The future had humble beginnings. The first public web page went online 25 years ago today, on August 6, 1991. It was not much of a page by today’s standards: all text and a summary overview of a project to make Internet resources linkable with hypertext. But that single little web page, written by Tim Berners-Lee, heralded the rise of one of the greatest public goods ever built: the worldwide web.
At the time Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist, worked for the Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire (aka CERN, a European publicly-funded institution in Switzerland, home of several particle accelerators and of the Large Hadron Collider). Berners-Lee’s idea was simple: What if one used hypertext to link the various databases that lived on the early version of the internet?
Before the world wide web, access to various resources online was not unified or standardized. Each research center or BBS had their own way to let people access and browse their content. The internet was a series of connected yet insular places, an archipelago of servers that could barely speak to each other. One of the preferred way to access data remotely was telnet: You would get privileges to access a server, and you would navigate directories and sub-directories in search of a given file. There was barely any hierarchy of content besides the directory tree itself.
Tim Berners-Lee’s flash of inspiration was to solve that insularity and content mess by creating a service that would combine the information of existing online resources with the ability to link them using hypertext links. By making remote content easily accessible and better organized for everyone with a computer and a modem, Berners-Lee turned the Internet into the first global, human-built public good.
We have grown so accustomed to it today that it is easy to forget how much of a breakthrough hypertext was. Hypertext is the computing equivalent of what you do when you are reading. When you read a document, you unconsciously access the meaning of the words in your brain’s linguistic repository so as to string them together in a coherent whole. You also access your knowledge about concepts, mathematics, history, and on and on. When you don't understand what you are reading, or if you find a gap in your own knowledge, you pick up your dictionary or your encyclopedia or even, another book. Hypertext translated that age-old practice of informed reading to non-networked personal computers. It made the act of mental referencing manifest, on your computer screen.
In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee proposed to expand hypertext to networks of computers. Nobody seemed interested to pick up the project at the time, so he decided to do it himself with the blessing of CERN’s information technology division.
The biggest challenge to solve was how to locate those insular online resources so that links could actually work and point to the relevant piece of data. One needed a uniformed, standardized method to name the data (mostly pages of text at the time). Then one needed a way to translate the assigned name of that unique piece of content into network coordinates so that the data could flow from the location where it was stored to the remote place where someone had requested it.
The first web page on CERN’s server (accessible here) fulfilled all these requirements. It contained in prototype form all the components of what makes the web run today. There was a lot going on behind this barebones page of text: a markup language (to format the text with relevant links—aka HTML); a web server; a data transmission protocol as well as a universal resource locator—the ‘URL’ that one links to and that usually start with the prefix “HTTP;” and finally, a “browser,” a client-side utility that could request and retrieve information and then display it with its newly built-in interactive features.
The worldwide web rose to be the main medium to access data online when CERN took the fateful and visionary decision to release the entire package for free to anyone who would like to use it. The worldwide web could have been licensed for a fee to users and businesses. While it would have made CERN a lot of money it is hard to imagine that it would have been adopted so quickly by so many people. It would have stayed more akin to walled garden services such as Prodigy or America Online, but for universities and research institutions.
CERN was not a profit-seeking business. It was and still is a publicly-funded science laboratory. It was not in its mission to derive money from the inventions of its researchers, but rather to share them as widely as possible for the greater benefit of humanity. And so it treated the worldwide web much like a high-energy particle discovery. That is the admirable part: had the worldwide web been treated as a business opportunity by CERN, it would never have spread the way it did.
Many great fortunes were later built on that public R&D foundation, and by people who tend to retroactively downplay the importance of public goods such as the web in their eventual success. This willful forgetfulness is the only way to square the entrepreneurial legend they tell the world with their libertarian, anti-government, anti-tax leanings.
We the people have the web and its myriad of services and its almost infinite amount of data at our fingertips. It is non-rival: My usage cannot prevent someone else from using it. It is non-excludable: Nobody can set up a toll or a barrier to prevent me from using it. It is global. It distributes knowledge and information freely.
These two central characteristics, non-rivalry and non-excludability, make it one of the most potent forces on the side of humanity’s progress. The accumulation and exchange of knowledge, culture in all its forms, is our key evolutionary advantage as a species. Culture is what allows us not only to invent but also to augment and to improve on past inventions.
Culture is our killer app. Make the entirety of human culture, past and present, free and available to anyone through computer networks, and watch what happens. It has been 25 years since the first web page went live: we’ve only just begun.
Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.