History Began In 2000
When did the World Wide Web emerge for most people? Around the Millennium? Like most things technical, it took off first amongst young men who enjoy gadgets…. who happen also in general to be less concerned with what was going on previously. So does History now begin in 2000? Will western culture and destiny henceforth be shaped by what the second generation web tells us?
A hunch today saw me typing the words ‘cyber.history’ into the Google search engine. I suppose I was not surprised that there are almost 5000 entries listed for that exact phrase.
Developing the idea
One of the most interesting entries I looked at was John Stevenson’s cyber history collection and timeline, in which he cites commentary going back to 1945 (!) on what has become the world wide web. This fascinating list includes, of course, the ground-breaking insights of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, including his 1992 CERN paper on World-Wide Web: The Information Universe.
If you’re a historian or a social scientist (as I am) looking at the development of science and technology, this is a rich seam ; and one indeed in which, as second generation blogging develops, many of us play our own tiny micro-parts.
Generational and other divides?
Despite the rise of the silver surfer, non-technically-directed people with memories at least as long as mine still form a very small element within the www community.
For most young people the www is the first port of call when information and ideas are sought; and most easily accessible content on the www is probably posted by (relatively) young people. When put alongside the reality that the www became popularly available only in about 2000, it begins to look inevitable that the Millennium just past is where History starts.
An open network
As Tim Berners-Lee, who has steadfastly insisted the www should be an open network, said in 2006:
‘We’re not going to be trying to make a web that will be better for people who vote in a particular way, or better for people who think like we do…..The really important thing about the web, which will continue through any future technology, is that it is a universal space.’
Lee-Berner’s remark was made in response to serious concerns that the internet might become an unpleasant place of anonymous rumour and malicious intent. And he is right to be so worried, before it really is too late.
Losing the past
I would add to that my own concern that the www has permitted us to forget how far western societies have come in the past few decades, let alone the past century. Right now, life truly is better for most of us in the developed democracies than it has ever been. But will this good fortune last? And can it be shared?
Losing our pre-Millennium reference points would also result in the loss, at a time when our culture is already very immediate, of our sense of what has worked to make the world better, and what perhaps has not. This loss would make it more difficult to sustain what’s good and to improve what’s not good or what looks worrying.
Learning for the future
Things reshape and evolve all the time. It’s now 40 years since the last time ‘history changed’, in that surreal summer of 1968. For some who witnessed it, what the lessons are remains a matter of debate.
I still hope the www will help more people of every sort of experience and background share what they know and have observed. We have only to look at the work of political scientists and historians such as Peter Laslett to realise what a better understanding, say, of pre-industrial society might have done for many current social concerns.
Contemporary sharing might encourage us all to reflect just sometimes on the historical medium and longer term, and on how we can learn from it to sustain what we optimistically call ‘progress’.
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