The web is turning 30 on Tuesday, but its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, is already looking ahead to the next 30 years.
In his annual letter on the web’s birthday, Berners-Lee spent less time reflecting on how the web has developed over the past three decades, and instead expressed optimism about what can be achieved in the next three.
‘Given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30,’ he said. ‘If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.’
It was March 12, 1989, when Berners-Lee, who was working at CERN, published ‘a universal linked information system‘ to help academics from across the globe run a complicated particle accelerator. Since that day, the web has evolved to allow billions around the world to connect to the internet, and with each other.
But like any 30-year-old, the web still has its problems. In his letter, Berners-Lee identified three specific sources of dysfunction: deliberate misuse (state-sponsored hacking, criminal behavior and harassment), system design flaws that allow people to earn money by spreading misinformation and clickbait, and unintended consequences of benevolent design that enable outrage and polarized discourse.
And yet, he remains upbeat about our combined ability to quash these threats — if we focus and don’t get distracted by individual threads of problems.
‘You can’t just blame one government, one social network or the human spirit,’ he said. Simplistic narratives risk exhausting our energy as we chase the symptoms of these problems instead of focusing on their root causes.’
Berners-Lee reiterated the opportunity he saw for citizens, companies and governments to all commit and be held accountable for establishing principles to govern the web, which he first described at Web Summit in Lisbon in November when he launched his ‘Contract for the Web.’
The discussion about what the contract will contain is ongoing – he encourages anyone to contribute – and will yield a result ‘later this year,’ he said. Berners-Lee warned against it being a list of ‘quick fixes,’ but said that instead it must be a process.
‘It must be clear enough to act as a guiding star for the way forward but flexible enough to adapt to the rapid pace of change in technology,’ he said. ‘It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future.’