Twenty five years ago today, the world wide web was born. Sarah Freeman reports on the British invention which changed our lives and asks what next for technology?
Like most inventions which go onto change the world, the birth of the world wide web happened with very little fanfare.
Twenty five years ago today a British scientist by the name of Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to the bosses of the Swiss laboratory where he was based. Even by academic standards, the title was a little dull. Berners-Lee wanted the go ahead for a “distributed information system” which would better allow researchers to deal with the huge amounts of information generated by complex physics experiments.
The brief response from the chain of command was “vague, but exciting”. However, with that one document the genie had been let out of the lamp. The way of accessing the internet would change the way we shop, find jobs, do business and even date, but most of us were slow to catch on.
Almost 10 years later I was just starting my first job in journalism. Email was available on just one of the dozen or so office computers, in the corner the fax machine, which churned 24-7, was still king and when anyone wanted to find a phone number they went to the shelf lined with BT directories. Within a year, possibly two, everything had changed. The fax machine was all but silent, those directories were gathering dust and so dependent had we become on email and sourcing information from the internet that even the phones didn’t ring as often as they once had.
“I’m sure it was 1998 when I sent my first email which was to my only friend who had a hotmail account,” says Sean Dodson, a senior lecture at Leeds Metropolitan University and social media specialist. “Until the late 1990s the internet was seen as marginal, something which was only used by the military or big business. However, when it entered the mainstream it spread at a quite phenomenal speed.
Berners-Lee was motivated by a philosophy that the internet should be open to everyone, but not everyone shared his altruistic aims. Many saw it as a chance to make a quick buck and its rapid growth has been punctuated by the boom and bust of the dot-com companies.
By the late 1990s, when Amazon and eBay were taking their first, faltering steps online, anything seemed possible if you threw enough money at in and in Silicon Valley some $2bn a week was flowing into venture capital firms.
The mad dash to profit from the internet led to many companies securing massive investment before they had made any sales or secured any customers. Gaping holes in flimsy business plans were quickly exposed and in 2000, Britain’s own dotcom bubble burst with the collapse of online fashion retailer Boo.com.
Chastened, many firms did regroup and when they were ready to try again, they found a ready made market waiting to be exploited – broadband was about to turn us into a nation of armchair consumers.
In 2000 British shoppers spent about £800m online. Last year the total was £91bn. And the figures are growing.
“The internet has been the biggest shift in retail since the move from counter service to retail self-service in the 1960s and 70s,” says Chris Webster, head of the retail, technology and consultancy Capgemini UK. “That shift transformed the way we shop, but this is the next enormous change, from the store based model to the internet. However, you could argue that the days when the greengrocer used to drive around people’s homes has now turned full circle. Now we just order in advance.”
Two out of five people in the world are now connected to the internet and the Government has just announced match funding of £5m will be allocated to East Yorkshire as part of its drive to ensure 95 per cent superfast broadband coverage across the UK.
Those improvements will only add to the mountain of data we collectively produce each day.
Each year 22bn letters are still delivered by the Royal Mail, but compare that to the 2.4tn emails sent in the UK. That’s more emails sent in four days than letters delivered in 12 months.
“As the data mountain has grown so has the capacity to store it, analyse it and extract value from it,” says Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who is pushing for tougher oversight of the work of security and intelligence services.
“That in many ways is good news. For example, it means companies can offer us free services and applications driven solely by advertising revenues.
“On the other hand, few of us are really aware of our electronic footprint. Smart phones keep track of so much more about us than could ever been possible in the past. But we understand little about who retains such data and what it might reveal.”
It is one of the paradoxes of the internet. Tweets and Facebook updates take just seconds to post, but their lifespan is infinite. The internet, as some has learnt to their cost, never forgets. It’s an issue Sean witnesses every day.
“I don’t think those who have grown up with Twitter and Facebook see privacy the same way as older generations,” says the 44-year-old. “I don’t want to create a picture of complete dystopia but when it comes to technological advances we should be worried and excited in equal measure.
The world is a very different place to the one Berners-Lee knew 25 years ago. Ordinary people in war-torn countries can now communicate with the rest of the world, news takes just seconds to break and families separated by thousands of miles can talk on Skype like they were just in the next room. Yet we are now slaves to technology.
“For all the apparent freedom the internet has given us, there are some people like the US academic Sherry Turkle who say that we’ve become tethered by networked devices,” says Helen Kennedy, senior lecturer in new media at the University of Leeds. “Rather than being free to work and communicate anywhere, rather we are never free not to work or communicate.”
25 YEARS OF THE WORLD WIDE WEB
1989: Tim Berners-Lee submits a proposal for what will become the internet.
1990: The world’s first website goes live.
1994: The first international internet conference is held and dubbed the Woodstock of the web.
1995: Jeff Bezos launches Amazon from his garage in Seattle.
2000: The DotCom boom peaks with AOL buying traditional media company Times Warner for $200bn.
2005: YouTube is launched.
2007: More than half of homes now have broadband.
Off the online springboard to fame and celebrity status
The internet has given rise to a new breed of celebrities, writes Mehreen Khan. Here we look at some of those who have become famous with the help of the world wide web.
Edward Snowden: The former National Security Agency contractor turned whistleblower shook the world with his leaking of secret documents in July 2013. Snowden, who was named Person of the Year by US Time magazine in 2013, worked with journalist Glenn Greenwald to reveal the extent of mass surveillance programmes and the leaks were published around the world.
Justin Bieber: The Canadian pop star’s talents were first discovered on YouTube, where he amassed a following of millions after his mother began posting videos of him singing cover versions of R&B songs. These soon bought him to the attention of Justin Timberlake and Usher, who entered a bidding war to the sign the 13-year-old to their record labels. Bieber eventually went with Usher and his first full-length studio album, My World 2.0, made him the youngest solo male artist to top the US Billboard 200 since Stevie Wonder.
Julian Assange: Assange first established the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks in 2006, but only came to international prominence when the site published thousands of United States military and diplomatic cables in 2010. The leaks, which included battlefield video clips and classified reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, came from US Army Intelligence Private Bradley Manning. Much of the work was carried out by Mr Assange from the confines of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been since 2012.
Arctic Monkeys: The Sheffield-born rock stars were the first artists to “go viral” before the term itself was known. The indie rockers built up a virtual fanbase by gigging locally and then giving away their songs on Myspace.com. The band went on to have the fast-selling debut album in British music history.
Stephen Fry: The English Renaissance man was best known in Britain as one half of the comedy duo Fry and Lawrie and his appearances on Blackadder in the 90s. But the technology enthusiast was one of the earlier users of the social networking site Twitter and has more than 6.5 million followers. Fry regularly uses his Twitter account to promote causes such as gay rights and mental health awareness.
Psy: The creator of the Gangnam Style dance craze had the first video to reach a billion views on YouTube in 2012. It brought him global fame and was even attempted by Prime Minister David Cameron and Boris Johnson, according to the London Mayor.