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World wide

World wide wonder 01

In his short story The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges imagines a repository that contains all possible books. Most are gibberish, but the library must by necessity contain all meaningful tomes as well. Librarians are driven to despair while seeking coherence in a sea of arbitrary, disconnected and mostly irrelevant information. 

Now, for the first time in history, the ancient dream of Babel is no longer a nightmare of “senseless cacophonies”, as Borges describes, threatening to collapse into spiralling dusts of absurdity. The totality of available information (most of it irrelevant and certainly much of it gibberish) can now be gathered, ordered and directed home via the World Wide Web, in ways that a generation ago would have seemed as fanciful as the legend of Babel itself.

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Each to his own
Debate rages, of course, over whether the web has expanded our horizons or merely weakened our minds, but its ambiguous essence is simply to be the most enabling tool ever invented; it allows you to be you. If 13th-century Tuscan madrigals are your thing, you can pursue this niche interest from Nebraska – and collaborate with a part-ner in Mumbai. If you write columns about Asia, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do so from a fishing village on Slovenia’s Adriatic coast – as I do.

Thanks to the web it’s now possible to do what you’ve always done from wherever you wish. Conversely, you can stay where you are and become what you’ve always dreamed of. The World Wide Web frees you from the tyranny of physical community – its conventions, limitations and mores – and allows you to seek your own community in far-reaching pockets of the globe. In a fundamental shift, individuals may live primarily within overlapping micro-societies based on intellectual pursuit, personal interest, social engagement, politics, sexuality and much more. This can be a double-edged blessing – as demonstrated by white supremacist or anti-Semitic sites, for example. But at the deepest level (and on balance the most benign), the web provides the means to realise yourself to the maximum.

Meanwhile online portals open the door to passions you never would have imagined to be yours. The currents of irrelevant information passing before our eyes contain glittering nuggets we are ever more agile at spotting – to take home for contemplation, if we wish to, or throw back into the river. Access to an intriguing new hobby – be it Tibetan bell therapy, Icelandic Lopapeysa knitting or home-made Piedmontese gnocchi – is literally only a click away

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Limitless possibilities
Even the most analogue people can fulfil their potential via the digital world; the two are not at war but comple-mentary. The suggestion algorithms used by Spotify, Netflix and Amazon – while controversial – can often lead us, like Ariadne’s thread, through a labyrinth of genuine discovery. Those who complain that the world has been ma-de smaller by the internet by facilitating a vapid and uniform global pop culture are missing the fact that it is allo-wing personal needs to be met in an ever more segmented world, in industries ranging from aviation to anti- quarian books. Rather than a global village, it may be more cogent to think of a connected cosmos.

This richer, more complex world is being experienced in the business arena, too, where – as I have learnt from writing about Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things – the cult of simplicity in technology and manage-ment theory has been supplanted by the pursuit of complexity. Instead of models in which one size fits all, digital technologies are creating increasingly splintered and fragmented markets – and offerings all designed to provide something “unique”. 

For unique individuals navigating a world of complexity, the internet may be seen in its optimal manifestation as a powerful vehicle for the “self-actualisation” that sits atop Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” – an influential theory of psychology advanced in the 1940s. At the bottom of the five-tier pyramid lies physiological needs; it ascends through security needs, relationship needs, esteem needs and ends with the fulfilment of self. Today the web provides unlimited pathways for achieving potential. But with the promise of self-fulfilment comes the paradox that the web undermines the very notion of self in profound ways. 

Collective consciousness
In his seminal essay, The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes calls writing “that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body wri-ting”. The theory finds concrete and radical expression in online collaborative endeavours such as Wikipedia, collective storytelling and open-source software – which in the space of only a few years have eroded the modern (and Western) cult of the individual and romantic ideas of the text springing from the mind of a single genius. Artificial Intelligence will go further in this, subverting and reinventing the very sense of what it means to be hu-man. The cult of individual consciousness will crumble further as our minds become entwined with the musings of a cognitive computing system. Even as digital technologies allow us to become ourselves, we may begin to lose the very bearings, or illusions, of what the self actually means.

