Technology and Society
March 13, 2019
The web turned thirty this week. I still remember when I heard about it, nearly thirty years ago. A central-casting computer geek from our IT department tried to describe this new, exciting thing to me as I was trying to figure out if I could do something with hypercards on the NeXT computer that had improbably landed on my desk. It would be better than hypercards, better than Gopher, he told me, which seemed pretty innovative for its time. It wouldn’t be WAIS, either. It would be WYSIWYG and you would be able to go from one file to another directly with a mouse click. It was going to change everything.
He was right about that.
At the very beginning, before Sir Tim Berners-Lee got around to creating the first browser to run this new idea of his, it looked like this, but soon it looked like this. (Oddly enough, it was born on a NeXT computer a lot like mine, only more battered.)
The World Wide Web (as we called it then) was a little like Vannevar Bush’s Memex. You could sit at your desk and call up information. If you knew how to do it, you could make your own websites and connect information yourself in “trails of association,” linking one document to another by creating relationships between them. Bush predicted some people would become professional “trail blazers,” providing guides through it all. Right now, that makes me think of Maria Popova, but when the web was new, the busy curators of the World Wide Web Virtual Library were our guide to all the good stuff out there. It took a while for search engines to come along, and they didn’t work all that well, not until that nice, tidy one that wasn’t covered in ads came along. What we didn’t know is that those discreet ads tucked away at the margins would be so much more powerful than the blinking banners of the past. Or that the deleriously liberating promise of Web 2.0 would give us a world where Facebook is the internet for many people worldwide.
Today, Sir Tim encourages us to see beyond the problems in our digital communications that the web enabled and think about how to make an older, wiser web a reality.
Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.
He points to three problems and has solutions for each. People use the web to do bad things; okay, that means we need to develop better laws and smarter code. Too much of the web is driven by perverse incentives; that means companies need to develop better ethics, and he believes tech workers are ready to take up that challenge. Unintended negative outcomes of design decisions also need to be fixed; there are plenty of smart humanists and social scientists studying how people interact online who are on it. He goes on to say
The fight for the web is one of the most important causes of our time. Today, half of the world is online. It is more urgent than ever to ensure the other half are not left behind offline, and that everyone contributes to a web that drives equality, opportunity and creativity.
He’s part of a movement to develop a new Contract for the Web, a collective effort to spell out what we want to see happen. At a time when we rely so much on the web, where the platforms that dominate it seem both enormously powerful and fundamentally irresponsible, it’s good to remember it’s only 30 years old. We still have time to make it right.