“Vague, but exciting.” So wrote Mike Sendall in March 1989 when responding to a proposal for creation of a new kind of computer network presented to CERN, the high-energy physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. Sendall managed coordination of CERN’s vast computer power, and he had been gently encouraging a colleague who had conceived of a way to link documents and data across the Internet. The colleague’s name was Tim Berners-Lee, and his vague but exciting project gave birth to the World Wide Web. But it took a little while to catch on.
On the 25th anniversary of the Web, about the only thing we know for certain is that it remains far too early to measure its impact on human society.
Occasionally, of course, someone will try to do that, but few manage to take the long view as thoughtfully as John Naughton. In his columns for the UK’s The Observer newspaper and in bestselling books, including A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet and From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet, Naughton takes his cue from Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism on human invention – “We shape our tools, then our tools shape us.” For The Observer column, 25 Things You Might Not Know About the Web On its 25th Birthday, Naughton pointedly noted that, “The thing that is most extraordinary about the internet is the way it enables permission-less innovation.”
As he tells CCC’s Chris Kenneally, “The first design principle [of the Web] was there should be no central ownership or control. .. The second part was they decided we’ll design a very simple network that does only one thing – It takes in data packets on one end and does its best to deliver them to the other end. It doesn’t care what’s in the data packets.
“This became known in the end as the end-to-end principle ,” Naughton explains from his University of Cambridge office, where he is vice president of Wolfson College. “But what it meant, basically, is that the people who designed the Internet designed an infrastructure that would do only one thing; would not be designed for anything we know about now; and would take almost anything that people could think up and throw at it.”