The Web at 25: Looking Ahead to What Might Be
John Palfrey 2014-09-20
The Web turns 25 years old this year. What has changed since Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at CERN in Switzerland, released this gift to the world in 1989? The easier question to answer might be to ask what hasn’t changed. The widespread use of the Web in communities all around the world has touched virtually every aspect of human existence, mostly for good and sometimes for ill. The way that we operate our businesses, the functioning of our democracies, how we relate to other human beings – fundamental aspects of society and welfare are different than they were a quarter-century ago for those people who have access to the Web. To create an exhaustive list of these changes would be nearly impossible – a testament to the extraordinary power of this invention.
Before we go any further, let’s clarify one thing: the “Web” is not the same as the “Internet.” Allow me please to retreat a few decades in time, to share a bit of history. Communications networks long predate the advent of the World Wide Web. One could begin the story in many places; the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1947 is a plausible starting point. The development of packet-switching networks in the late 1950s led to breakthrough work by the academic and government researchers who developed ARPANET and related designs in the late 1960s and 1970s. These networks led to the Internet as we know it. On this firm technical foundation, Berners-Lee developed the Web: a system to link hypertext documents that can in turn be accessed via the Internet.
There are many ways the invention of the Web could have gone. Those who worked with it early on might have imagined the Web merely as a way to organize and share information within an organization, an advanced document management system. Or, the invention of the Web might have been patented, with a goal toward creating a massive business and long-term revenue stream for Berners-Lee and perhaps for CERN.
Neither of these things happened. In the spirit of a true scientist, Berners-Lee described and released his work publicly. He did not seek intellectual property protection for his ideas with a goal of monetizing whatever came next. He – and others who helped to promote the Web early on, including Robert Cailliau – recognized it as an invention that could help connect people well beyond the researchers at CERN. A global system of hypertext links could connect people as well as information in the form of text, video, audio, and plausibly any other format we might dream up. This open, public conception of the Web, as opposed to a narrow and proprietary view, has had enormous consequences
The impact of the Web is felt so broadly today because of the capacious, open vision that Berners-Lee brought to his work — and to the way he released the invention to the world. Its impact is a consequence of the brilliance of the design, how it builds upon other networks, and how it allows for others to build on top of it through new ideas.
As we celebrate twenty five years of the Web and what it has meant to societies around the world, we ought also to consider what we might accomplish in the next twenty-five years. Consider three institutions that have already been changed by the Web and which will no doubt change more in the coming two and a half decades: education, libraries, and journalism. Each of these institutions is essential to healthy democracies and relies upon a web that remains free, open, and interoperable. In an increasingly digital world, the importance of these institutions is going up, not down. And yet, in each case, the Web is too often perceived as a threat, rather than as an opportunity, to these institutions and those who work in them. And if the Web itself becomes closed down, controlled by private parties or by government censorship, we will curtail opportunities for extraordinarily positive social change. With great imagination, compelling design, sound policy, and effective implementation, each of these institutions might emerge stronger and better able to serve democracies than before the advent of the Web.
In many countries around the world – certainly in the United States – to bring up “the current state of education” is to bring on a conversation characterized by a lot of sighing and hand-wringing. If you mention the Web in this context, it tends to grow more negative still. We fear declension: this generation of students is “dumber” than previous generations, if Emory professor Mark Bauerlein is to be believed. We tend to fear that students have shorter attention spans than they did when they tended to read longer-format works (mostly, books, but perhaps even essays such as this one that go on for more than a page or two). If the Web comes up in such a conversation, it is commonly blamed for one or more of these problems.
Certainly, we do need to teach students to sustain their attention beyond Tweets and Facebook status posts; certainly, we need to do a better job of helping them to learn to discern credible information from less credible information on the Web. But instead of just worrying about what we are losing, we ought to consider what is newly possible. In a world characterized by the Web, there is no shortage of interesting, important, and fun things that we can do to improve education.
The future of education will come about through the application of new technologies to the very old art of teaching and learning. Since the days of Socrates and Plato, teachers have debated the best way to convey ideas and skills to the next generation. What, in a way, could be more important than a society’s ability to prepare its young people to create a bright future for themselves and for the world at large?
