The Art Of Thinking Big: The World Wide Web Turns Thirty

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Thirty years ago on this day, a young Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitted an innocuous research proposal; ‘Information Management: A Proposal’ — a humbly titled idea that changed the world as he knew it.

Berners-Lee didn’t start out trying to change the world. Actually, what he was trying to do was solve a technical problem. A file written on one type of computer simply could not be read by a different one – a real impediment to global scientific progress.

Initially, the response to Berners-Lee’s proposal was tepid. His supervisor wrote on his copy of the proposal the words, “Vague but exciting.” But by October 1990, he’d developed the cornerstones of today’s digital world: the language of hypertext links (HTML), an address system for the world wide web (URL) and tools to transfer hypertext from one computer to another (HTTP). And so came the very first website in 1991.

Of course, the internet was not new to public consciousness in 1989. And hypertext had been around since the sixties. So what was it that propelled Berners-Lee’s idea to success? At the time of the World Wide Web invention, there were several such information retrieval systems using the internet. What made Berners-Lee’s thinking so unique?

The answer: Tim Berners-Lee and his team at European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) perfected the art of big thinking. Thinking in terms of connectivity, accessibility and universality. Rewriting what’s possible.

In this article, we look at why a problem solution transgressed to a global initiative, and how big thinking is essential for any project that aims to engender consistent, philanthropic change. We also look at the arc of the world wide web’s journey – is it facing a fall from grace?

Truly connective

The team at CERN were very clear in their goal for the World Wide Web: to connect people. Global issues that an individual could never solve would now be faced by the moments of creativity experienced by whole swathes of people – all connected by the web.

Berners-Lee explains; “Imagine you have a big problem like climate change or curing cancer, but the pieces are in different people’s brains…That’s what the goal of the web was: to connect all these people.”

The inherent inclusion of everyday people for the success of the platform proved essential for Berners-Lee and CERN’s big thinking. It relied on active participation from whole swathes of people.  

Rather than connecting people vertically based on a system of authority, permission or power, by its very definition, the web offered a decentralised domain of knowledge. Non-hierarchical global connections that empowered the individual.

‘The wider web must always be a web. You must always be able to link anything to anything’.  

The number of web pages accessible by Google now sits between five to fifty billion (with over one hundred times greater number of sites not accessible by Google).

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Universally accessible

Many would ask why Berners-Lee didn’t patent his tools?

Sir Tim’s answer is always quite clear to this question; “The principle objective of the web was that it should ‘take off’ — that it should connect all people across the world via a single hypertext language. It’s a huge ask for everyone to use URLs. You can’t also ask for two cents per click.”

It is precisely the fact that the world wide web was not a money-making proposition that facilitated its global impact. It relied on active participation of users to produce the necessary collaboration of data.

Take for example CERN’s competitor Gilfor, a similar attempt at information retrieval programming. As soon as the firm mentioned to users the possibility of royalties, web traffic plummeted. Meanwhile, Tim and others advocated to ensure that CERN would agree to make the underlying code available on a royalty-free basis forever. This decision was announced in April 1993 and sparked a global wave of creativity, collaboration and innovation.

But, the concept of universality doesn’t ring true for everyone. In fact, access to the web in the first instance remains bitterly unequal (4.5bn people have no access to internet at all). The big thinking of today considers accessibility in terms of not just people who are online, but also those that are yet to connect. For the World Wide Web Foundation, this means thinking about how we align the incentives of the tech sector with those of users and society at large, and consulting a diverse cross-section of society in the process.

Consistently constructive

Whilst big thinking catapulted the World Wide Web to success, there is little hiding from the gradual downturn of the utopian arc.

Many would see the Web as entering its ‘dirty thirties’. Data breaches, cybersecurity issues, new online domains of conflict, hate speech and fake news scandals litter the media one after another. It certainly seems like we are on a tipping point – edging towards a collapse in consumer trust as tech giants and governments offer no solution to questions over personal data privacy.

One might argue the inherent openness of the web facilitates the spread of such controversy, further distorted by the effects of online advertising.  But the aim of the web has always been and will always be constructive. It’s inherently a problem-solving domain and the creators are constantly attempting new ways to tackle the crisis.

Web Safety

Tim Berners-Lee’s latest endeavour, ‘Solid’ does just that. It’s a web decentralization project that aims to radically change the way web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership and improved privacy. He compares the system to a ‘memory stick’ that allows you to choose where you upload your data.

Similarly, the ‘Contract for the Web’ (A Web Foundation Initiative) aims to shift the momentum of web usage towards science, fact and democracy. Aimed at defining people’s online rights as a self-professed “mid-course correction”, it calls on governments, companies, and citizens to “help protect the open web as a public good and a basic right for everyone.”

An open letter written by Tim Berners-Lee last anniversary perfectly summarises the essentially constructive approach to big thinking;

“While the problems facing the web are complex and large, I think we should see them as bugs: problems with existing code and software systems that have been created by people — and can be fixed by people. Create a new set of incentives and changes in the code will follow. We can design a web that creates a constructive and supportive environment.”

Lastly…

There are few moments in history where one can definitively claim everything has changed. This month we are celebrating one of those moments – the invention of a platform that connects people spanning thousands of miles through digital interface and common HTML language. Starting as mere intellectual curiosity, the juggernaut world wide web has transformed everything we know about communication, commerce and information.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, exemplifies the need for thinking big. Approaching adversity with dynamism, constant questioning and ambition. Solid and the World Wide Web Consortium exemplifies the continued ethos of connectivity and accessibility.

While CERN engineers have recreated what the web looked like 30 years ago with this browser, nobody can really imagine what it will look like 30 years from now. But, we can predict the way we use the web in 2049 may be almost unrecognisable from what we know today.

“There is the inspiring spectacle of just trying to do something big. Progress through tinkering counts no less than progress through great leaps, but only the second kind is likely to electrify people into venturing their own efforts.”