In March 1989, a 33-year-old British computer scientist working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, wrote a proposal suggesting an easier way to keep track of the mountains of documents and data needed by scientists and engineers working on massive projects such as the Large Hadron Collider.
That little project-management document Tim Berners-Lee wrote to help make the project more efficient went on to change much of the world.
“Many of the discussions of the future at CERN and the LHC era end with the question – ‘Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?,” reads the first sentence of the overview by Berners-Lee. “This proposal provides an answer to such questions.”
The answers became the technology underpinning the vast interconnections of the World Wide Web, a graphical user interface that transformed into the killer app of the Internet, changed the way everything is done in business, politics, education and almost everything else and, overall, turned out to be a benefit for 90 percent of all the Americans polled by the Pew Research Internet Project, which released a comprehensive report on Internet access and usage Feb. 27.
According to Pew’s survey, 42 percent of Americans had never heard of the Internet in 1995. Now 87 percent use it frequently, 76 percent said it has been a good thing for society and 46 percent said it would be “very hard” to give up… a higher percentage than those who would have a hard time giving up cell phones (44 percent), TV (35 percent), email (34 percent) and landline phones (17 percent).
Ninety percent of American said they’re online every day; 68 percent said they’re online using mobile devices; and 44 percent use it at work every day.
Fifty-six percent said they have been part of an online effort to help a person or community, while only 25 percent said they left an online group because it was too unfriendly, and 67 percent said that methods of communication using the Internet have improved their relationships with family and friends.
It’s a pretty significant result from a relatively small project that focused on cutting down the amount of time researchers spent keeping track of the mountains of documentation that the mountainous CERN projects could generate. Keeping track of those documents – getting the latest version from authors, making sure they were in formats everyone could use, stashing them on servers or storage the whole team could access and making sure they all stayed up to date – had become a drag on CERN’s actual mission to build machines capable of poking sticks into the dark parts of the universe to see what happened.
Berners-Lee’s set of suggestions described hot links between documents and databases that could be maintained by their own authors rather than clerical work for everyone else.
It described simple ways to create links that would connect individual users or individual documents to networks local enough that every node could be seen by a single user or spread out in labs anywhere in the world. Hot links could connect users to documents at the most openly available libraries or locked up in the most private, secure locations. They could allow a single researcher to see through one access window information sources ranging from the simplest ASCII documents to the most complex systems and programs in supercomputing centers anywhere in the world.
It described knowledge that grows on its own, allows users to create links the way pedestrians make paths in the grass along the most efficient routes among buildings, and embraced the imprecision of pointers and symbols as more efficient than requiring that every connection be fully documented before it can be considered valid.
“The hope would be to allow a pool of information to develop which could grow and evolve with the organisation and the projects it describes,” the paper read. “This is why a ‘web’ of notes with links (like references) between them is far more useful than a fixed hierarchical system. When describing a complex system, many people resort to diagrams with circles and arrows. Circles and arrows leave one free to describe the interrelationships between things in a way that tables, for example, do not. The system we need is like a diagram of circles and arrows, where circles and arrows can stand for anything.”
Over 25 years, “anything” has turned to something closer to “everything.”
The original paper is just short of 5,000 words – about 15 or 16 pages, which is short for a document that changed the world. Especially since just one diagram – this one – did most of the actual work.