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The Web at 20

To reflect on the difference the World Wide Web has made in our lives.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To reflect on the difference the World Wide Web has made in our lives.

Preparation and materials

  • Download homepages of sites that students will use regularly, such as Facebook, YouTube and e-bay. Show these as the students enter.
  • Download some pop music from 1991 to play on entry and exit.
  • Download some electronic music (such as music by Kraftwerk) to play during the reflection.


  1. It is everywhere but it cannot be seen, heard or touched. It spreads across the world but takes up no space. It allows people to share and pool resources and knowledge without needing to meet or even know their collaborators. And it is the property of all humanity.
  2. I am speaking, of course, about the World Wide Web. It is 20 this year, and since its invention in 1991, it has changed the lives and environments of billions of people.

    –  We can now access information from around the world from a personal computer or smartphone.
    –  We can communicate and socialize without needing to leave the house.
    –  We can access millions of documents, books, videos and games online.
    –  And of course the potential for time-wasting is enormous.
  3. The Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, with Robert Cailliau, both computer scientists working at the CERN nuclear research facility in Switzerland.

    By the end of the 1980s, the computers at CERN produced a vast amount of information but to access the data required logging on to each individual computer, a tedious procedure. How could accessing data be speeded up? The World Wide Web was the solution. The Web is a way of sharing and organizing material between computers, and not only computers in one building but computer systems throughout the world.

    Tim Berners-Smith and Robert Cailliau, did not invent the Internet – this was already in existence; the World Wide Web is an extra facility added on to the Internet.
  4. The creators of the Web did not patent their system. Instead, they offered it free to humanity. The money they could have made would have been enormous. Given the pervasive spread of the Web in business and culture, it is reasonable to assume that by now they would have been among the world’s richest people.

    This is clearly an extraordinary act of generosity – equivalent, perhaps, to the decision by Jonas Salk not to patent his vaccine for polio in the 1950s – and is an example to the world. The creators were willing to put humanitarianism over a drive for self-gain.
  5. And the Web has been used for humanitarian purposes.

    –  During the recent ‘Arab Spring’ movements for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook were used to coordinate protest actions and keep activists up to date.

    –  Instantaneous news updates and rapid spreads of information are helping in battles against natural disasters.

    –  And websites such as Wikipedia are being used to store and update knowledge and culture.
  6. Of course, there are downsides, as is the case with any influential technology.

    –  Vast amounts of pornography are stored on websites.

    –  The Web has been used to spread identity fraud.

    –  There are genuine concerns about the infringement of privacy on the Web, as users are increasingly bombarded with advertising and spam emails.

    But these are all harmful applications of the Web, not problems with the Web itself. It remains a marvellous invention, which is redefining the world and, like all great inventions, will undoubtedly have uses that have not yet been exploited.

Time for reflection

(If you have downloaded music by Kraftwerk, this could be played during the reflection.)

Spend a few moments thinking of how different our lives would be had the Web not been invented, or if you had to pay every time you used it. This very assembly has come to you courtesy of the Web!


Now think about how much money the inventors could have made had they patented their amazing invention. Spend a few moments being thankful that they didn’t.


I wonder what you might invent in the future, which could benefit humanity? Tim Berners-Lee is British, so he too would have experienced school assemblies, and may have been sceptical about his ability to invent such a world-changing system.


So give thanks for humanity’s endless creativity, and for such generosity in an age of greed.


Pop music from 1991 as the assembly closes.

Publication date: November 2011   (Vol.13 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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