The internet is something we take for granted. We can access it anywhere, any time. It has spawned multimillion pound businesses, changed the way we work and revolutionised the way we interact.
In fact, if you think about the wealth of information available at the click of a mouse the mind boggles.
BBC 2’s four-part series, The Virtual Revolution, which is currently airing, celebrates 20 years since the invention of the world wide web and examines the impact the internet has had on the way we live, for better or worse.
Dr Aleks Krotoski, who has spent 10 years studying the effect of the web, pieces together the internet’s evolution and its implications with the people who helped to shape it.
These include Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, Steve Woziak, co-founder of Apple, and the people behind Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and YouTube, to name but a few.
The first episode of the series, The Great Levelling?, looks at the assertion that the internet has effectively challenged authority by handing control of information – and by extension power – back to the people.
Krotoski makes the point that internet users can not only access information but also edit and publish it through websites such as Wikipedia and the phenomenon of blogging. Using the internet, ordinary folk can send information around the globe.
The programme tells the story of Ory Okolloh, founder of Kenyan blogging site Ushahidi. Ushahidi, which means witness in Swahili, was created amid tribal violence in 2008 following hotly contested and then disputed elections.
Okolloh heard about clashes but did not see this reflected in television news broadcasts so she set up her site, filing minute-by-minute reports of attacks and upping the international pressure on Kenya’s government.
Such people power emerged from the modest aspirations of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the internet. He came up with the idea in 1980 after
working on the CERN project, an international effort to smash the atom.
The problem was that those working at CERN used a variety of computers and software. Berners-Lee figured out a way to get these computers to connect and submitted an unassuming paper entitled Information Management: A Proposal.
His boss’ feedback, scrawled in the top right corner, was that the proposal was “vague but exciting”.
Of course, 20 years on we know that commercialisation has had its wicked way with an invention that was designed to share information for free.
As Stephen Fry, broadcaster and prolific contributor to Twitter, says: “Berners-Lee turned his back on profiteering in a supreme act of generosity and idealism and we should thank him for it daily.”
Then along came Gates with a different set of ideals, mainly involving money. He proceeded to cash in on whathe recognised as the biggest business opportunity of the century.
The programme forces viewers to question where the power really lies on the internet, concentrated as it is within a narrow elite of big brands such as Google and Facebook.
And the wrangling between Google and the Chinese government looms large over some commentators’ ideas that the internet somehow crushes authority. As Berners-Lee says: “We must be vigilant against the idea that there should be some sort of centralised control or the web will become too frightening to use.”
REVIEW BY NATALIE HOLT