC owners with online access and I personally believe 99% of the emails sent that year contained a link to the Oogachaka dancing baby, the first viral internet meme! (maybe that’s why spam was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1998?)

The 2000s and beyond marked the bursting of the ‘dotcom bubble’ which had begun in the lead up to the millennium and the decade following became synonymous with social media, eCommerce & user generated content. Wikipedia, facebook, YouTube, Google and a million other web-based services and businesses had arrived.

It’s during this period of rapid commercial growth since roughly 2000 that Sir Tim believes the balance may have begun to shift from the ‘wonderful things’ to the ‘nasty things’.

In his open letter (published online, of course) he cites three main areas which currently constitute a threat to the freedom, transparency, equality and privacy that guided his original aims for the web.

These categories of threat are:

  1. Deliberately criminal behaviour – hacking, phishing, snooping and other malicious attacks
  2. Corporate profiteering and ultra-incentivised advertising, which has led to spread of misinformation and ‘clickbait’
  3. Unintended cultural consequences of the technology – attitudes such as ‘naming and shaming’, highly polarised views and the general quality of online discussion and etiquette.

Despite these challenges there are still many good news stories and benefits from the web every day. It enabled Estonia to conduct the first online parliamentary elections in 2007. It’s allowed faster location of missing persons, pets and property and has improved access to education and information in the less wealthy countries of the world. Banking, shopping, communications, sharing – and even dating – are all easier.

And let’s not forget Psy (and all the other things that make us smile!).

 

‘Gangnam style’ is the most viewed video ever on the web, with over 800 million views.

The even better news is that it is difficult, but not impossible for us to fully restore the positive power, privacy and potential of the web for human progress. Initiatives such as www.contractfortheweb.org are helping to reshape and guide citizens, corporations and governments towards awareness and action.

As with many technologies, the dangers lie not in the invention, but in human nature and our uncanny knack of making decisions based on the wrong things.

However, “if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want,” says Sir Tim.

Learn more about Jim Rawson

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