Happy Birthday: The Web turns 25
By David Szondy
March 13, 2014
On March 12, 1989 Tim Berners-Lee, while working as a contractor at the CERN laboratories in Switzerland, submitted Information Management: A Proposal, which sparked the greatest advance in information technology since Gutenberg invented the printing press. At the time, it was just a way for CERN scientists to share data, but a quarter of a century later, it’s grown from a curiosity into a necessity without which our world can no longer function.
For something that has had such an impact on our lives, the Web is surprisingly simple ... but so is the starter button on a McLaren P1. In many ways, it didn’t even seem like that big a leap at the time. Computers had been around for decades and throughout the 1980s they’d grown smaller, cheaper, more powerful, and more common. As far back as Vannevar Bush’s work in the 1940s, scientists and engineers had been working on how to get computers to communicate with one another, and the internet itself had been under development since 1969.
The problem was that in 1989, unless you were an accountant or a writer, the average computer was like an Alfa Romeo Spyder. It might be a great piece of technology, but it spent most of the time in the garage. That’s because no one had yet sorted out a way for any computer to communicate with any other computer.
Birth of the Web
Then in March 1989, Tim (now Sir Tim) Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for a new information management system that would allow the scattered scientific personnel of CERN to easily share data. His boss, Mike Sendall, called it "vague, but exciting" and allowed Berners-Lee to continue work on his idea.
This idea was very simple. It involved marrying hypertext to the internet by means of three essential technologies developed by Berners-Lee and his team. The first was a system of unique identifiers for each page, image, or other resource on the internet called a URI or URL. Then there was HyperText Markup Language (HTML), which was a simple way of creating web pages, and finally, there was Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which is a protocol to exchange or transfer hypertext.
Though similar systems had already been developed, Berners-Lee used unidirectional links rather than bidirectional ones, so links could be added without the page being linked from needing to do anything, and allowed web servers and browsers to be easily built. Berners-Lee and his team went on to write the first web page editor/writer, which he called the “WorldWideWeb,” the first server, which was housed in an unassuming NeXT computer, and in 1990, the first web page. In 1991, CERN opened the web up to users outside the laboratory, and in 1993, it was given to the world royalty free.
Even then, the Web wasn't much to write home about. There were already ways that people could get onto the internet with primitive modems using such things as BBS and Compuserve, but these were proprietary, limited, and most computer networks were largely closed off. However, thanks to a mixture of good engineering, marketing, and dumb luck, the Web eventually won out.
It was decentralized, owned by no-one, controlled by no-one, was built by individuals for their own purposes rather than tailored for a specific task, and while its competitors were like trains running on fixed tracks, the Web was more like motor cars that the users could drive where they wished. Then along came the Mosaic browser that brought a graphical user interface to the Web, kickstarting rapid growth that would see the number of web users explode to 50 million inside of five years.
In the 25 years since Berners-Lee’s proposal, the Web’s come a long way from the days when its main function was to host Kirk vs Picard flame wars. It’s had a huge impact that has touched every facet of our lives, from entertainment to politics to manufacturing to medicine. It’s become so pervasive in such a short time that to do justice to its effects would mean describing most of our technology and economy, as well as a great swatch of our culture. But it is possible to get some idea of what the Web hath wrought by looking at how it’s affected our everyday lives.
The most obvious way in which the Web has touched us is the incredible amount of information that is at our disposal at the click of a mouse or a tap on a screen. Anyone anywhere has free access to the greatest single source of information in history. Everyone with access to the Web can tap into a library of books, magazines, and newspapers that would astonish a scholar of the last generation.
And it isn't just common or garden variety books. Back in the 1980s, getting to the rare books section in the British Library, or similar collections, required credentials and references to get anywhere near the place. Once inside, you were constantly hovered over, and woe betide if you were caught with a biro on the premises. Now those same treasures have been digitized and are available to all.
