Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t have read this sentence the way you’re reading it now. There was no worldwide web. There was no Facebook. No Twitter. Even if you had a computer back then, you couldn’t have used it the way you use it now.
You wrote letters on paper, put it in a stamped envelope, then dropped the envelope into a mailbox. Depending on where you were on the planet, and where your letter was bound, it may have taken days — even longer, at times — for your correspondence to arrive at the doorstep of its intended recipient.
All that changed in 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee — a British software consultant working at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) — wrote a program that organized the fragmentary information swirling around in the internet.
A post office without stamps
The web was originally conceived to meet the demand for automatic information sharing between scientists working in laboratories in different universities and institutes all over the world. The program Berners-Lee wrote not only addressed that demand, it also unlocked a global post office without mailmen, stamps or paper — and a bit more.
“The dream behind the web is of a common information space,” Berners-Lee explained years after he wrote his ground-breaking program. “There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used it became a realistic mirror — or, in fact, the primary embodiment — of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. ”
The miniskirt and the printing press
The 25 years leading to 1989 saw the rise of a wide array of cultural and technological innovations. In that time, we saw the moon landings, the miniskirt, the personal computer, the computer mouse, the music of the Beatles, the artificial heart, automated teller machines, Prozac, Valium, barcodes, high-temperature superconductors, genetic engineering and the invention of the post-it note.
While some of these achievements are nothing less than spectacular, none introduced as dramatic and as universal an impact on everyday life as the worldwide web. In fact, not since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press some five centuries earlier had anything transfigured human interaction as profoundly.
Where do we go from here?
New technology permits manufacturers to improve existing products. It also allows innovations that weren’t possible before. The worldwide web is no exception. The most powerful innovations on the internet today include wireless device access, VOIP services, the use of the web to provide entertainment, and cloud-based software as a service. Where do we go from here?
The fact of the matter is science is still mostly in the dark when it comes to web dynamics. Berners-Lee himself seems to support the assertion that this merits serious research and further study. Equally important is the fact that the web’s use in communication is part of a wider, perhaps even more complex system of human interaction — one not too easily governed by laws and conventions, much less by common agreement. This, too, requires some attention.
Waiting for solutions
Certainly, there are many — too many — big problems out there awaiting solutions. We still have no proper cure for AIDS ( http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/03/04/at-least-hope-for-an-aids-cure/) or cancer. Pollution is out of control — and, in too many countries, education remains a privilege of the few. Science has its work cut out for it.
For now, however, most of us will have to content ourselves with the fact that the web offers at least some basis for hope. Only 50,000 computers were attached to the internet in 1988. By 2012, a mere 23 years after Berners-Lee wrote his ground breaking program, an estimated 2.4 billion people were accessing the internet through the worldwide web.
That has to count for something. Most of us — you can be sure — are just glad the miniskirt is still around