It’s hard for me to remember a time when the World Wide Web did not exist, but it is a somewhat recent invention that has changed the course of how we interact with and engage with the world. I’m not quite sure that Tim Berners-Lee envisioned the FULL potential of his idea and the rapidity with which it was adopted at the time of his Information Management proposal to his director, Mike Sendall, at CERN (which according to Sendall was a “Vague, but exciting” proposal). Nevertheless, perhaps it is the vagueness that Sendall refers to that has allowed for the WWW to grow so quickly. It seems so obvious now that information should be connected the way it is through hypertext online, but the right social and political forces were necessary and the right people needed to create it, as many of this week’s readings pointed out.
TimBL’s idea was born out of a problem: the need to organize workflows on projects he was involved with at CERN in 1989 and the frustration he was experiencing with limited access to the voluminous information being gathered/created at the institution in addition to the valuable information that was being lost due to employee turnover and constant change and development in the work CERN was doing. By developing an Information Management System that linked different “nodes” (which could be documents, projects, people, software, etc.) of information through hypertext, regardless of which systems were used to create the nodes, TimBL proposed that a web of information connections would provide more complete access to the “pools” of information being developed at CERN and the loss of such information would be mitigated. It is important to stress that despite the hierarchical nature of an organization like CERN, TimBL witnessed that the actual behavior of the institution among the many discreet departments and projects operated like a web where “interconnections evolved over time” and a benefit is to be had if more people contribute to the pools of information within the web.
Therefore, his Information Management System would need to be flexible and open enough to provide the access to various nodes of information among the many departments and individuals at the organization, as well as provide the ability for users to make their own contributions. Luckily, as many of this week’s readings have pointed out, there has been an historically strong ethos for shared and open access so that technology can continue to develop freely and openly (even with competing commercial/political interests and motivations).
He also recognized that CERN was not unique and that many organizations operated in the same function that would benefit from the same kind of information management system (perhaps he did envision a grand potential for this as his proposal mentions the potential commercial usefulness). His success at creating linked networks and hyperlinked text and media (which definitely made his job at CERN easier), consequently provided the foundation for the rest of the world’s information to be searched for and accessed at the stroke of a few keys or pokes on a screen (at least for those in the world with access to the internet).
Despite the many great advances that have been made for providing networked information online, there’s still a long way to go for achieving universal access to the collective knowledge of humanity. What social and political forces are necessary to continue the momentum and who will lead us there? What will the 50th anniversary of the World Wide Web look like?