You’ll be forgiven if, like me, you missed The Big Birthday, what with busy lives and all the usual horrors dominating the news. Nevertheless, it’s not too late to issue best wishes to the one thing that has changed our lives forever; happy belated 30th birthday, World Wide Web (WWW, going forward).
At this age, WWW should be all grown up, but that’s not true, far from. WWW is still in the process of adulting, a term coined to describe the long process of maturation by a generation that is doing it differently than we did. Some even claim that WWW is in its infancy and that the best – and the worst is yet to come. How exciting, and how frightening.
When English engineer and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee published a proposal for a global hypertext system in March 1989, he couldn’t have imagined how his idea, initially called Mesh and later the World Wide Web, would become so essential to our modern existence. He couldn’t have predicted how it would revolutionize communication, education, shopping, dating, politics, even war.
Birthdays are a great opportunity for introspection, so allow me the luxury to reflect on a technology that I use every single day, a tool that has made my life easier but also more demanding, an idea that has transformed my relationship with everyone and everything around me.
WWW has allowed me to stay connected to far-flung relatives and friends who, at another time, might have faded into memory. Think about it. Without WWW, we wouldn’t have Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, or FaceTime, all miraculous applications that keep us in touch. I can now watch a high school friend traveling through Europe in real time, speak to cousins in Germany without racking up a ginormous phone bill, and celebrate with other Raptors fans across the country when they make it to the NBA final (which they will).
Yet, the ease of connection has made for shallow friendships that mean little in time of need. What’s more, our insecurities are magnified when everybody appears to be enjoying a better life on Instagram. No wonder we are, from what I read, lonelier, angrier, and more willing than ever to insult, attack, and divide.
But WWW has altered more than the method and speed of communication. It has also provided us with round-the-clock entertainment, whether we need it or not; Netflix movies, Amazon shows, and a variety of other streaming services ensure diversion at any time of day or night. And so, addicted to screen and stimuli, we’ve forgotten how to entertain ourselves. We are fast losing the ability to enjoy free time and a wandering mind.
While WWW’s plethora of options has shortened our attention span, it has been generous in providing instantaneous information. I love the Internet’s ability to streamline the tediousness of research, but frankly, this fire house of data also has turned the world of facts into a minefield of lies and misrepresentations. The ease with which people repeat fabrications is alarming to me – downright scary, and probably, for me, the Internet’s worst by-product. It’s also a reminder that knowledge, especially the superficial kind, doesn’t translate into wisdom.
There is, of course, no turning back the clock. Proof came in 2018 when the world marked a milestone: 50 per cent of the global population is now connected to the Internet (that’s saying a lot, considering the percentage of the world’s people who aren’t even connected to food or water). Yet, with this achievement also comes wariness. I see it in my kids and their friends, the generation of digital natives. They quite literally couldn’t live without the Internet, having no experience of life without it. They wouldn’t want to be without it even if they could, as the shouting chorus of Fortnite players in my basement (even though they’re at their own houses) demonstrates.
Thankfully, though, I’m also seeing a trend in new parents. In increasing numbers, they’re limiting their children’s screen time, curbing their use of social media and demanding privacy in a world where our data is mined constantly. It makes me hopeful that society is turning a corner, perhaps, hanging on tight to being persons instead of turning into robots.
So yes, I’ll toast to WWW’s big 3-0, but I’ll also offer celebrants a word of caution. No transformation is without is price, and no advancement without its corresponding loss.