Griffin on Tech: The WWW at 30 - three priorities for its future
It's 30 years this week since Tim Berners Lee turned on the World Wide Web, which soon became the favoured means of organising and navigating the world's digital stuff.
This was the first page that went live, logically enough, a user's guide for how to actually use the World Wide Web.
Before internet access became widely available in the early 1990s as noisy dial-up connections, the web existed primarily to connect documents on separate computers, initially for researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) where Berners-Lee was based at the time.
HTML, HTTP and URLs, the jargon we casually pepper work conversations with today, came from that early work architecting the web.
Now there are around 1.9 billion web pages active and many of you Tech Blog readers spend a good deal of your professional life developing, maintaining them and populating web pages with content.
So far, so good?
The web has served us incredibly well over 30 years. That's thanks in large part to the Web Consortium, set up by Berners-Lee in 1994 to make sure the web remained open, interoperable and working for everyone. The previous year, he had issued an open licence, allowing the web to be used, worked on and developed by anyone - a generous move akin to Jonas Salk giving away the polio vaccine in the 1950s so its use could be rapidly accelerated.
Governments wisely gave the Web Consortium considerable leeway to coordinate the web's further development. As the Consortium pointed out in a post this week celebrating the milestone, the work of numerous nameless engineers and developers working under its banner means that "you can use the web on any device; you can go to a web page on any browser; you can read and write on the web in almost any language; you experience the same web on desktop, laptop, mobile, TV (not separate silos); you can use the web whether you are blind or have mobility or accessibility issues; and your use of the web is more and more secure."
The web has survived the rise of the smartphone and apps, the proliferation of social media platforms and even the immense concentration of power into the hands of web giants such as Google and Facebook.
It is remarkable on the face of it that the web has avoided, perhaps by the skin of its teeth, being captured and dominated by any one entity.
As Berners-Lee noted in June, "the web has been incredibly good at demonstrating that lovely though the walled garden might seem, the outside jungle is more valuable".
Humanity, not hate
Keeping everything working and able to accommodate the massive growth in web pages and usage has been the priority of those involved in architecting the web over the last three decades.
But more pressing priorities have been identified as the Consortium looks to the future and the task of maintaining the original vision for the web in the face of issues that weren't fully anticipated back in 1991.
"Our vision is for a World Wide Web that is more inclusive, and more respectful of its users: a web that supports truth better than falsehood, people more than profits, humanity rather than hate," the Consortium states in its vision statement.
Berners-Lee has expressed his dismay at the misinformation, hate speech, insidious ad-driven business models and malware attacks that have come to be associated with the web. Efforts over the next decade will be crucial to shaping the web so that it remains an invaluable resource for the masses.
What's in store for Web 3.0?
Sir Tim himself is at the centre of a movement to decentralise his creation. Why would you mess with something that works so well? So as to avoid his fears of the web being hijacked by any one controlling power. A decentralised web wouldn't necessarily look or operate any differently to the existing web. But its infrastructure, protocols, applications and governance would be decentralised so it can operate anywhere, without interruption and impervious to efforts to assert control over it.
The centralisation of control that has happened with the rise of a few massive web players is, in the eyes of Sir Tim, taking the web in a dystopian direction, with censorship, surveillance and manipulation of us based on the data we generate. A decentralised web would see you keep hold of your data, sharing it with web services as you choose to.
Weaving the semantic web
There has been a lot of talk over the years about the semantic web, using data mining, natural language processing and text analytics to make the web more intelligent at arranging information that you need. Search engines currently perform this function with the intention of making sense of the mass of web pages they trawl through to find the information we are looking for.
But what if we could infuse the web with artificial intelligence that learns as pages are added and reorganises itself to suit our needs. That goal hasn't been achievable yet, but an early step in this direction is a move to add semantic tags to web pages that would move beyond the keyword searches we currently rely on to make the right information easier to find.
Diminishing the divide
When you are on the web every day it is easy to forget that only 60% of the world's population actually enjoys that privilege. The digital divide is very much still an issue, despite government, United Nations and private sector efforts to fill in internet black spots and get cheap devices into the hands of the disconnected.
Facebook has been on a mission to extend internet access in the developing world, but in the process has effectively made its social network the default means of accessing the web for millions of people. That's not the ideal way to bridge the digital divide, though the likes of Elon Musk's Starlink satellite broadband network could serve to deliver broadband to hard to reach places on a scale that hasn't yet been possible.
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