Twenty-five years ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, a simple information retrieval system based on the Internet. The world has never been quite the same.
Once the personal computer became popular thereafter, the World Wide Web became ubiquitous. In 1995, only 14 percent of Americans used the Internet. Now that number is up to 87 percent, according to Pew Research data. Meaning that In less than 20 years the number of Americans online has reached the astonishing total of 73 percent.
"The adoption story itself is amazing and hardly ever duplicated in world history. Technology has not deployed this fast, ever," said Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Research Center's Internet Project.
Initially, the Internet was only for the impossibly geeky. Nobody owned a computer and libraries certainly didn't have labs full of them. Thanks to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the personal computer took off and next thing anybody knew, everyone was on the Internet. If you didn't own a computer or had one, but couldn't afford Internet service, you went to the library, where using the Internet was free. From the start, the Internet was a democratizing force and it didn't take long for it to catch on.
Although Pew research data indicates that the rich are more likely to use the Internet than the working class, with 99 percent of those whose incomes are over $75,000 a year online. Some 77 percent of those who make $30,000 or less use the Internet as well, though, and the number continues to rise.
"As [the Internet] has been embraced by lots more people and the overall picture in the adoption population is much more diverse and democratic, still there are gaps," Rainie said.
Those gaps are closing as Internet and computers become less expensive and easier to obtain. Chromebooks only cost around $250, for example, and there are a lot of tablets out there for $100 or so that can connect to Wi-Fi or a cellular network. The Internet provides easy access to information and opens doors that perhaps otherwise may have remained closed to those with lower incomes, as well as those who live in isolated or repressive parts of the world.
With the Internet, people in Venezuela, Egypt, Syria, Iran and elsewhere can rise up in protest against their governments. Censorship is harder to maintain, now that the Internet is so widespread. Social networks have also aided in the breaking down of boundaries.
Although the Internet has historically had somewhat of a bad reputation, the Pew Research poll shows that the majority Americans believe that their experiences with the Internet have been, for the most part, positive.
"There's a pretty persistent narrative that the Web isolates people, it makes us depressed, but when you ask users if it's been good or not, they resoundingly say it makes things better for them," said Rainie. "People know it's not a uniformly positive story, there are bad things that happen online. But the big balance sheet is a positive one."
For the most part, the Internet is now intimately woven into the daily fabric of our lives and most Americans can't imagine living without it. Some 53 percent of Internet users said that it would be very hard to give up the World Wide Web, even for a short amount of time. The same is said about cell phones by 49 percent of owners.
For many young people in America, it's hard to imagine a world without the Internet. Nearly all Americans born after the personal computer boom 1995 will most likely have grown up with the Internet at their fingertips. Even though it seems that the Internet has been with us forever, it is really only just getting started. As Mitchell Stephens, a journalism and media theory professor at New York University often tells his students, the Internet is still in its infancy and we really haven't figured out what to do with it yet.
We may not know what the Internet has in store for us yet, but one thing is for certain, it's going to grow and change dramatically in the coming years, forever altering our world in the process.