Last night’s BBC programme, The Virtual Revolution, charting the two decades since the invention of the World Wide Web was something of a Curate’s Egg. Interviews with an impressive array industry figures gave the programme gravitas, but the central premise was flawed. The aim seemed to be to show that the Web’s raison d’être was to fulfill a utopian dream of freedom, equality and opportunity, and that it hasn’t lived up to this ideal.
The programme attempted to show the distinction between the Internet and the World Wide Web but then as the discussion went on the lines became very vague, the two terms used almost interchangeably. I would argue that the distinction is critical and a programme like this should have exercised some rigour in keeping a safe distance between them.
A running theme (contrary to the earlier explanation) was that the Internet/Web was created by a group of pseudo-anarchic libertarians based largely in San Francisco. This is simply not true. ARPANET, the network that was to become known as the Internet, was created to facilitate basic communication between different computer systems, some of which were geographically widespread. Subsequently it was seen as a way to provide some level of protection and redundancy of systems so that ‘the system’ would not fail in the event of a nuclear strike taking out one or more of it’s nodes. It never entered anyone’s mind that it could be a part of some “Great Levelling”.
Once it was in existence, groups of people emerged who used it as a tool for disseminating social, cultural and political information as well as news and opinion, such as The WELL.
The World Wide Web came about some twenty years after the birth of Internet. Despite the global linking of computer systems there was still a problem: (computer) language. There were so many different systems speaking different languages that it was very difficult, if not impossible, to share information in a format that was universally readable. Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea of using a set of protocols and languages such that one tool – the web browser – could be used to read and link together information on all these disparate platforms. So again, no concept of human democracy, equality and freedom other than the freedom to share information anywhere.
This is where some confusion may arise. Berners-Lee had no intention of profiting from his invention and didn’t want anyone else to profit from it either. Hence he released his idea to the world, unconstrained by copyright, patent or licence. He had defined the rules of the game – and continued to develop them – but everyone was free to join in. Naturally, as his idea grew and became more popular, it was far too much work for one person so he founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to take charge of it. The W3C’s members are businesses, nonprofit organizations, universities, and governmental entities, but not individuals. The idea was to prevent any sector from dominating, although there are plenty of complaints about this happening in practice.
If this had been the target of The Virtual Revolution, I would have had no complaint, but it didn’t even warrant a mention. The programme seemed to focus on the notion that the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, The Huffington Post and others are so powerful on the Web that they prevent individuals from having a voice, behaving like the editorial departments of the traditional media. They ‘control’ what we see on the Web. They are the elites who have formed a hierarchy, a vertical control structure that is the antithesis of the Web’s (and the Internet’s) supposed desire for a horizontal or flat structure on equality.
Aside from the fallacy of the premise, it is surely clear to everyone that any field of human endeavour (I use the word broadly) needs a control structure. Utopian and anarchic structures cannot survive while humans are genetically programmed the way we are. As a race, we will always have the ambitious, the lazy, the bad, the evil members. Perhaps this is actually necessary for our survival. At any rate, it means there must be law, rules and control. The best we can hope for is that we can trust the control structures, that they don’t become corrupt. I would suggest that they way the Web works – and the Internet for that matter – is about as good as it gets.
How can we judge this? To start with, leaving aside issues of social inequality, anyone can use the Web. Anyone can have a weblog (or blog). Anyone can take part in ‘social media’ networks. As for the resources available, search engines, social networks and web sites succeed or fail (in terms of audience) according to their popularity with users. Users are free to move between them when, and as much as, they like. Our movements around the Web are unrestricted. Yes I know there are exceptions. Some bad stuff is blocked. Some bad stuff is not blocked. There are problems in China, Iran etc. (I’m not playing down these problems but they are not created by the Web, they are created by humans). People, by and large, can vote with their mice (mouses?).
My point is that it is not the Web that is the problem, it is humans. The Web can never be immune to the effects and behaviour of people, in the same way that no other aspect of life is protected. The Web remains, as it started, a free*, open, egalitarian communications medium. The Virtual Revolution is shooting at the wrong target.
*When I say free, I don’t means there is no financial cost. Everyone has to pay their bills. If you want a computer, someone has to pay. Similarly if you want electricity, broadband, a web site, a blog or whatever. There are “free” services, but this just means they are paid for by advertising or some other mechanism over which you have little or no control. This is not unreasonable.