The other effect of this is that where thousands of books, music, and old radio programs were left to fade into history or sink into the clearance bins of secondhand book shops, they’re now readily available, and even "orphan" works that would have died a death by copyright because the authors and publishers couldn't be located are now finding new audiences.
Another obvious area where the Web has hit society like a sledgehammer is the economy. Shopping isn't about going down to the shops any more. It’s about going online. Bricks and mortar is where we try on shoes or measure the television to see if it fits in the living room. The Web is where we actually buy them.
We can now buy almost anything on the Web. Groceries, cars, insurance, toys, and a billion other things are all on sale for delivery to your home. Some things don’t even need to be actually delivered. Where books, music, and DVDs may once have made up most of what people bought online, such media can now all be purchased and never see the inside of a delivery van, because they can be downloaded or streamed directly.
Never getting lost
Until the Web came along, getting lost was a fact of life, as was fighting with folding maps while driving a car. Now there aren't just dedicated GPS navigation devices, but assistance is available wherever you can get a connection. We now live in a world where you can ask your phone "where am I?" and it will tell you, instead of everyone around you looking at you as if you've gone mad. More than that, your device will tell you how to get home, when the next bus is, and where you can grab a bite to eat on the way.
Before the Web came along, media was a one-way street under the control of those who produced it. It used to be that media, whether it was books, music, or whatever, sat behind a bottleneck caused by how it was made and distributed. Vinyl records, for example, required a small army of artists, engineers, packers, and shippers, as well as masses of equipment, before listeners could play them at home. Thanks to the Web, music is reduced to data files that can be streamed or downloaded instantly.
The same is true of books, videos, and more. More than that, media now has a third dimension. You don’t just read, you share highlights. You don’t follow a sci-fi series once a week, you watch it in a massive binge, then go online to look at the minisodes, tweets, Facebook pages, and so on. Watching a film trailer these days can involve a lot of commitment.
One truly astonishing effect of the Web has been the bubble of instant communication that we live in. It short circuits time and distance in a way inconceivable a generation ago, with people Skyping someone in London from Chicago as casually as a local phone call. It’s a world where people take "selfies" and instantly share photos of what they’re having for lunch with a potential global audience.
There are now so many ways to stay connected that you need apps to manage them. When the Web first started to catch on, someone who checked their email more than once a day was seen as odd. Now there’s not only email, but blogs, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flicker, YouTube, Google+, Pinterest, and all their imitators. People don’t just communicate with each other instantly and constantly, but create whole communities with people who they've never spoken to outside of the Web. Not to mention that a "friend" can now be someone we’ve never so much as exchanged a word with.
The columnist James Lileks once said that modern technology allows you to do to your music collection with one click what once required half a dozen clumsy house movers. As the Web has grown, it’s not only pumped billions of dollars into the economy and given us powers that were once reserved for the very rich, it’s also given much more scope for things to go horribly wrong.
It isn't just things that trade off between connectivity and privacy, the NSA and GCHQ spying scandals, online pornography, cyber stalking, bullying, and identity theft, but the everyday things like discovering that the Web is forever. It’s discovering that the hilarious photo of what you did at the pub last night will be seen by your kids years later.
It’s the sheer time wasting as your life vanishes in a parade of lolcats, flappy birds, Miley Cyrus video clips, and pages comparing Benedict Cumberbatch to an otter. Even Berners-Lee says he never foresaw kittens.
But the most sobering thing about the Web is that its impact is still playing out and will be for years to come. Today, only 25 percent of the world’s population have access to it, how it will evolve and who will control it is still under debate, and the next phase of its technology is still under development.
Where the Web was once a distinct thing that you went to and read, then something that you interacted with, now its becoming a pervasive entity that’s moving out of our computers and our phones and into our cars, our televisions, and (for some unfathomable reason) our fridges. The question is, what will it look like in the next 25 years, and will it still be something we can just switch off and go for a walk in the woods instead.
How has the Web affected your life? Let us know in the comments below.
A message from Tim Berners-Lee.