The world at your fingertips

JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin
JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee first wrote a proposal in 1989 that would become the foundation of the world wide web we know today, the world took a giant leap forwards. The information age has expanded our horizons beyond measure, while at the same time making the world seem a much smaller place to live in.

Let’s take a look at some of the things you can do, armed with just a computer (of any description) and an internet browser.

Searching the internet is vital to its success. How else can you find the websites with all the answers you seek? Search is a big business and is changing all the time. Today search queries are becoming more complex and the results more intelligent. Not only can you type your questions in, but with speech recognition software behind it all, you can just ask as well. That is a driving factor behind search engines getting better at understanding natural language and related searches. For instance, if you say “Okay Google” to your computer (using Google Search obviously) and ask it how high Mount Everest is, you will get an answer. If you then ask, “Where is base camp?” It will give you the location of the base camp for Mount Everest. Clever stuff.

Now of course the internet does not begin and end with search. Search is there to help us find the things we are looking for. So what exactly can you do?

With increasing broadband speeds and bandwidth, video is taking the world by storm. As well as being able to watch ‘regular’ TV using services like BBC iPlayer, Netflix and the like, you can watch videos created by ‘regular’ people too. Anyone with a webcam, smartphone or camcorder can record a film and upload it to sites like YouTube and Vimeo. It isn’t just entertainment that gets recorded either, but instructional videos, discussions and news too. Think about all of the famous (and infamous) moments in recent history that have been captured on a phone and gone viral. Then of course there are people who base their careers on vlogging.

Vlogging is a bit like blogging, but with video. So where as a blog is a ‘web log’ a vlog is a ‘video log.’ Both can be amazing sources of information. I follow a vlog called Whiteboard Friday, which is all about SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), where as my kids follow one all about Minecraft. The subjects available are as diverse as the people that create them. I blog myself at my own website (, writing guides and tutorials to help anyone that needs it. Again the subjects available are limitless. If you like horses, I would recommend for instance.

It would be remiss of me not to mention social media. It is a large part of so many lives, helping to bring people together from across the world. Where search helps us connect with websites, social media helps us connect with people. Each network has a different culture, but they all make it possible to communicate freely. It isn’t just idle chit chat either. If you join a community or group based around an interest, you can find a wealth of information and have in depth discussions with people you may never have met in real life. It isn’t just text either. Sites like Pinterest and Instagram are all about the images. Google+ goes further still by allowing people to have video conferences (Hangouts) with anyone in the world. You can even broadcast them (Hangout On Air) and save them for later consumption on YouTube. I have seen live demonstrations and discussions on cooking, body art, politics, social media, music... You name it and there is probably a Hangout On Air about it.

Lastly, but by no means least… productivity software. I write my column using Google Drive (, but I could have chosen Microsoft Office online (, or Quip ( or one of many sites that offer similar services. You can write documents, create spreadsheets, presentations, edit photos and videos… all online. The traditional view of computing is that you install software onto the computer in order to do anything, but these days that is not necessary. Just sign up online and it is all at your fingertips via ‘web apps’. What is more, you are always guaranteed to be using the latest version!

Alan Stainer