Thirty years after its birth, can the World Wide Web be saved?

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS -- It was 30 years ago this month that British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee conceived the idea for an information-management system of sites and links, now known as the World Wide Web. Theoretically, it was supposed to make us all smarter -- a great hope for the future of education and knowledge for all of humanity.

Fast-forward three decades. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes filed a defamation lawsuit this week against the social media website Twitter , a Republican strategist and two Twitter accounts. One of those accounts is "@devinnunesmom" (presumably not Nunes' actual mother). According to the lawsuit: "In her endless barrage of tweets, Devin Nunes' Mom maliciously attacked every aspect of Nunes' character, honesty, integrity, ethics and fitness to perform his duties as a United States Congressman."

One doesn't have to look far to see the cyberspace black hole into which even some of the more prominent members of society have been sucked.

Originally intended as a means of sharing knowledge and information worldwide, the web has instead become the world's leading source of duckface selfies and cat videos. Ideally, it should have democratized knowledge by making it available to anyone seeking it. Instead, it's fostering an ever-growing rift between those who use the web as a tool and those who can't help but succumb to its temptations.

It's doubtful Berners-Lee could have imagined 30 years ago that his invention, initially meant to inform people, would just end up feeding their most narcissistic tendencies. But the lowest common denominator has prevailed. Posting selfies and 280-character thought droppings on social media is a lot less labor-intensive than producing something thoughtful and well-considered. Far more people are interested in searching for the latest photos of Kim Kardashian's butt, for example, than in searching for geospatial imagery of covert troop deployment that could spark World War III.

Even those who govern us seem more interested in scoring headlines with outrageous statements on social media than in doing any deep research or thinking. Then, they have the nerve to complain about "fake news" when they're at least partly responsible for propagating a lack of depth, critical thought and substance, choosing instead to peddle shallow and self-serving partisan sloganeering.

Despite his lawsuit, Nunes himself has dismissed complex issues as "fake news" and has issued "tinfoil hat alerts" on Twitter. He has also used the platform to direct followers to overt sources of partisan propaganda. Nunes has contributed to the very problem that he's now complaining about by treating complex issues like sideshow curiosities.

Nunes is hardly an exception among American politicians with an online presence. They should be directing their audience to thoughtful and nuanced content that would actually inform people and help them make up their own minds about important issues. Instead, these politicians simply use social media to tell people what to think, with everyone trying to outdo each other to earn likes, followers, reactions and mainstream media pickups.

It takes considerable discipline these days to avoid the trap of the social media bubble in which one finds only friends and like-minded thinkers. Many people become uncomfortable anywhere online but in their own little digital echo chamber, failing to realize that these safe spaces discourage independent thought.

If governments all over the world are now seeking to address online "fake news," it's because too many of us either lost or never developed the ability to discern between nonsense and truth on the web. Many of the same legislators promoting internet restrictions are guilty of fostering a lack of critical thought through their own online propaganda peddling. And now they're trying to legislate against stupidity because they no longer believe that average citizens can be trusted to make up their own minds.

In an open letter reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the web, Berners-Lee lamented the "viral spread of misinformation" and "the outraged and polarized tone and quality of online discourse." He wants governments and companies to address these issues.

The problem with this approach is that governments and companies aren't black boxes -- they're full of people who would be tasked with making decisions for us. Why should we trust them? We have no idea if they're capable of independent, critical thought, either.

It's hard to say where the web will be in another 30 years, but those who find themselves slaves to it will fall increasingly behind those who refuse to fall prey to the lack of critical thought that it can promote.