Thursday, May 18, 2006

A True Modern Hero

The New Statesman today unveiled its list of 50 Modern Heroes. www.newstatesman.co.uk I have only met one person on their list, the inventor Tim Berners-Lee. Here is a nomination for Professor Berners-Lee from New Statesman reader M. Jablowska, followed by my interview with the man who invented the World Wide Web from the Fleet Street Letter. Berners-Lee showed up at Number 28 on the NS list. He should have come a whole lot higher.

"The inventor of the worldwide web has opened up the paths to information throughout the world while eschewing personal gain, as no patent was created and no royalties were asked for. The influence of the web is truly international and can only help create a more equitable world through the dissemination of information. I applaud Berners-Lee's selfless magnanimity and modesty as much as his life-changing invention". M Jablkowska, London W9

TEN YEARS OF THE WORLD WIDE WEB:
TIM BERNERS-LEE DISCUSSES HIS INVENTION, ITS USES, ITS IMPACT ON SOCIETY AND ITS POSSIBLE MISUSES.

It’s not everyday that one gets the opportunity to meet one of ‘The 100 Most Influential Minds of the Twentieth Century’, particularly when the vast majority are already long dead. Alongside names such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud in Time Magazine’s famous list is Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the World Wide Web, arguably the most important technological development of the late 20th Century. It is impossible to underestimate the way in which Berners-Lee’s invention has- in only a decade- transformed the way we live and do business. A estimated $100bn of global business is now done on line- a figure that’s rising every day. Cyber-space companies like ‘Amazon’, ‘Google’ ‘Yahoo’ and ‘ebay’ have become household names. The web has revolutionised the way we book our holidays, buy consumer durables, read newspapers and keep in touch with our friends.

And all these changes down to a self-effacing professor from south London who drives a battered old Volkswagen. The phrase ‘modest inventor’ figures prominently in everything hitherto written about Berners-Lee. But on meeting the Director of the WWW Consortium one is soon convinced that this is not merely lazy journalistic stereotyping. For my first question to Professor Berners Lee, I decided to play devil’s advocate. The idea that the web is a tool for bringing people closer together- whether as buyers, sellers, friends or chat-room partners- is accepted orthodoxy. I ask Berners-Lee if the opposite may be the case and that by encouraging us to spend more time in front of our pcs instead of interacting with our fellow humans in the flesh, his invention might actually have accelerated the fragmentation of our society. ‘I agree with that criticism to a point. The Web is to help you with real things and should be smoothly integrated into your life. I do not like the idea of people going down into the cellar to surf- that’s why I want every home to be connected permanently, with the pc in an open place, like the kitchen. Internet cafes have the same problem with isolation as the cellar’.

Regarding the role of the Web in enhancing democracy, Berners-Lee’s position is described, in his own words, as ‘optimistic with caveats’. Many have argued that the advent of electronic voting means that we should swiftly move to a more direct form of democracy, but not Berners-Lee. He quotes the hypothetical example of how an email by a key environmentalist group calling for the boycotting of a certain nation’s products, could, within a short time bring that economy to its knees. ‘Within twenty minutes the entire crazed population of the U.K. could impose devastating sanctions on a South American country. Suppose they were wrong’.

Improving the accountability of our elected representatives and raising the quality of debate are more important priorities. ‘I think there is a danger that in democracies we presume all participation is good participation. That we neglect the quality of the argument. I would love to see well-reasoned, accountable arguments on line. In the academic process, if you publish a paper, you are held accountable for it and you suffer if you say things that aren’t true. Why can‘t this happen in regard to political argument?’
There will be politicians all over the world trembling at this prospect, not least a certain inhabitant of 10 Downing Street.

The only time Berners-Lee becomes remotely prickly is when he is quizzed over the role his invention may have played in the planning and organisation of terrorist attacks such as 9/11. He challenges the assertion that the FBI believe the bombings to have been planned on the Web and points to the ‘low-tech’ nature of the operation: ‘smuggling swords on aeroplanes, hijacking them and flying them into buildings could have been done any time in the last 100 years’ he says. Berners-Lee opposes any attempts by governments to use the issue of ‘national security‘ to restrict internet use. ‘The most important thing about the Web is its universality. It should be like paper. A form of paper which doesn’t allow you to write sentences which are malformed, or not in English, or of right-wing or left-wing bias, would be a very poor form of paper on which to base civilisation. My primary goal is to keep the Web universal’.

In the longer-term Berners-Lee profoundly hopes the World Wide Web will promote ‘enough harmony to prevent war’. But he adds ‘whether there will always be people who, whatever the information they have will always rebel and want to do damage, I don’t know. That’s something for the psychologists’ But as exciting as recent developments have been, Berners-Lee believes the golden age of the Web is yet to come. His next ‘big idea’ is the semantic web-which among other applications, will enable consumers to compare prices automatically. If we think the web has had a massive impact on business up to now, it’s nothing to what lies ahead. ‘Web shopping as it is is only the tip of a huge larger change which will come when I can find things and compare prices automatically and when electronic financial instruments are commonplace’ predicts Berners-Lee. ‘The Web will achieve its true potential when it becomes an environment when data can be shared and processed by automated tools as well as by people. The most exciting thing about the semantic web is not what we can imagine doing with it, but what we can’t yet imagine it will do’.
N. Clark/Fleet Street Publications 2005

1 comment:

Martin said...

Neil,

This is a very interesting post.

As an anti-globalist from the right,TB-L's career gives the lie to the anarcholibertarian fetish that all innovation is driven by 'the market'. Has the man ever made a penny from it? Less intrusively, was he trying to satisfy a particular need when he did it? Of course not.

The Web has certainly facilitated globalisation, perhaps an unintended consequence. Like handguns and heroin, the thing itself is morally neutral; it is the uses to which it can be put which are harmful.

It is also severely limited. It is a good tool for buying stuff. You can find out almost anything on it. Its impact on mainstream media have been profound, and it will kill the dead tree behemoths before it's done; but that's about the limit of its utility.

Most consequentially, it killed the idea that we live in an 'information age'. Guff. More properly, we live in a 'data age'. It is those who can determine the difference between the value of data and the value of information who benefit most from TB-L's creation.