The Invention of the Web

Il primo server utilizzato da Tim Berners-Lee (foto Victor R. Ruiz, Flickr)
Il primo server utilizzato da Tim Berners-Lee (foto Victor R. Ruiz, Flickr)

Institutional Communication Service

1 June 2017

Prof. Gabriele Balbi, Faculty of Communication Sciences

A study carried out with colleagues Paolo Bory and Eleonora Benecchi of the Institute of the Media and Journalism (IMeG) has recently been published in the review “New Media and Society”, tracing the invention and development of the Web in a prospective stretching from its origins, in the late 1980s, to the 2000s. The research shows that the idea underlying the creation of the Web contains both innovative and “revolutionary” elements, on which its founders Tim Berners Lee and Roger Cailliau have focused on, and elements that are consistent with the past that tend to improve and integrate the preceding world of media.

The investigation is based on the comparison between the written material that the founders of the WEB published on its invention between the late 1980s and the early 1990s (T. Berners-Lee et al., 1989-93) and the subsequent two volumes published on the theme in 2000 (J. Gillies and R. Cailliau, 2000; T. Berners-Lee, 2000). Through a quantitative and semantic analysis from which emerge certain key words, the study shows how, with the passing of the years, the descriptions of crucial concepts and ideas underwent change: the reports of events which trace its birth in the publications examined draw a picture indicating that the “discovery” was really a progressive and dual process, at one and the same time aimed at the future and bound to the past. The invention of the Web was indeed revolutionary given the extent of the change it brought about in society but, at the same time, it was also the fruit of a gradual process: the initial objective of the “founding fathers” of the Web was an information retrieval system for the exclusive use of a closed circle of beneficiaries (their colleagues at the CERN in Geneva) and not the launching of a revolution. The original purpose was therefore surpassed by the practical applications of the tool they had designed, because this progressively became available to all.

With the passing of time, the Web changed under the eyes of its inventors in such a way as to become something quite different from what had been imagined. The unforeseen effects of the discovery therefore also call into question the romantic and mythological concept of a revolutionary invention, because the discovery was the result of a process and not a single intuitive leap. In addition, since from the beginning Berners-Lee imagined the Web in the context of public service, it became not only a global reality progressively accessible to all, i.e. the indispensable instrument that we all use every day, but also, because not subject to copyright, a resource which has been continually improved by all those who have successfully set out to do this.