As a field, education has not been especially threatened by technology so far. Nor has it been transformed radically. Consider what has happened to the business of recorded entertainment such as music and movies, and most recently the field of book publishing, book stores, and libraries in the era of the Web. The change in related fields is coming on fast and furious. Education is about to get its share of this kind of transformative change.
The easiest place to see this transformation is in higher education. The Web is today often associated with the explosion of free, online courses being offered by top-tier universities. Call this phenomenon “MOOC Mania.” MOOC stands for Massive, Open, Online Courses. The most famous of these initiatives are spin-outs from Stanford – Coursera and Udacity – which are for-profits, funded by venture capitalists, and edX, a project started by MIT and Harvard, as a non-profit. These ventures offer hundreds of courses to millions of students around the world – so far, largely for free – via the Web. Just to be clear, there is no way that interactive courses of this sort could be made so freely available, at relatively little cost, without the advent of the Web.
There is raging, global debate about whether these MOOCs are a good idea. Some think that these courses can solve the vexing problem of rising tuitions – making education much more affordable for students in the process. All of us who run educational institutions know that the rate of increase in tuitions outstrips inflation each year. Why? We are essentially businesses comprised of people. Even if we increase pay in line with inflation, the rate of increase in benefits is much higher than the ordinary rate of inflation. (Other problems, including bad management decisions, contribute to rising costs of tuition, too, to be sure.) Some people think a world in which MOOCs proliferate can help us to reset our models in a more sustainable manner. It’s possible – but it won’t happen without reducing the number of people we employ or how much we pay them. Hence, the controversy.
In some fields, MOOCs offer enormous potential for improving the quality of education. Set aside the business model implications for education for a moment. If we can replace less-good lectures with better, more engaging lectures; if we can replace less good text books with better, more engaging, interactive ones; and if we can put classroom time to better use, the net effect for learning can be fantastic. Here, data can be our friend: we can use analytics to understand better what’s working and what isn’t. Student mastery can rise as teaching methods improve across the board. These gains are much easier to see in some fields – such as math, science, computer science, statistics, and economics – than it is in others, like the visual arts, performing arts, and much of the humanities. But there is very interesting work underway across the academy to understand how we can improve our work as teachers and learners through these models.
There’s another model of online education that holds special promise, which involves an extraordinary teacher named Sal Khan and his web-based service, Khan Academy. Sal Khan is without a doubt the most popular educator in the world right now. Every month, he and his team of a few dozen people reach many millions of students, of all ages, from around the world. Through online videos on a wide array of topics, from computer science to history to art, Sal Khan has reached hundreds of millions of people. These learners have completed over a billion exercises at Khan Academy, on the Web, to test their mastery. They can practice what they learned on the videos, often over and over again. Khan Academy is free and open to anyone.
There’s a big difference between the kind of education someone can get free, online, from the Khan Academy (or on Wikipedia, for that matter), and the kind of education one can get at a great public or private residential school. There are enormous benefits to residential education and to face-to-face encounters with teachers. But there is also a benefit to the ability to watch a well-taught lesson over and over again when you didn’t really understand what your algebra teacher was explaining to you. There’s great value in having exercises to check yourself as you do your homework or as a class is proceeding on a hard topic.
What’s exciting to me is the connection between the experimental, innovative online teaching and learning work being done at places like Khan Academy and the classic, time-proven approaches at our traditional schools. A successful approach to education reform, I believe, will bring together the best of the “classical” with the best of the new “jazz” in education.
One of the knock-on effects of this change is the development of new systems, some technological, that offer a way to understand much better what is working and what is not working well in education. It is exciting to see projects that bring technology into the classroom that can collect a great deal more data about how kids learn and allow us to test various approaches, refining them over time. Think of it as the concept of “big data” supporting education in a promising way. One of the things that education can learn from the Web is the spirit of innovation and experimentation. Through the growing field of educational assessment, we are better able to test approaches, improve upon those that seem to be working, discard those that are a failure, and scale the best of them.
