Humanity owes Tim Berners-Lee a debt of gratitude for the invention of the worldwide web, a breakthrough that now defines how we live, what or who, we know and much more. Twenty-five years ago, his idea changed humanity, put a wealth of information at man’s fingertips at home, at work, on the move, everywhere, and launched the world on an information superhighway. Simply, it was an idea that developed a radically new way of linking and sharing information over the internet, a clear pointer to the limitless possibilities of the human mind.
Interestingly, Berners-Lee, British scientist, then software engineer at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, had his March 1989 technical paper titled “Information Management: A Proposal” dismissed by his boss as “vague but exciting.”
But his was an idea whose time had come. Having coined www in 1990, it was not until 1993 that CERN allowed free access to the technology. A few years later, millions of people worldwide got hooked on the information flow that the web delivers. The web is remarkable for having one single identifiable inventor and a timeline of landmarks. But then a measure of credit also goes to the likes of Vince Cerf, Robert Kahn and Leonard Kleinrock who pioneered the early Darpa research in the late 60s and 70s to earn their description as ‘fathers of the internet.’
Inventor Berners-Lee certainly deserved the first ever Millennium Technology Prize he got in Helsinki in 2004. Notwithstanding, he has largely shunned the limelight as his only interest remains the promotion of the principles of the web through the www Foundation. Berners-Lee’s call for “a global conversation about our need to defend principles that have made the web successful and to unlock its untapped potential” is simply appropriate.
No doubt the free and accessible web is today under threat as never before. With the forces of commerce and government spy agencies reportedly bringing issues of privacy and control over data to the fore, the power and potentials of the web deserve greater scrutiny. And the hope is that humanity would achieve its founder’s hope of a web that “empowers all of us to achieve our dignity, rights and potential as humans.”
In more ways than one, it has revolutionised the world, such as in media and communication – to the point where anyone can publish and disseminate information within seconds. Its capacity to raise citizen-driven movements such as led to the Arab Spring in 2010 is life-changing. E-commerce booms as many borrow, buy, lend and invest from the comfort of homes and offices. Businesses now have access to a global marketplace with cuts in overhead costs through online retail. Working from home has also become the fad and conference interfacing with customers is limitless just as, documents are sent online.
Thanks to the web, a student does not have to be physically present to do college courses and earn a degree. Researching has become easier even going on virtual tours of the prospective accommodation or accessing information about the best resorts is at the click of a mouse. The biggest retail story of the past decade and a half has been the rise of online shopping. Opportunities are well utilized online now by employers and job seekers. The possibilities are endless and awesome.
By estimation, no less than 600 million websites are functional today. Many more will join in the course of time. The worldwide web has also midwifed the rise of social networking services such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc and multi-billions of dollars in business.
However, for all its advantages, the web has its dark sides, which inventor Berners-Lee never contemplated. On the “dark web,” everything from guns to drugs is openly traded. On the wider internet, danger lurks in the form of everything from promotion of terrorism to paedophilia and suicide networks.
The web has also fed a boom in sexual exploitation but it has given law enforcers powerful weapons to fight back too. In spite of its global appeal and acceptance, however, a digital divide is still obvious between the developed and developing world.
Nigeria, of course, has to do more in putting the infrastructure in place to utilize the potentials of the www. The country still grapples with the basics, such as electricity supply to drive technological advances while its education is in a shambles.
In celebrating 25 years of the www, however, stakeholders have to forge a new platform to address future challenges. That future would only be better if the positives of the internet are exploited instead of the evils.