Human-centred decisions

30 years of the world wide web

A mosaic about the world wide web, depicting the letters "www" against a globe

Today the world marks the 30th birthday of the web. I could have said ‘celebrates’ instead of ‘marks’. But despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that it’s the most revolutionary advance in communications of our lifetime, the mood seems reflective rather than celebratory.

Tim Berners-Lee’s reflections

According to Alex Hern at the Guardian, Tim Berners-Lee has been reflecting on how early decisions about how the web was built assumed benevolence.

It is a minor regret, but one he has had for years about the way he decided to “bootstrap” the web up to something that could handle a lot of users very quickly: by building on the pre-existing service for assigning internet addresses, the domain name system (DNS), he gave up the chance to build something better. “You wanted a name for your website, you’d go and ask [American computer scientist] Jon Postel, you know, back in the day, and he would give you a name.

“At the time that seemed like a good idea, but it relied on it being managed benevolently.”

Today, Tim Berners-Lee has outlined three sources of dysfunction affecting the web. The third of those is:

Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.

Two years ago I made a similar point about how Facebook and Twitter have been too slow to see the flaws in their designs. They failed to foresee that people could have bad intentions.

Like the mid-century architect, Minoru Yamasaki, who designed a disastrous crime-ridden social housing complex: “I never thought people were that destructive.”

Tim Berners-Lee appears to feel a similar regret.

What changed

The first 20 or so years of the web appeared to be almost entirely positive. The last 10 or so years have been more difficult.

Early adopters of the web were largely benevolent idealists. It was the web that saw the Telegraph offer its news content for free; the web that created Wikipedia; the web that enabled the blogosphere to flourish. Early web enthusiasts wanted to share and spread information to improve the world.

As the web has become more ubiquitous, those people with good intentions have become smaller in proportion. As well as benevolence, it also reflects the worst aspects of human nature. Now it’s the web of privacy-invading advertising; the web of fake news; the web of Facebook.

Rebuilding the first web browser

Some of the good eggs have been recreating the experience of the first ever web browser, WorldWideWeb.

I’ve enjoyed reading Jeremy Keith’s perspective on his involvement in the project — you can sense his excitement jumping off the page.

The project’s website contains an interesting history of the web. It’s funny to think, but the web is now really old. The timeline, which has the creation of the web as its centre point, extends back to 1959. It’s old.

(Speaking as someone who’s a few years older than the web, I can confirm that soon the web will have hair growing from some pretty strange places.)

Avoiding the rose-tinted glasses

Sometimes I have a tendency still to think of the web as an exciting, modern invention. I’m a little biased perhaps. I think the web gave me everything. My blog was my platform as a teenager. I made a career out of running websites.

More recently, this has made me look back — perhaps with rose-tinted glasses — on the good old days of the web. The days when everything was better. When it was all open and free (as in speech) and free (as in beer).

But it’s no longer realistic to expect news websites to offer their content for free, without negative consequences. We’ve learned that if a service is free, the true cost is probably your data. We can’t just expect people to play nicely on the web.

Those idealistic times are long gone. After 30 years, the world has moved on. There is no point in wishing away the web’s wrong turns.

There have probably been many innovations that seemed like a brave new world, only to eventually go wrong. The choice we face now is whether we allow it to go horribly wrong, or perhaps to compromise on some of that original vision to ensure it remains as positive as possible.

Tim Berners-Lee’s article offers a way forward.

Happy birthday, world wide web. I hope we’ll still be saying good things about you in 2049.

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