How would your life be different if the internet and the World Wide Web were switched off forever? You might nostalgically think life would be better, but it would surely be very different. Try throwing away your cell phones and computers!
Last month, March, was the 30th anniversary of a note written at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Switzerland, by Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim) titled “Information Management: A Proposal.” That was the origin of the World Wide Web. An early version of the internet existed, but one could not share much between different computer systems. Now about half the population of the world, over 3 billion people, have access to vast and life-changing information, education, health resources and entertainment.
How was it that the Web was born at CERN, an international laboratory for studying fundamental particles? Collaborations between scientists from many countries needed to share documents, but had many different computer systems. The WWW was a clever way by which they could all work together. Because CERN’s policy was to make all its inventions freely available, and it turned out to be so useful outside particle physics, it grew fast. You pay for your internet service provider, but not for the Web.
The first connections using the Web outside CERN were to two particle physics laboratories in the United States: SLAC in California and nearby Fermilab. It would probably not have been created if governments were not supporting large-scale pure science research, in collaborations between many universities in different countries. Before 1989 file sharers between computers of the same type existed, but Berners-Lee’s stroke of genius was a way to link them all together.
At a celebration at CERN in March, Berners-Lee said that everyone in the world should have the benefits of access. But as with other world-changing inventions, such as printing, there is a downside – diminished privacy, false stories, political interference, etc. Those happened before, but now the scale is immediate and global. It is a challenge to maintain open access and freedom of information, while controlling the worst aspects. But we must, and the Web Foundation is working with governments, companies and citizens to build a new “Contract for the Web.”
Nobody foresaw that particle physics research would affect the lives of billions of people in this way. Pushing the envelope of scientific knowledge leads us in surprising directions.