Can you remember the first thing you ever saw on the internet? I can. I distinctly recall seeing images sent back by NASA’s Pathfinder which had just landed on the surface of Mars in July 1997. A friend of mine had a Mac and we sat for about ten minutes waiting for an image of the Martian landscape to download from a NASA webpage. It was amazing.
For those of us who grew up without the internet we’ve seen rapid change in the last twenty-five years or so in how we communicate, shop and share information. Some would argue that the world is a worse place because of it.
One notable person who is concerned about the way the net has evolved is the great man himself, Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Berners-Lee proposing an idea of an ‘information management system’ to his boss, Mike Sendell. Sendall declared the idea, ‘vague but exciting’. The idea became less vague as it was developed into the concept that the web could be free and open and accessible and would empower its users – an information superhighway. This, quite cool and groovy, utopian vision was a force for good, but Berners-Lee now feels that things have changed somewhat over the last ten years or so. He’s increasingly concerned about the web’s future and specifically about things like hacking, misinformation and fake news, aggressive and underhand online marketing models, and polarised conflict and poor online behaviour.
Poor behaviour is a case in point and Berners-Lee has a point. In the UK, we’ve seen a profound, and what will be a devastatingly long-lasting, division since 2016 over Brexit after collectively making the idiot decision to leave Europe without any idea how it was going to be done or with a unified, competent and agreed plan. A whole new language has emerged in this time, for example Remoaners and Brexitards, and we’ve all noticed how vicious the arguments have become online and in a way that people would never condescend to behave if they were face-to-face with someone. But, this is not the fault of the internet but it’s rather a platform that enables us to exercise the more unpleasant parts of our characters because there are reduced consequences.
The internet is a tool and like all tools, it can be used for its intended purpose or for ill; you only need to watch the news to see evidence of this with the recent spike in stabbings with kitchen knives, predominantly, in London. While some would suggest that a restriction and more policing of the internet is necessary, taking it even further away from Berners-Lee’s original vision, no one should be suggesting that kitchen knives, or kitchens, are at fault for stabbings – it’s people that use them improperly and not for their intended purpose. This doesn’t mean that I agree with the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms and ‘people kill people’. Guns were invented for one purpose only. The internet was invented to bring people all over the world together and kitchen knives we invented to help make a nice casserole.
A force for good
But Tim Berners-Lee acknowledges this in an open letter and a recent interview, that despite his rather downcast view of the modern internet, it is the responsibility of us as users, of governments and of businesses to bring the net back onto the path that he initially intended for it. Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, said he saw Berners-Lee’s letter, “…not only as a call to build a better web, but to rededicate ourselves to the core principles it embodies.”
While it’s easy to appreciate Berners-Lee’s dismay as to how his incredible invention has been abused, especially if you consider Cambridge Analytica, state interference in elections, misinformation and fake news, data breaches, widespread nastiness on social media, and the unsavoury elements of the dark web, it’s also easy to forget the good things and the elements of his vision that have come to pass. We are closer together as world citizens. We can stay in contact with friends and relatives who are far away easily. We can find out anything we like. We can share and laugh together. We can work and play more easily. We can collaborate, be entertained, shop, protest, publish, earn, learn, chat, eat, go on holiday, solve problems, come together, see gigs, get customer service, build a career, contribute, and be heard in ways that none of us imagined. As a species, we need to learn how to behave and evolve with the medium so these great benefits are added to, and the unpleasantness is self-policed – use the tool for the purpose it was intended.
Many happy returns
So, happy 30th birthday world wide web and thanks TBL for laying the foundations of my second career and enabling to meet and work with the beautiful team we have here at Cyberfrog (none of whom remember a time when the internet didn’t exist! Now I feel old.) You did a good thing.
I’ll leave you with David Bowie and his alarmingly prescient predictions for the internet in a BBC interview in 1999. The man was a visionary.