Why the web is on a ‘downward plunge’

March 17, 2019 · Print This Article

“Downward plunge” was the way the creator of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, this week described where it was heading. Interviewed by the BBC to mark 30 years since the proposal for the web was made, Sir Tim said that unless there is a global change of course the web is heading for a “dysfunctional future.”[1]

Watching your creation being used for the wrong reasons must be like seeing your own child choose a destructive lifestyle. But like any parent, Sir Tim is optimistic that we can turn things around. After all, he believes it was used as a force for good for the first 15 years. However, today the web appears in the balance as a force for good or bad.

With 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day[2], no wonder Sir Tim says, “I’m very concerned about nastiness and misinformation spreading.”[3] And the nastiness of the web is something I have witnessed first-hand.

The mainstream secondary school where I work was hacked, with both students and teachers sent emails with links to pornographic sites. This wasn’t just a breach of security, it was a violation of the innocence of youth. Fortunately, our school were able to deal with it in time. But these breaches are happening more often. Last February a school in Dorset had their students GCSE coursework stolen and then used as a ransom[4] (the situation is on-going).

And with the increase of misinformation, manipulation and fake news, we are seeing the weaponization of knowledge. One question we face is how do we use knowledge? Some even say it was a question that existed at the dawn of civilisation.

One of the most well-known stories about how civilisation started involves the same predicament we have now with the web. It is a story about knowledge and how it should be used. It’s a story that might shed some light on why we are facing this problem.

Whatever you think about the story of Adam and Eve in a Middle-eastern Garden called Eden, it contains some ancient wisdom that speaks into the conversation we are having about the web. The story goes like this:

Our two innocent progenitors of humankind – Adam and Eve – had to make a choice. The choice concerned how they wanted to live their lives. They needed to decide what was right and wrong, what was good and evil. God said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” But when they did, God explained, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.[5] The use of knowledge – what we thought was right and wrong – was going to be solely the decision of humans.

There was a problem though, the same that exists with the web today, do we always know that knowledge is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ or how to use such knowledge?

The choice Adam and Eve made was based on the same idea behind the web, “a free and open web would empower its users,”[6] explains Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Fundamentally, the Eden story is about empowering humans with knowledge – to decide what is good and evil, right and wrong? The problems we now see with the web bring into question whether we can do it all by ourselves. Is our judgement enough?

Knowledge on one level may be morally neutral but how it is used depends on our morality – what we deem as right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. Maybe the problem lies in whether human judgement is the optimum standard in knowing right and wrong. Is there a better standard for knowing right and wrong?

In the Eden story there was something else on offer: the knowledge of God. Later in the Bible story, God is described as love – to know God is to know what love is. The implication is, with a better understanding of who God is we will see more clearly what’s right and wrong.

And so, if we navigate the web – our uploading and consumption – with greater love, we will make better choices – our judgement will be based on a better standard. Maybe this is the global change of course we need to save the future of the web.

Get in touch and share what you think.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47524474

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2018/05/21/how-much-data-do-we-create-every-day-the-mind-blowing-stats-everyone-should-read/#19643c3b60ba

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-dorset-47551331

[4] Ibid

[5] The Bible, Genesis chapter 2 and 3 (NIV).

[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47524474

[Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash]

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