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Sci Tech    H3'ed 5/8/13

Social Networking Threatens the World Wide Web On Its 20th Birthday

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This Summer, a team at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has undertaken a remarkable project: to recreate the first web site and the computer on which it was first seen.

It's a kind of birthday celebration. Twenty years ago, software developers at the University of Illinois released a web browser called Mosaic in response to work being done at CERN. There, a group led by Tim Berners-Lee had developed a protocol (a set of rules governing communications between computers) that meshed two basic concepts: the ability to upload and store data files on the Internet and the ability of computers to do "hyper-text" which converts specific words or groups of words into links to other files.

They called this new development the "World Wide Web".

When you read Berners-Lee's original proposal you get a feeling for the enthusiasm and optimism that drove this work and, since it's all very recent, the people who did it are still around to explain why. In interviews, Sir Tim (Berners-Lee is now a Knight) insists he could not foresee how powerful his new project would be but he knew it would make a difference. For the first time in history, people could communicate as much as they want with whomever they want wherever they want. That, as he argued in a recent article, is the reason why it's so critical to keep the Web neutral, uncontrolled and devoid of corporate or government interference.

The First Web Pages
The First Web Pages
(Image by World Wide Web Consortium)
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The First Web Pages by World Wide Web Consortium

In our convoluted world of constantly flowing disinformation, governments tell us the Web is a "privilege" to be paid for and lost if we misbehave, corporations tell us they invented it, and most of us use it without really thinking much about its intent. Very few people view the World Wide Web as the revolutionary creation it actually is.

Whether its "creators" or the vast numbers of techies who continue to develop the Web think about it politically or not, there is an underlying understanding that unifies their efforts: The human race is capable of constructive exchange of information which will bring us knowledge all humans want and benefit from and in collaborating on that knowledge, we can search for the truth. There is nothing more revolutionary than that because the discovered truth is the firing pin of all revolution.

Twenty years later, it's painfully ironic that, when they hear the word "Internet", most people probably think of Social Networking programs like Facebook and Twitter. As ubiquitous and popular as Social Networking is, it represents a contradiction to the Internet that created it and to the World Wide Web on which it lives. It is the cyber version of a "laboratory controlled" microbe: it can be and frequently is productive but, if used unchecked and unconsiously, it can unleash enormous destruction, reversing the gains we've made with technology and divorcing us from its control.

That's a harsh picture so some explanation is called for.

You may think the World Wide Web and the Internet are the same thing. They're not. The Web is to the Internet what a city is to human existence. The first can't live without the second; the second is extended by the first. But they are not, and never can be, the same.

The Internet is a system of communications comprised of billions of computers that connect to each other through telecommunications lines. It allows people to interact in different ways like email, file upload, chat and, of course, the good old Web.

The Web is a function of the Internet, a kind of subset through which data files stored on a computer (called a server) can be accessed and viewed by people using a special piece of software called a browser. You're reading this with a browser and your browser is reading this as a file on a server and translating it into what you see. To do that, it uses a protocol called "Hyper Text Transfer Protocol" or "http". That is what makes the Web special because it produces "hot links" that you can click on to go to any site or page the link creator wants you to. In the links in this article, you go to other web pages and those pages have links of their own. You can keep clicking and deepen your knowledge, broaden your understanding, investigate other connected ideas and get other perspectives on those ideas.

The World Wide Web puts the knowledge and experience of the entire human race at your disposal. With the Web, the human race has finally experienced world-wide collaboration. That, essentially, is the power unleashed by the event that took place 20 years ago.

We can debate the Internet's contribution to social struggle but there is no question that the era of the Web has seen, among other things: the democratization of the previously dictator-dominated Latin America, the democratic struggles in Northern Africa, the ascendancy of Asian countries as world powers and the resulting democratic struggles those developments feed and, of course, the intense social struggles in the United States that have led to scores of movements, the massive Occupy movement and a black President (probably impossible before the Web).

Compare that to the year 1968 when every continent in the World was awash with resistance and mass movements -- fearing a revoutionary over-throw, the government of France actually moved its offices to Germany -- and when the culture and social norms of the United States were radically shifted by left-wing activism. Because much going on in the rest of the world was hidden by our corporate-controlled media, most of us in this country didn't realize it was happening. And so we thought we were all alone and, in that perceived isolation, we were not able to envision the next steps in a struggle to create a just world.

That will never happen again because we now have the Internet. We can envision the next step and we are taking it all the time. The difference is that forty-five years ago, "we" were the people of the United States (or some other individual society). In today's Web era, "we" are the entire world.

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Alfredo Lopez is a member of the This Can't Be Happening on-line publication collective where he covers technology and Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link.
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