In the beginning, there was an Internet of sorts, but without the World Wide Web part. You could navigate around it and find information you were looking for, but it was awkward and clumsy, like eating with chopsticks while blindfolded. And one man said “Step aside, I can fix this.”
That man was Timothy John Berners-Lee, later to be knighted as “Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee” for his pioneering information technology work. A while ago, we covered Douglas Engelbart and the “Mother of All Demos,” introducing the mouse, desktop, menu, and icon interface to the computer world. Tim Berners-Lee is at least as influential to all information technology we know today.
And the rub is, we hadn’t make one tenth the progress by now he’d hoped for.
How He Made the Web…
Charging out of Oxford University in 1976, Berners-Lee first started as an independent contractor with the CERN project in 1980 – yes, we mean the Large Hadron Collider CERN. There at Geneva he first conceptualized the idea of hypertext documents, and patched together a prototype called “ENQUIRE.” After a brief stint in the private business sector, he returned to CERN in 1984 and as he put it: “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and—ta-da!—the World Wide Web”
If only it was that easy for us mere mortals. Setting up shop on a humble little NeXT box (a model remembered almost as fondly today as the Amiga), Berners-Lee set up the very first web server in 1991. That NeXT box is now at the Science Museum in London . At info.cern.ch, he put up the equivalent of a “Hello World!” web page and, because he needed a way to test image display on the web browser he’d crafted, uploaded the world’s very first web image. It was a female quartet of singers, known as “Les Horribles Cernettes.” You can still buy their album.
So, we went from BBS systems, FTP, and IRC chat to – “ta da!” – web browsing and looking at photos of women already. But now that we had the World Wide Web, what to do with it? So far it was one box, not very wide, nor worldly yet. By 1994, Berners-Lee had created the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium. Within a few years the Web had caught on in the home desktop computing market, and we might as well assume you know how things went from here.
Is He Happy With It Now?
Well, Berners-Lee does say in interviews that he loves the spirit of global collaboration that has spawned on the web.
In other interviews, he also calls for greater accountability of governments regarding Web users’ information privacy, wishes more security were built into the Web model, and considers information technology access to be approaching a basic human right. There’s a whole manifesto of demands which Berners-Lee founded.
Moreover, he has called for a number of things which haven’t come to pass, not even close:
The problem with this is that everyone wants everything on the Internet to be free. So the only way we have to monetize the Internet is to monetize free services (you’re on one now), usually with ads. But then the users can’t control their own data; when you post on Facebook, that post belongs to Facebook now. The problem with this is that we cede our personal data to be used and abused by corporations in ways not always beneficial to us, like snooping your search history to determine your insurance rates. To escape that, we’d have to control our data and how it’s used, which would mean no more free services on the Internet. As long as you trust another party to handle your data, it isn’t controlled by you.
100% WWW Support
Yes, believe it or not, only about 75% of people today have access to the World Wide Web with any degree of reliability. This is partly due to technical issues in remote areas lacking in infrastructure, partly a socioeconomic issue, and partly a human rights issue in certain countries.
The Semantic Web
This is the big, legendary vision which Sir Tim has pined for since 2006 and so far not clearly recognized as practical yet. In the Semantic Web, we provide markup not only for the humans’ benefit, but machines as well. You may not know about the Semantic Web idea, but you feel its lack every time you have to type extra keywords into Google search to get it to understand what you want to find. In Semantic Web markup, merely saying “I’m John from Texas” would inform the computer that ‘John’ is a person’s name and ‘Texas’ is a physical place. This would enable machines to talk to machines directly, eventually giving us a smarter Web where you could ask it to check if there’s expired milk in the fridge.
Implementing the Semantic Web would require tearing down every web page in existence and starting over. It would use Resource Description Framework (RDF), Web Ontology Language (OWL), and Extensible Markup Language (XML), turning every word you type into it into an object that can then be categorized and referenced by the machine. On top of this layer would be an RDF query language and a stack of architecture on top of that.
Like many areas of advanced machine intelligence, we’ve sort of realized one-off bits and pieces of the Semantic Web without really having the whole thing show up at once. Self-driving cars, voice-recognizing search, probabilistic search algorithms, RFID technology, and GPS technology are sideways related. But to fully realize the Semantic Web would be to live in an almost Jetsons level of technology, where you can tell your car to go get gas and be back in your driveway in time for your alarm to get you up in the morning.
If you’re a web developer, first sit back and appreciate what an amazing time in human history this is. We are still very much on the forefront of information technology. A smart phone in your pocket was still a miracle just ten years ago; now Pokemon Go players scamper around the park pursuing virtual prey and interacting with other players while they do. Now roll up your sleeves, because there’s so much more work to do. And the more of it we can offload to the computer, the better.