No, we’re not talking about Al Gore. Thirty years ago, on March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, then a researcher at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory, sent a proposal to his boss for a protocol to access information on the internet. That protocol would become the World Wide Web, the near-universally adopted standard by which information is exchanged over the internet. But at the time, his boss returned his proposal with only three words scribbled at the top: “Vague but exciting.”
Berners-Lee presciently envisioned many of the concepts that are today foundational to the internet. For instance, he always knew it had to be free. There was actually a competing internet standard called “Gopher” being developed at the University of Minnesota that was initially more popular than the World Wide Web, but it collapsed in part because the university did not guarantee that it would never implement licensing fees as CERN did.
Of course, Berners-Lee never initially imagined that the web would become the phenomenon it is today. In a recent wide-ranging conversation with The Washington Post, he discussed the rapid spread of misinformation on the web that was weaponized by Russia during the 2016 campaign and exacerbated crises like the genocide in Myanmar.
The explosion of misinformation caught him off guard just as it did everyone else. Up until recently, Berners-Lee said, he told people who alerted him to bad things on the web that those things were there just because “the web is a mirror of humanity, [and] if you look at humanity, you will find bad people,” so just “don’t browse the garbage websites.”
Berners-Lee has now concluded that if the web is a mirror of humanity, it’s at the very least a distorted mirror. After the Brexit vote and the Trump election, he said he took a “big step back,” realizing that “it’s not just about there being junk out there that we all should ignore,” he said, but about “clever, advanced operators” manipulating people for their own destructive ends.
The internet’s amplification of those darker aspects of human nature is impossible to ignore. Technology has indeed brought us together. One disturbing conclusion may be that as we come together, we may not like who we are.