Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

How the Atomic Age Gave Birth to the Digital Age

"A brass plaque commemorates the offices and hallway where the World Wide Web was invented at CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland."

More people probably know who invented the printing press than who invented the World Wide Web. And yet the Web has reshaped our world as much as movable type did in its time. This must be a failure of today's attitudes: in another era, every adult and school child would automatically know the name of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee as well as they know the name of Johannes Gutenberg or of Alexander Graham Bell. It is ironic that the origins of the Information Age are not popularly discussed outside IT circles. Considering the incredible impact the Internet and Web have had on global society - over 2 billion people, one third of the world's population use them every day - the names of their inventors are not celebrated. They are not household words.

Why aren't they household words? This is a disturbing aspect of the daily data flood. We don't pay enough attention to the data that matter. We give too much credit to random information that floats by without double-checking it. Heard a conspiracy theory? Or an urban myth? Is everyone suddenly using a new word? Confronted with a new Internet meme? Don't know what a meme is? Or who invented it - or how the term was applied to Internet culture? Don't know that a Web designer who transformed the way Internet memes are communicated just died? This designer helped shift the Web from text-based to visual- and video-based transmissions; he helped establish the Web's interactive and multimedia resources. The more we know, the more we need to know how, why, where and who. Instead of skimming the surface, we need to get to the bottom of the things we take for granted, or accept at face value.

The invention of the Internet (a global system of interconnected computer networks) predates the World Wide Web (an Internet-based resource and service). The Internet had roots in the 1950s, and breakthroughs in the early-to-mid 1970s, mainly in the United States. Two members of the Silent Generation, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, are credited with being the fathers of the Internet in 1973, although several other people worked in this period on related breakthroughs; they are known as Internet pioneers. See my post on the larger historical context of the invention of the Internet, here.

Few people are aware that the World Wide Web was invented at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, the Mecca of particle physics. This occurred largely because of the demands of that field: there was a need to have physicists globally connected to one another, so that they could share data quickly when they were divided by distance or did not have common computers. Tim Berners-Lee, an English computer scientist and Baby Boomer, had already devised the concept of hypertext at CERN in 1980. Then in March 1989, also at CERN, he established the concept of the Web and made it work, by marrying hypertext to the Internet. His boss at CERN called the Information Management proposal, "vague but exciting."

Berners-Lee's distributed hypertext system (March 1989); his boss's note: "Vague but exciting."

One of National Geographic's writers, Andrew Evans, has a talent for tracking down the nitty gritty details beneath the information we take for granted. Everyone knows about the Mayan 2012 prediction, but earlier this year, Evans traveled to Mexico to take us right to the actual stone tablet with the famous end-of-the-world prediction on it (see my posts on his Mayan 2012 trip, with links back to his original articles, herehere and here).

Now Evans is traveling through Switzerland, and has gotten to the heart of the Web's history. He just visited CERN, but the Large Hadron Collider was not his main focus. He wanted to find the origin of the great invention that was the casual by-product of quantum physics research: the Web.

"Inside the exact office at CERN, Switzerland where the World Wide Web was launched in 1990 and then further developed throughout 1991. Originally intended for academic file-sharing, the web quickly exploded across the public sector."

On 21 June 2012, he did just that (see his article here). He tracked down the actual office at CERN where the Web was born. And he found the first Web server. CERN's physicists are rather oblivious to the tremendous impact their research has already had, albeit via a secondary effect, on the planet. Evans writes:
Now hold it, wait—hold on a second. Before all the computer geeks and IT pedants start ripping me to pieces ... let me explain: I am fully aware that “the internet” evolved slowly from the 1960’s and we Americans (who love saying how we invented everything) can legitimately take lots of credit for inventing the intricate computer networks that became the internet (thank you UCLA and so on)—

However . . . none of that really meant anything to the rest of us until the World Wide Web came along. Without the web and its use of hypertext (HTML, URL’s, and http://) there would be no internet for 99.9% of us. There would be no websites (as we know them) and heaven forbid—there would be no blogs (gasp!). ...

On Christmas Day, 1990, Tim and his colleague Robert Cailliau breathed life into the World Wide Web by sending a “page” from CERN via the internet. Few know that the web only came to America the following year, when Paul Kunz brought the software from Switzerland to Stanford. The rest is history—a history that all of us share, especially if you are reading this on a computer.

... That such a tool was ever invented is worthy of a pilgrimage, which is why I went straight from the Geneva airport to nearby CERN.  ... After several hours of supercollider saturation, I discovered that the monument to the World Wide Web is not part of the standard tour—or any tour! That’s because there is no monument to the birth of the World Wide Web. It’s shocking—I am still shocked. ...

“Really, you guys don’t have any monument to the web?” I asked my guide. “Because you should.”

“We have a plaque!” he replied, which I guess is better than nothing. I was lucky, too, because my guide turned out to be Mick Storr, a British physicist who was working in the same office with Tim Berners-Lee when the web was first launched way back in 1990. ...

[T]hen there we were, standing in front of a plaque that read: “Where the Web Was Born”.

As if I was standing inside some hallowed cathedral, I whispered the first line of the plague: In the offices of this corridor, all the fundamental technologies of the World Wide Web were developed.

... “This was Tim’s office, right here. This is where the web began. I was sharing it with him at the time, working on system support. We had three black NeXT cubes, and Tim was using one of them as the first server for the web.”

I stood in awe at the doorway of Office 005. A poster of Yosemite National Park was taped across the glass and when I opened it up, I saw three scientists, all tapping away at their computers, in the dark.

They looked up from their work and stared at me as I took a picture of the most non-descript room on earth—a room where an idea was born that changed everything.

“Did you know that the web was invented here?” Mick asked the visiting scientists.

“What, in this room?” one of them asked.

“Yes, right where you’re sitting,” he answered. And like that, the scientist got up, walked out the door and took a picture just like I had done.
This little-known relationship between the Age of the Atom and the Information Age - between the Large Hadron Collider and the birth of the World Wide Web - reminds me of a prediction made by Peter F. Drucker.

Shortly before he died, Drucker claimed that stellar investment opportunities in the Information Age would arise in ways which were not self-evident or immediately apparent to those who were searching for areas to invest. He claimed that new economies would explode in sectors of secondary or tertiary activity - offshoot areas, removed from the main, obvious rise of high tech tools. His example was aquaculture. Computers had enabled the first period in history when humans were able to establish successfully working fish farms. But Drucker could equally have pointed to a great crossroads between the sciences and the humanities, to the World Wide Web, the Internet tool which transformed global history, and was born out of the search to split the atom.

(All quotations and photos are © (2012) and credited Andrew Evans/National Geographic, and are reproduced with kind permission and thanks.)


  1. It's interesting that even the scientists who work there don't really grasp it.

    Also, the text in the plaque is to small for me to read. :P


  2. Hi J., they have other preoccupations, as you'll see in tomorrow's post. If you click on the photo, it should open to a larger version which is barely readable.