Happy Birthday, world wide web! Now what?

By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven in Upstate Business Journal, Greenville, SC on 3/14/14

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Rain Man won best picture, another kind of happy ruled with airwaves with Bobby McFerin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as record of the year, there still was a Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev was president of it.

Oh yes, and Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. An Englishman working for CERN, a European research organization, Berners-Lee wrote a paper on March 12, 1989 proposing a structure to manage information across the network of networks known now as the Internet. A year later, he released the code for the first web browser and the world has never been — and will never be — the same.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet Life study to mark the web’s 25th birthday, the internet would be the hardest of all technologies for adults to give up - edging out the cell phone and crushing email and social media. The internet is a dichotomy of services and connections we have come to depend on wrapped up in consequences or conditions we distrust.

What can we hope for in the next 25 years?

  • That life does not imitate art. In our rush to see what we can do, we aren’t taking enough time to determine if we should do it. We are in the early stages of what is called the “Internet of Things” or Web 3.0 or as Berners-Lee calls it the “Semantic Web”. Regardless of the name, this is the ability for devices to communicate with other devices. In Issac Asimov's  prescient sci-fi novel “i, Robot”, the community doesn’t take control over their machines until the robots, empowered by a trusting, lazy and arrogant society, launch a nearly victorious rebellion. The good guys win in the book, but that’s just a novel.

    The risk is real and we are already in the early stages of it. We have found more and more ways for computers to do - not only manual jobs - but the jobs formerly held by knowledge workers. We travel blindly where GPS takes us and then wonder why we are lost. We put home automation security on our front door and then use 1234 as our mobile device password.

  • That we use data not just to sell things, but to make the world a safer, smarter and better place. Data is the holy grail of the internet. Organizations collect it, massage it, dice it, and sell it. And you are none the wiser. I had eye surgery in December. Now when I am on Facebook, search websites or play Words With Friends, I get ads delivered up for reading glasses. I’m sure that is the most benign thing that big data companies know about me.

Recently, I read the internet described as a “marketing tool”. It made me grate my teeth the same way I did when I heard newspapers described as “advertising delivery mechanisms”. While that is a byproduct, it is not the primary purpose.

I am all for big data collection, so long as it is transparent and protected. So long as you can know that I need reading glasses, play golf and am addicted to sudoku, I hope you can also find the guy who is hijacking credit card numbers off the gas pump and selling them in Eastern Europe, stop cyberbullying, and help get missing kids off milk cartons and back home.

  • That we recognize that the good of society and the good of corporations are not the same thing. Recent decisions about net neutrality that make it possible for major internet providers to ratchet down service and block some web traffic while allowing others. This may seem harmless at first - so what if entertainment companies have to jockey for position to get on the Verizon A-list and have their content available. But it is not harmless. The internet is a public space and access to it should be public.

When big companies can strike deals that control what you can watch, which companies can provide it to you and how much of the internet pipe you will get, then we are very much in danger of losing a whole lot more than the ability to watch reruns of Lost.

Net neutrality is a bit of a boring topic that most people don’t pay much attention to, but it is critical and the decisions made now will affect our futures.

What if corporations owned the interstates and only approved traffic could ride on it? In the control of a handful of powerful corporations, controlling access can have implications that go far beyond entertainment options.

At 25 years old, the web is at a crossroads. We can have a big part in determining which road we go down. So long as we are paying attention.