We should also be careful not to think that the web necessarily enhances our talents or shrinks inequalities, be-cause it can only build on what you already are. If you are a brilliant shepherd’s son in Ulan Bator, you now have Richard Feynman’s legendary lectures at your fingertips – possessing tools to super-charge your talent at phy-sics. On the other hand, if you are obsessed with Taylor Swift, you can literally spend the greater part of your day tracking her every move – and cocoon yourself in a global community of like-minded people. 

The most ambiguous internet blessing of all may be its very power to “allow you to be you”. It is the gigantic mirror – and enabler – of our inner selves. It magnifies those tendencies that already exist within us. It allows the curious to feed their curiosity and the shallow to become more so. The internet is the greatest gift to aspiration and meri-tocracy ever created – though not necessarily egalitarian. In fact, it may be the tool that bathes and enslaves countless masses in a pleasant opium of mediocrity, as brilliant minds from Almaty to Lagos to San Francisco reimagine the world – perhaps developing the very technologies (in a post-industrial, post-workforce age) that will feed the happy lotus eaters.

We must celebrate the internet’s transformative power – while perhaps being a little wary of how the digital fire-giver is also the facilitator of our emptiest (and indeed darkest) desires. Yet here neither praise nor blame lies with the World Wide Web – like evolution itself, a fundamentally blind and neutral force. It lies with us.

The web has transformed our lives in ways no one could have imagined: connecting people around the globe; freeing up access to information; revolutionising social interaction, self-expression and media consumption; and changing how we collaborate in everything from business to art and science. Here is a brief history of the inven-tion that ushered in a new era for humankind. 

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The seeds were sown as early as the 1960s when MIT researcher JCR Licklider floated the concept of a "galactic network". The idea was to get computers talking to each other by transmitting "packets" of data. The prototype ARPANET launched in 1969 with an attempt to transmit one word – LOGIN – between two computers in California. The system crashed, sending only the letter G.

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British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee began to dream of a global information-sharing network in the 1980s while working at CERN in Switzerland. In 1990 he wrote the programs for the World Wide Web, leading to the production of the first webpage at the end of that year. Berners-Lee’s revolutionary idea was the use of "hyper-links", allowing users to skip from page to page on the fast-growing internet with the "click of a mouse". From the beginning, he envisioned rich, multi-media content to be transmitted instantaneously around the globe. The World Wide Web was first made available to research institutions in January 1991 before being released to the public seven months later. 

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It was all very well to have access to reams of data in computer networks, but how to locate what you’re looking for? A breakthrough came with the development of search engines that could look for any word in a text, not just web page titles. The first of these was WebCrawler in 1994, followed by tools such as Lycos and Altavista that be-gan to unleash the internet’s potential. Then Google launched in 1998. It revolutionised the online experience by developing algorithms to rank pages according to relevancy – and went on to become a dominant player in the dot.com univeRse.

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The nature of human interaction was transformed with the advent of social networking sites. The Facebook revo-lution in 2004 made "friends" out of near (or even complete) strangers and led scholars to ponder whether the notion of "privacy" – a relatively modern concept – was being eroded by the mania for sharing our lives online. Since Nokia invented the first mobile phone with a web browser in 1996, wireless technologies have grown expo-nentially to keep humans constantly connected. Meanwhile, Amazon, eBay, Alibaba and Flipkart have made all the world a shopping mall – to be roamed from the comfort of your home. 

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The World Wide Web got people talking to each other around the globe. The next revolution is to make billions of devices talk to each other through the Internet of Things – which leverages existing internet infrastructure to allow physical objects such as appliances, auto- mobiles and smartphones to exchange data. IoT is about much more than your refrigerator telling your coffee-maker to start brewing in the morning. It means connecting factories, products, services and processes in digital ecosystems that will permeate every area of life and global industry. Tech experts widely hail it as a "fourth industrial revolution".

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