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What would happen if the Web was turned off tonight?

Watch Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt discuss the inception of the Web, and its impact on modern society.
SIR NIGEL SHADBOLT: The Web is humanity connected. It’s the most powerful information construct humanity’s ever built. It allows us to connect and abolish the tyranny of scale and distance.
DAME WENDY HALL: It’s the technology that enables us to access files from any computer that’s connected to the Internet around the world. And when it started, that’s how we thought of it– that it was a hypermedia system that enabled you to easily click on a link, which would download a file from whichever computer that file was on and read it on your screen. Quite a breakthrough. We realise now it’s a lot more than that.
SIR NIGEL SHADBOLT: The Web originated really out of a deep sense of frustration. Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN. He was actually working on a really obvious problem, which was– how could you get all the online documentation that existed in all sorts of different computer systems to link to one another?
DAME WENDY HALL: Everyone was searching for the ubiquitous hypermedia system, and it was Tim who brought those ideas together to create the protocols of HTML an HTTP that are the foundation of the Web.
SIR NIGEL SHADBOLT: And he imagined a system which would connect all of that documentation together, and he had a background in a technology called “hypertext.” And so he put together a memo, send it to his boss, and didn’t get any response. A few months went by. Tim went back to his boss and said, “Did you get the memo? I submitted it again anyway.” He just crossed out the date. And that second version was discovered recently. And in the top right-hand corner, there’s a handwritten note that says, “Vague but exciting.” And of course, the Web didn’t exist at that point, but Mike Sendall could see the promise.
And when Tim gave us the first system, the first Web server that was put up in CERN, 1990, and as it then took on, went viral, more and more people putting their Web servers online, you could begin to see the power of the idea.
DAME WENDY HALL: He could see what others– including myself– couldn’t about how ubiquity was everything. And so getting everybody in the world to use the system was what was going to make it powerful, and it was partly his drive and his perseverance that meant the Web was adopted when other systems that were out there weren’t.
SIR NIGEL SHADBOLT: The Web’s everywhere in our lives. It’s in how we buy, shop, travel, educate ourselves, take our health– everything managed through the agency of the Web. So it’s everywhere. It’s pervasive. And like all things that are pervasive or ubiquitous, it kind of gets created, taken for granted. So one of the fundamental propositions of Web science is to stand back and say, “This extraordinary concept exists. We need to understand it. We cannot take it for granted.”
DAME WENDY HALL: Well, of course, it’s changed everything about our world and it’s still doing so. And the reason that we came up with the idea of the new discipline of Web science was because it isn’t just about the technology. It’s about what people do with the technology. And what emerged, over the last 10 years or so, is that the Web is changing us, it’s changing society, but we change the Web because it’s our Web. It grows. It evolves because we put content onto it.
SIR NIGEL SHADBOLT: If you look at the way the Web has impacted our lives, you can’t find an area where it hasn’t had an impact.
DAME WENDY HALL: It has become, in a very short space of time, a fundamental in our lives. And the scary thing about that is– imagine if it wasn’t there tomorrow.

Welcome to the course. In just 25 years the World Wide Web has grown to become the largest human information system in history, integrated into the everyday lives of billions of people across the planet, shaping how we do business, conduct our social lives and organise politically.

In this short video, you meet leading Web scientists Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt who discuss the inception of the Web, and its impact on modern society.

As Wendy concludes, the Web

‘has become, in a very short space of time, a fundamental in our lives. And the scary thing about that is, imagine if it wasn’t there tomorrow.’ (3min:55sec)
Join the conversation by sharing your response to the following questions. You can do this by posting in the comments area. Rather than on this step, we encourage you to introduce yourself in the following step 1.2 where we’d also like you to tell us where you are in the world on our user location map, and what it is about the Web that fascinates you.
What do you think would happen if the Web was turned off tonight? How has the Web become a fundamental part of your daily life?

Posting your first comments

Share your response in the comments area. Have a look at other learners’ comments. If you can relate to a comment someone else has made, why not ‘Like’ it or leave a reply? You can filter comments by ‘Following’, ‘Most liked’ and ‘My comments’.

If you want to see recent activity on the course, click the Activity icon at the top of the step. If you’re following someone, you can filter this list to show the comments of people you’re following, or see if anyone has replied to a comment you’ve made.

Communicating online

  • Comments should be brief and to the point; no more than two or three short paragraphs. This is a conversation, not a monologue – no one wants to read essays!

  • Read your comments and replies all the way through before you post them. If you post in a hurry you may regret it later – you can’t delete but you can edit your comments

  • Criticise the idea, not the person – and be polite when you do

  • Don’t write a reply that you wouldn’t say face to face

  • Remember that learners vary in culture, age and experience

  • Not all learners have English as their first language, so always try to write clearly

  • Explain any acronyms you use and avoid jargon if you can

  • If you see a message that you think is offensive click its ‘Report’ flag icon. It will be reviewed by FutureLearn’s moderators and will be removed if they agree with you

When you are ready to move on click the pink ‘Mark as Complete’ button at the bottom of this step. This will update your progress page, and will help you to keep track of which steps you’ve done.

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Web Science: How the Web Is Changing the World

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