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Friday, Jan 28, 2005, 10:54 am

Why the Web exists

By Abraham Epton
The great promise of the World Wide Web is that it allows people all over the world to communicate with each other in ways that were simply inconceivable even twenty years ago. Now, that phrase or its derivatives have been uttered so often that they've become a cliche's cliche. This is largely because the promise of the Internet and the Web remains unfulfilled.

Email, instant messaging, Voice Over IP (VOIP), web pages and web browsers, distributed computing...fabulous inventions all, each and every one of which would, if invented at any other time, be enough to incite a revolution in human affairs. Or, failing that, be considered pretty darn spiffy.

But email has been taken over by spam (it accounts for between fifty and eighty-five percent of all email traffic), VOIP has never caught on, instant messaging is (increasingly less-)sparingly used by people over thirty and hasn't really caused much change even for people who use it every day, SETI@Home still hasn't found any signs of extraterrestrial life despite being by far the most popular distributed-computing application, and Wired magazine recently compared Internet Explorer, the massively-dominant browser with around a 90% market share, to "a third world bus depot, the gathering point for a crush of hawkers, con artists, and pickpockets."

Sure, there are signs of hope: the incontestable superior to IE, Mozilla's Firefox, is spreading like (ahem) wildfire, gobbling up several percent of the browser market in a few short months; VOIP is still around and its moment may yet come; and spam is at long last being defended against.

But for my money, the most significant reason to hope that the promise of the Internet and of the Web - the difference between the two is that the Web runs on top of the Internet, and is constituted by web pages; file-sharing, etc, is largely done over the Internet itself, as is email, instant messaging and VOIP - one of the most impressive, democratic, altruistic, unimpeachably awesome uses of the Web that I have seen in a long time (this is what actual journalists call "burying the lede") is MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative.

The idea is to take every single one of the 2,000+ courses offered at MIT - undergraduate and graduate - and make them available online, free of charge, for anyone and everyone who wants to access them. While these resources are obviously not comparable to an actual MIT education, the wealth of information offered and learning made possible is truly staggering. Want to learn about linear algebra? You can do the assignments, or even watch lecture videos. Artificial Intelligence? You can take the exams, or browse through the tools section, which contains Java applets demonstrating various types of AI programs. Read the lecture notes for a history class on the technologies of word from 1450-2000, or for a graduate-level introduction to plasma physics. You can even do the readings for a literature course on the end of nature.

That a major elite institution such as MIT has decided that the best use of its substantial intellectual property (that is, the knowledge and teachings of its professors, many of whom are the most eminent experts on the planet in their fields of study) is to make it free and available to all is, to me, one of the most glorious developments in the history of the Internet.

Along with online pizza ordering.
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