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15 Years Since the First Web Site

Written by Wanda Pasz Sunday, 06 August 2006

Today is the 15th anniversary of the launch of the first Internet site by Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist who two years earlier proposed a "global hypertext project" which created the World Wide Web.

In honour of the occasion, the Toronto Star featured a commentary about the evolution of the Internet to date.

The author, David Olive, applies a familiar mainstream media treatment to his analysis of the impact of the Net, focussing on the multitude of mundane and lewd purposes to which it has been put and pointing out the absence of any major breakthroughs. At best, the net allows us to comparison-shop more efficiently. At worst, it's a scary network of perverts and gambling addicts. The explosive growth of the blogosphere is trivialized with a quote from a Globe and Mail media critic who, with typical big-media arrogance, dismisses millions of bloggers as big-media wannabe's.

"Legend has it that every new technology is first used for something related to sex or pornography. That seems to be the way of humankind," Berners-Lee is quoted in Olive's opinion piece.

I'm not exactly sure that's true. The earliest publications using Gutenberg's printing press appear to have been bibles and other religious tracts. While a market for dirty stories would indeed be tapped in the centuries that followed by enterprising publishers, the proliferation of non-conformist ideas by individuals who seized the opportunity that the new communications medium provided to question the existing order and reach out to likeminded others led to enormous changes in the social, political and economic order. Those changes took about two hundred years to materialize but that's not all that long a period when we consider the prevalence of illiteracy and the difficulties associated with distribution of print material four or five hundred years ago. I imagine that Martin Luther was written off as a wannabe of one kind or another by the establishment of his era.

Interestingly, Gutenberg's press was shunned by the elite of the middle ages who considered printed material (as opposed to the handwritten manuscripts of their era) to be vulgar - something more suited for the poor.

"It fell to the lower classes to recognize the importance of the printing press. And they did - by the end of the fifteenth century, more than one thousand printers had printed between eight and ten million copies of more than forty thousand book titles". End of Europe's Middle Ages, The Impact of the Printing Press, Applied History Research Group, University of Calgary, 1997

The Internet's potential as a tool for modern-era reformers and paradigm-shifters is ignored or scoffed at by the our elitists and their institutions in much the same way as their medieval predecessors scoffed at printed material. Few mainstreamers have examined the role of the Internet in facilitating protest and dissent and its growing stature as an alternative to the mainstream media even though, a short fifteen years after the launch of the first web site, there is plenty of evidence of just that.

Social movement organizations use the Internet as an instrument for spreading information, constructing identities, involving new members, mobilizing on- and off-line. New interactive technologies (such as Internet) can facilitate the participation of members in the life of an organization and their involvement in the decision making process. Although Internet use is still limited to a particular (although growing) sector of the society, social movement activists are more connected than the general public and this has been an important incentive for social movement organizations going on the Net. Internet represents an important opportunity for social movements to counter traditional communication flows of vertical and hierarchical mass media and an opportunity to communicate and to organize beyond borders. Differently than television and other high-cost media of communication, Internet has been presented as a technology that allows for broad participation and also reduces hierarchies, favouring horizontal forms of communication. Internet has certainly increased the amount of information available and favoured pluralism of information. Easier contacts between diverse groups and individuals have also been seen as preconditions for mutual understanding. Searching the Net: An Analysis of the Democratic Use of Internet by 266 Social Movement Organizations, Donatella della Porta

The first generation of kids who never knew a world without the Internet is now nearing adulthood. For many of them, the Net is a portal to entertainment but it's also a tool for communication and connectivity - with others who share their interests. My sixteen-year-old tells me that people who think the Internet is mostly about porn or gambling are "squares". Her assessment of boomers who use the net for these limited purposes is that it's all we know how to do. Too much TV-watching during childhood turned us into a generation of passive receivers. Given the opportunity to surf around in a universe of information and discussion forums, we don't really know what to do - because the monitor screen doesn't tell us what to do - so we look for entertainment, get-rich-quick opportunities and sites that help us get our chores done more conveniently.

While it is true that, so far, nobody has stood the world on its head via the Internet, give it time. The impact of the Net is already evident. If the next generation of humans will not be content to sit and receive, then a lot of things will happen to those who like us that way. Fifteen years is a drop in the bucket in the evolution of social orders. Give it another few years.

What were you doing in 1991? Has the Internet changed your life in any significant way?

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