WWW diagram - Tim Berners-Lee
Diagram forming the bedrock of Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 proposal for the world wide web. Image copyright: CERN.

On a misty day in March 1989, an unassuming worker bee at Cern – the physics research lab in Switzerland otherwise best known for the Large Hadron Collider which helped scientists discover the Higgs Boson particle which apparently is quite important – proposed a neat way of making information on the internet accessible to all.

Previously a massive collection of networked computers of which very few people were aware, the internet was frothing with data but no reasonable way to find it.

This Cern chap was aware of the internet’s mighty potential and set about proposing this humanising of a world of data. His boss acknowledged that the creation of a world wide web would be a nice idea, but the proposer’s notion was nothing but vague.

Tim Berners-Lee was unmoved by the snark and set about creating a web browser prototype. Two and a half years later the first elementary window to the internet was born. That date was March 12 1989 – and the world would never be the same again.

What if…

If it hadn’t been for the world wide web I’d probably be an electrician. If you’ve seen me try and wire a plug you’ll see why things turned out as the should have.

It’s hard to quantify the impact of the world wide web on our lives. On a macro level WWW has shrunk the world. It’s certainly shrunk our bank balances, by giving us easy access to 24-hour shopping and one-day delivery. In some places efficiency of retail is far greater: live in San Francisco or New York City and eBay can have your goods on the doorstep same day, if not same hour.

The world wide web has been an instrument of revolution, creating movements of change from the Arab Spring to Capitol Hill.

Eric Schmidt, the former head honcho at Google, told us in 2010 that every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. Gary Vaynerchuk said we’re about to enter the second industrial revolution because of the world wide web – after Chris Anderson predicted the same.

And in grouping the world’s information, it has given us ready access to study paths previously unimaginable. As I type this I’m neck deep in an EduX course administered by some faraway Ivy League seat of academia helping me understand how people think. The Khan Academy and TED are democratising the best of everything to swell our brains and ready the planet for a new dawn of challenges and change.

Who doesn’t love to kick back after a hard day at the monitor with an hour of music tailored to our preferences (any music streaming service is driven by WWW protocols)? To catch up with our social networking obsession (WWW – tick). To learn how to cook on YouTube (WWW) or connect to our friends and family on Facetime or Skype (you guessed it). To watch the TV shows and listen to radio programmes we want whenever we want using BBC iPlayer (no surprises here).

Every single industry has been impacted. Industries have been created, from digital marketing to the maker movement.

Not just virtually there

Berners-Lee facilitated accessibility by all on the move to the minds of billions. Though the WWW is inherently of bits and bytes without it we would never have seen the likes of iPhones, iPads, nor seen the development at a terrifying pace of medical science – made possible by folding technology loaning inspiration and connectivity from the laurels of the world wide web.

There is nothing in modern life that hasn’t been at least adjusted by the fevered pace of progress of the web. The march of online in taking over previously mundane and manual processes, or at least sharing out the pain by invoking collaboration through the use of crowdworking platforms like The Mechanical Turk, helping us to live more satisfying and enriching lives.

Sensor the future

The first quarter century of the world wide web has been an awareness-growing mechanism. Showing us the possible, and how we can halt the impossible. Of thinking widely, of aiming for the stars and not just giving us the rocket but the propulsion to touch them.

While it’s not yet quite ubiquitous in availability worldwide – though efforts by Google with balloons (the aptly named Project Loon you can track online) and Facebook with drones are driving us closer to that state of everyone-connected – the web is shifting from an internet of people to the internet of things.

To not just be a plaything for many, but a meaningful, essential tool for the majority. To go beyond being the conduit for half-arsed cyber currency, to steer us away in our perception of the online realm as primarily a driver for effortless and conspicuous consumption.

If I had the money or the wit to invest, I’d be putting my money on sensor manufacturing.

Following roughly the theory of Moore’s Law, sensors have rapidly shrunk and become cost effective to the point where Kickstarters everywhere are experimenting with how we can monitor, manage and measure thousands of things that before were as lifeless as a tumbled leaf.

Objects as familiar as fridges are already internetworked so we can check from afar enough eggs are awaiting us for our homecoming. We’re wearing more technology than ever before, calculating our every move and giving privacy conspiracists enough ammunition to start an uprising on one of the increasing number of apps fomenting secrecy (including Whisper, one of the leading lights in anonymizing our thoughts online, which just raised $30m funding on a $200m valuation).

But this is not just about domestic appliances or wearable technology. We’re talking about things like bus stops and bins. Stuff to make our lives easier, or to make it simpler to control our movements.

Which is a spectacular precursor to us all being replaced by robots – the ultimate controllable device.

Until they control us.

WWW and the internet

An important distinction:

  • The internet is a collection of networked devices forming a master network – the internet. This assembly of microcomputing is about double the age of the web as we know it – the internet was first created in formative fashion in the early 1960s with the advent of packet switching as an accepted technology
  • The world wide web (WWW) is a collection of documents, web pages, linked by hyperlinks and URLs – those addresses we type into the address bar of our favourite web browser like Google Chrome. So think of the WWW as your way of seeing all the great stuff hosted on the devices making up the internet.

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