Tim Berners-Lee and his World Wide Web

Tim Berners-Lee

Google tweeted today: “27 years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau published their proposal for a little something called the ‘WorldWideWeb’.” That was the first web browser.

“When it was written in 1990, it was the only way to see the web. Much later it was renamed Nexus in order to save confusion between the program and the abstract information space (which is now spelled World Wide Web with spaces),” said Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989 when he was in his early 40s.

A graduate of Oxford University, he invented the web and created the web browser while working at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN).

The first website was built at CERN. It was put online for the first time on August 6, 1991. The website, carrying information about the World Wide Web, was made by Berners-Lee. It can still be seen online at http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html. Just a collection of hyperlinks with explanatory text, and no pictures or illustrations, it looks stark and bare compared with the web pages today.

Berners-Lee moved from CERN to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994 to found the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community devoted to developing open web standards. He remains the director of W3C to this day.

‘I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped’

“I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today. All the blogs, posts, tweets, photos, videos, applications, web pages and more represent the contributions of millions of you around the world building our online community,” Berners-Lee wrote in an article published in The Guardian on March 12, 2017, on the 28th anniversary of the day he submitted his original proposal for the World Wide Web.

The web was the child of an idealistic vision. “I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries,” Berners-Lee wrote. “In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open.”

Concern over misinformation

He expressed concern that it has become too easy for misinformation to spread on the web.

“Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines,” he wrote. “These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And they choose what to show us based on algorithms that learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire. And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.”

The web has changed both in character and appearance. You only have to check Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to see how different web pages used to be.

But visionaries could see computers were going to do more and more the work of the humans.

Web: A very short history

In The World Wide Web: A Very Short Personal History, in 1998, Berners-Lee wrote:

“There have always been things which people are good at, and things computers have been good at, and little overlap between the two. I was brought up to understand this distinction in the 50s and 60s that intuition and understanding were human characteristics, and that computers worked mechanically in tables and hierarchies.”

But the World Wide Web gave rise to new possibilities. Berners-Lee wrote in 1998:

“The web of human-readable document is being merged with a web of machine-understandable data. The potential of the mixture of humans and machines working together and communicating through the web could be immense.”

The internet has changed profoundly since he wrote those words. Now we have Facebook, Twitter and other social networks which did not even exist back then. Who knows what’s coming next?

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