Following decades of network technology development, a quiet breakthrough was reached in 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee published the first publicly-available website, info.cern.ch. This week is being celebrated as the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web (W3), commemorating its invention in the form of a proposal written by Berners-Lee two years before the first site went public.
A quarter-century later, we talk of a world in which every person has access to the Internet as not just a necessity, but a short-range eventuality. What essentially amount to the “sum of all human knowledge,” made available indiscriminately to all. That this is the secret to putting the world’s populations on an even playing field is clearly an ideal simplification, but the power of the Internet to provide people with an agency they would not otherwise have is a reality.
There are two histories of the Internet, each defined by changes in a distinct question: for one, that’s “What can the Internet do?” and, for the other, “What does the Internet do?”
The first, though vital, is less interesting. Things like HTML5, the Mosaic Browser, broadband.
The second is where things get fun. The Internet alone is just technology. Add the human element, and it has a life of its own. It has a rich sociology, a vast vernacular, and a self-constructed folklore. It has its own heroes and villains, though its sometimes hard to tell which are which. It’s redefined the concept of celebrity; it’s taught us to quantify our value in ‘likes‘ and ‘upvotes,’ and its made instant gratification much more instant. It’s allowed us to share our private selves, or craft new selves entirely. We’re all journalists now (but mostly really bad ones), and we can all pretend to be photographers, too.
But what’s next? On a Reddit thread celebrating the anniversary of his great achievement, Berners-Lee didn’t have much to say on the subject of the Internet’s future, but he did leave us with this: “It is up to us. It is an artificial creation, as are our laws, and our constitutions … we can chose how they work. We can make new ones. Our choice.”