You’d be forgiven if, like me, you missed The Big Birthday, what with the usual horrors dominating the news. Nevertheless, it’s never too late to issue best wishes to the one thing that has changed our lives forever.
Happy belated 30th birthday, World Wide Web.
At this age, WWW should be all grown up, but that’s not true. Far from. WWW is still in the process of adulting, a term coined to describe the lo-o-o-ng process of maturation by a generation that hasn’t been taught different. Some even claim that WWW is in its infancy and that the best — and the worst — is yet to come.
How exciting! How frightening!
When English engineer and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee published a proposal for a global hypertext system in March 1989, he couldn’t have imagined how his idea, initially called Mesh and later the World Wide Web, would become so essential to our modern existence. He couldn’t have predicted how it would revolutionize communication, education, shopping, dating, politics, even war.
Birthdays are a great opportunity for introspection, so allow me the luxury to reflect on a technology that I use every single day, a tool that has made my work easier but also more demanding, an idea that has transformed my relationship with everyone and everything around me.
WWW has allowed me to stay connected to far-flung relatives and friends who, at another time, might have faded into the realm of youthful memories. Think about it. Without WWW, we wouldn’t have Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Twitter or FaceTime, all miraculous applications that keep us in touch. I can now watch a high school buddy traveling through Europe in real time, speak to cousins in Spain without racking up a ginormous phone bill, and celebrate with my son and his fiancée the purchase of their first home in another state.
Yet, the ease of connection has made for shallow friendships that mean little in time of need. What’s more, our insecurities are magnified when everybody appears to be enjoying a better life on Instagram. No wonder we are, according to various reports, lonelier, angrier, more willing than ever to insult, attack and divide.
But WWW has altered more than the method and speed of communication. It also has provided us with round-the-clock entertainment, whether we need it or not. Netflix movies, Amazon shows and a variety of other streaming services ensure diversion at any time of day or night. And so, addicted to screen and stimuli, we’ve forgotten how to entertain ourselves. We are fast losing the ability to chase the fantastical and creative ideas that come when our mind wanders.
While WWW’s plethora of options has shortened our attention span, it has been generous in providing instantaneous information. I love-love-love the internet’s ability to streamline the tediousness of research, but frankly, this fire house of data also has turned the world of facts into a minefield of lies and misrepresentations. The ease with which people repeat fabrications is astounding — and downright scary. It’s also a reminder that knowledge, especially the superficial kind, doesn’t translate into wisdom.
There is, of course, no turning back the clock. Proof came this past December when the world marked a milestone: Fifty percent of the global population is now connected to the internet. Yet, with this achievement also comes wariness. I see it in my children, the generation of digital natives. In increasing numbers, they’re limiting their children’s screen time, curbing their use of social media and demanding privacy in a world where our data is mined constantly.
So, yes, I’ll toast to WWW’s big three-oh, but I’ll also offer partygoers a word of caution. No transformation is without is price, no advancement without its corresponding loss.
(Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.)