The World Wide Web turned 20 on August 6, and it’s easily one of the five most important inventions of the last century. (If you’re interested, nuclear fission, television, the transistor and the laser make up the rest of my top five.) It has changed human culture immeasurably, and perhaps for just that reason, it remains a source of controversy.
By removing barriers to communication and organization across town and around the world, yet requiring people to spend their time looking into their computer – and now, cellphone – screens, it’s managed to bring people closer together while leaving them more isolated than ever before. There was an Internet before the web, but you’d never know it.
The paleo-net was a place where gopher and archie ruled supreme; but command lines had their limitations. Just as the graphical user interface made the computer more accessible than before, so too did the graphical web browser make the Internet more accessible.
Today, the web isn’t just a commonplace item in our society, it’s replacing television as a broadcast platform. What began 20 years ago as an experiment with hypertext has become an enormous economic and information engine that can change history right before one’s eyes, as we have seen with the recent Twitter-fueled uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.
But the difference the web has made in the lives of ordinary people is even more noticeable. Were the web a sentient life form – and I suspect it will become one in my lifetime – it doubtless would have approved of the way I celebrated its birthday, by editing a few Wikipedia articles, shopping online and maintain my social networks. I guess I could have opened a bottle of champagne, but it was just the two of us, and I suspect the web is more of a microbrew fan anyway.