The World-Wide Web turns thirty years old today. Tim Berners-Lee, a British physicist and computer scientist, devised a new way to access the Internet on March 12, 1989, that relied on hyperlinks to enable people to connect documents of information to each other and visit them by simply by following the links.
There were many pieces to Berners-Lee’s invention. He developed a language – HTML – for people to use to write nicely formatted documents that contained such links. He wrote the first software to store and serve hyperlinked documents using a protocol called Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), as well as the first client – the first browser – to request such documents from a server and render them on the requester’s screen. He created the first website – http://info.cern.ch/ – in HTML to demonstrate the ease with which people could move among pages and organize and present large amounts of information intuitively. In doing this, Berners-Lee codified a way to identify every Web-hosted document uniquely using something called a UDI, or Universal Document Identifier. The World-Wide Web was not just one grand idea; it was a combination of several.
Few ideas have so thoroughly transformed the world as this. Berners-Lee’s invention made the Internet – a worldwide connection of computers that had been exchanging packets of structured binary data with each on behalf of government researchers, military personnel, and academicians since 1969 – much, much easier to use. So easy, in fact, that practically everyone could use it.
Indeed, everyone did. Today, the World-Wide Web has become our go-to communications platform. Whether through email, social media, instant messaging, or any of various other emerging communications tools, the World-Wide Web ushers our thoughts, ideas, and proclamations through the Internet from source to destination, almost always speedily and mostly reliably. It has become the circulatory system for human expression in all its forms.
But over its thirty years, the Web certainly has experienced more than its share of growing pains. Some might say it presently bears the scars of someone who has seen a lot of living. It has been used and abused and wielded as a weapon like a child caught between his parents in a bitter divorce. Berners-Lee created the Web to make it easier for scientists like him to share information about their research more easily, not to spread pornography, misinformation, and hate-speech, and not to enable us to indulge our every covetous whim with a button-click and a credit card. And yet, that is undeniably part of what the Internet has become.
In his homily at my church this past Sunday, Fr. Karl Langsdorf compared Jesus’s being tempted by the Devil in the desert for forty days to how we are tempted today. While pointing out that the Web has made many wonderful things possible and has tremendous potential to do even more, Fr. Langsdorf also argued that it has made it so much easier for the Devil to do its work. Satan tempted a fasting-weakened Jesus with food and power. Through the Internet, all of us, weakened by desires and dragged down by our daily burdens, are similarly tempted from every angle, wherever we are, all the time. His point was that the Web has become so thoroughly embedded in everything we do that its profound influence, whether for good but often for bad, is so ever-present that it has become largely unnoticeable. So, we must make a conscious, concerted effort to see its influence so that we can resist it when it leads us astray.
Preaching from a different gospel, Tim Berners-Lee says practically the same but in a secular sense, and he offers a path forward. He identifies three categories of web misuse: deliberate and malicious intent, perverse incentives for harming people, and unintended negative consequences of unprecedentedly egalitarian discourse. He calls for governments, corporations, and people to work together to achieve the aims of his Contract for the Web. He challenges governments to ensure equal, always-on access to a Web that protects people’s fundamental right to privacy. He beseeches companies to make such access affordable, double down on protecting the privacy of people’s personal data, and “develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst”. And he asks citizens to do their part by contributing their ideas and knowledge to the web, respecting civil discourse and human dignity, and remaining vigilant against efforts to discriminate against or harm their fellow humans. Working together, Berners-Lee suggests, we can transform the web “from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible, and inclusive future.”
The Web turns 30 today. May the sins of its youth bring us the wisdom to shape a more responsible future.