The Worldwide Web: How The World Has Changed In 30 Years
In March 1989, a man named Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim Berners-Lee), who at the time was a contractor at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), published a position paper to propose a way to share information among the organization’s large and diverse staff. His concern was that information that was vital to the organization’s efforts was easily lost. In his “hypertext proposal” , Berners-Lee stated the problem this way:
“CERN … involves several thousand people, many of them very creative, all working toward common goals. Although they are nominally organized into a hierarchical management structure, this does not constrain the way people will communicate, and share information, equipment and software across groups. The actual observed working structure of the organization is a multiply connected “web” whose interconnections evolve with time. … A problem, however, is the high turnover of people. When two years is a typical length of stay, information is constantly being lost. The introduction of the new people demands a fair amount of their time and that of others before they have any idea of what goes on. The technical details of past projects are sometimes lost forever, or only recovered after a detective investigation in an emergency. Often, the information has been recorded, it just cannot be found.”
The proposal went on to describe what would become the World Wide Web:
“… a web of notes with links (like references) between them is far more useful than a fixed hierarchical system. When describing a complex system, many people resort to diagrams with circles and arrows. Circles and arrows leave one free to describe the interrelationships between things in a way that tables, for example, do not. The system we need is like a diagram of circles and arrows, where circles and arrows can stand for anything.”
Bernard-Lee summarized the call for action- and notably gave a prediction of things to come for the rest of us:
“CERN is a model in miniature of rest of world in a few years time. CERN meets now some problems which the rest of the world will have to face soon. In 10 years, there may be many commercial solutions to the problems above, while today we need something to allow us to continue.”
Amazingly, given the fuzzy lines that exist nowadays between not-for-profit innovations that come from academia and government-funded research centers, and definitely-for-profit innovations coming out of “Silicon Valley” (the business model, not the physical place), Berners-Lee didn’t get rich from his proposal. That reward went to people like the inventors of Netscape (now owned by Verizon, considered the world’s first successful commercial browser). But in March 2011, he received the Mikhail Gorbachev Award for “The Man Who Changed the World, and Time Magazine listed Berners-Lee in its list of 100 influential people of the Twentieth Century.
What an understatement. In 1999, Berners-Lee presaged the explosive growth of social media in the next ten years: “the web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect — to help people work together — and not as a technical toy.”
Let’s take a moment to reflect what the web, in tandem with the growth in extremely low cost and increasingly mobile computing power and the growing availability in high-speed wireless connectivity, has triggered:
- 4.3 Billion people are now active on the Internet. 3.9 Billion of them have a unique mobile ID, 3.5 billion of them are active social media users, and almost all of those (3.3 billion) “do” social media on their mobile devices.
- Companies like Amazon and Alibaba owe their existence to the Web.
- The web has completely redefined whole industries, such as music distribution, books, and video.
- Businesses have “digitized” the vast majority of their information, and 2.5 Quintillion bytes of new data are created every day.
- Whole new job categories have been created (eg. from “crowdsourcing”), while others have been destroyed.
- The market size of the Cyber Security industry will reach $130 Billion by 2021.
- In one of modern times’ great ironies, terrorist organizations and rogue states that would like to send the Western world back to the 12th Century take full advantage of the web and 21st Century techs to do their dirty work.
- Omnichannel happened. Now, 90% of customers expect consistent interactions across channels (but only 45% of companies have a cross-channel strategy in place).
These are just a few of the impacts – feel free to add your suggestions in our comments section!
The bottom line is, the web truly has changed the world, just as Sir Berners-Lee predicted. In 1844, telegraph inventor Samuel Morse tapped out this historic message: “What hath God wrought?” Perhaps that question should be applied to the World Wide Web.
 Information Management: A Proposal, Tim Berners-Lee, CERN, March 1989