Reflections on the 30 years of the World Wide Web

By anastasop

The last Tuesday, 12 March 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. On that day Sir Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for a new information system that combined the expressiveness of hypertext with the scalability of the internet. The initial reaction to is was "Vague, but exciting" which was enough for TBL to start working on a prototype which become operational in 1990. From that moment the WWW took the world by storm and it is rightfully considered a milestone in history comparable to the invention of typography. This anniversary is a very good opportunity to think about the web and its present state. The web is with us 30 years and its evolution does not seem smooth. More or less it seems that something was lost in the way and the present system does not seem like a heir of the original ideas.

I first met the web in 1994 during my first year in the university. At that time i new about the internet and its applications, mainly ftp and email, but i wasn't aware of the WWW project. I bought one of the early books on internet and it had a chapter on the web. The next step was to install the Lynx text-based browser and start experimenting. You got urls from magazines, books etc, typed them into Lynx and then started following links. That was the definition of surfing.  It was very different to ftp which was centralized: To find information about something, you had to ftp to a server, navigate to a directory and download a file. Then read it. That was all you got. If the content was good, fine. Otherwise you had to find another ftp server with a hopefully better file. The web was radically different. You started surfing from a url which contained part of the information you wanted and as you visited links you gathered more information. The beauty was in the process. The web fully exploited links between information the same way our brain makes connections between things. Not only you get the outcome of the process, the information you seek, but you also get insights on how this information was generated. That was amazing!

The web was getting bigger with exponential rates. Everything was added to the web. My first great moment was when reading "The Unix Programming Environment" and i was interested in the PIC language for diagrams. The book did not have a very detailed description but mentioned that the full manual is the Bell Labs CSTR 116. I was pretty sure that the library did not have it and i was a bit sad but then a glimpse came: What if it is on the web? And it was. I found the Bell Labs site and besides the pic manual i found many more interesting papers and a new OS called Plan 9 from Bell Labs that impressed me and i can say that i learned programming by studying its code. The web had become the primary source of information for anything. I could find notes for my studies from universities like Princeton and MIT. I could download papers on various topics from the pages of the authors. I could find good blog posts from unknown people for me but who were experts on their fields and then started following them. At that time, all these were free and accessible from everyone.

The second big moment was the Kasparov-Anand chess world championship in 1995 I play chess and i follow the major tournaments. Before the web i had to wait for the newspapers the next day. But with the web, it was live! People were recording the moves and posted them into their sites. I had to refresh regularly to get the new moves - no websockets, javascript etc - but i was watching it live and that was a revelation.

The third and biggest moment was open source software. I was studying software engineering and open source was something very different. People were writing software, packaging it as tarballs and publishing it on their sites. To get a feeling of how it was visit Tom Duffs duffgrams with C programs for shell, graphics etc Of course links with files is a very primitive way to distribute software. Then came sourceforge, google code and nowadays we have github I remember google code during the first days when it hosted only ctemplate and gperftools. Nevertheless the importance is not that the web provided a software distribution platform but also that it helped the communities to organize. People started using web forums and wikis more and more than the other alternatives. The web made it very easy to connect people together and pretty much started lowering cultural, political and geographical barriers.

From that early days the web made huge jumps and we have the modern web of today with very rich interactive pages, google, social networks, mobile devices, cloud computing etc Yet the modern web feels very different from the early days. To be more precise it does not just feel different, it has major problems. I wrote a previous post about some of them. There is also this excellent post by Hossein Derakhshan which is essential read for anyone caring for the web. Let's try to identify some of the major problems.

1. The web is controlled by business. This results in fees, advertisements, click baits, fake news, content control and the list goes on. It is essential for them that you do not leave their site because they earn money while you stay there. This is completely alien to the definition of the web where you visit links and wander between sites. They also want to control access to information and this resulted in the tragedy of Aaron Swartz one of the web pioneers who committed suicide because he could not handle the pressure of a legal battle with some large corporations. Lately there is another attempt to control the content with the EU copyright reform law and the controversial articles 11 and 13

2. There is no privacy. Web sites are full of trackers to gather user data and try to use them or sell them. Sometimes these data are leaked and can be used against the users. Unfortunately most users are not well informed about the issue or choose to ignore it. 3. Centralization. The design of the web was a decentralized one. Now most sites, mainly social networks, have become information silos and trap the users in them and do not provide links to others. They also "imprison" that content that users upload so that it is not easily accessible in its raw form from outside the silo. Even worse some sites have terms and conditions that restrict even your rights on the data you upload.

Of course these are not the only issues. The situation is pretty bad. The inventor of the web is on a mission to fix the web. For example read this, this and this The Mozilla foundation also works on ways to fix the issues.

The web 30 years ago started as a project to connect people and information in an open, scalable, decentralized way. Today it has become a victim of its success. It is no longer an information space where people navigate to find and add information and communities but rather a publishing platform where people watch sites change their content in real time much like watching a TV channel. Even with these pitfalls the web is still the neural system of humanity but it need effort to preserve it. We cannot imagine our lives without the web but the sad thing is that we don't try to imagine our lives with the full potential of the web unleashed.