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Difference Engine: Happy Anniversary?
2016/12/5 16:36:22 来源: The Economist

By N.V.

It is always a little disconcerting to realize a generation has grown up never knowing what it was like to manage without something that is taken for granted today. A case in point the World Wide Web (WWW), which celebrated the 20th anniversary of its introduction last Saturday. It is no exaggeration to say that not since the invention of the printing press has a new media technology altered the way people think, work and play quite so extensively. With the web having been so thoroughly embraced socially, politically and economically, the world has become an entirely different place from what it was just two decades ago. Whether the web has made it a better place or a worse one is for readers to decide.

It was on August 6th, 1991, that Tim Berners-Lee, a British physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), in Geneva, created the first-ever web page—a summary of his WWW project along with explanations to help visitors build websites of their own and to search the web for information. No screen-shots survive of the original web page; its original address simply redirects visitors to a contemporary site providing details of the project’s early days at CERN.

First, however, a few things to get straight. The web is not to be confused with the internet—a global system of interconnected networks developed in the 1960s, originally for academic and government researchers in America. The internet sends information as discrete packets of data using a suite of protocols known as TCP/IP. The genius of the system is that the data tell the network where they want to go, instead of the network telling the data where they are being sent. All networks adopting this procedure—no matter where they are or how they actually function—are then reduced effectively to the same bare essentials, allowing them to interconnect and exchange data seamlessly.

The web, by contrast, is simply a way of organizing information on a computer network by means of “hyperlinks”—ie, references to other resources on the network that users can visit directly from the document they are reading. As conceived, the web is simply another service—albeit a very important one—running on top of the internet.

Apart from coming up with the idea for sharing information embedded with hypertext links over the internet, to make it happen Mr. Berners-Lee (subsequently knighted  for his efforts) had to create the first web browser-editor, the first web server, and the first version of the hypertext mark-up language (HTML), which would become the primary means for publishing information on the web. Within a year or two of the web’s introduction, software packages such as Viola, Cello and Mosaic had made it possible for users to browse the web graphically—by clicking on highlighted hyperlinks in web pages and being redirected to yet other web pages, and so on.

It is fair to say that, without the internet, the web would not have existed—at least, not in the form we know it today. And without the web, the internet would have remained essentially a tool for geeks and professionals. No doubt, e-mail would have continued to flourish without the web: it was one of the internet’s earliest applications. So would news groups, bulletin boards, instant messaging and listservs. In due course, internet telephony applications like Skype and even streaming video services similar to Hulu or YouTube would have emerged as well. But users would have had to master the vagaries of Archie, Finger, Gopher, Telnet, Veronica and WAIS (don’t even ask). Thanks to the web’s ease of navigation and the richness of its HTML formatting language, most of these arcane internet tools have gone the way of the dodo.

No question that, over the past 20 years, the web has brought numerous benefits. But it has had its dark side, too. Cybercrime has become prevalent as thieves, hucksters, predators, child pornographers, terrorists, drug cartels and even foreign powers have used the anonymity of the so-called “deep web” to perpetrate crimes. In his pioneering study in 2001, Michael Bergman, a semantics-search-engine whiz based in Iowa, reckoned there was 400 to 550 times more information lurking underground in the deep web than on the surface in the public web. Information in the deep web lay hidden from Google’s crawlers by residing behind password-protected firewalls or requiring admission forms to be completed manually to gain access. By Mr. Bergman’s estimate, the deep web contained some 7,500 terabytes of information, compared with a mere 19 terabytes in the public web at the time. Put another way, search engines were indexing less than 0.25% of the web pages available.

Things are probably no different today. By and large, though, the bulk of information in such hidden repositories is legitimate, stashed there by private companies, research institutions and government agencies for security reasons. “There’s a lot of legitimate and valuable content in the deep web,” says Juliana Freire, the former leader of a University of Utah project called DeepPeep. Even so, the fact that there is vastly more information on the web that is inaccessible, compared with what is open to public view, gives one pause for thought.

On balance, the world is grateful for what the web has wrought. Despite their cavalier attitudes to privacy, websites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Foursquare have changed the way a whole generation of people communicates—creating new ways to make friends, find old acquaintances, socialize online and pursue common interests. Business sites like LinkedIn help them further their careers. YouTube and Flickr let enthusiasts share their home videos and snap shots with millions of others. Online dating sites such as Match, with its algorithms for compatibility, have fostered meaningful relationships for many a lonely heart.

From Amazon to Zappos, online retailing sites have taken the drudgery out of shopping, allowing goods to be bought with the click of a mouse at home. E-Bay lets people sell those they no longer want. Meanwhile, music-streaming sites like Spotify have opened millions of ears to melodies they might never otherwise have heard.

At a keystroke, it has become possible to find all sorts of obscure information, thanks to Google, Bing, Ask and other search engines. Wikipedia may not be the most reliable of sources, but at least it provides a quick run-down on practically anything you need to know in a hurry. Compared with printed encyclopaedias and public libraries, the web has democratized the collected wisdom of ages, and redistributed it in a way unimaginable a few decades ago. Meanwhile, people no longer have to wait for newspapers to be delivered in the morning, or for broadcasters to assemble their news shows. Web pages, tweets and blogs deliver the news as it happens.

Few would deny that such services have made the world a smarter, livelier, more interesting place. But while the news travels faster than ever courtesy of the web, so do lies, hyperbole and distortions. All those with access to the web now have a voice to air their grievances, vent their anger, parade their biases, push the boundaries of decency, spill the beans. The gatekeepers have gone.

When WikiLeaks dumps massive volumes of diplomatic correspondence stolen from government computers on its website, it is not engaging in some heroic act of free speech, nor bringing specific cases of wrongdoing to the public’s attention. In a deliberate and calculated manner, it is making the world a more dangerous place. In dealing with issues of privacy, public safety and national security, governments have every right to discuss such matters behind closed doors—indeed, we insist they do. It is dangerously naïve to argue otherwise.


Meanwhile, for every online job the web has created, several others have been lost in the bricks-and-mortar world. And unlike the latter, many of the new online jobs lie beyond a country’s shores. Likewise, for all the new freedoms and certainties the web has created, numerous old ones have disappeared. Consider copyright. Once it provided authors, artists and musicians with a living, and ensured that the fourth estate could do its job of rooting out injustice and corruption. Illegal downloading from the web, and the widespread erosion of copyright protection generally, has put paid to much of that.


You have to wonder whether something is wrong when so many people spend so much of their time these days in front of a computer screen tapping away on a keyboard, instead of going out into the real world to experience life’s actual (as opposed to virtual) adventures. Ironically, for all the labour-saving tools the web has given us, and all the personal connections it has allowed us to make, we seem to have become lonelier and more isolated than ever. That is a rather sorry state of affairs.


(徐嘉文 译自The Economist Aug.12, 2011)


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