The web is an extraordinary innovation, with the greatest potential to usher in social change since the invention of the printing press or the steam engine. Built upon a technology that is apolitical, unregulated and decentralised, it empowers everyone – men, women, children – to be creators of information, rather than passive consumers. It is also an enormous library of global consciousness, a digital collection of human knowledge from the past and the present and presented in an easy-to-access format. As a result, we now have the unprecedented power to create our own truth, and share it with everyone in the world. It has ushered in an equality of access that we have never seen before.

But has its potential as a great leveller for the whole world already passed?

‘Utopian society’

Twenty years ago, the web was colonised by a group of early adopters who believed that the ideal society was equal – every person had a right to get involved, there should be no hierarchy, and rules would be mutually determined for the common good.

People like American writer Stewart Brand, critic Howard Rheingold, and the Grateful Dead’s John Perry Barlow believed the sanctity of the individual was superior to that of the nation state, and that contact with people from across the globe would be enough to solve the world’s ills.

These people, many of whom we tracked down for the series in the idealistic haven of San Francisco, had spent more than a decade playing around with alternative, non-physical communities in cyberspace on the proto-internet.

The early communities they established, like the online forum the Well had parallels with other Free Towns in the “real” world, many of which had suffered when the reality of poorly-defined regulations degenerated into exploitation and lawlessness.

But the idealistic web pioneers maintained that the new digital frontier would provide a fertile, intellectual ground on which to create a freer, utopian society.

But as we found as we were speaking to many of these pioneers, history has had a different plan for the web.

The pioneers’ loose approach to social behaviour online has clashed with the essential features of our nature – our desire to take control, to own and to profit.

Implicit inequalities emerged early, but once the Web became a space for commercial gain in the mid-1990s and its population exploded, being at the top of the pile – translated as holding the first position in Google’s search results – became the benchmark for offline financial returns.

The exponential increase in content on the web during the late 1990s and throughout the last decade has meant that reliable, trustworthy and credible information is increasingly difficult to pin down.

Net hope

At an individual level, we rely on friends and family for what to trust and what to believe, but we also look to experts and other people with high social status to point us in the right direction.

Jimmy Wales, founder of the online-user generated encyclopaedia Wikipedia, admits that despite being the current poster child of information levelling, Wikipedia has explicit hierarchies that determine whose knowledge is more worthy than others’.

It seems that, for all its talk as a great leveller, the web is as unequal as we are.

Indeed, what we social scientists are discovering when we observe the web as a platform of social interaction is that, despite the medium, human beings seek hierarchies to help us make sense of our world.

It turns out that this is as relevant online as offline. After all, we can only bring to this digital tabula rasa what we already know and what we have gained from our existing experiences.

Despite this, people like former US Vice-President Al Gore is an online optimist.

When we spoke with him, he insisted that the global nature of the world wide web has the potential to change this, as different societies bring their different perspectives to bear on the web community.

Human medium

Indeed, when I joined the inventor of the web – Tim Berner’s Lee – in Ghana as he was travelling to remote villages to try to understand what could happen when the African continent, parts of which have only recently been physically connected to the rest of the web with high-speed broadband access, makes its contribution to the international dialogue.

However, what I realised on this trip is that the imprint that most people in the African states will develop in their first experiences of the web will be based on what non-Africans have created.

Our two decades of shaping this maturing technology his has led us to a tool that has been crafted in our image.

When the Virtual Revolution team went to Abiriw, a rural village in the mountains outside Ghana’s capital Accra, I was struck by how the kids in the local community centre used the web – they saw the world of information through the window of Google.

The search engine works on a principle of the “madness” or “wisdom” of crowds, basing its results on which websites receive the most links to their pages.

The majority of the crowd to date has been non-Africans, and so the window that these kids are using for information is non-African. What kind of dogma does that transmit?

And how does this reinforce the inequalities that exist between the developed and the developing world?

Ultimately, the web is a reflection of humanity, not a humanity-changer. We bring to it all of our other human foibles, warts and all.

The first episode of Digital Revolutions will be broadcast on 30 January at 2030 on BBC2

This article originally appeared on the BBC News website on 29 January 2010