25 years ago this week, Tim Berners-Lee, a British Scientist working at CERN in Switzerland, presented a proposal for a system of interlinked hypertext documents access through the internet.
His goal in 1989 was simply to provide a means by which CERN’s vast and disparate stores of valuable knowledge could be accessed via any computer, to facilitate the better use of such knowledge. Just over two years later, people outside of CERN accessed the web, albeit in a very different form than we know now, for the first time. Little did Berners-Lee know that he had just invented something which would quite literally change the world.
Of course, the internet had been around for years already, stemming from the ARPANET in the mid 80s. It was already in existence. What Berners-Lee had invented, rather, was a way to posit content that would be available the world over; from any computer, anywhere.
What made that 1989 proposal so unique was its realism; it’s immediate usefulness. Rather than relying on grand ideas that he hoped would come to fruition, Berners-Lee worked with concepts already in existence, such as hypertext, with simple and attainable goals. He wanted to invent something that could be completed by a few people within a couple of years. He wanted a simple sharing device that would allow CERN’s several thousand employees to work towards a shared goal; of universal sharing of their knowledge. He wanted it to work on all types of computers, and he wanted the system to be decentralized. In his 1989 proposal, he even went as far as to state that any sort of content could potentially be stored on such a system, and that the world would need something along the lines of his idea in the very near future, though he stopped short of claiming that his system could be that global masterpiece.
The true genius of Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web has, in fact, been its scalability. Though he most likely didn’t realize it at the time, despite the fact that the web of 2014 would look very different to the web of his 1989 idea, it would work pretty much the same way. Since it first got up and running on Christmas Day, 1990, the web has morphed and mutated and changed, but it still works on the same basic principles.
If the genius of Berners-Lee was creating something so malleable, then the true test of his character has been his dedication to his invention over the last 25 years. Berners-Lee is still very active in keeping the web open and neutral, and continues to battle censorship and unethical practices. He’s as forward-thinking today as he was back then.
It’s truly difficult to overstate the effect that Berners-Lee’s invention has had on our lives over the last quarter century – or, more realistically, over the last 15 years, as the web didn’t reach the masses in any usable way until the last years of the 20th Century. It has very definitely changed the way we work, the way we study – in fact, the very way that we live.
It’ll be interesting in a few years to start explaining to the younger generations that we existed before the internet; the kind of sentence that makes you feel like you’re completely past your prime. We’ll have to explain about going to a library and flicking through an encyclopedia to find out information for our dissertations. We’ll have to explain the concept of booking a flight over the phone. We’ll no doubt need to mimic that god-awful dial up noise that plagued us all for years, describing how much cheaper it was to get online after 6pm on a week night. But yet what we won’t be able to describe is just how much influence the web has had on our world. They’ll have to see that for themselves.