25 years later, the Web continues to revolutionize technology

We shouldn’t forget the Internet’s beginnings, or how the University played its own role.

by Trent M. Kays

A quarter-century ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee presented a paper to the CERN lab in Switzerland outlining his vision of a connected world. His idea was to link documents across computers in order to improve access to information. The World Wide Web was born.

After many years and wide-ranging societal shifts, the impact of Berners-Lee’s idea is unquestionable. The Internet changed and continues to change the world. The ability of people to communicate across great distances, to share information, to see their families and to interact with the unknown has fundamentally transformed how humans understand their place in the universe. Of course, this type of change has happened before.

When humans first created writing, it changed the world. When Johann Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press, it revolutionized the spread of information. The advents of the telegraph, telephone, radio and television have all altered the human experience. While the Web has changed the world, it wasn’t the first communication technology to do so, and it won’t be the last.

Along this logic, the Web wasn’t the first type of technology to link information. The U.S. military first considered the implications of connecting computers, both locally and globally. In 1969, the U.S. military launched Arpanet, the forerunner to the modern-day Internet. We have the military to thank for the Internet, and from a combat point of view, no one can dispute the strategic importance of near-instantaneous communication.

Notably, Berners-Lee’s idea wasn’t the only “web.” Perhaps the most significant competitor to the Web was the Gopher protocol. Coming out of the University of Minnesota in 1991, it was an alternative to the Web, though it didn’t remain as such for long. With the endorsement and interest of world-class research organization CERN, Berners-Lee’s Web concept dominated other web technologies.

While the Gopher protocol is still accessible and some still use it, many who visit such Gopher-based webpages will discover a quaint version of the Web. The protocol was important to later iterations of the Web, but it didn’t remain a viable option, especially after the University chose to charge for use. Berners-Lee’s version of the Web was free and, technically, remains so. This was one of the driving factors for the rise of his Web.

Berners-Lee’s Web has been enormously successful. The indexed Web has an estimated 2.3 billion webpages. These are the webpages everyone can access and see, so this doesn’t account for all the webpages that exist hidden from view, inaccessible by the general Internet user. That’s a lot of information, and it’s impossible for one user to ever digest and understand it all.

The idea of the Web is that it’s open and available to everyone. Anyone can write, publish, access and store information on the Web. The Web and the Internet are amazing technologies that have changed humanity in ways we may not fully understand yet. About 40 percent of the world’s population has access to the Internet. While that figure might seem impressive, it means that the majority of people still don’t have access to the Internet. That’s a lot of people who don’t have access to the pre-eminent venue for information exchange.

Information is power, and Berners-Lee’s egalitarian vision of the Web has yet to become a reality. In the spaces where users foster freedom of expression and creation, censorship can also reign. Unfortunately, there will always be those who wish to censor information. Berners-Lee knew this, and for the last 25 years, he has tirelessly advocated for an open, accessible and free Web and Internet. The collective power of such technologies belongs to everyone.

Despite Berners-Lee’s advocacy, corporations and governments dominate the Web with their own control and barriers. With the exception of Wikipedia, for-profit interests control many of the top websites. The power of the Web is, in many ways, unregulated. Consider Google: If Google doesn’t index a website or webpage, it doesn’t exist to the vast majority of searchers. That’s a lot of power.

Threats of hacking, cyberattacks, viruses, malware and other consequences of using the Internet show how little power the everyday user possesses. While it’s certainly true that you don’t need to know how to change a car’s oil in order to drive one, the Web and the Internet are different animals. Often, our cars come with safeguards to protect us. With the Web and the Internet, we must be mature, proactive users who seek out new ways of protection before we’re even attacked.

Our highly connected world’s consequences grow daily. It’s inevitable that more of the world will forge connections to networks that crisscross the globe. How we choose to interact with and interpret the Web and the Internet is based solely on our own humanity — with both our blessings and blunders.

Whatever Web or network we leave for our descendants will be a testament to our successes and failures. Remarking on his creation, Berners-Lee once wrote: “For its likeness to a spider’s construction, this world is called the Web.” We get to decide what our web looks like, and we get to decide how it operates.

Let’s be kind and make good choices.