The document drafted by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee on March 12, 1989, was dry, understated and, some might even say, a bit dull. Titled "Information Management: A Proposal", it set out a vision of how his employer, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) could benefit from using computer documents with clickable links to organise information.
Encouraged by his boss's scribbled comment ("vague but exciting") he spent the next 18 months developing technology that combined with the connectivity of the fledgling internet, would give us the World Wide Web. Crucially, it gave the previously impenetrable world of computer networking an attractive, accessible front end: the web browser. Today, 30 years on, the World Wide Web has had such a profound effect on humankind that it's hard to imagine what life would be like without it. The idea of the "global village" would certainly evaporate; the world would feel a good deal bigger, and our place within it much smaller.
How we'd communicate with one another
While email existed long before the web, it was the creation of web services such as Hotmail that changed the way most of us communicate, and without them we'd be making expensive international phone calls, using sluggish airmail services and sending formal telegrams. Deprived of all the forms of communication the web has given us, from video conferencing to social networking, our social horizons would narrow substantially, and connections with old friends would fade more quickly.
We’d also lose the opportunity to show off our talents to the world by means of blogging, vlogging and much else besides. Of course, we’ll never stop making music, writing or telling stories, but the web has given everyone a potential global audience, whereas previously that privilege had been granted by a relatively small number of media companies. You may relish the idea of a world without shrill YouTube personalities catapulting themselves to international stardom, but the opportunities that they have grasped are open to us all. The web doesn’t make you a star, but it does allow you to actively pursue stardom, rather than quietly dream.
A less colourful world
Now we're able to entertain each other across the web, the idea of a few television and radio stations attempting to cater to our newly ravenous appetite for entertainment suddenly seems rather quaint. Without all the innovations prompted by the web, from video streaming to audiobooks, and from podcasting to viral memes, the world would be a lot less colourful – but the problem of information overload would disappear, too. We'd have more space to think, to wonder, to pay attention to those around us.
The effect of that information overload has been most profound in the world of news, and in a webless world the dissemination of information would once again be restricted to print newspapers, radio and television. While we'd undoubtedly miss the buzz of news breaking within seconds, that might be a price worth paying for the blocking of fake news, conspiracy theories and blatant untruth, all of which have been unwittingly promoted by the web. It's an exceptionally sharp double-edged sword; the web can quickly spread word about atrocities that would otherwise remain hidden and unnoticed, but it has also proved itself adept at undermining democracy.
The web satisfies our search for answers on every topic imaginable, and Google has become our guru. By giving us access to the world's collective knowledge, search engines have made profound changes in not only the way we live, but the way we think. We search for our symptoms rather than consult a doctor, we consult Wikipedia rather than using our powers of recall, we try to rule out encounters with the unexpected by thoroughly researching any places we're due to visit. Access to information feels like a very modern privilege, but it's possible that the web has made it too easy to come by.
Our physical surroundings have been transformed by the web, too, particularly in towns and cities. An alternate, webless future would see travel agents, libraries and bank branches flourishing, while high street shops would see ever greater footfall. But commerce has changed forever – not just with 24-hour online shopping, one-click purchases and same-day deliveries, but also our ability to sell goods and services to each other, via eBay, Etsy and countless other channels. The relationship between shopkeeper and customer has been forever upended.
We’ve come to lean very heavily on the world wide web in the 21st century, but with every new social development comes a darker side. Without the web, we’d be sleeping better, socialising more and we would be more active. The connectivity it gives us is also exploited by those who wish us harm: cybercrime, cyberterrorism and cyberbullying would all disappear in a webless world. But on balance, as Berners-Lee hoped, the web has been a force for good. Such an unruly beast will, however, only get more difficult to control.