Historian Reflects on 27 Years of the Web

  • newswise-fullscreen Historian Reflects on 27 Years of the Web

    Credit: Texas A&M University

    Texas A&M Professor of History Jonathan Coopersmith

Newswise — The World Wide Web as we know it today has undergone many changes and raised many moral and ethical questions that creator Tim Berners-Lee never considered when he unleashed it on the world 27 years ago today. As a history of technology professor at Texas A&M University, Jonathan Coopersmith spends a great deal of time studying the way society interacts with technology. Much of that interaction with technology today takes place through the web.

In a Q&A originally done for Texas A&M Today, Coopersmith discusses in broad strokes the history of the web from its creation by Berners-Lee as a communication tool within the European Organization for Nuclear Research to its popularization through Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, and the pressing issues it faces today as security and privacy shape the international dialogue around the service.

What is the major way the web has changed since its creation in 1990?

You see a lot easier access to it. Today, you as a user don’t always have to know what’s going on or happening with it to use it. You don’t need to have as many skills because all of the skills are in the software and in the hardware. We’re also finding out now that we need to think a lot more about security. Security has historically been a low priority.

How important has international collaboration been to the web’s success and what are some international questions being raised right now?

What we’ve been seeing in the last decade or so is countries recognizing the economic and strategic importance of the internet and trying to impose more safeguards and state control. You see that with the “Great Firewall of China.” A big question is data storage: where it should be stored or not stored, what sort of rights users have. It shows that international communication has evolved and has brought new concerns we have to deal with.

How will the next generation of the web be defined?

We will probably see this period as an age of insecurity, of how do we guarantee we aren’t being surveilled, that we are able to communicate securely with the people we want, that our financial records are safe, that our information won’t be hacked, that we own the data we generate. One of the pioneers in study of technology history, Melvin Kranzberg, said, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” We shape it in many ways.

Are there any parallels between how society and the web have changed in stride?

The internet is a spinoff of researchers at the bottom trying to find a better way to communicate. In some ways you have a product created by government funding, not as a result of a directed initiative, but a demonstration of people coming together to solve a local problem and realizing it has a bigger use. It is a tribute to experimentation and collaboration, to human ingenuity and the flexibility of organizations and governments to support, harness and direct a very disruptive technology.

When there is change, sometimes things get left behind. Are there any examples of this as the internet changed and are any technologies on the chopping block today?

This is one of the challenges people have, when the devices people have used change so much, but we are able to adapt and accommodate. Software expended access for people and made the web far easier to use. If you go back to the 1990s, cellphones were used to make phone calls. Now fast forward to 2017 and a huge percentage of the world accesses the internet over smartphones. We’ll see how long Facebook and some of these other programs are around.

Silicon Valley first comes to mind when discussing technology, but are there other places where a lot of web-based technological developments are taking place in the world today?

Some of the most interesting developments taking place in the world are in China and Kenya, especially with mobile payments. Cell phones were a way to bridge the copper divide in Kenya, which could not afford the huge investment in copper or fiber landlines. Instead, cellphones enabled Kenyans to communicate without wires. In Kenya you can bank or make payments with your cellphone. It’s really impressive.

Jonathan Coopersmith is a professor of history at Texas A&M University. He specializes in technology.

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