It started in the Swiss Alps. The year was 1980. Tim Berners-Lee, a British software engineer working temporarily at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, was fooling with a way to organize his far-flung notes. Building on ideas then current in software design, he fashioned a kind of “hypertext” notebook. Words in a document could be linked to other files on Berner-Lee’s computer. But why not he wondered, open up his document – and his computer – to everyone and allow them to link their stuff to his. So he cobbled together a coding system – HTML (HyperText Markup Language) – and designed an addressing scheme that gave each web page a unique location, or URL (Universal Resource Locator). And he hacked a set of rules that permitted these documents to be linked together on computers across the Internet.
And on the seventh day, Berners-Lee assembled the World Wide Web’s first browser, which allowed users anywhere to view his creation on their computer screen. He alerted the world by way of a message to a newsgroup and the world came. On August 6, 1991, the web made its debut, instantly bringing order to the chaos that was cyberspace. From that moment on, the web and the internet grew as one, often at exponential rates. Within five years, the number of internet users jumped from 600,000 to 40 million. Until then, we hadn’t really known what a powerful new tool the computer could be for everyone. Now we do.
From the beginning Tim Berners-Lee understood how the epic power of the Web would radically transform governments, businesses, societies. He also envisioned that his invention could, in the wrong hands, become a destroyer of worlds, as Robert Oppenheimer once infamously observed of his own creation. His prophecy came to life, most recently, when revelations emerged that Russian hackers interfered with the 2016 presidential election, or when Facebook admitted it exposed data on more than 80 million users to a political research firm, Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s campaign. This episode was the latest in an increasingly chilling narrative.
The power of the Web wasn’t taken or stolen. We, collectively, by the billions, gave it away with every signed user agreement and intimate moment shared with technology. Facebook, Google, and Amazon now monopolize almost everything that happens online, from what we buy to the news we read to who we like. Along with a handful of powerful government agencies, they are able to monitor, manipulate, and spy in once unimaginable ways.
Shortly after the 2016 election, Berners-Lee felt something had to change, and began methodically attempting to hack his creation. Last fall, the World Wide Web Foundation funded research to examine how Facebook’s algorithms control the news and information users receive. “Looking at the ways algorithms are feeding people news and looking at accountability for the algorithms, all of that is really important for the open Web,” he explained. By understanding these dangers, he hopes, we can collectively stop being deceived by the machine. For him this is about not just those already online but also the billions still unconnected. How much weaker and more marginalized will they become as the rest of the world leaves them behind?
Communication always changes society, and society was always organized around communication channels. Two hundred years ago it was mostly rivers. It was sea-lanes and mountain passes. The Internet is another form of communication and commerce. And society organizes around the channels.