Wednesday is the birthday of the World Wide Web. It's 25, a generation old. Together with the Internet, on which it works, it's the most ambiguous invention in human history.
The Web/Internet is Shiva: god of creation, god of destruction.
It has birthed a world once unimaginable. Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, says everyone has "the power to access and use others' information, and to produce our own, and send it around the world."
Let's get this much straight. The Internet is a "network of networks" of computers. It was born on Oct. 29, 1969, when a UCLA student programmer sent a message from his computer to one at Stanford.
The World Wide Web is the system that allows documents and sites to connect via the Internet, and it was born March 12, 1989. That's when Timothy Berners-Lee, then a fellow at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), wrote "Information Management: A Proposal" (bit.ly/1eBedal), outlining "a universal linked information system." He described much of what the Web has come to be.
Perhaps shockingly, its users are still a global minority. Yes, as much as 77 percent of the industrialized world is on the Web. But the estimated three billion users on Earth as of 2014 are just 40 percent of the populace; in Africa, penetration is as low as 16 percent. Still, it has changed almost everything having to do with communication. We needn't go into all the dazzling offerings the Web has placed within our reach. A couple of examples will do.
"Thanks to the Web and Internet, we are, without doubt, in the true golden age of TV," Thompson says. "When I can wake up on Valentine's Day and on Netflix I can binge-watch House of Cards to my heart's content, it's too good to be true. . . . That big, monolithic common audience we once were, while it still exists, has been fractionated into smaller interest groups, with more than enough for all."
The same could be said for art, poetry, politics, science.
Mark Schoneveld works at Poptent.com, a Philadelphia outfit that connects companies with videographers for online advertising. He also runs Vynyl.com, a site that celebrates new music on vinyl records.
Mulling the Shiva of the Web/Net, Schoneveld says, "It's definitely a mixed bag. On one hand, it's my career. On the other hand, we've lost precious aspects of our culture." He mourns the way, for example, vinyl records "make you listen to music. You have to set them up in a room and listen to them. It's a more attentive way to listen than just popping a CD in your car."
The Web is messy, with a lot of garbage and no single agreed-on filter. Since no one owns the Web/Net, there may never be one. Too many cat pictures; too much porn. In making everything instant, accessible, all the time, it has accelerated the coarsening of culture.
This Shiva also threatens entire ways of life. Newspapers struggle - yes, that's not news. They provide a service many want (news and information), but their business model has been undermined by technologies that offer the same or similar stuff free.
And think "music industry."
Jim Musselman is president and founder of Appleseed Recordings of West Chester, founded in 1997. "No doubt about it, more music is available," Musselman says, "and you can hear more artists and kinds of music today than you ever could."
But this is Shiva, creating and destroying. "When a company spends money recording and promoting an artist," he says, "and then this music everyone's worked so hard on - when it is downloadable for free on some illegal website, and when that site has advertisers - you have to ask, 'How did this happen?'
"It's a war on intellectual property, with no one standing up for the artist," Musselman says. "The saddest thing is to see this driving good artists out of the business."
Janna Anderson, associate professor and director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University in North Carolina, says "every new technology, back to fire, the sword - even typewriters - has been used for both good and evil. Even our national road system. It lets ordinary people travel, but it also helped Bonnie and Clyde get away."
Anderson helped conduct "Digital Life in 2025," a survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center in which 1,500 experts were polled about the Web/Net future. All celebrated the way the Web/Net has helped connect, inform, and educate, a process accelerating and expanding rapidly.
As for that future, it is now. The "Internet of Things" is upon us. Your phone can talk to your house; your body can talk to your doctor. "We've gone beyond people-people to people-machine and machine-machine connections," Anderson says.
Worries even here. Human connectivity may create interest groups that transcend national boundaries - virtual nations, if you will. (We have gotten a taste of it with the unfortunate bitcoin, and groups of users who revel in being free of nations and banks.)
"It may be disruptive for standard institutions used to having everyone depend on them," Anderson says. "They may, believing it's for everyone's best interests, try to assert control over things they can't really use laws to control."
Heavy on many minds is privacy. For the last generation, we've engaged in a sinister bargain, trading privacy for connectivity or protection. "We know, and keep forgetting, that every mobile device is two-way," Anderson says, "and that 'they' can follow you and see what you're doing, even when the phone's off."
That horse-trading will continue, as our genetic information and other personal data become world-visible. We'll let some things go (we always do) in return for - what?
William Weaver, associate professor in the department of integrated science, business, and technology at La Salle University, sees a future that favors people who play well with robots. "Move from or into and," he writes by e-mail. "Humans that know how to work with robots will earn high wages."
Schoneveld, a Web guy who's also nostalgic for the pre-Web, thinks that on balance, Shiva is good. The Web/Net has "helped us do so much, and reach so many people in new ways," he says. "People worry about technology, about cellphones and robots dehumanizing us. But we still want news, music, writing. We still tell stories.
"The way we tell them is changing - but we're still doing what's most human about us."
How 16 experts see the Internet's future. "The Talk" with Daniel Rubin: http://bit.ly/1cPVHkJ