Birthday balloonsCan you remember life before the web?

Probably barely, even if you are old enough.

The World Wide Web turned 30 this week, starting “a technological revolution that has transformed the way people buy goods, share ideas, get information and much more,” reports Jamey Keaten for The Associated Press.

Thirty years ago, only one of my two sons had been born. For both of them, and maybe for you, there WAS no life before the web. (Still, those poor, deprived boys were probably the last among their friends to get cellphones, which didn’t happen until they went to university. Sorry, guys.)

How did we manage without turning to Google for answers, ordering the latest shiny thing online, staying on top of every move a celebrity makes? How did we survive without finding “how to” videos on YouTube or creeping people on Facebook or posting selfies on Instagram? I don’t know.

Want to find out what people are thinking? Send them to an online poll or survey and find out instantly. In 1989, surveys were done on paper, or sometimes over the phone. Results took months.

Want to meet new people? Social media is happy to introduce you, on business sites like Twitter or LinkedIn, dating apps or online event planning sites. Then, you met people through an introduction from someone else, or maybe by chance.

Need to sign a form or send a document? Fill out forms online or scan and submit a PDF. In 1989, the company I worked for sent enough things by fax that when I launched my business, I delayed getting business cards printed (!) until I got a fax machine (!). For a while, I had a printer with a fax function used so infrequently – maybe yearly – that I had to look up the instructions every time. I have a different printer now and no fax function, nor need of one.

Need to interview people? Face-to-face is still the best, but you can do background research online, carry on conversations by email and talk on Skype or phone. Then, you had to meet in person.

Then, I may not have been online but I did spend a lot of time on the computer. I had special dispensation from the IT department to get a Mac (in a sea of PCs) because I worked in a creative field. Now, I still spend much of my day on the computer, but I’m often online using a laptop, cellphone or iPad that are all smaller, faster, more powerful and cost less than the Mac.

Of course, the scope of how much has changed is most evident when you look at some of the fallout.

On the (mostly) positive side, it “has transformed the way people buy goods, share ideas, get information and much more,” the Associated Press article says. On the other hand, “issues like hate speech, privacy concerns and state-sponsored hacking” have led the web’s creator, Tim Berners-Lee, to suggest it’s time to make the web a better place for all.

So, happy birthday, World Wide Web. The best present we can give you is to follow the lead of Tim’s World Wide Web Foundation, which asks that we “take a greater role in shaping the web for good.”

Balloons by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash. Post updated in October 2023.