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In the beginning, mankind wasn’t graced with computers. Instead, people used soup cans and string to communicate on a global scale. If you were wealthy, you’d buy a Campbell’s brand soup can and be the envy of your neighborhood. If not, it was nice if your can had a label on it at all. The shiny unlabeled silver was a common staple of those early years of mass communication.
It wasn’t until the end of the cold war when things really began to change on this front. Of course, the printing press, the radio, the TV and a few other mass communication devices were invented sometime before the end of the cold war, but since they have little to do with today’s narrative, we’ll pass those over and move on to our meat and potatoes: the history of the World Wide Web.
A World-Wide Culture Shift
In 1989, two significant events took place. First, the Berlin wall came crashing down. Over the course of the two years to follow, Communism would collapse in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and ultimately in the great motherland itself, the Soviet Union. This broad collapse symbolized to the world that the politics of freedom and democracy had finally won. With the Commies finally sent running, a new mindset began to take hold around the world.
Second, Tim Berners-Lee, a British physicist working in Switzerland, wrote a proposal entitled Information Management: A Proposal [zotpressInText item=”G7R5XMDK”] for what would soon become our modern World Wide Web.
As a physicist, Tim Berners-Lee struggled to find ways to scale research. In his Proposal, he shared, “When two years is a typical length of stay, information is constantly being lost. The introduction of the new people demands a fair amount of their time and that of others before they have any idea of what goes on. The technical details of past projects are sometimes lost forever, or only recovered after a detective investigation in an emergency. Often, the information has been recorded, it just cannot be found.”
He, and other scientists like him, wanted to grow projects, add personnel, and increase testing, but without an adequate way to publish results to a global audience, there was no way to effectively coordinate efforts around the world. The invention of the web would assist in solving this problem. Berners-Lee proposed a system that would allow researchers to publish documents that could be viewed at any time from any computer. To accomplish this task, he suggested using a series of hyperlinks to connect pages across servers.
The term ‘web’ focuses solely on the html/browser experience whereas the term ‘internet’ focuses on the network and protocols. The internet existed prior to the web and was initially developed by the United States Department of Defense. It was also the internet, not the web, that Al Gore claims to have had part in developing.
The Cold War, or rather it’s ending, paved the road for the launch and ascension of the web. The world had never been more ready for an open, free system of communication that had the power to unite the world around it.
I’m not the only one who links the global cultural shift away from communism to the advent of the world wide web. Peter Lunenfeld, a professor in the Design & Media Arts department at UCLA made the connection in his 2006 article in Afterimage:
“I posit that the bounding figures are not programmers… but rather Mikhail Gorbachev and Osama bin Laden. …one unifying construct was the belief that after the fall of the Wall… not just communism, but all other countervailing forces against market capitalism were vanquished… The Market was the solution for all questions… It brought peace and prosperity, freed itself from the tyranny of the business cycle, and evolved into an entirely invisible, frictionless, and perpetual motion machine that would take the name of the New Economy.
Nothing exemplified the New Economy more than the ubiquity of the Web. The creation of this new medium in the service of the New Economy became one of the most glamorous signifiers of the entire decade to follow [zotpressInText item=”7JMPN3W6″].”
A Few Notes on Net Neutrality
Since those days when Berners-Lee began developing the web, he has always kept net neutrality as the rallying cry of his efforts. To bring you up to speed, here’s a quick definition of net neutrality:
“Net neutrality requires that Internet service providers not discriminate — including speeding up or slowing down Web content — based on its source, ownership, or destination. Net neutrality protects our ability to direct our own on-line activities. With net neutrality in place, a network’s job is to move data in a non-discriminatory manner, based on what people want. [zotpressInText item=”29IFBPKH”]”
As Berners-Lee will testify in the excerpt below, there were a lot of unknowns during the creation of something aimed at a global audience, but he has always promoted freedom of the web. Perhaps the anti-socialist sentiments sweeping the world were much of what allowed the web to develop in the public sphere rather than as proprietary software from some mega corporation.
“I didn’t know what would happen [with the Web] but I knew I wanted it to be a universal space. I knew from the get-go that it was very important that it not be relegated to any particular circle… This is a question of principle, it’s a right to be able to access anywhere, and it’s a question of keeping the market open,” he says. “Whether you happen to be getting it over wired or Wi-Fi or Mi-Fi. It doesn’t have any bearing on the principles of free speech and connectivity [zotpressInText item=”RQ5GQ9DN”] .”
The Dawn of the Information Age
From 1989 to 1991, a major shift was taking place around the world that would set the stage for the next decade. Tim Berners-Lee continued to make advancements on his pet project, the World Wide Web. In 1990, he published a new proposal and began developing it himself, and by August 6, 1991, he was ready to launch it to the public. The World Wide Web never truly got off the ground on a large scale, however, until 1993 when Marc Andreeson invented the world’s first popularly adopted web browser called Mosaic.
During the 90’s, the web was released to the public, online companies were founded, IPO’s were launched for stores that didn’t exist offline, and large parts of the world economy began heavily vesting in the web’s growing potential. Investors around the world were racing into tech stocks as quickly as possible. Most were speculating purely on how much money they thought could be made on the web, but since nobody had ever experienced this web before that era, nobody had any realistic estimates for a business’s earnings potential through this exciting new medium.
This heavy economic reliance on what was coming to be known as the Internet Sector of the market ultimately led us to a world-wide economic meltdown that we refer fondly to as the Dot Com Bubble. It took an economic crash to get the world to remove its rose tinted glasses. Today online companies like Amazon and eBay do well but only because they have legitimate earnings to put on the books, and because investors are buying and selling tech stocks with much less speculation and much more reasonable price to earnings ratios than had been done in the 90’s.
Conclusion & Group Discussion
Many historians credit the Information Age, also know as the computer age or digital age, to be from 1990 to the present, but if this is the case, then I might propose that we call the 90’s the Information Age 1.0 and everything after the crash Information Age 2.0.
As part of a group discussion today, I’d like to invite you to share one (or some) of your earliest memories involving the web. How old were you? What sites did you visit? What were your thoughts at the time?