The World Wide Web Will Be 25 Years Old

It’s only in 1989 that Tim Berners Lee wrote the first proposal for the World Wide Web, which was proposing a radically different way of sharing information on a global scale, built on the existing infrastructure of the internet.

And in that very short time, we’ve gone from nothing to 2 and 1/2 billion users and over 600 million Web pages. And both of those statistics is changing, going up all the time. We’ve built the largest information infrastructure in human history in just that short space of time. In this lecture, what I’d like to consider is two questions about that. The first one is, how on Earth did we get from there to here?

And very briefly, where exactly is here that we are at the moment? We’ve got some clues already from the previous lecture. So we know that the Web had a history. It didn’t come from nowhere. The Web was linked to technologies that existed before 1989.

The internet, of course, was really important–microchips, the personal computer, file transfer protocols. And it was also linked to much broader technologies that were shaping our modern world –mass production, electricity, the cables that provided the internet. But as well as technological innovations that enabled us to develop the Web, it’s important to recognize that it was linked to a cultural history. As we’ve heard in the previous lecture, it wasn’t the first way of thinking about a global information infrastructure.

And indeed, if you read science fiction at all, go and have a look at William Gibson’s book Neuromancer, was written in 1981. And you’ll find it almost impossible to imagine that that book was written before the Web existed, because there it is, in 1981, in this book. The Web also had a history that was tied in with economics and with social change. So we need to think about the postwar economic boom.

We need to think about electronics. We need to think about the Cold War. We also need to think about mass higher education and the way in which science was funded in the postwar period. So the Web had a history–a technological, a social, an economic, and a political history in terms of where it came from. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee made a very specific proposal to use HTTP, HTML, and URLs or URIs to share information and to navigate information on a global scale.

At the very beginning, or so the story goes, Tim Berners-Lee kept a notebook, in which he decided he would write down every time a new Website appeared on the internet. And he got to 20 and decided that perhaps he would stop doing it, because it was getting a bit difficult to keep up with it all. You imagine the notebook he’d need now–over 600 million Websites and counting, 2 and 1/2 billion people and counting.

And you know what? The main uses of the Web are not physicists. So how did we get from there to here? A popular way of understanding science and understanding technical innovation is to imagine that innovations take off because they’re very clever and because they’re designed to achieve certain outcomes. So one answer to that question, how do we get from there to here, would be to say, well, it was designed to do that, and it’s a really clever technology.

I’m afraid I think that the answer to that is, no, that’s not how we got from there to here. And there’s three different things I’d like you to think about, which underline my reason for saying no. The first one is that technology on its own is not enough. However clever, however innovative something is, technologies don’t happen on their own. They happen because people use them.

And people use them or don’t use them depending on the circumstances of their lives, depending on their motivations, depending on all kinds of social and economic factors. So the World Wide Web is a really obvious point. It needs to be able to read and write. If we don’t have maths literacy, no one’s going to use the Web, or at least not on the scale that we’re used to.

We need disposable incomes. If people can’t pay for access to the internet, they can’t buy computers, they’re not going to use the World Wide Web. Slightly more complicated, this, but it needed a range of use values. So if all you could do on the Web was share physics datasets, not very many people would be using it. All the physicists might be, but nobody else would be using it. And it also needed an open model. If the Web had been copyrighted, if we have to pay every time we wanted to use it, would it looks like it looks today? I really don’t think that it would. And those of you who watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics last year in 2012 might remember Tim Berners-Lee being present to that ceremony with a message flashing around the Olympic Stadium in London, saying, this is for everyone.

And that has been a really important decision, I would say almost as important as the technologies themselves, in shaping how we got from there to here. So that’s the first reason. The second reason why we can’t just say that this was inevitable outcome of the technology that was developed is because the Web we have now, even in technical terms, is not the Web we had in 1989.

In 1989, or 1990, I suppose, to be more accurate, you could put static Web pages up–text, no visuals. And the only people really who could put Websites up were those who had quite high-level technical skills to be able to do that. All of that changed as we moved into a second generation of the Web, what people have called Web 2.0, where it started to look much nicer. You could have visuals, you could have dynamic Web pages.

All of it became much fancier, much more interesting and engaging. But also really importantly, Web 2.0 is used to describe a phase of the Web where user-generated content became possible. So it wasn’t just a relatively small number of people with high technical skills who could put information on the Web. All of us–you, me, anybody with access to the Web could put their information out there, whether it’s on Facebook or Twitter or whether we’re blogging, a whole range of ways in which people can share information, share their photographs, share their life histories, sell their products, be on eBay, whatever it is, user-generated content is driving the Web or has driven the Web to a large extent in terms of that growth in the recent period. It’s not stopping there. People now are talking about Web 3.0. And that’s something we’ll talk about later on it. But that is going to change again how the Web is and how we’re using it. The third reason why we can’t simply say, oh, the Web grew because it was a great technology, is because we’ve had to work very, very hard to make the Web what it is today.

Some of you will have heard of an organisation called W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium. The World Wide Web Consortium is an organisation that develops protocols and guidelines to ensure the stability of the Web and the continued growth of the Web. It’s an organisation that brings together governments, businesses, academics, a whole range of people who negotiate long and hard over how to enable the Web to continue to function in a stable,reliable, and sustainable kind of way. And it’s really important to know that at W3C, there’s two underpinning values. One is, the Web is for everyone. And two is, the second is, the Web is for everything. It has to be possible to use the Web on any kind of device, not on one that’s produced by one company or another company or a particular kind of device, but on any kind of device.

And again, you can imagine if that hadn’t been the case, the Web might look very different today to how it does. W3C isn’t the only organisation that’s doing all that hard work to try and hold the Web together. But it’s a very powerful organisation, and it has as its vision–I think it’s important to say this–a commitment to participation, knowledge sharing, and trust. And that’s not easy. That’s really, really hard work–the effort, the energy, that it takes to hold the Web together.