The Web at 30 — Who'd have thunk it?

Who would have thought that a rainbow-farting cat would immortalise the largest technological leap in generations?

I don’t want to be the killjoy here, but this doesn’t make sense. Celebrating 12 March as the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web because Sir Tim (Berners-Lee, not Apple) submitted a proposal to his boss at CERN is a bit like celebrating the day your biological parents decided that it was time to start trying. On second thoughts, now that we’re told that his boss’ official remark on that ‘proposal’ was “vague but exciting”, my metaphor seems even more apt given that the ‘proposee’ response (most often the male in a heterosexual human context) is often on those precise lines.

Vague but exciting — hardly immortal words with a ring of dread in the league of say, these ongoing “ides of March” and more in line with the “Mostly Harmless” description of our planet in The HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. But such prophetic words nonetheless, for once the initial vagueness started taking form, we went from excitement to civilization-altering WTF pretty rapidly.

The Web at 30 — Whod have thunk it?

30 years ago, who would have thought that a rainbow-farting cat would immortalise the largest technological leap in generations!

Just imagine that you could travel back in time and tell the world’s greatest futurists that the game changer for humanity would come out of the premier particle accelerator towards the end of the century. They’d be frantically asking “did we make a black hole on earth? Warp speed travel? Quantum gravity?” Imagine if your answer was “No — mostly funny cat videos”. The least they’d expect would be on the lines of the feline finale (sorry for the spoiler) to the recent Captain Marvel movie.

Imagine explaining to them that it wasn’t the hotshot Nobel prize winners and nuclear physicists who got the ball rolling by finding a “God particle” but a software engineer in a support function whose most vexing problem was the lack of an interoperable system to share scientific information. Imagine telling them that the document that set the ball rolling, dated 12 March 1989, spoke about the need for "a large hypertext database with typed links" and was inspiringly titled “Information Management: A Proposal”. Imagine the horror on their faces when they heard of the ten-hour long video of a rainbow farting animated cat on loop accessible to nearly everyone on the planet at will.

Jokes aside, the subtlety of the process that brought us here is awe-inspiring to consider in hindsight. The “internet” in the sense of a ‘network of interconnected networks’ existed in 1989 as did the TCP/IP communication protocol. It just wasn’t easy to use at scale and needed a last mile of engineering to become a tool truly useful for people who weren’t computer scientists themselves.

Sir TBL’s proposal set that epic chain of events in motion and got us to a point where anyone with a connected smartphone is already a cyborg in an abstract sense.

Abhimanyu Radhakrishnan was the Founding Editor of Tech2 before branching out from tech journalism to try his hand at investing, starting up and being a digital media consultant. He continues to write columns, host TV shows on sci-tech themed topics and teach at several premier institutions.

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