The birth of the Web: an USI research, in collaboration with CERN, investigates the origins of the Web
Institutional Communication Service
18 February 2020
Gabriele Balbi, Associate Professor in media studies at USI Institute of Media and Journalism (IMeG) and Director of the renewed Bachelor in communication, has recently received financial support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to carry out an ambitious project to investigate how the idea of the Web developed, thanks to exclusive access to the archives of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), the birthplace of the "www". It was back in 1989 when Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau launched a project at CERN with the simple aim of preventing the loss of information and facilitating the sharing of documents. That simple idea became what is currently known as the “world wide web”, and 30 years later it changed our society, the way we look for information, the way we communicate, work and relate to others both in the public and private sphere.
Professor Balbi, how is this project born?
We could say it was born from a flop. The first research proposal submitted for evaluation to the SNSF had in fact been rejected, mainly because of the impossibility of accessing the data contained in CERN's archives. Subsequently, also thanks to an important exchange between the Rector of USI, Boas Erez, and the Director General, Fabiola Gianotti, CERN decided to open its archives on an exclusive basis. The importance of this "historical" study aimed at better interpreting the changes taking place in today's society appeared clear to them. On account of this unique opportunity, we have resubmitted the project to the SNSF, which has finally granted us funding.
Eleonora Benecchi will also be by your side and co-lead this four-year research, which will involve two Phd students and one Post-doc. Prof. Balbi, what are the peculiarities of the project?
The main idea of the study is to retrace the history of the birth of the Web using objective documentation, what we historians call sources. Until now, the events associated to the birth of the Web have been mostly told in an episodic way by the main actors involved (for example Berners-Lee and Cailliau wrote two books on the subject), or by communication historians who, however, have never had access to the records contained in the archives. The collaboration with CERN is of strategic importance to us. In addition to cooperating with CERN's Head of Communications, Dr. James Gillies, we will be given the opportunity to interview other key figures, perhaps still unknown, who have made a substantial contribution to the development of the Web After an initial phase of data collection, we will then focus on the debate that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s at CERN. As far as we know, this focused primarily on whether or not to market the new system. It was then released free of charge into the public domain in 1993. Internal communication will also be compared with the content published in specialised and general publications. Finally, narratives and metaphors related to the Web over the years will be the subject of study. The web has not always been welcomed with enthusiasm or has simply not seemed clear to most people, just think of the British magazine The Sun, which in 1991 titled "World Wide What?" on its front page, questioning the actual scope of this project. The forecasts made in the past about the possible future uses of technologies are always interesting to understand the "spectrum of possibilities" of a new medium. Some of these possibilities fade away, others remain and are successful.
2019 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the birth of the Web. Prof. Balbi and Dr. Paolo Bory took part in the celebrations held at CERN, as proof of the important partnership with this institution. Through the years, the Web has undergone important changes, steering away from its original conception infused with the ideology typical of the 1990s, which envisioned it as an independent place, free of impediments and conformism (more information available here). Recently, Tim Berners-Lee launched through Twitter the campaign "Contract for the Web", a global action plan to build a new "www", an acronym that would no longer stand for "world wide web" but "web we want". Berners-Lee warns: "If we fail to protect a free and open web, we risk a digital dystopia of rooted inequality and abuse of rights. We must act now". Prof. Balbi, how do you interpret Berners-Lee's words?
Berners-Lee identifies various problems that undermine the ideological purity at the basis of this invention: illicit activities perpetrated thanks to the Web (cyber attacks, cyber-criminality), "fake news", the spreading of "hate-speech", messages that incite hatred, denigration and discrimination, the risks of violation of privacy even by important companies (see the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica case), or even the forms of control exercised by nations that claim the right to block web pages as a form of political censorship. The web that he had imagined in the 1980s and 1990s did not convey this type of content or provide for these forms of management, but wanted to be essentially a public and free place of access to knowledge and discussion. In addition to this, Berners-Lee warns against those private companies that have acquired dominant positions at the hubs of the Web. An example are Google and Facebook. If the term "surfing" the Web referred to the freedom of the user to experience new and unprecedented paths, today our use of 'www' has changed: most of our surfing takes place in "walled gardens", on platforms and apps that keep us within their spaces. This is not to mention that today access to the Web is still blocked for several billion people. (this phenomenon is called "digital divide").
Prof. Balbi is currently on sabbatical at Concordia University in Montreal - and more specifically at the Centre for Media History of the Canadian University - with the aim of gathering ideas for a future book on the history of the idea of digital revolution. Starting September, he will then lead the renewed Bachelor in Communication which includes three specializations (Business, Markets and Society, Media and Journalism, Culture and Communication Technologies) reflecting the media changes of recent years. The main objective of this course is to equip students with theoretical and practical tools to understand, interpret and guide the evolution of the world of digital communication today. A communication that is inevitably shaped by the Web and, precisely for this reason, studying the history of this powerful and persistent idea allows to critically analyze the current situation and understand its possible future implications.