Ten years ago in 2009, Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web, apologised to the human race for wasting its time with an unnecessary forward slash in http://. In use, it turned out that http:/ was just as good. Billions of unnecessary slashes were typed by coders and users since Berners-Lee wrote up the fundamentals of the web at CERN in March, 1989. His contribution to carpal tunnel disease is phenomenal. But on the 20th birthday of the most world-altering technology since nuclear physics, Berners-Lee had found only a character redundant. Now, on the 30th birthday, he believes that the net’s character is wholly rotten.
Speaking at a Web@30 conference at CERN, Berners-Lee said what’s been on the mind of everyone who has ever had a stake in the web — this is not how it was supposed to be. In the 20th century, the digital frontier was conceived as a liberating technology, a great equaliser which neutralised old hierarchies and delivered power and choice into the hands of individuals. It archived the sum of human knowledge and gave democratic access to it through online encyclopaedias and search engines. And it gave people access to each other on an unprecedented scale.
Today, the internet is frequently seen as a dystopia, a bleak data landscape mined by snoopy governments and greedy corporations far bigger than the giants of the Industrial Age. Half the world remains disconnected, while the other half lives with problems brought on by net use. Berners-Lee proposes a corrective “Contract for the Web”, a document around which the progressive forces which once dreamed of a better internet can rally. But there’s so much money to be made and power to be wrung from the web. The digital dark side has its charms, and human nature is weak.