30 years of the World Wide Web | Sunday Observer

30 years of the World Wide Web

The Web has brought the world closer together
The Web has brought the world closer together

Can you believe, the World Wide Web is 30 years old this month! Yes, we feel we have lived our entire life with it, but it is less than one generation old. We think so because we depend on it practically 24 hours a day, as our smartphones and tablets are always on. Moreover, the concept of the Internet itself turns 50 this year – it was in 1969 that the US military invented a system for computers across continents to talk to each other, known as the Internet. This would eventually evolve into what is today known as the World Wide Web or WWW.

On March 11, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer programmer working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, sent in a proposal for a new information management system. His boss responded with a note that read “vague but exciting.” That proposal was the first sketch of what would become the World Wide Web, creating the system that functions today, on the Internet.

Life without the Web

Today, we cannot imagine life without the Web. Right now, I am doing research on a separate article on the ill-fated Boeing 737 Max series of planes and in just five minutes, I accessed a mountain of information that would have taken me at least one week to find by conventional means. I just emailed a previously written copy to my editor via Gmail and chatted a bit on Skype with my niece who lives in Calgary, halfway around the world.

I just glanced at my Facebook news feed to see what my friends and relatives are up to and fired off a couple of Tweets on the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 crash.

Then I watched a live feed of the CNN international broadcast on my PC to catch up on the latest international news, while quickly checking the score of some of my favourite sports events. And before I forgot, I ordered a 4K Blu Ray Copy of Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece “The Alien” on Amazon. And as I type this copy, YouTube is playing some classical music to calm my nerves. Then I heard that familiar notification sound for What’s App on my iPhone – one of my friends had posted an update on our school group.

Invention or innovation

None of these would have been possible if not for the World Wide Web. It is truly an invention or innovation that has changed our lives in a revolutionary way. Information, education, entertainment or personal relationships, the Web has brought the world closer together.

But there are negatives too. Like everything else, the Web too has a bad or dark side. And a large number of people on the planet still do not have access to the Internet, which potentially cuts them off the information superhighway. In fact, on the 30th anniversary of his breakthrough invention, Berners-Lee shared a warning about the “sources of dysfunction” the web faces and how “the fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time.”

In an open letter published last Tuesday, he wrote about the consequences of the growing division that his invention has fueled. “Of course with every new feature, every new website, the divide between those who are online and those who are not, increases, making it all the more imperative to make the web available for everyone,” he wrote in the letter.

Berners-Lee’s warning adds to the growing concern about the state of the Internet around the world, the powerful companies that now control vast swaths of user attention, and the prospect that the open and fair internet that facilitated the growth of those companies is at risk. The dark side of the Internet is a worrying prospect – pornographic sites, fake news and disinformation campaigns, trolls, hate speech, identity theft, online fraud and the threat of cyber attacks on economic nerve centres are among a few of those.

Google and Facebook

Berners-Lee said this communication system has “given marginalized groups a voice,” but has also “created an opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.” He appeared to reference technology giants such as Google and Facebook that have created new industries while also fueling recent debates around data privacy, misinformation and the role of ‘social media’ such as Facebook.

Fears have been expressed about the extent to which tech giants such as Google and Facebook control our lives. In fact, US 2020 Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has promised to “break up” the tech giants if she comes to power in that year. Such is the concern in some quarters over the power of Internet companies.

Optimistic

But Berners-Lee said he is also optimistic about the future of the web and that “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 years”.

The challenge is to ensure that the ‘dark web’ does not prevail over the good side. But this is easier said than done. Regulating the Internet and World Wide Web is an almost impossible task, given the very ‘unphysical’ nature of the Web. A website that spreads false information on Afghanistan could actually be based in a remote corner of Zimbabwe. What I type now can appear almost instantaneously on a thousand screens worldwide and they in turn can share it with millions more. As the saying goes, with the Internet, a Lie can get halfway around the world before the Truth has a chance to put its pants on.

There is a general consensus that the Web must be subjected to some form of control and self-censorship. Companies such as Facebook, reeling from accusations of fake news, hate speech and data breaches, have promised to clean up their act. For example, it has pledged to recruit more people who can read Sinhala and Tamil content to monitor posts originating from Sri Lanka and take down any malicious or incendiary posts that may cause ethnic disharmony or general instability.

Forward march of the Web

On the other hand, it will not be possible to stop the forward march of the Web. The Internet of Things (IoT), where every device will be able to ‘talk’ with every other device – imagine your refrigerator telling your wristwatch smartphone to order more milk as stocks run low – is already happening.

The advent of 5G will bring faster mobile Internet for everyone. Newspapers, television, radio and other traditional media are already converging on the Web for a seamless experience. All our files, documents etc can already be stored in the cloud. The Web will take us to an exciting future – there is hardly any doubt about it.

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