Untangling web history

It’s an anniversary that only a geek would love, but even so, it’s one all of us should note. On this day in 1993, scientists working at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research —- CERN) released the source code for the World Wide Web freely available to programmers all over the globe. This royalty-free software release ushered in the era of the Internet.

The source code had been in development for some time. Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist at CERN, invented the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989. As originally conceived, the web was developed to facilitate information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world.

The composition of CERN itself suggests why scientists might have been motivated to make communication more streamlined. CERN was founded in 1952 with the purpose of establishing a world-class fundamental physics research organization in Europe. CERN comprises more than 10,000 researchers working in more than 100 countries. While they may come to the CERN headquarters from time to time, the bulk of their labors are undertaken at their home universities and laboratories.

As the CERN website attests, “Good contact is therefore essential.”

From that 1993 public release, the web grew swiftly. By the end of 1993, there were more than 500 web servers. CERN historians remark, “The WWW accounted for 1% of Internet traffic, which seemed a lot in those days (the rest was remote access, e-mail and file transfer). 1994 was the ‘Year of the Web.’ The First International World Wide Web conference was held at CERN in May. It was attended by 400 users and developers, and was hailed as the ‘Woodstock of the Web.’”

This would prove to be only the tip of the tip of the technological iceberg. By the end of 1994, the web had 10,000 servers — 2,000 of which were commercial — and 10 million users. CERN notes that the web traffic at that time equated to shipping the entire collected works of Shakespeare every second.

According to the World Wide Web Foundation, there are presently over 1 trillion public web pages and 1.9 billion users.

Berners-Lee, now Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has turned his focus on harnessing that vast expanse for the greater good of humanity. Speaking at a recent reception for the Open Government Partnership, Berners-Lee detailed plans for the first ever in-depth study into how the power of open data (i.e. unfettered web access) could be harnessed to tackle social challenges in the developing world.

To this end, he acknowledged that people in different parts of the world may present equally different needs: “Open Data, accessed via a free and open Web, has the potential to create a better world. However, best practice in London or New York is not necessarily best practice in Lima or Nairobi. The Web Foundation’s research will help to ensure that Open Data initiatives in the developing world will unlock real improvements in citizens’ day-to-day lives.”

All of this gets to a fundamental point worth considering here in Southeast Arkansas: There are many places in rural America where high-speed Internet is not available. Children and families are systematically excluded from all the benefits of the web because they don’t live near enough to transmission lines — or more importantly — cannot afford the luxury of Internet connectivity.

As we continually ask ourselves what would make this region of the state more attractive for investment, this technology gap must be kept front and center of the dialogue. We know how great a place this is. If we want others to share in that vision, we must invest in technologies that make that possible.