The World Wide Web
Something else had been happening around this time, something completely different, and it wasn’t widely seen at first that this was something of enormous, inestimable significance; and it was even something good, so very good. Out of the blue, the World Wide Web flowered into existence, and would grow to become a global commons, as unownable as air. It has grown accompanied by an explosion in digital innovation and development which are changing the life of the world profoundly in so many ways. In a relatively short time, it has become hard to imagine that there was a time when we weren’t sending emails and text messages to each other, or accessing from what seems an infinity of information, instantly.
Since the 60s there had been government backed research in the USA, the UK and France into using interlinked computers to build communications networks that could survive calamity. Some early networks were built that developed systems of interconnecting computers into networks, and connecting networks to other networks.
Around the early to mid 80s there was a global system of networks in existence, the Internet, using a common language between computer networks called an Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP, Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) and was used widely in the 80s in the academic world, emails and file transfers were now possible. Use of these systems quickly spread around much of the world as more and more computers connected to it.
This growth was completely organic, a beautiful thing about the Internet is that it has no central governance, it’s all run and developed by non-profit organisations of loosely affiliated international participants, open to anyone to contribute to. The whole thing would grow through the multifarious activity of its participants.
By the 90s, things began to really take off with the coming of the World Wide Web, W3, a interlinked system of material which runs on the Internet and is a part of it, not the Internet itself. The WWW brought using the Internet to ordinary people rather than just computer specialists, though it was hard for many to imagine at first what on Earth they’d want to do with it.
The key development was the web browser, which now enabled searching and navigating this ever-expanding global system, viewing pages and magically jumping from them to other pages via hyperlinks. The idea would keep growing exponentially, web pages developed to combine text and images, and then videos. We still haven’t got over the wonder of clicking on a link and instantly being in that place. The world started getting its head around the idea of cyberspace.
Tim Berners-Lee, or TimBL, is a British computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web while working at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, who have a 17 mile circular tunnel in the Alps in which they accelerate particles to very high velocities and smash them together to see what happens, style of thing. They have a lot of information and research to manage.
Berners-Lee had written a paper in 1989 proposing the idea of what became the World Wide Web. He sought to:
link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will.
He saw such a system as an absolute necessity in the technical field he was working in with CERN and the academic world in general, and initially the project was for CERN’s needs. Technically, the key development was combining hypertext with the facility of the Internet, an idea he had persistently presented to both the Internet and the hypertext communities without much response, so it fell to him.
With his collaborator, Robert Cailliau,he developed the technologies and an awareness grew of the enormity of what they were working on, they started to see what the project could mean for the whole world beyond CERN.
By the end of 1990, Berners-Lee had designed the tools and systems that would run the Web. He had developed the systems and languages behind what are now fairly familiar terms, URL, HTML, HTTP, and had the first ever browser working, the first server and, in 1991, the world’s first website. This accomplishment now made access to the Internet non-technical, accessible, and in a short time increasingly attractive to millions of ordinary people.
You can view here the world’s first ever website, which TimBL made for CERN, and you can see what he intended for the Web.
In a historic statement in 1993, CERN made all of the technologies and codes behind the World Wide Web available to anybody to use on a royalty-free basis, which Berners-Lee had pushed for. It was a gift of a global commons. Has there ever been a gift like that in the history of the world?
This decision made the Web a place where anybody, anywhere could access any content that existed and come into contact with anybody anywhere else and share content with.
Also in 1993, the coming of the Mosaic web browser, a graphical browser, which came from government computing projects initiated by Vice-President Al Gore, gave a graphical interface which made the World Wide Web spread like fire, soon becoming the greatest presence on the Internet.
New forms of media emerged, social media where people met in an online environment, whole new forms of association developed. Before very long, the entire face of communication was being reshaped and the Web was becoming an integrated part of modern life.
In the 90s, language developed around the use of the Web, people spoke of browsing and surfing the Web (though they maybe said surfing the Net.) In 1991 there was one website in the world, TimBL’s CERN site. By the end of 1993, there was reckoned to be 623 websites (stats by Matthew Gray, MIT). By the middle of 1994 there were 2,738 websites and by the end of that year, more than 10,000. Today, the figure has passed 1 billion and more than a third of the world’s population have used the World Wide Web, and rising. 97% of global, two-way communication is now carried by the Internet.
In 1994, Berners-Lee founded The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to guide the continuing growth and development of the Web, and to keep it pure, keep it open and everybody’s. Its work in developing standards is based on free technology to be easily adopted and adapted by anyone.
We see TimBL as even a little like Henry George, in that he took ideas that were already around, visions that others had glimpsed before, thought through what it all really meant and put it all together into a beautiful solution; and gave it to world. Tim Berners-Lee has made all his innovation and design freely available to the world. Like Henry George, TimBL didn’t develop his insights for his own progress, but for humanity’s.
Berners-Lee later admitted that the slashes - // - that a web address start with are actually unnecessary and didn’t need to be there. He said that it seemed like a good idea at the time. So, every time we type // in a web address we’re going to thank TimBL for his infinitely wonderful gift to the world.