From the archives: We are republishing this article, from the May/June 1999 edition of UU World, in honor of the twenty-fifth birthday of the World Wide Web on August 23, 2016.
Stone. Papyrus. Movable type. Telephone. Television. World Wide Web.
Revolutions in communications pave the way for revolutions in human life. Try to picture the Protestants breaking off from Catholic orthodoxy without the Gutenberg Bible. Or liberal democracies replacing kings without newspapers and pamphlets. McDonald’s and Levi’s conquering the world without tv and movies. Or the Tienanmen Square uprising without faxes.
So what will come of the 1990s’ most astonishing communication development, the World Wide Web—brainchild of a Massachusetts UU, Tim Berners-Lee?
To approach such a question, we must first understand what the Web is. Four components made the World Wide Web possible: first, a hardware network of cables and computers; second and third, two software breakthroughs; and fourth, an ongoing worldwide collaboration to ensure that all the hardware and software can communicate.
The first component, the physical network on which information travels, consists of computers and cable links and is constantly changing (for example computers log on and off via phone lines). The second component was added in the 1970s, when a pair of computer researchers invented a method of electronically “addressing” packets of information so that, once launched onto the hardware network, they would arrive at a particular destination. When you send an e-mail message, you are using these first two components, which make up what we’ve come to call the Internet.
The next two components come from Tim Berners-Lee. Berners-Lee came up with the second software breakthrough, the program called hypertext, which allows your computer to jump from one document to another when you double-click on a blue underlined “link.” But more important than this technological breakthrough was a conceptual one—Berners-Lee’s vision of a World Wide Web. Berners-Lee imagined using hypertext plus the Internet to create a global “public square” where anyone, anywhere, any time, could communicate anything. It’s because of this visionary concept—and because he persuaded other techies worldwide to volunteer their expertise and time to turn his vision into reality—that today you and I can use the cyberspace information bazaar known as the World Wide Web.
Understated yet enthusiastic, with muscular good looks and thinning blond hair, Berners-Lee, 43, was born in England and now lives with his wife and children in a Boston suburb. His mathematician parents met while working together on the Ferranti Mark I, the first computer sold commercially. Growing up, Berners-Lee solved math and computer problems the way other children watched tv. He went on to study physics at Oxford University—where, as a hobby, he built his first computer using a soldering iron, some early computer processors, and an old television. After finishing at Oxford in 1976, he worked as a computer programmer, arriving in 1980 at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, where he wrote programs that supported the physicists’ work.
There Berners-Lee invented the precursor to hypertext. Frustrated by what he thought of as his poor memory, he drew on some ideas that had been bandied about in computer journals to write a program that let him jump, via links, from one bit of information to another. For instance, in his memory program he might have a standard address-book-type listing for a CERN member—but he could also, from there, link to papers they’d written, projects they were involved in, memos they’d sent, names of their spouses and children, and other potentially useful information.
Soon Berners-Lee realized that his personal memory aid could also solve a problem in group collaboration: while colleagues held a universe of useful information in their minds and computers, they weren’t sharing it efficiently. Often, they had to pass the same information about themselves and their work to their collaborators over and over again—with the danger, Berners-Lee wrote, of conveying “half-understandings verbally, duplicating effort through ignorance, and reversing good decisions from misunderstanding.” Using Berners-Lee’s program, CERN scientists could not only make a new particle physics paper available to other researchers but could also link it to every other paper referenced in it, as well as, if they chose, to their favorite Beethoven symphony or directions to their offices. The program eventually evolved into hypertext, the software that now lets you “click” on those highlighted words on a World Wide Web site and be transported to an entirely different document.
What was new about hypertext: the links were direct, random, and flexible. That requires some explanation. Earlier computer programs let you reach a variety of other documents—but to get there, your computer’s request for those documents had to travel, via a series of menus, up and down a ladder of information, checking in at the top with a central network authority that could either be a person, like the moderator of an e-mail news group, or an automatic computer function. It’s as if every time you wanted to walk to your neighborhood ice cream stand, you had to go to the town square and get directions and approval from the local cop. Berners-Lee invented a program that entirely bypassed that central authority, letting you walk directly from your house to the ice cream stand (or the local porn shop or an ACLU meeting) without telling anyone where you were going. The downside is that, now, there’s no central authority to inform you that the ice cream stand has been torn down—so that sometimes you may click on a link and wait patiently for the results, only to get that annoying message “404: File Not Found.”
