….the World Wide Web, since you ask.

Well soon anyway.

By my reckoning, the web is coming up to it’s 18th birthday. I daresay people will challenge the dates, but as far as I am concerned, it all started in 1994 when one of my university lecturers handed us all copies of an article from The Guardian newspaper. It explained all about this new fangled addition to the Internet that would enable pages of information to be created and distributed.

The reason I mention this isn’t just because I was wondering whether anyone will be doing a collection, organising a card, or maybe baking a cake (though doesn’t seem much to ask for, all things considered). What I was thinking about was just how much of an impact the web has had, and I thought I would get in before the self-appointed ‘experts’ start wading in.

About a year after the Guardian article, I was writing web sites commercially. This was a pioneering time, and exciting, rewarding and frustrating all at the same time. The ‘frustrating’ part was because the tools and technologies were so limited and it was very time consuming to do – by today’s standards – some fairly basic things.

In 1994, the web was mostly seen as a publishing medium. Interactivity was limited and confined to fairly basic facilities like message boards, feedback forms and the like. ‘Getting a company on the web’ tended to start with people asking to have their company brochures and promo materials converted into a web version. and that was it.

Not everyone shared the vision of the World Wide Web – if ‘vision’ is what it was. One of the directors of the company I was working for at the time said on several occasions that he wasn’t sold on the web, and wasn’t sure we should be dedicating time to it. Not, perhaps, the best decision he ever made. But myself and my manager and anyone else we could rope in, got on with it anyway. I started working on more and more web sites, I visited Telehouse Docklands to help installing the first hardware, I enlisted a university friend to help select and configure routers and bridges and to get involved with more of the hardware stuff I didn’t know about. I did a series of presentations and training sessions to educate the senior staff of a major London department store group of the benefits and potential of the web and Internet generally. I assisted with the launch of a chain of Internet cafes. I attended the annual conference of one of the UK teaching unions and organised and ran a series of sessions demonstrating the web and show it might be used in the learning sector. Interestingly, whilst I encountered many web-sceptical companies then and later, the teachers got it straight away: They could see how the world was moving and embraced it instantly.

And that is just what I can remember off the top of my head. All in about 9 months. Not bad if I say so myself.

Today, much of the web is almost unrecognisable from what what happening in 1994 but some things have stayed the same. In particular the pioneering spirit hasn’t been totally knocked out of us. Not yet at any rate.

But not everything the Web has brought about has been good. The ability to exchange and share almost anything quickly and easily – a miracle in so many ways – causes a problem when applied to properties other people own and are trying to make money from. This isn’t about enriching megastars already living in castles and driving gold plated BMWs. It is about a new recording artist trying to make a living, impossible if their latest music appears for free on file sharing web sites. Does this mean that over time people will stop making music as they can’t survive by doing it? Newspaper sales continue to decline but web based equivalents don’t generate enough money to pay for the journalism and reporting, yet we need journalism and reporting to tell us what is happening. Comment and opinion can be interesting, but as we know, talk is cheap. Information on the other hand (the journalism and reporting itself) is expensive. Will this eventually disappear? Even online shopping, the aspect of the web that has perhaps touched the greatest number of people young and old – seems to be having a negative effect on high streets and traditional shops. Book sales aren’t declining as some of the ‘experts’ predicted they would as a result of the web, but they are certainly not being bought in shops in the volumes they were. Will high streets – which perform a social function as much as anything – continue to decline and become irrelevant? Or even disappear?

Of course none of this is scientific fact. A degree of copying of content has always happened, newspaper sales may well be declining simply because people are less interested in the world around them, and high street decline might be due to out of town superstores. But the Web is undoubtedly playing a significant part. It is fashionable (and a very easy option) to just dismiss all of this as ‘one of those things’, ‘progress’, ‘inevitable’ or even, bizarrely, ‘a good thing’ but I’m not so sure.

Conclusions

There is something in history or philosophy which states to the effect that the most important advances and developments are the ones people never requested. They somehow come about anyway. I have to say I don’t really agree with this – after all, putting a man on the moon didn’t just happen, it happened because of the concerted efforts of a large number of people coupled with the political will in the first place. But in the case of the World Wide Web, there might perhaps be something in it. It did come about without any real request, and crept in unnoticed on the back of enthusiasm and willpower as much as anything. Nowadays when IT projects seem to have have less and less money subjected to greater and greater scrutiny and evaluation (and people often seem oblivious to the fact that the scrutiny and evaluation itself costs money that could otherwise be spent building something), it is a refreshing and heartening story that the Web even came about at all.

Happy Birthday.