30 years ago, one decision altered the course of our connected world
Thirty years ago, listeners tuning into Morning Edition heard about a futuristic idea that could profoundly change their lives.
"Imagine being able to communicate at-will with 10 million people all over the world," NPR's Neal Conan said. "Imagine having direct access to catalogs of hundreds of libraries as well as the most up-to-date news, business and weather reports. Imagine being able to get medical advice or gardening advice immediately from any number of experts.
"This is not a dream," he continued. "It's internet."
But even in the early 1990s, that space-age sales pitch was a long way from the lackluster experience of actually using the internet. It was almost entirely text-based, for one.
It was also difficult to use. To read a story from NPR, for example, you would need to know which network-equipped computer had the file you wanted, then coax your machine into communicating directly with the host. And good luck if the computers were made by different manufacturers.
But 30 years ago this week, that all changed. On April 30, 1993, something called the World Wide Web launched into the public domain.
The web made it simple for anyone to navigate the internet. All users had to do was launch a new program called a "browser," type in a URL and hit return.
This began the internet's transformation into the vibrant online canvas we use today. Anyone could build their own "web site" with pictures, video and sound. They could even send visitors to other sites using hyperlinked words or phrases underlined in blue. This became one of the web's most game-changing features, putting different corners of our digital knowledge-base just a mouse click away.
No patents, no fees
The World Wide Web was the brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee, a 37-year-old researcher at a physics lab in Switzerland called CERN. The institution is known today for its massive particle accelerators.
"Almost everything which you needed to know in your daily life was written down somewhere," Berners-Lee told NPR's Fresh Air in 1996. "And at the time, in the 1980s, it was almost certainly written down on a computer somewhere. It was very frustrating that people's effort in typing it in was not being used when, in fact, if it could only be tied together and made accessible, everything would be so much easier for everybody."
CERN owned Berners-Lee's invention, and the lab had the option to license out the World Wide Web for profit. But Berners-Lee believed that keeping the web as open as possible would help it grow.
"The web setting out as something which was universal, something which anybody could use, I felt was very important," he said. "It's no good having something which will run on any platform if, in fact, there is a proprietary hold on it."
Berners-Lee eventually convinced CERN to release the World Wide Web into the public domain without any patents or fees. He has since attributed the runaway success of the web to that single decision.
The web takes off
NPR's coverage of the post-web era describes a "great online awakening" driven by an explosion in the number of internet-connected people. "The result is more chaos than you can imagine and literally thousands and thousands of websites," Rich Dean reported for NPR in 1996.
By the end of 1995, more than 24 million people in the U.S. and Canada alone spent an average of 5 hours per week on the internet.
Today, nearly two-thirds of the world's population uses the web to visit hundreds of millions of active websites. Some of those pages belong to companies that are among the most valuable in history like Facebook, Amazon and Google.
It's hard not to wonder what life would look like today if CERN and Berners-Lee hadn't decided to give away his invention. In a 1999 interview on The Diane Rehm Show, Berners-Lee was asked why he never cashed in.
"The question, when it's posed like that, it implies that you really only measure people's value by their net worth," he said. "People are what they've done, what they say, what they stand for, rather than what they happen to have in the bank."
The good, the bad and the unpredictable
In the three decades since the web went public, it's revolutionized how we communicate, gather, work and learn. It's also expanded the reach of propaganda and disinformation and upended our standards of privacy.
Berners-Lee predicted some of these ramifications decades ago.
"I don't mind there being biased information out there," he told NPR in 1999. "The important thing is that you should know, when you're on the web, whether you're looking at biased information or not."
A few months later, he wondered on-air: "Do users now know when they're getting something which is fair and unbiased? Do they know how to tell the difference between news, op-ed, editorial and advertising on the web?"
As director of the World Wide Web Consortium, Berners-Lee has overseen development of the web with the goal of maintaining its neutrality as a platform.
"What it becomes is really a question of what people put into it," he told Fresh Air. "And what I'm trying to do from the technology point of view is to keep it universal — to stop it, as a technology, from trying to influence what you can do with it and what you can't."
In a way, he says, the web is really just a reflection of us — and that's by design.
"When you go out there, the webpages you see are written by people," he reflected on NPR's Talk of the Nation in 2002. "You're looking at a certain subset of the churning mass of humanity out there. So it's not that the web itself is an animal, but it's that society is this really exciting, decentralized thing, and the web, fortunately, is more or less able to echo it."
More moments in history
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