For those who have grown up with the World Wide Web (WWW), the response to its 25th birthday celebrations has been, “So what?” There is now a generation who does not remember a world without the web: It’s just there, always on, and a part of their lives.
So many of the articles being written about the web at 25 have totally missed the mark when it comes to impact of the WWW. It’s not what the web has allowed us to do faster and cheaper, or how many people are now “online”; it’s about how the web has totally transformed our society and how we interact with others in the world, both near and far. The WWW has enabled whole new industries to come into being, and its ubiquitous nature has had an impact on virtually all work and play.
How It All Began
In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal “to develop a radical new way of linking and sharing information over the internet,” and the entire world changed forever. For those who have grown up with the WWW, yes, there is a difference between the internet and the web. The internet is the infrastructure that connects computers (and therefore organizations and people) as long as the computers are connected to this network; the web is the way in which one accesses the information that exists in those connected computers. Semantics, perhaps, but would the internet have developed as it has, adopted throughout the world, if there were no WWW, no browsers, no URLs?
Berners-Lee could never have envisioned how much his idea would affect society, and how differently the web has evolved beyond “a system of interlinked documents that can be accessed via the Internet.” Perhaps the most important element of this idea is that Berners-Lee built on the work of others, and his view of the web was that now others could and would build on his work. The interconnection of ideas is the essence and beauty of the web and its possibilities.
The internet itself was based on the knowledge derived from the experiences of participants in ARPANET, a large wide-area, packet switching network created by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Designed to connect universities and research institutes in the U.S., it was the first network to employ TCP/IP communication protocols.
What We’re Grappling With Today
The quantity of information available through the web has affected the ability of anyone to put anything out there for all to see. Think of the web as the ultimate equalizer, allowing small organizations to compete with heavyweights in their industry sectors, regardless of location. For example, if you have published something noteworthy, people will find you. The web has led to the development of myriad tools to enable an individual to get his word out to those who would be interested, as well as an equal number of tools to help the individual filter out the extraneous and focus only on what he would find useful.
The web facilitates the boundless nature of information, now liberated from any container. While there are more options for the user, there are now more responsibilities too, which does not sit well with everyone. The web’s impact on retailing and customer interaction is legendary, but what gets far less attention is the way in which this has ratcheted up our expectations for everything else, in terms of timing and our willingness to tolerate frustrations using online tools: Witness Healthcare.gov. Realistic expectations have flown out the window as we experience the technical expertise of some and the inability of others to perform to what may be unrealistic expectations.
While we value our ability to get to anyone, anywhere, at anytime, the omnipresence of the web has led to a generation with a form of attention deficit disorder whereby many feel compelled to answer every email immediately, or conduct research, read, or watch a video while others sit nearby, ready to engage us in conversation. Moderation in all comes to mind.
Discussions about the web today have moved beyond access, speed, the digital divide, and the pluses of mobile technology to the more thorny issues concerning privacy, security, reliability, and ownership. The role of government, important as it was in the development of ARPANET, is again a source of contention in today’s free market. It boils down to whom you trust more with your particulars—government or corporate entities. If whoever owns the internet owns the future, what should we make of the fact that last week, the United States announced that it will voluntarily cede its role overseeing web addresses and domain names in 2015?
What the Future Holds
The 64-million-dollar question remains unanswerable, except to say that it’s filled with possibilities. For one thing, the web will be less a separate thing to use to do something else—check the latest scores, see a picture of the food being served to our friends, research the subject of a term paper that’s due tomorrow—but simply be part of everything. The intelligent office is no longer enough; with the Internet of Things we get the smart home and the smart(er) city.
Individuals will necessarily cede some level of control over what they view when, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Turning to the crowd appears to be equally as valid as turning to the experts, as those involved with the BP oil spill or citizen scientists contributing sightings of birds to Cornell University’s Birds of North America Online can attest.
Experts have been contributing their vision of the future of the internet in a series of events and surveys sponsored by Elon University’s School of Communications. Why not share your prediction? If you’d like to get in on the 25th anniversary celebrations, post your best wishes (and read those sent by others) at webat25.org.
[For more on the origin of the web, click here.]