On this day 30 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee published a proposal titled “Information Management” to the European physics laboratory CERN. This proposal at the time was
Many would expect that the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web would be a reason for celebration. After all, the www is a permanently integral part of our lives. I daresay that us humans could not survive without it. However, this anniversary is more of a cause for recognition of what the internet has become, rather than celebrating its accomplishments. As Tim Berners-Lee puts it, “It’s a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come, but also an opportunity to reflect on how far we have yet to go.”
It’s a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come, but also an opportunity to reflect on how far we have yet to go.“30 years on, what’s next #ForTheWeb?”
He addresses these concerns in a public letter, which you can read here.
It is impossible to argue that the internet is horrible and has only created terrible experiences for humanity. It has, after all, provided millions of people with jobs, saved millions of lives, made millions of normal people celebrities, and created a future we could not have ever expected. However, with the great ease-of-use and anonymity the internet offers, crimes and scams have never been easier to commit. Even at a much lower degree than crime, the internet definitely shows some problems. Berners-Lee goes as far as to call the internet “dysfunctional”. He states three main reasons for this dysfunction:
- Deliberate hate and malicious intent: Let’s face it: Humans are evil. We take but do not produce. Sometimes, we even take more than we should. The rise of the internet has also introduced many cyber-criminals, such as hackers, who exploit vulnerabilities in computers for their own personal gain. Scammers also exploit less-educated persons in order to trick them, all only for personal gain.
- System design that creates perverse incentives: You’ve probably started noticing in the past couple of years how well Google has gotten at predicting your search results. Sometimes, exactly what you are thinking will appear as a suggested result after only typing a single letter, which is definitely creepy. In this example, user value is sacrificed so that Google can make more money from targeted advertisements. Another less invasive but just as dangerous example: fake news. Information is too easily accessible on the internet, and people can be misinformed by something as little as a post on social media.
- Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design: Social media was made as a way for us to easily share moments and communicate with others. However, it has unintendedly turned into something that even makes people commit suicide, in some rare cases. What you post on the internet is permanent, more or less, and humans are not used to having something permanent to this degree. Furthermore, people can misuse social media, to bully people or spread hate speech and hateful thoughts. The internet is definitely a place where horrible actions such as racism, slander, and peer-pressure take place.
Berners-Lee states that this problem is “impossible to eradicate completely, [although] we can create both laws and code to minimize this behavior, just as we have always done offline.” Sure, we can always create laws, but an argument similar to the debate on gun control arises from this. If we make it harder to buy something, such as a gun, will other people still find a way to get the guns and harm those who don’t possess a weapon? This relates to the internet in the way that some people are just too smart and will always find ways to stay anonymous online and wreak havoc on delicate justice systems that have been built. One wrong post is all it takes to spark a digital war.
The World Wide Web has created fame. It has created jobs for the homeless, eradicated employment for the employed. People have become billionaires, others have lost all of their money. It created a way for us to share information instantaneously, and in the process racism, hate-speech, and blackmail have surfaced. The internet is obviously here to stay, so what can we do to avoid this digital dystopia that otherwise awaits?
You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit. Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes. To get this right, we will need to come together as a global web community.Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the internet.