Sir Tim Berners-Lee: still weaving his web

By David Cohen In Technology

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim Berners-Lee: “When we talk about the openness of the internet, it’s the openness to communicate.” Photo/David White

Scientific progress and world peace must be inseparable technological bedfellows, Sir Tim Berners-Lee likes to remind audiences. Ask anybody involved in web development about their basic motivations, this technology evangelist believes, “and they’ll end up back at those fundamental human desires”.

What a wonderful world he inhabits, this donnish chap in a lead-grey suit seated inside a Wellington hotel.

Berners-Lee, an Oxford-trained scientist, is a Fellow of the UK’s prestigious Royal Society.
He has picked up more international accolades than Gareth Morgan could shake a cat at, including the Japan Prize, the Prince of Asturias Foundation Prize, Finland’s Millennium Technology Prize and Germany’s Die Quadriga award. He was knighted in 2004.

Much more to the point, though, Berners-Lee also inhabits the world of your desktop computer or handheld device. His work is there every time you use one of them, a signature in the shape of a seismographic record zigzagging the entire history of the world wide web.

Look at the top of your screen. The WWW and HTTP abbreviations in website addresses were his innovations. (So were those pesky double slashes, which he now admits were probably pointless.) He also introduced hypertext, allowing clicking on a link to access other information. All of which was put together according to his original specifications and first rolled out more than 20 years ago.

The internet’s Gutenbergian evolution from something only a mother could love to the universally accessible communications system it is today has also occurred on his active watch – in, for example, the pioneering work of the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, which he established at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994.

Berners-Lee’s reputation also rests on his status as an ardent opponent of government meddling with the fruits of his life’s work.

InternetNZ, the not-for-profit organisation that sponsored his visit, believes his presence has been an opportunity “to help raise awareness and build interest in the issues we work on with the wider public”, according to member Ellen Strickland.

Added Colin Jackson, a Wellington-based technology consultant involved with the organisation: “Every time we click a link, we owe Tim Berners-Lee a nod of thanks, especially here in an isolated country that has benefited so much from his work.”

His arrival follows New Zealand’s rejection of the latest international push to bring the internet under stronger state control in the form of an update to International Telecommunication Regulations. Although this country has taken a relatively light-handed approach to internet regulation to date, the national conversation has not been short of people suggesting the net be kept on a slightly tighter leash.

PART AUCTIONEER, PART EVANGELIST

As anyone who heard his public lecture at Te Papa will know, the quietly spoken 57-yearold makes his pitch with considerable urgency – part auctioneer, part evangelist, part tumble clothes dryer – sometimes weaving between subjects at a yet faster clip.

“We don’t have much time,” he observes at the start of a conversation with the Listener, his only one with a local magazine. The point may have less to do with the duration of the interview than the sense of mission that has long driven his activity.

Berners-Lee was born in London in 1955, the son of mathematician parents Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods, who both worked on the original Ferranti Mark I computer, and he caught their fever early on.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Photo/David White

“They were full of the excitement that there is about maths, for how wonderful, how amazing mathematics is, and also how amazing computers were – the fact that you could do whatever you imagined on them.”

As a kid, he spent a lot of time playing with electronics, making relays by winding wire around a nail. By the time that began to pall, computer games had arrived and then, when he arrived at Queens College, Oxford, to read physics, the microprocessor as well. There he built his own computer with an old television set, a Motorola microprocessor and a soldering iron

“I worked in the software industry for many years, too. I’d written programs, for example, using elements, using communications protocols, doing mark-up and text processing and so on, and thinking about and reflecting about problems for a long time, and then things sort of started.” He was alive and clicking.

But it would be a mistake to think of Berners-Lee as a poster child for those promoting an entirely unfettered online universe. His views on pornography, for instance, sound familiar enough to liberal ears (“in general, I don’t want somebody in Washington or someone in Wellington deciding for the global community how many clothes you’re allowed to take off on a movie”), but his plea for ever-greater openness still has its caveats.

“Please don’t misuse the word ‘open’,” he says reproachfully at one point in our conversation. “When we talk about the openness of the internet, it’s the openness to communicate. There’s lots of stuff that is behind firewalls, which is trade secrets of companies, of families even, that needs to be kept to itself.”

THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Berners-Lee also admits that the international transition to an online society has happened so speedily that significant hurdles remain.

Earlier in the day, for instance, he was welcomed to the city with a “very special” powhiri. Asked about the internet’s effect on indigenous cultures – the people standing on the platform in a swirl of candy wrappers as the Anglo-American global train thunders by – he barely pauses before replying.

“I don’t know what the situation is with Maori,” he says, “but I do think it’s just really good for everybody to speak at least two languages, because we need to preserve many languages and preserve many cultures.

“And in a sense, yes, the internet can work against that if people spend their time just learning American-English, all watching the same American-English movies. But it can also work for the culture if people use time to produce materials in that culture and put them online.”

This is why he feels both optimistic and pessimistic about the digital divide separating the online haves and have-nots around the planet.

Even in 2013, Berners-Lee points out, only a quarter of the world actually uses the web. “And there are lots of other ways in which these people may miss taking advantage of it. They may go online and there may be nothing in their language – some people speak very obscure languages – so they may not have any real motivation to record anything, either, because they have such a small audience. And there may be people who do go online, do stuff in their language, but for one reason or another they are not in a position to be able to, for example, use it to economic benefit.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Photo/David White

What about journalism? Berners-Lee seems to enjoy his encounters with reporters. Does it ever concern him that what he helped create appears to be devouring the traditional media?

“Well,” he says, before heading off to yet another meeting, “everybody who is not a journalist is asking me how on earth are they going to cope with all the junk out there, the deluge of information that is available, the tantalising choice they have, and their inability with their own energy to look into whether information is trustworthy or not. So the function of journalism, and also now of data journalism, is burrowing down into the data behind a story and providing analysis. That is really, really important.

“I think what we all have to work out is how we who need journalism can end up paying you who do journalism to do the journalism. I have subscriptions to some things, but there are other things where I don’t have a subscription that I would like to be able to just pay for, but very easily pay a very small amount. So really, you’ve got to experiment, and the world has got to experiment, with new ways of connecting readers to journalists.”

Via Scoop, below is the video of Tim Berners-Lee lecture in Wellington, as guest of Internet NZ

More by David Cohen

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