PROFESSOR SUSAN HALFORD: It’s only in 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first proposal for the World Wide Web, which was proposing a radically different way of sharing information on a global scale built on the existing infrastructure of the internet. But as well as technological innovations that enabled us to develop the Web, it’s important to recognise that it was linked to a cultural history. As we’ve heard in the previous lecture, it wasn’t the first way of thinking about a global information infrastructure. And indeed if you read science fiction at all, go and have a look at William Gibson’s book Neuromancer, which was written in 1981. The Web also had a history that was tied in with economics and with social change.
So we need to think about the postwar economic boom. We need to think about electronics. We need to think about the Cold War. We also need to think about mass higher education and the way in which science was funded in the postwar period. So the Web had a history, a technological, a social, an economic, and a political history in terms of where it came from. However clever, however innovative something is, technologies don’t happen on their own. They happen because people use them. And people use them or don’t use them depending on the circumstances of their lives, depending on their motivations, depending on all kinds of social and economic factors.
Slightly more complicated, this, but it needed a range of use values. And it also needed an open model. If the Web had been copyrighted, if we had to pay every time we wanted to use it, would it look like it looks today? The Web we have now, even in technical terms, is not the Web we had in 1989. In 1989 or 1990, I supposed to be more accurate, you could put static Web pages up, text, no visuals. And the only people really who could put websites up were those who had quite high level technical skills to be able to do that. All of that changed as we moved into a second generation of the Web.
What people have called Web 2.0, where it started to look much nicer. You could have visuals. You could have dynamic Web pages. All of it became much fancier, much more interesting and engaging. But also really importantly, Web 2.0 is used to describe a phase of the Web where user-generated content became possible. So it wasn’t just a relatively small number of people with high technical skills who can put information on the Web. The third reason why we can’t simply say, oh, well, the Web grew because it was a great technology is because we’ve had to work very, very hard to make the Web what it is today.
Some of you will have heard of an organisation called W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium. World Wide Web Consortium is an organisation that develops protocols and guidelines to ensure the stability of the Web and the continued growth of the Web. It’s an organisation that brings together governments, businesses, academics, a whole range of people who negotiate long and hard over how to enable the Web to continue to function in a stable, reliable, and sustainable kind of way. But it’s a very powerful organisation. And it has as its vision, I think it’s important to say this, a commitment to participation, knowledge-sharing, and trust. And that’s not easy. That’s really, really hard work.
The effort, the energy that it takes to hold the Web together. So we’ve gone from physicists sharing data to eBay, Twitter, through all of those mechanisms that I’ve just described. And the Web, what it is and what it’s become, is really, really complicated. And that’s why we need Web science to help us to understand it. The Web has changed the World to be sure. But the World has also changed the Web over that period of the last 25 years. What’s going to happen when more people start using the Web? What are the consequences of the fact that most people are excluded, or not include is at least, from the Web?
Many of those people are in countries outside of the West. But it’s estimated that 15 million people in the UK have never used the Web. So we have to be really careful when we talk about the Web and we say it’s changed all our lives and we all use the Web because we don’t. And we need to think very carefully about the consequences of that. Where we are now is also not guaranteed. The Web that we have now is not inevitable. Lastly, the Web will not stand still. The Web is going to change. There’s no doubt about that. I think all that effort couldn’t hold it still if we wanted it to.
So we all need to take responsibility for the Web for understanding where it is, where it might go in the future, and our part in that. And those are the challenges that Web science faces. Those are the challenges that we’re going to be looking at in this MOOC. And I very much hope that you enjoy learning about that and thinking about the World Wide Web, where it’s come from, where it is now, and where it’s going to be in another 25 years time.