The Four Hundred: The Global Impact Of The World Wide Web

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When someone refers to the ‘World Wide Web,’ people often think of the Internet. The World Wide Web is but a small part of that globally interconnected network that we call the Internet. And it all started as a small database.

In 1980, an English-independent contractor working with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Tim Berners-Lee, built ENQUIRE, as a personal database of people and software models, but also as a way to play with hypertext. Each new page of information in ENQUIRE had to be linked to a page. Berners-Lee was, however, only a temporary worker at CERN. His initial contract was from June to December 1980.

It was only when he came back to CERN in 1984 in a more permanent role that he was able to consider information management and its problems. Physicists at CERN didn’t have common machines or any presentation software, but they needed to share their data with other physicists from around the world. Berners-Lee conceived the web to meet this demand for automated information sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world.

Soon after Berners-Lee’s return to CERN, TCP/IP protocols were installed on some key non-Unix machines at the institution, making it the largest internet site in Europe within a few years. This created an infrastructure on the basis of which Berners-Lee could create the web.

In March 1989, Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for “a large hypertext database with typed-links.” The proposal didn’t attract enough interest, but Mike Sendall, Berners-Lee’s boss at CERN, encouraged him to implement his system on a newly acquired NeXT workstation. Berners-Lee chose different names for his system, including Information Mesh, The Information Mine or Mine of Information, but finally settled on the World Wide Web.

Berners-Lee found support in Belgian informatics engineer and computer scientist Robert Cailliau. Along with Cailliau, they pitched the idea of the World Wide Web to the European Conference on Hypertext technology in September 1990 but found no vendors. By Christmas 1990, Berners-Lee built everything required for a working Web: the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) 0.9, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the first web browser (named WorldWideWeb, which was also a web editor), the first HTTP server software (later known as CERN httpd), the first web server (http://info.cern.ch/), and the first webpages that described the project itself. In January 1991 the first web servers outside CERN were switched on. 

What started as a network for scientists to efficiently share their data with each other has transformed how information is exchanged around the world across all spheres. Thanks to the world wide web, connections are created every moment. Anyone sitting in any remote corner of the world has the power to project their thoughts on a platform that is visible to the world.

It has changed the world beyond measure. The nature of some industries has changed to the point where it is not necessary to be physically present for work as well. Most creative work happens online, where editors and graphic designers and artists can share their work online and feedback in real time. It has given power to voices that were devoid of power, as is evident in the case of the 18-year-old Saudi Arabian woman Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who locked herself in a Bangkok bathroom and live-tweeted her calls for help, which is how she was able to secure asylum in Canada. It has elevated the status of the internet to a basic human right, on par with the right to food and the right to water.

At the same time, it is truly democratic to the point where every opinion, every thought has been given a platform, which means that there is a lot of clutter and noise, which might not be all positive. It has become much easier to have conversations, but it has also become easier to incite hatred. The nature of journalism has changed to the point where a lot of unverified news and information is circulated, which has caused more problems than it has solved. Pornography has become more easily accessible, and so has online abuse in the form of trolling. In the world wide web’s parlance, no deed, good or bad, goes unpunished.

It has also changed human interactions forever. We don’t just speak to each other anymore: we interact on our posts and tweet our thoughts. We don’t meet people at bars or restaurants anymore: we swipe left and right. We don’t lack confidants anymore: we’re connected to more people than ever to air our grievances/celebrate our triumphs. We multitask more, we’re never bored and we’re our own doctors. It has also changed the nature of fame. All you need is one unique post, one moment of frenzy, and you can leverage that to have a career: look up Danielle Bregoli aka BhadBhabie, or Russell Horning aka TheBackpackKid, or even Justin Bieber.

The nature of the world wide web has changed over these past thirty years. It evolved from a way to share information, to a place where everything happens. If you cannot access the web, you cannot connect with anyone anymore. Where do we go from here? With the recent shootings that have happened, that have somehow found their ideological origins on the internet, it is safe to say that regulations are in store. But how much would the regulations affect the web? Would it lose its democratic nature, or would it evolve into something totally unimaginable? How it changes over the next twenty years is anyone’s guess.