The connection between what young people are learning in formal educational settings and outside the classroom holds enormous untapped potential. Consider a student who can benefit from the energy and enthusiasm of a great teacher, both in the classroom and when they are at home doing their homework. Think of the possibilities of figuring out which forms of teaching work the best for that student in any given course and being able to personalize her education. Think about our ability to connect her passion with the resources that we have all around us – in libraries, museums, and cultural centers of all types, all around the world, some of which are increasingly digitizing their holdings for anyone to use, anywhere, for free.
Students are increasingly exposed to interdisciplinary courses and projects during their schooling and are asked to combine the things that they have been learning. Sometimes these activities take place at a young age, (say 6 or 8); other times, these activities take the form of a capstone experience at the end of high school (age 17 or 18). These experiences teach problem-solving, deep research, teamwork, presentation skills, the building of lateral connections between and among ideas, and the ability to think creatively. Think of courses not called Biology but focused instead on water resources or the ecology of the city or town in which the student lives; think of courses not in just one aspect of the arts but on the importance of cities as cultural centers; think of experiences that bring students into settings where they can hone skills as entrepreneurs and as community servants. These learning experiences are deeply connected to the classroom, but they extend far beyond them – into communities, museums, libraries, businesses, into the “real world.” These ways of teaching and learning mirror the hypertext quality of the Web itself.
Put another way: think of what we could do if we were to apply to the world of education the same energy, the same innovative spirit, and the positive collaboration that we’ve brought to creating the Web and all that rides on top of it, from Google and YouTube to Twitter and Facebook. We should bring together the people, the science, and the expertise from the private sector with the public sector to improve our systems, our methods, and our results. We should hold ourselves to the standards that we have for the highest performing enterprises in our country. The possibilities for schools at all levels could be astonishing. Our children and grandchildren deserve no less.
The world of the digital – often characterized by the existence of the Web itself – exacerbates a sense of uncertainty that hangs over libraries. Why do we need libraries, many people ask, when we have the Web? What good is a librarian when we can just ask Google or Apple’s Siri from our handheld device?
For a child born today, the first experience of a broader world of knowledge than she has known before, is increasingly likely to be mediated by a screen of some kind. Over the past two and a half decades, access to the Web, mobile devices, and digital media has increased at a rate far more rapid than the spread of any major information or communications technology in the history of the world. While it took centuries for Gutenberg’s books to reach masses of Europeans, the spread of the Internet and digital media has taken only a few short decades to spread across the globe. Nearly two billion of the world’s 6.8 billion people have access to the Internet. Through mobile devices, well over three billion people can connect to the World Wide Web.
The expansion of the mind can be experienced by a child through a computer screen or through the tiny interface of a mobile phone or in a game, now that we have the Web. But she may also walk into that same library that her mother entered and gain insight and special memories in an inspiring physical space. In today’s world, these digitally-mediated experiences are interwoven with experiences in physical space that complement, confirm, and sometimes challenge what they are learning online. The Web is not a competitor to libraries; it is a complement. The Web should be part and parcel of the future of libraries, not the killer of libraries.
The spread of the Web brings with it many wonderful possibilities for library patrons of all ages. Unprecedented access to knowledge and written material is perhaps the most important benefit. For the first time in human history, people anywhere in the world—including those without access to physical libraries—can access an extraordinary array of knowledge virtually without cost. Schools and universities can make available knowledge and information to their students in ways that were not possible just a few decades ago. The world can open up to children through new interfaces and experiences that will expand their minds, connect them to people elsewhere around the world, and offer them a chance to participate in the making and sharing of knowledge.
Via their patrons, libraries can be drivers of economic development and social innovation. The benefits of far-reaching digital technologies extend beyond learning to aspects of life like creativity, entrepreneurship, and activism. In communities around the world, children are using Web-based technologies to create identities, videos, audio recordings, games, and media of all stripes as they learn and express themselves. As they become teens and young adults, some create inspiring political movements, watchdog groups, and new modes of organizing, and others invent new businesses and technologies that create jobs and opportunities. They teach one another as they build out into the global environment made possible by the Web. Libraries are central to each of these activities, in small towns and large cities. Without libraries as access points and educational settings, these positive aspects of the digital age are unavailable to many kids whose parents cannot afford broadband or personal computers, even in the richest parts of the world.
