The internet was developed from the mid-1950s whereby packet switching was utilised to pass data back and forth over a network. So-called internet protocol communications were first put into action in the 1970s. The interconnectivity that the burgeoning internet was suggesting would only become possible with further steps. It still needed a system to give it a practical application. Until the world wide web was invented by a scientist working at CERN - the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – no such system existed. Before Tim Berners-Lee, the Englishman who came up with the notion of the world wide web, the internet was only used for small networks, to connect some of the world's supercomputers and for certain military applications. What Berners-Lee developed was a system whereby all of the world's computers could connect to one another in a meaningful way. His invention has just turned 30 years of age. Do we really understand it?
What Is the World Wide Web?
In 1980, Berners-Lee used his computer at CERN to share information in a novel way. Other scientists could look up information and search for data on a system he called 'Enquire'. This made use of the internet protocols invented elsewhere which – crucially – meant that his colleagues could look up information held on his computer from another terminal. Over the course of the next ten years, he developed his system to make it work in a variety of situations so that scientists all over the world could access each other's records. By December 1990, what we would now understand to be the world wide web was up and running and academics started to use it like a virtual library which could be constantly referred to and updated.
What Was Needed For the World Wide Web?
Berners-Lee developed three things to use internet protocols so that his information sharing system could come into existence. They are all still mainstays of the world wide web. The first is HTML, or Hyper Text Markup Language, which is used to create the content of web pages. The next was HTTP, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which meant that links could be included on web pages which – when clicked on – would take a browser to another web page. The final aspect of the world wide web he came up with was URLs, or Uniform Resource Locators, which are what we call a website addresses these days. In fact, the 'www' at the start of a URL stands for world wide web!
With these three tools, anyone could read web pages, navigate their way to other ones and find links to other pages they might want to read. Today, anyone can publish a website about an online casino, create their own blog or create a social media profile, but they may not realise that what they are publishing needs to be uploaded to a web server. In other words, Berners-Lee gave the world the tools it needed to create the world wide web but it was not until servers were deployed in great numbers that the processing power of the web became sufficient to handle the amount of traffic required for billions of users per day.
How Did the World Wide Web Develop?
It was in August of 1991 that the first website ever was published. Unsurprisingly, this was hosted at CERN in Switzerland where Berners-Lee was still an employee. Within a year, there were a total of ten servers around the world, nine of them in Europe and one that was located at Stanford University in the United States. In April of 1993, CERN made a momentous decision. It resolved to make the key developments of Berners-Lee – namely, URL, HTTP and HTML – available to everyone without charge. This meant that anyone who wanted to add their own websites to the burgeoning web could do so. Soon the number of global servers had risen to over 500. Even in the early days, not all were dedicated to academic research and some websites were devoted to entertainment.
The first websites were nothing like we understand them to be today. The earliest ones were only able to carry text and thumbnail images at best. Many computers were only able to connect to one another over the world wide web via modems which made them no faster than fax machines in the 1990s. People who wanted to share videos or to send GIFs to one another over social media platforms would have to wait for the server capacity to increase dramatically and for the necessary websites to be invented. However, as computing power and faster and faster connectivity infrastructure came about, so these sorts of services became available. All of them made use of the same basic tools of the world wide web that Berners-Lee had first come up with.
The World Wide Web Today
Given the exponential rise in use of the world wide web, you might think that it had never been so popular. After all, there are a greater number of broadband connections than ever before. There are more and more mobile devices that are in use throughout the globe which connect people in even the poorest parts of the world to the rest of the planet. Then there is the advent of 5G technology which will make smart devices even more powerful when users are out and about and wish to access the web. From this point of view, Berners-Lee's invention has been an unmitigated success. Or has it?
Some people are increasingly worried about the world wide web being used to spy on users. Data harvesting scandals in the UK and North America have even led some people to say that the web – or, more accurately, the misuse of it – could be a danger to liberal democracy itself. It is cheap and easy to publish ideas and stories. This has given rise to claims and counter-claims of fake news. Some blame the world wide web for the rise in what they see as populist political movements.
Can the world wide web really be to blame for all these political and social ills? Certainly, the web has made it easier for people to gain platforms and to find other, like-minded people. Whether this is a force for good or bad is a debatable point. However, we should probably not overlook the opinion of the web's inventor. Berners-Lee has gone on the record recently to defend his invention but also to point out its potential pitfalls. He warns of well-crafted hoaxes and the lack of plurality in most people's web feeds which, he has claimed, makes it, “too easy for misinformation to spread” over his invention. Given his undeniable foresight, perhaps we should all pay more attention to his caution?