World Wide Web turns 20!

This week marks the 20th anniversary of a proposal for a project that would become the World Wide Web.

If the Web were a person, it would be in college today! And of course it is – in colleges and homes and in businesses and increasingly everywhere, just as the name implies.

This is the eighth and last of my current series on “computer literacy” and the lesson is about the Web and the changes it has brought to the way we communicate and the amount of information to which we can have access.

Can you imagine what it was like before the Web, when e-mail was relatively unknown, few people owned computers, telephones had cords, and people got their news and information by reading newspapers and magazines and books and by watching television?

1989-1991 were dramatic years – the Soviet Union dissolved, coalition forces ousted Iraq from Kuwait, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska, protests in Tiananmen Square in China resulted in hundreds killed, and the Hubble space telescope went into orbit. In the computer world, Microsoft launched its first successful Windows operating system, 19-year-old Linus Torvalds introduced the Linux operating system, and Tim Berners-Lee (a software programmer at CERN, the European particle accelerator in the news lately) and colleague Robert Cailliau submitted a proposal on Nov. 12, 1990, titled “World Wide Web: Proposal for a HyperText Project” (you can read the 1989 pre-proposal at http://info.cern.ch/Proposal.html ).

In 1989, the number of Internet hosts passed 100,000. By 1992, when the U.S. Congress passed a law to allow commercial entities to use the Internet, that number had climbed to 1,000,000. In 1993, CERN announced the World Wide Web was free for anyone to use. In the same year a bug in a program sent an article to 200 news groups and the term “spam” was coined. In 1995 the U.S. government, which had controlled the infrastructure of the Internet since it began in 1969, turned it over to commercial entities. By 1996, more than 10 million people were using the Internet and the Web and wikis and blogs were invented. Speculative investors in Web companies created the “dot.com” bubble in the late 1990s in the stock market, which burst in 2000 when their investments fell well short of expectations. By that year, 350 million people in 218 countries were using the Web and there were 10s of millions of Web pages. In the mid-2000s, websites enabled users to create their own content and 3G cell phones connected to the Internet from just about anywhere, once again changing the way we communicate. In 2010 we will generate an estimated 1.2 zettabytes of digital information (1200 billion gigabytes, more information than in the past 5,000 years), there are 50 billion Web pages, nearly 2 billion people use the Internet (almost 30 percent of the world), and 500 million people form a loose community on Facebook.

In these last eight articles I have described how computer literacy means more than learning what to click when, that our attitudes towards technology and each other often dictate whether and how we use it, that technology is a powerful force created by societies and influenced by science, politics, the economy, and the globalization of ideas, that these technologies are a force that changes societies and each of us, and that we are only beginning to explore communications technologies and various ways we interface with them. I hope you have enjoyed my series on “computer literacy” and found it interesting and useful. As usual, I invite feedback and dialogue.

E-mail Youngblood, head of the Computer Information Systems program, at youngblo@uiwtx.edu

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