x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

From dial-up to Google+, our online matrix is voluntary

Has it really been just 20 years? The internet is taking over, it sometimes seems. And that's both a good thing and a bad thing.

'Charlie bit me...and that really hurt, Charlie". Yes, you've all seen the YouTube clip, and Tim Berners-Lee is the man to thank for helping us see it.

The World Wide Web turned 20 last week, according to The Economist, and Mr Berners-Lee was the brains behind it. While it is tempting to imagine an "architect of the Matrix" type figure for this creation, the truth is far more mundane, and righteous.

The World Wide Web - as opposed to the internet, already in existence since 1960s - was set up to facilitate the transfer of scientific data across the world. From that interminable dial-up tone to Google+, the web has come a long way.

Kids, back in those early days websites and photos took an eternity to load, while having an email account felt like the future had arrived early. And by God, we were happy.

The mid- to late-1990s saw the web turn into an online wild west, a land of opportunity. The dot-com bubble produced meteoric success, but ultimately crushing failure, for hundreds of internet-based companies. Prefix with an "e", or suffix with "com", and suddenly millions were added to your company's worth.

Some enjoyed stunning success: Google, Amazon, and eBay revolutionised browsing, shopping and gaming. Others became e-dodos. Remember Kozmo.com, Flooz.com and Webvan.com? Exactly.

One would leave a lasting legacy. In 1999, Napster offered free song downloads, and despite eventually folding the genie was out of the bottle. Free file-sharing produced a generation of online law-breaking children, as clueless parents echoed Homer Simpson's "the internet, is that thing still around?"

Intellectual property theft remains the web's big disease. In 2001, a cure of sorts arrived in the form of Apple's iTunes, providing cheap but, crucially, legal content. The catch was we had to sell our souls to its products: iPods, iMacs, iPhones and iPads. I buy, therefore I am.

Despite this, the music and film industries are still on life-support. Likewise, books and newspapers are increasingly downloaded on tablets, as publishers and technology firms continue to go to war over royalties. Meanwhile, the line between old and new media has all but been erased with television networks and newspapers having to adapt or die.

But 2004 was the real game-changer in the web's rise from birth to now. Web 2.0, and the age of social networking, was upon us.

Facebook is, it seems, what the Web was invented for. There may be other social networks, but this is The Social Network. The dystopian world depicted in the Wachowski brothers films was quite unnecessary after all: 800 million voluntarily plugged into this matrix, and all we had to give up was our privacy. Now, we were not only criminals, but stalkers too. Thanks a lot, Mark Zuckerberg.

In February 2005, YouTube launched and nostalgia ruled. Hours of 1970s shows. Football and music clips. Sneezing baby pandas. "Where's Matt?". Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black. Revolutions. Riots. We didn't start the fire.

And when Twitter followed in March 2006, not many would have predicted that it would be the tool no self-respecting activist, or journalist, could do without when the revolution came. Naturally social networks have given everybody a platform to express their opinions.

But criticising the medium misses the point. In the handwringing that followed the London riots, the prime minister, David Cameron, raised the astonishing possibility that social media, no different from television or radio, would be disabled during future unrest. A sure case of killing the messenger.

The World Wide Web is an almost meaningless phrase now. Arguing its merits and horrors is, like an afternoon spent on YouTube, a waste of time. It is humanity's greatest invention, and its greatest evil. It has produced entrepreneurs, writers scientists and philosophers. And created murders, thieves and voyeurs.

Its good, and it's bad. A bit like life itself.