Anyone over the age of 30 is cringing at the mere thought that they're older than the Internet. Technically you're not. But you are older than the World Wide Web, which celebrated its 30th birthday on March 11, 2019.
Tim Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the WWW back on March 11, 1989. It's important to distinguish that this isn't the Internet itself, a global network of computers that communicate with one another. That dates back to the U.S. military ARPANET in the ‘60s (which means if you were born in the ‘50s or earlier, sorry, but you are indeed older than the actual Internet). Rather, it's the way that the general populace is able to access this network, a bright idea Berners-Lee proposed as a "universal linked information system." At the time, just as we were about the enter the '90s, it was a marvel to type "www" followed by a phrase or word onto a blank computer screen and be rewarded with a wondrous world of web pages.
The initial proposal made the complex world of geek speak accessible to the average person. The idea that anyone could enter a Web address and access the same page that his uncle, brother, cousin, even a stranger was also viewing somewhere else in the world, or even down the street, was mind-blowing. It sounds simplistic. But that capability we all take for granted today didn't exist just three decades ago. (Insert gasps here.)
Of course today, the World Wide Web has become more influential than even Berners-Lee could have ever predicted. We can access and share a bounty of information (and misinformation) by simply punching in any random word, share and store countless photos, videos, and audio files, and make contacts with people we haven't heard from in decades, and maybe even those we wish we hadn't.
The direction the World Wide Web has been heading over the past 30 years hasn't been entirely positive, nor what Berners-Lee had intended. While you can learn pretty much anything about, well, anything, via thousands of page results that pop up from a couple of keystrokes (thanks for that, Google), the information isn't always accurate. Instead of investing dollars wisely, businesses spend big bucks just to appear on the first page of those results, and hope to grab customers through their two-second eyeball glances. There's a dark version of the web where nefarious dealings are made; and "fake news" can spread so easily that it has impacted economics, politics, and world issues on a sometimes disastrous scale. We can use slick handheld portals called smartphones to access the web from our pockets, though this sometimes means we neglect to pay attention to the people who are actually in front of us. And students can thoroughly research a history report without ever visiting a library or even cracking open a book. Well, a physical book, that is.
Berners-Lee, a young computer scientist at CERN at the time of his proposal, had hoped the World Wide Web would solve problems. He couldn't possibly have envisioned the massive rise of companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook, their supreme domination and monopolized control of his invention, and the privacy implications that come along with it.
"While the Web has created opportunity," he wrote in an open letter, "given marginalized groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit."
Today, there are almost two-billion websites online, and at least half of the world's population has access to the Internet. Berners-Lee, now 63, heads up the Web Foundation since 2009, and is hoping to shift gears back to making the web the positive place he initially envisioned. He proposed a number of ideas during the Web Summit in Lisbon late last year, including the Contract for the Web, which asks governments, tech firms, and citizens to come together to establish governance for the web; and Solid, a project taking place at MIT, which would provide people with "pods" they use to store data, and decide where, how, and with whom they share it online. Maybe Amazon only has access to certain pieces of information in your "pod," while Facebook can access others; and you have separate pods for work and personal.
Overall, Berners-Lee believes there's hope yet for the web. "Given how much the Web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can't be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web."
Photo courtesy of The Web Foundation