Editorial: What to Do with the Time That is Given to You (Q2 2019 Issue)

In March 1989, one of the most important and influential concepts in history was born.

It was the idea that there was a way for computers, quickly growing in popularity and use but limited in their ability to widely share information, to share and spread large amounts of data by exploiting emerging hypertext technology.

That idea belonged to Tim Berners-Lee, and he laid out his vision in a document called ‘Information Management: A Proposal.’ That less-than-flashy entitled proposal was the nucleus of what grew to become the World Wide Web.

As seems to be remarkably common when a new and unchartered idea is first put forward, Berners-Lee’s original concept was met with a bit of skepticism. His boss at CERN (a particle physics lab) commented that it was exciting, but vague. Luckily, he was given the freedom to do some fine-tuning over the coming months and years.

Berners-Lee was a computer scientist who graduated from Oxford University, but most importantly, he was an individual who saw the immense possibility of change. Of course, he probably could never have imagined just how much change his idea would bring about, but he had a vision of a free and open space for humanity to share knowledge for the betterment of the world.

Since then, and for those that have had access to it, the web has revolutionized pretty much every aspect of life; it’s improved the way we shop, allowed us to consume entertainment at ease and manage our finances in an instant. It’s helped us learn, travel, form relationships, look after our health…I really could go on. Put simply, the web has done a hell of a lot of good for a lot of people, all because one man sought to change the status quo.

However, three decades on from the web’s inception, we find ourselves facing unintended, negative consequences of information sharing that are resulting in an unprecedented assault on safety, trust and privacy.

It's been 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee submitted his first proposal for what became the World Wide Web
It's been 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee submitted his first proposal for what became the World Wide Web

On the modern web, malicious data and offensive content is being spread at an astonishing rate. State-sponsored hacking, online harassment, clickbait, spying and viral fake news currently run rife, and do so largely unchecked. Elections can be wrongfully influenced, online criminals can target victims anywhere in the world, information is unfairly gathered and abused, and extremist and violent content has a global platform on which to spread messages of hatred.

That is not the vison of a free and open space that Berners-Lee had 30 years ago, and speaking in March, he said that “those of us who are online feel that our rights and freedoms are not fully protected and respected.

“The fight for the web we want is one of the most important causes of our time,” (Time.com) he added.

Those were the honest words of a man reflecting on the undesired, unimagined effects of his own innovative idea. I think what Berners-Lee was saying is that we’ve now reached an inflection point where the web’s potential for harm is outweighing its potential for good, and it’s one that society must respond to. He urged governments, companies and citizens to come together to build a web community that follows civil discourse and centers itself on public good so that the rights, freedoms and well-being of those online are better protected.

He was absolutely right, because there is very little point being part of a continually expanding web community if we are unable to, at the very least, ensure the fundamentals of trust and privacy when using it. So whether it’s through new laws and codes of conduct for cracking down on the spread of deliberate and malicious intent, redesigns of systems to alter incentives around the use of clickbait or by citizens holding companies and governments accountable for the commitments they make, the web needs some work.

It's time to shape the web we want for the future
It's time to shape the web we want for the future

Much like Berners-Lee, we must always endeavor to push boundaries; we should never settle for or seek the status-quo, because change is how we develop. However, the evolution of the World Wide Web is the perfect example of how an amazing idea can bring about remarkable good, but also troubling bad – and it’s how we now adapt to the negative ramifications that we are seeing that is really going to matter.

After all, look how much has been achieved for good on the web in the last 30 years, and as Berners-Lee wrote in a World Wide Web Foundation blog post earlier this year, “it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30.

“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”

Wise words indeed. So, with the web now 30 years old, let’s tip our hats to Berners-Lee for his wonderful idea, be thankful for all the positives the web has allowed us, but recognize that there is still a lot to do until the web we have is the one we want, and that it’s our responsibility to make sure we get it.

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