The Web also makes possible new kinds of libraries. One major new direction for the Web has been advanced by Berners-Lee himself: the notion of the semantic web. In countries around the world, communities are building national digital libraries. In Europe, the collaborative project Europeana is making digitized collections from dozens of nations available freely online. In the United States, the Digital Public Library of America is making the scientific, historical, and cultural record available, free to all, via the Web. In the era of the Web, libraries can take the form of platforms, on which all manner of innovation and learning can flourish.
Alongside education and libraries, journalism is a field in crisis in the world of the Web. The driving forces behind the crisis in journalism are not precisely the same as those in the library environment, but they are related. The increase in readers who come by their news and information on the Web has led to a challenging environment for journalists across the board. The advertising revenue that has made print newspapers and magazines good businesses to own in the past has been declining as attention shifts to the web and to mobile environments. It might seem easy just to switch over to a digital publishing environment, but it isn’t. First, the skills required of journalists are different online than they are offline, in respects that parallel the shifts in skills needed for librarians. More troubling, the “analog dollars” that paid for advertising in the print world are being traded for “digital pennies.” Put another way, the amounts that can be charged for advertising by a digital publication are lower, so far, than the amounts that can be charged for similar exposure online.
The culprits for these threats to journalism will sound familiar: they are services built upon the Web. Many of those advertising dollars have gone not to competing journalism outfits, but to the new intermediaries of the Web. In classified ads, much of the revenue has flowed to start-ups like Craig’s List. In the world of news, Google has found ways to profit from highly targeted advertisements to people who begin their searches online or via a mobile device. Social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, are getting a growing cut of the revenues that once sustained newsrooms, foreign bureaus, and the many expenses associated with running first-rate journalism outfits.
A comparison of the crises facing schools, libraries and journalism in a digital age makes for an interesting analogy, but it’s more than that. Yes, journalists, like teachers and librarians, are figuring out what it means to operate in a networked environment. Each of these institutions needs to answer the question of the role that they serve in a world where the Web – often, Google – is a first port of call for those seeking to become informed about something.
The more important connection among them is that schools, journalism and libraries are bedrock institutions in democracies. We need to support these institutions more in an era of the Web, not less, than we did before. We rely upon journalists to unearth and to contextualize stories that matter to our lives in a free and open society. High quality journalism is essential to our ability to choose those who represent us or to vote on a direct referendum. The work of journalists helps to inform social movements, protest actions, and groundbreaking research. The work of the beat reporter covering City Hall keeps those in power (at least somewhat) honest. The months and months that an investigative reporter devotes to an in-depth story on the impact of fracking is as important as the months and months that a policy-maker might spend wrangling over an energy bill.
Democracies can’t afford to lose substantial numbers of journalists, teachers, and librarians. In an information-rich world, we as citizens need trusted guides and interpreters of the extraordinary array of facts and opinions that we can access digitally via the Web. Journalists, teachers, and librarians have every reason to make common cause – between and among themselves, but also with the next generation of technologists – during this transition to a digital age.
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At its twenty-fifth anniversary, it might be tempting sit back and celebrate what the Web has given the world. The answer would be much, indeed, and it is worthwhile to acknowledge all that. I am deeply thankful for what it has made possible in terms of economic growth, human interconnectedness, and the development of new knowledge.
I prefer, though, to look ahead, in the spirit of the invention itself, to the challenges that lie before us. Those challenges include preserving the openness and the interoperability of the Web and the essential networks on which it rides. Those challenges are to use this tremendous gift to improve core democratic institutions, such as education, libraries, and journalism, in the public interest. In so doing, we will be creating institutions that will enable our youth – coming to age in a digital era – to build a brighter future for those who will follow.
The effect of our good decisions today could be to launch a generation of young people who use the Web to accomplish positive social change. The Web is a tool that can be used for ends that are pro-social or ends that are destructive. As we build out the next iteration of the Web and the institutions that rely on it, we ought to aim to inspire and enable young people to be innovative, creative, and engaged in civic life around them. In its best form, the Web can be a tool that conveys a sense of agency and possibility to those who have come to learn its ways and are facile with its use. The benefits for economic growth, cross-cultural understanding, and vibrant democratic institutions could be a powerful force for good, world-wide.
[This essay was published in Spanish in Politica Exterior (Foreign Policy) No. 161, September-October 2014.]