News / Science & Technology

25 Years Old, the World Wide Web’s Potential Still Untapped

FILE - Former physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World-Wide Web as an essential tool for High Energy Physics (HEP) at CERN from 1989 to 1994.
FILE - Former physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World-Wide Web as an essential tool for High Energy Physics (HEP) at CERN from 1989 to 1994.
David Byrd
— This week marks the 25th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web. What started as a way for scientists to share research has changed life worldwide forever.
 
In March 1989, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee was working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Switzerland.
 
Scientists would come to CERN from all over the world, but others could not view their research because their computers were not compatible. Berners-Lee thought it would be easier if all the computers could talk to one another and swap information directly.
 
So he proposed linking the machines. The response from his bosses to his proposal, titled Information Management: A Proposal
 
“Vague, but exciting.”
 
Little did they know.
 
Berners-Lee’s proposal would later become known as the World Wide Web. It took two years before he and a colleague could successfully link a computer server and a web browser through the Internet.  It would be officially launched in August 1991.
 
By 1993 there were more than 500 web servers. Today, there are more than 1.7 billion people on the web worldwide.
 
James Hendler is the director of the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications in Troy, New York.  Speaking by Skype, he said one of the main challenges to web growth - the English coding and keyboard - has been solved, and Asia can look for an explosion of Web access.
 
“In China right now, I saw a recent graphic that says six out of the 10 largest social networking sites - sites like Facebook - are in China.  Most people don’t realize that the second largest search company is Baidu, which is the Chinese search company.  In the U.S. we are at somewhere in the area of 80-90 percent of people already having access and not much growth.  In China you see about 25 percent, and of course a country much bigger than ours. India, I don’t know the current number, but again a small number growing very quickly. So most of the growth we expect in the web will actually be in those parts of the world that don’t yet have it,” said Hendler. 

Hendler has worked on the Web since its early days and has co-authored several papers with Berners-Lee. 
 
Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University said via Skype that events such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement showed the power that the web has put in the hands of everyday people. 
 
With billions of people able to access information, some countries have tried to limit or control web access. However, Levinson said, governments need to realize that the web is a tool that is unrivaled in its reach and influence.
 
“What we have now is a battle. On the one hand, the governments are more aware of these devices and they are more aware of what used to be called and still could be called 'citizen journalism.' But on the other hand, there are more smart phones out there than ever before, and I think so far - and this is good for democracy and for the expression of human ideas - so far the people are winning,” said Levinson.

Hendler pointed out that even 25 years after its invention, only a fraction of the web’s potential has been realized.
 
“Here is this force that has really changed society in so many different ways. We understand sort of the mathematics of the computer network underneath and the engineering of that but we really don’t understand the social impact.  There’s more and more research that’s starting to study what are those different effects? How do they affect society? How do we build the web and keep the web open and free? How do we really understand the impacts of this thing we call the World Wide Web,” said Hendler.

Tim Berners-Lee went on to found the World Wide Web Foundation, which has as part of its mission statement that it wants to establish the open web as a global public good and a basic right.
 
Paul Levinson said that any attempts to abridge that right - either by governments or through commercial pressure from web providers - will ultimately fail.

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