What’s more, without a central authority, not only could you make direct links, you could also make random links—meaning they didn’t have to make sense to anyone but the creator of the website. No central computer checked to ensure that a source document and the destination document were related to each other: a hypertext document could let users click on a physics paper, a photo album, and a chili recipe.
Finally, the links were flexible, meaning that a website designer could change them at whim, without registering the change anywhere but on the website itself.
But Berners-Lee’s most revolutionary idea—first proposed in 1989—was a global hypertext project to be known as the World Wide Web, which would let Internet users anywhere share their knowledge with all other users. Berners-Lee conceived of hypertext tools that would enable any user to view any document, no matter what software or operating system had been used to create it. Just as important, he envisioned this network as free and open to anyone with Internet access, and not just confined to, say, CERN employees. This way, Berners-Lee imagined, physicists and programmers worldwide could collaborate and argue about each others’ ideas without being hindered by differences in their computers or software.
Encouraged by his CERN colleagues, he created the first tools that enabled you to read and write hypertext, and he wrote early specifications for URLs, HTTPs, (universal resource locators and hypertext transfer protocols, the “addresses” that you type in your Web browser’s window to get you where you want to go), and HTML (hypertext markup language, which your Web browser reads to allow you to view a document). All these he envisioned as just a start, encouraging programmers worldwide—in keeping with the computer hackers’ culture—to join in on their own time to discuss, improve, and refine the tools until they were so good that building a website and surfing the Web were possible not only for experts but even for those of us who have no idea how our computers work.
Berners-Lee’s initial World Wide Web site was completed in 1991. This would have been the moment for Berners-Lee to copyright hypertext and develop the Web as a private system. He did not, and Berners-Lee is regularly asked why the Web hasn’t made him a multimillionaire. The question brings a slight but distinct wince. “The only way the World Wide Web would have taken off was as a totally open, free system,” answers Berners-Lee. “Any attempt to claim intellectual property would have killed it and has killed other projects in the past and will kill other projects in the future.” Keeping the World Wide Web software free was in keeping with a technology developed “by individuals thinking a global hypertext system would be a neat idea, working on it without management approval, on lunch breaks, after hours—installing a little software or writing a piece of code or putting a server up or installing a browser,” Berners-Lee adds.
After developing the CERN website, Berners-Lee continued working on the design of the Web, coordinating feedback from volunteers and users worldwide. As the number of websites grew exponentially, users around the world were wondering how its further development would be coordinated and overseen so as to keep it open and free to all. And so in 1994, Berners-Lee joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Laboratory for Computer Science as director of the newly formed W3C, or World Wide Web Consortium, which works to ensure that all new Web technologies can communicate freely with each other. Toward that end, Berners-Lee and his W3C colleagues encourage and moderate discussions among the various competing interests trying to capitalize on the Web—convening ongoing talks among software companies like Microsoft and Netscape, cell-phone innovators Nokia and Motorola, inventors of security cameras that communicate via the Web, and others. The W3C discussions help people and organizations like these work to a constantly evolving set of specifications and standards and prevent the wide-open Web from being cut up into warring Balkan states. Without W3C’s ongoing discussion about emerging standards, sooner or later, you wouldn’t be able to travel or “link” from one site to another without buying the particular software or hardware used in each website. Berners-Lee functions as a kind of an anti-authority in charge of technological consensus among competitors, a sort of cyber-peacekeeper.
Being Web peacekeeper and making sure that we can all move freely across cyberspace doesn’t pay as well as being Microsoft’s Bill Gates. And so no secretary guards Berners-Lee’s door, and Berners-Lee’s modest office is at the end of a fluorescent-lit hallway crowded with PCs, printers, plastic chairs, and all-purpose tables. It overlooks a parking lot and a maze-like intersection of faceless MIT buildings. Berners-Lee’s reward for his innovations may not be monetary, but it’s a reward nonetheless: the thrill of having helped build, guide, and oversee the constant evolution of the Web.
But what are the social consequences of Berners-Lee’s invention? Berners-Lee explains that, as with any new technology, the Web’s relationship to society developed in three stages. In the first, the Internet was both invented and used by what Berners-Lee calls a countercultural “group of long-haired hackers” who believed in keeping the Internet (and later the Web) “a society of total freedom in which there were no laws.” In the second stage, as Internet and Web use spread to the mainstream, the usual social conventions, values, and laws started to be applied. Now, in the third stage, people are realizing that these conventions, values, and laws will have to be adapted or reconceived if they are to work for the Web—especially those concerning privacy, individual ownership of intellectual property, and the limits placed by national borders on both commerce and concepts.