When I designed a global hypertext system and decided to call it World Wide Web, I was pretty much a European an Englishman living at times in France, at times in Switzerland, while working at cern, the physics lab that straddles the Franco-Swiss border at Geneva. Cern is a great meeting place of bright, excited people from many countries, an intellectual and cultural melting pot beyond compare. Therefore I already belonged to a number of different overlapping communities. I was a member of the international community of high-energy physics and also of the global community of the strange, informal, tolerant and predominantly technical people who sent news articles and electronic mail over the linked computer systems known as the Internet. Neither of these communities was related to geographical borders. Since then, the spread of the Web has left many people asking whether in a few years the geographical boundaries of entities like Europe will be irrelevant, and if they are, what will be left. Will Europe survive the information age? Will it become an informational annex of the U.S.?
This leads to some fundamental questions as to what it will be like to exist on this earth when we all have access to the network. Predictions range from the horrible to the idyllic, and sometimes the difference between the two is a matter of point of view. The Web has rushed through the U.S. in a way that it cannot through Europe. The heat of excitement about the content already on the Web fuels the pouring of greater and greater resources into providing more content, more facilities, better organization and cataloging. There is a vicious circle, in that the more interesting content there is on the Web, the more incentive for readers to get connected; similarly, the more people browsing, the more incentive there is for people to put public content onto the Web. In the U.S. this happens very quickly, as each morsel of information is available to anyone throughout that largely common-language, common-currency bloc that is (in oversimplification) the U.S. There is an incredible economy of scale.
Europe, however, has firebreaks between its cultures: disparate languages, history, institutions, even long-nurtured antagonisms. The explosion of servers and readers exists, but it has moved more slowly. If you publish something on the Web on the local breeding grounds of the gerbil, you will attract gerbil fanciers only of your own language.
If you start a discussion on the delights of Real Ale, the wine drinkers farther south won't contribute to your audience. Add to this the historical facts that the Internet was invented in the U.S. and that in European states telecommunications monopolies have manacled the development of communications, and it is not surprising that Europe seems to be a few years behind the U.S.
Perhaps there are things that European states can do to make things happen faster. The entrepreneurial public should learn that in the Web age, if you wait for government seed funding for a project, you will probably be too late. If it is a good idea, just do it. But there are still things governments can help with. Telecommunications monopolies cannot fall too soon. For the future, governments should not rest on their laurels but should strongly fund pure research, especially in multicultural labs such as cern. For the present, the transatlantic public Internet is overloaded: access is slow to unusable. For Europe to hang together in cyberspace, it must have good international links within and to the U.S. If market forces are not paying for this, it is up to governments to step in and fix it. Once they do, usage will soar.
This raises the specter of U.S. informational domination. Yes, a lot of people in Europe usually browse the U.S., as that is where most of the content is. To be frightened by this would be to give up and imagine that once Europe has caught on to the Web, it will have nothing to say for itself, nothing to create, no culture to celebrate. If you think that, stop reading, stop thinking.
In Europe we have a challenge to communicate more between cultures. The great thing, of course, is that if one does go to the effort of bridging the gaps, the rewards are so much greater. The Web removes the geographical impediment to mixing but will the cultural barriers survive? Will we end up with a global mono-culture or a mix of cyberspace meeting places of unlimited variety? To answer these questions, we have to imagine a European household of the future. Let's suppose we end up with screens everywhere. We have a big screen in the living room, a small one on a bracket on the kitchen wall, and pocket-size ones that, like ball-point pens, are always available, no matter how many you lose. Each provides a window onto the Web.