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The Web at 30: Not what its inventor hoped for

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“There’s an interesting kind of restraint that you find. There’s not a lot of cursing or swearing. There’s not a lot of personal cuts. There’s not a lot of put-downs that one would expect to find. There’s not screenfuls of, you know, ‘Go to hell.’ It’s surprising.”

That was Marc Andreessen, in 1993. The inventor of the first World Wide Web browser, Mosaic (which morphed into Netscape), Andreessen was celebrating the intramural aspect of the Web: a convivial place for scientists to communicate with each other. The idea was the free, fair and factual exchange of truth.  No lies, no personal insults, no smears would be allowed.

Now here we are, 26 years later, and the Internet has become a fount of vitriol and falsehood. What happened to Andreessen’s hopes?

To answer that, you have to go back to the World Wide Web’s beginning, which is generally dated to 1989-1990, when a computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, who worked at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), wrote a paper of historic importance. “Information Management: A Proposal” sought to solve a persistent problem at CERN, the world’s biggest particle physics laboratory: how to keep track of the mega-amounts of information generated by thousands of employees. At the heart of Berners-Lee’s proposal was linking nodes of data (for example, CERN’s employees) with other related nodes (such as an organizational chart) through a “distributed hypertext system.” Berners-Lee defined “hypertext” as “Human-readable information linked together in an unconstrained way.”

The idea is the basis of the science of “information management”: with massive amounts of information flowing into a system, the data must be organized in such a way as to make it accessible to anyone on demand, searchable (so data would not get “lost in hyperspace”), “live” (in the sense of up-to-date), interactive (so that users could “add one’s own private links”) and “non-centralized” in the sense that new information systems or nodes could become part of the Web without “any central control or coordination.”

Berners-Lee based his approach to his new information management tool on the men and women of CERN whom he knew so well: they were smart, polite and respectful, they all were pursuing the same scientific goals to make the world a better place, they all subscribed to the same notions of truth and factualness, they all agreed on common goals and needs, and they all were willing to support a large project, if they were convinced of its rightness. It was a cooperative effort, but what Berners-Lee couldn’t and didn’t foresee was a day when non-cooperative people, who did not play by the rules of factualness and fairness, would hijack the Web.

Yesterday, Berners-Lee gave a speech in London to celebrate the Web’s thirtieth anniversary. While he praised the development of “wonderful things” like Wikipedia and blogs, he also conceded that some “nasty things” have occurred on the Web that “I couldn’t have predicted.” It was a case of “What could go wrong?”

“Well, looking back, all kinds of things have gone wrong,” Berners-Lee lamented last Fall, when he announced a new project, a sort of New Deal for the Web, to make it “more communicative, more peaceful and more constructive.” Among the problems Berners-Lee referenced were “fake news, problems with privacy, abuse of personal data, and the way people can be profiled and then manipulated.” He ended with an anodyne plea: “Everybody is responsible going forward for making the web a better web in different ways.”

If I were Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim), I wouldn’t hold my breath. The horses are out of the barn: the civility and “restraint” Andreessen hoped for 26 years ago have almost completely disappeared, replaced by the “Go to hellput-downs.” And there are villains to blame: the Web’s lack of “centralized control” ensures that there are no adults in the room to admonish bad behavior. Meanwhile, the Web’s very openness, unconstrainedness and accessibility means that any bad player can participate, not just people who are committed to truth and impartiality, but those who choose to act with recklessness and malice. We see, in places like Breitbart and with Donald Trump’s tweets, the very opposite of what Andreessen hoped for: “cursing and swearing,” “personal cuts,” a wholesale disregard of truth and standards of decency. Andreessen, Tim Berners-Lee, and other pioneers of the Internet could not possibly have conceived such treachery as the Republican Party, the Russian government, and other bad actors have unleashed. And it’s probably too late to do anything about it now.

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