“Where would we be without the web?” says everyone I talk to. Mind you, nearly every conversation I have is on the internet these days, so they would say that, wouldn’t they? Shares in the company that owns the Zoom platform have, appropriately, rocketed. It’s not only Zoom, one of many technologies that allow meetings involving several people to take place in an orderly fashion. Other options are available.

Anne and I have been buying most of our groceries online for years, although we do/did also like to use local shops for the quality ingredients such as organic, properly aged beef, they offer. Back then it was to avoid spending several hours each week driving to supermarkets, trudging up and down crowded aisles, queueing at the till, then driving home and unloading the car. Back then it was about saving time, whereas now it’s about saving our health – perhaps our lives. I do not want to have to go into a shop because I do not want to catch the virus. I do not want to go to hospital because I do not want to die. Whilst I would like to exchange greetings with people and browse the shelves for unfamiliar items, I’ll settle for what I can get from Ocado. Or from Amazon, those tax-avoiding xxxxxxxs.

***

Being an amateur musician in a band whose members are dispersed in a wide triangle from Exeter to Margate via Oxford and London is less than ideal. As for our once (and perhaps future) drummer, he lurks somewhere north of Hadrian’s Wall, when not in the USA. So we only ever managed to meet rarely – no more than six or seven times a year – and now, not at all. After more than three decades without playing a proper gig we performed in an Oxford pub in January, showcasing a lot of new material; and we should have been back there last month… but no.

Jo and the lads at the Wheatsheaf, Oxford High Street

A pity. But, oddly, an opportunity too.

Most of us possessed the technology to home-record and send music files to each other, though we had not done so very often, preferring to save our ideas for the rehearsal studio. But for the first time, in addition to tweaking a few things that we were not entirely happy with, we have completed a song, “Broadleaf Summer” (or “Broadband Summer” as we’ve been referring to it) that we have only played together once. A demo recording has turned into a fairly sophisticated arrangement.

“Broadleaf Summer” by Bernard Hanaway

It’s not a satisfactory replacement for meeting and playing together, because playing as a group is a better way of finding out what works and getting people’s honest reactions – and enjoyable as a social activity. But, once again, I’ll settle for what the technology offers.

For things to remain the same, things have to change

“Necessity is the mother of invention” is a cliché, but it rings true. I’ll find out how to do something when I need to do it. Which is another way of saying that I am lazy.

Back in the last century I was motivated enough to learn to build my first website using only Notepad, a simple picture-editing program, and an FTP program. (I really ought to get round to rebuilding it, although it possesses a charming vintage quality I am loth to lose.) It sounded pretty technical at the time; I mean, you have to learn to write HTML. As usual I taught myself. That’s why I’m not a web techie today – or a half-decent musician for that matter.

***

My relationship with the internet goes back a very, very long way. On the wall of what passes for a study is a photograph that I rarely look at: “The Queen’s College Freshmen 1973”. I am there, bang in the middle, with long hair and a beard (like nearly everyone else – all men in those days), and sporting a white velvet, oversized, bow-tie and a made-in-Romania, aubergine-coloured, three-piece whistle from Burton’s.

Ever the dandy

The Queen’s College Oxford – 1973’s intake

A little to my left, and you may have to take my word for it, stands a first-year physics student called Timothy Berners-Lee. He was and still is, four months younger than me. Berners-Lee, being a budding computer scientist, wasn’t someone I spent much time with. (In fact I hardly knew him.) Many people, though by no means all, know that he is the man who invented (yes, invented) the World Wide Web, while working as a consultant at CERN. As someone once said to me, “it’s like having gone to school with Gutenberg”. Gutenberg didn’t make any money from his invention and Berners-Lee, although far from poor, is no billionaire, though he has made billions for others.

His first website went live on 20 December 1990

That means that I have been married for longer than the web – even in the form of a single website – has existed!

Less than 14 years after creating his first little website at CERN Tim Berners-Lee was knighted. That’s very nice for him, but more importantly his invention has changed the life of the majority of people living in the world today. It is mind-boggling to think that back in the 70s, and even the 80s, Berners-Lee had no thoughts of inventing the W3. And after he had created it, it was at first just a way of allowing scientists with different types of computers to share information.

***

In 1993 I was working at the British Library in the marketing team. I was also a non-technical member of a small group that was constructing an online information service using a protocol called gopher. Gopher was menu-driven, and you went up and down the menus until you found the piece of information (usually about a university department) that you wanted to know. Eventually you might find an email address, so you could request further information. It was very simple and exceptionally boring to use: no pictures and no hypertext links. My boss, understandably, advised me not to waste time on it. But within a year we had clandestinely produced what the Americans were calling a “home page” ( i.e. a W3 page) about the British Library. We built a suite of pages with sample images (whatever we had in digital form) and even a few sound files. Someone came up with the name of Portico (a reference to the gate of the yet-to-open St Pancras building) and in March 1995, at a time when public access was via telephone dial-up, we launched portico.bl.uk. Up went Magna Carta, to much interest.

Read all about it here

So I was at the cutting edge pretty well from the start, but no-one could have predicted the exponential growth of the web or that, despite efforts to monetise everything, so much information would be available free of charge. In those early days the Library even proposed to charge users for access to the catalogue, otherwise how would it be funded? But it was. In due course working on the website became my full-time job; one that I held for over a dozen years.

The history of the web has been, and will continue to be, well documented. All I am doing here is pointing out that its invention and astonishingly rapid development were not inevitable, any more than was the jet engine, and certainly not in the way we have witnessed. And it’s certain that its exponential growth in the last three decades owes much to the fact that its inventor gave his idea away.

Now we have it, what about those who don’t?

Yes, they are out there

The “locked down” situation we currently find ourselves in suggests that access to the internet could soon be regarded as a human right, like access to clean water. It is not like watching TV. You cannot work or create anything just by goggleboxing. So why not create a National Web Service? Could it not be made free, at least in some basic form? Just get on with it Boris. Save the NWS.

4 thoughts on “The internet and me

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