30 years ago, one decision changed the course of our connected world

This was the first web page in the world. Thirty years ago, the World Wide Web fell into the public domain.

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This was the first web page in the world. Thirty years ago, the World Wide Web fell into the public domain.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Thirty years ago, listeners tuned in Morning edition heard of a futuristic idea that could profoundly change their lives.

“Imagine being able to communicate at will with 10 million people around the world,” said NPR’s Neal Conan. “Imagine having direct access to the catalogs of hundreds of libraries, as well as the most up-to-date news, business and weather reports. Imagine being able to instantly get medical advice or gardening advice from any number of experts.

“This is not a dream,” he continued. “It’s the Internet.”

But even in the early ’90s, that space-age sales pitch was a far cry from the lackluster experience of actually using the Internet. It was almost entirely text-based, for example.

It was also difficult to use. To read a story from NPR, for example, you’d need to know which networked computer has the file you want, then get your machine to communicate directly with the host. And good luck if the computers were made by different manufacturers.

But 30 years ago this week, everything changed. On April 30, 1993, something called the World Wide Web was launched into the public domain.

The Web has made it easy for anyone to surf the Internet. All users had to do was launch a new program called a “browser,” type a URL, and hit enter.

This began the transformation of the internet into the vibrant online canvas we use today. Anyone could build their own “website” with pictures, videos and sounds. They might even send visitors to other sites using hyperlinked words or phrases underlined in blue. This has become one of the most revolutionary features on the web, putting different corners of our digital knowledge base at the click of a mouse.

No patents, no fees

The World Wide Web was the brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee, a 37-year-old researcher at a physics laboratory in Switzerland called CERN. The institution is known today for its huge particle accelerators.

Tim Berners-Lee attends an event marking 30 years since his proposal for the World Wide Web at CERN near Geneva in 2019.

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Tim Berners-Lee attends an event marking 30 years since his proposal for the World Wide Web at CERN near Geneva in 2019.

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“Almost everything you needed to know in your daily life was written down somewhere,” Berners-Lee told NPR Fresh air in 1996. “And at the time, in the 80s, it was almost certainly written on a computer somewhere. It was very frustrating that people’s effort in typing it was not being used when, really, if only it could be tied together and made accessible, everything would be much easier for everyone”.

CERN owned Berners-Lee’s invention, and the lab had the ability to license the World Wide Web for profit. But Berners-Lee believed that keeping the web as open as possible would help it grow.

“The web that marketed itself as something universal, something that anyone could use, I felt was very important,” he said. “It’s no good having something that runs on any platform if, in fact, there’s a proprietary hold on it.”

Berners-Lee eventually convinced CERN to release the World Wide Web into the public domain without any patents or fees. He has since attributed the web’s runaway success to that single decision.

The web takes off

NPR’s coverage of the post-web era describes a “great online awakening” driven by an explosion in the number of people connected to the Internet. “The result is more chaos than you can imagine and literally thousands and thousands of websites,” Rich Dean reported for NPR in 1996.

At the end of 1995, more than 24 million people in the United States and Canada alone were spending an average of 5 hours a week on the Internet.

A visitor to a computer exhibit views a website in 1996 Beijing.

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A visitor to a computer exhibit views a website in 1996 Beijing.

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Today, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population uses the web to visit hundreds of millions of active websites. Some of those pages belong to companies that are among the most valuable in history like Facebook, Amazon and Google.

It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like today if CERN and Berners-Lee hadn’t decided to give away his invention. In a 1999 interview on The Diane Rehm Show, Berners-Lee was asked why he never cashed out.

“The question, when asked this way, implies that you really just measure people’s worth by their net worth,” he said. “People are what they did, what they say, what they stand for, rather than what they have in the bank.”

The good, the bad and the unpredictable

In the three decades since the web went public, it has revolutionized the way we communicate, gather, work and learn. It has also broadened the reach of propaganda and disinformation and upended our standards of privacy.

Berners-Lee predicted some of these ramifications decades ago.

“I don’t mind that there’s biased information out there,” he told NPR in 1999. “The important thing is that you know, when you’re on the web, whether you’re looking at biased information or not.”

A few months later, he asked himself on the air: “Do users now know when they receive something that is fair and impartial? Do they know how to distinguish between news, editorials, op-eds and web advertising?”

As director of the World Wide Web Consortium, Berners-Lee oversaw the development of the web with the goal of maintaining its platform neutrality.

“What it becomes is really a matter of what people put into it,” she said Fresh air. “And what I’m trying to do technologically is keep it universal to keep it, as a technology, from trying to influence what you can do with it and what you can’t.”

In a way, he says, the web is really just a reflection of us and that’s by design.

“When you go out, the web pages you see are written by people,” he mused on NPR Talking about the nation in 2002. “You’re looking at a certain subset of the churning mass of humanity out there. So it’s not that the web itself is an animal, but it’s that society is this really exciting, decentralized thing, and the web, fortunately, is more or less able to echo it.”

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