The Internet is not the World Wide Web. The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks. The World Wide Web is an information system that is hosted on the internet.
To the layman, the words ‘World Wide Web’, and the ‘Internet’ are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. The internet is the physical network of computers that spans the world, whereas the World Wide Web is the language, if you will, all these networked computers use to speak to one another. This language, this program, which is the World Wide Web, was written by an English scientist twenty-seven years ago. His name is Tim Berners-Lee. While working for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Tim had an idea: it should be possible to share papers with fellow researchers, which link directly to other relevant papers. If a fellow scientist’s paper is referenced in your paper, for example, then it should be possible to click on the screen and navigate directly to that paper. The notion of linking from paper to paper, or website to website, is taken so for granted by my generation, it’s pretty difficult to imagine what the world must have been like before information was so readily available. In 1991 the public version of the World Wide Web was released. Twenty-five years ago this week. After 10 years it had a billion users, today it has over three billion, and growing.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was born in London and had a pretty conventional Church of England upbringing. In his teens he concluded, as many of us do, that religion was not for him, and rejected the faith. But later on, after children had arrived on the scene, he and his wife wanted to find a community they could be a part of. And they gravitated towards Unitarianism. Or more precisely, Unitarian Universalism, as they now live in the States. It’s an interesting comparison to make, between the Unitarian Movement and the World Wide Web. There are a surprising number of similarities. Let’s start with Decentralisation.
In 1991 there was an experiment done by Loren Carpenter, an American computer scientist, and it revolved around the first computer game - Pong. Loren assembled a large room full of people, and divided them down the middle into two teams. Every person was given a control stick. If everyone in your team pushed up, the paddle on screen would move up very quickly. If half pushed up, and half down, the paddle would stay still. If only a few less pushed down than pushed up, then the paddle would move up slowly. On top of all that, the individuals in each team were not allowed to talk to each other. Remarkably, each time the ball moved across the screen, the paddle moved into position and hit the ball back. Somehow a subconscious consensus emerged and the teams were able to play effectively.
If you think about it, it is incredibly odd that this would work. Each individual is doing what they themselves think is best and yet somehow the whole team is able to be effective. This is not unlike the difference between creedal and non-creedal religion. In most organised religion (admittedly to varying degrees), they are striving the create uniformity of belief, taking as a given that individual expressions of belief would somehow disrupt the fabric of community, and create discord. Despite each individual in this community being guided by their own conscience, there is a funny kind of subconscious consensus at play. We are not unlike the paddle moving to hit the ball; the team being effective, despite each being our own fiercely individual selves. The experiment was repeated in 2014, this time with a game much more complicated than Pong. It was repeated with the 1998 game Pokemon, and this time not in a room of people giving contradictory commands, but online with millions of people giving contradictory commands. And again, despite the anarchy, despite the lack of oversight, the game was completed in just 16 days. The subconscious consensus emerged once again.
The 1991 version of this experiment was used to make some pretty bold claims about where the internet would get us in the coming decades. The theory went like this - with growing connectivity across the world, something akin to the subconscious consensus would surely emerge, healing the world’s divisions. The problem is, of course, that here we are 25 years later, more connected than ever before, and yet it seems as if there is just as much division as there has ever been. There has been no healing of the divisions of nations, class, and culture. Again, the underlying intellectual assumptions being made here I don’t think are that far from our Unitarian movement’s intellectual assumptions. Despite our anarchic individualism, our decentralization, despite our rejection of the ideal of uniformity, and despite our lack of structures of authority, there is nonetheless a belief in progress emerging forth - the progress of humanity. Take the five original principles of Unitarianism, as they were expressed in the 20th Century: the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, the Leadership of Jesus, Salvation through character, and the Progress of Mankind Onward and Upward Forever. Looking past the obviously sexist language, Unitarianism has always had at its core this optimism for the state of humanity. Onwards and upwards forever. That despite the challenges we shall overcome.
For the 25th Anniversary of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee had this to say, ‘Today, and throughout this year, we should celebrate the Web’s first 25 years. But though the mood is upbeat, we also know we are not done. We have much to do for the Web to reach its full potential. We must continue to defend its core principles and tackle some key challenges’. What is this full potential that Tim Berners-Lee alludes to? He alludes to nothing less than world peace. Not through imposing military supremacy, not through building walls, not through convincing everyone to think alike, but rather through liberty, through connectivity, through community. A global community. A World Web of community.
In Unitarianism we value the virtue of tolerance. We practice the art of listening, striving to understand, striving to walk beside others who we disagree with, perhaps passionately disagree with. This virtue is easy to advance when in reality you surround yourself with others who look and think alike with you. It becomes a far more challenging virtue when you welcome in the other, who in so many ways in contrary to you, and then you don’t play favourites. Again the World Wide Web at its best models this. It does not play favourites. Every opinion under the sun is being advanced somewhere online. Through the web we can encounter the other, the other perspective, in ways ordinary life can never quite accommodate. So what are we to make of the technological optimism which accompanied the birth of the World Wide Web in the early 90s? The optimism of the 90s brings to mind the optimism of the 60s. In the time of Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, and Space Exploration, the world had a similar technological fantasy.
At the 1962 World Fair hosted in New York City, the world was given a vision of the future, a vision of what the world would look like by the 1990s. There were essentially three promises made. That, one: we would have colonies on the moon, two: electricity would be so abundant it would be free, and three: that computers would think. The optimism of the 60s did not come to pass, and nor has the optimism of the 90s. But, progress has been made. Progress unfolds, and humanity moves upwards and onwards. We are just really bad at predicting what that progress is going to look like, and secondly, we’re really bad at even recognising it as it comes. We belligerently insist upon a focus on the negative. What the inventors and visionaries of the 90s hoped and saw for the future of the internet was entirely wrong, but what of its virtues? Today, senior citizens who spend more time online are less depressed and more mentally active. The internet helps us access critical information, information which can even be lifesaving. Students who have access to broadband internet are more likely to graduate compared to students who don’t. The flexibility of online learning has opened up learning opportunities to people who previously couldn’t access them. The World Wide Web now contributes 10% to our British GDP.
The internet crowd-funds innovation, raising billions for new technologies and other inventions. It is bringing people together like never before. More and more people who are getting married today are meeting first online. Does that sound like a good idea? Statistics also suggest that relationships which start online are in fact more likely to last, because we are able to meet people who share our interests more. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. The internet has become a critical component of this. With that I want to celebrate the World Wide Web. And what will the next 25 years hold? I have my ideas, my suspicions (which are most likely wrong). But I am optimistic.