Tim Berners-Lee's Web of people

Amid the dot-com jargon and techie talk, World Wide Web granddaddy Tim Berners-Lee conceded last week something about his offspring: That somewhere beneath the convoluted coding, acronyms, zeroes and ones, the Web is human, after all.

Speaking to a fire hazard of computer programmers, Web producers and journalists at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication last Thursday afternoon, Berners-Lee crammed a career’s worth (OK, maybe several careers) of wisdom and clairvoyance into a little less than an hour of accessible Netspeak. He waxed nostalgic on the Internet’s historical terrain, then prognosticated a Web future rooted in sociability, customization and, above all, user demands.

“We’ve got to keep building those wish lists, because they will inspire people who are doing the coding,” he said. “There are a bunch of geeks… who are itching to find a problem to solve.”

The moral: keep feeding the innovators. You never know what they might come up with, and there’s no predicting what bizarre idea might take off running.

“What if, just before wikis came out, somebody had said, ‘Hey, suppose there was a website that said: Anybody can edit this. Please be careful. It would be nice if this were an encyclopedia. Those are all the rules.’ You would not have invested. You would not have been the manager that said, ‘Yes, OK. Write it.'”

And per his road map, the Web’s uncharted territory is vast and ripe for discovery. As he has since day one, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee sees a blank, royalty-free canvas.

Berners-Lee on what’s in store:

We just hope that there is just a natural tendency to broader interoperability. That we will end up with a very powerful platform in the future. The sea of interoperability…. One of the things that you have to remember now is that we’re seriously thinking that the Web isn’t all there is… that downstream, there’s a huge amount of stuff. So that means that you don’t have to do your work looking to the Web as though it is the geographical terrain. You can do it as though it were something you can send back. Like undercooked beef. It’s OK to say, ‘The Web is fine, but what we really want is this.’ You know, ‘blogs are great. They’re interesting. But what if, instead, we had this?’ So the technical community needs to have feedback from people who are maybe being frustrated by how the Web is doing in all this.

If you go away today with any one thing in your head when it comes to the Web architecture, it’s that it is a universal space. It’s got to be there like a white piece of paper, for people to do other stuff on it. And the Web is great because of all of the creativity that other people have put in. It mustn’t control what other people want to do with it. It clearly has got to be able to work on any hardware platform.

There are some things we can worry about and some things we can get hopeful about. A lot of people are excited about virtual worlds; second lives and things. Some people are worried about the fact that my ISP might stop me from accessing all the new video sites because they are my cable company, and they want to be the person to decide what movies I watch this week. There are some slumps around there, but I think we’ll avoid them.

On digital humanity:

When you design something in the Web, there is a social side to it. The Web actually has protocols like http, but it’s got human protocols, too…. I make a link to another Web page because if I link to good Web pages, my Web page will become valuable. And if my Web page becomes valuable, it will be linked to. And if my Web page is linked to, it will become more read. And I like to be read! It all comes down to psychology. Sometimes it comes down to money, OK? ‘I like to be read because I get cash.’

It’s not a web of computers, it’s a web of people. It’s people that make links, it’s people that follow links. People are affected by many things in what we do; in the policies we should enact — or that we should tweak, or that we should interpret. There’s psychology at the base. There’s a large amount of mathematics about it. There’s a very, very large number of disciplines around websites, and there are great people in the spaces and doing great things who probably don’t know each other. So one of the motivations of Web science is to get people in these disciplines talking to each other.

On creativity:

The creativity has always been the exciting bit for me. We do our software design in such a mechanical, mathematical way. We analyze it and we use software engineering tools. But the actual creative leap to how we’re going to do the thing, or the fact that we will write the program in the first place, is done subconsciously by a mechanism that we cannot analyze. It is not provided to us. We do not have a portal, we do not have the debug access to a brain that allows us to figure out how it was we came to it.

Individual creativity is very special, but group creativity — when we do things together, which is what we actually have to do to solve all these big problems — is even more interesting. And one of the reasons I wanted to make the Web a big sandbox is that I wanted it to be a tool for group creativity. I wanted us to pool all our thoughts and brainstorming together so that we will somehow make our combined brains be slightly less stupid than our individual brains.

On social networks:

These social networking sites are starting to develop new ways of actually determining how you trust friends, and friends of friends have a different status than friends or friends of friends of friends…. One of the things they’re doing is creating new forms of democracy. Or new forms of meritocracy…. It kind of works, but maybe we can improve on it. And maybe, out there in the Web, we will end up producing a new social mechanism, which will improve on the existing democratic systems we’ve got today, and we’ll be able to run the country better. How about that? Run the world better. Don’t aim low! OK?

On inventing the Web:

Inventing the Web was actually rather straightforward. It was the sort of thing you could do on the back of an envelope and code up in two months. But explaining to people that it was a good idea—helping them get over all their misunderstandings of what it was supposed to be, was very difficult.

Because it was a paradigm shift, the difficulty of explaining the Web in the first place was that we didn’t have the vocabulary like “link” and “click.” So I could show someone a Web page and click on it and, tah-dah! Another window would open with a different Web page. So what? No big deal.

What they couldn’t understand was what was really interesting about this link was that this one really could have gone anywhere; to any data you could imagine being out there and conceivably interesting. Now the fact that pretty much anything you could imagine existing out there has got a high chance of being on the Web. And the fact that that link could have been there was just really difficult for people to understand.

In our meetings I wanted us to build the Web as a collaborative design so that we would always leave pointers back to why we made decisions. We would always leave pointers back to the documents we’d read when we had our meetings. So that somebody coming in would be able to understand. Somebody who’s going to reverse a design decision we’d made can find out why it was made; find out what they’re going to damage. And also, when they leave, they don’t have to do the big debrief and explain to everyone what they’ve done, because it’s there. They’ve woven it into the group…. So the first Web browser was an editor. It was designed really to be a collaborative thing.

On Gopher:

It was way more popular than the Web. Taking off exponentially, with I think maybe a sharper time constant. The University of Minnesota then announced that, by the way, they might be licensing the material. You might have to pay royalties. They were toast. Overnight. And people were putting a huge amount of pressure on me to get something from CERN. And CERN, to their huge credit, did produce, 18 months later… a document that declared that CERN would not be charging royalties on the World Wide Web. And that’s why it happened. That’s why it took off.

On bobsleds:

There’s a phase at the beginning of a bobsled run when you’re pushing. The whole team is pushing. And it’s really hard because the bobsled has in fact got some inertia. And then it picks up speed. And then in the later phase, you’re all in the bobsled steering, and things like that. But there’s a very important transition phase when you stop pushing and jump in. And for the Web, that was about 1993. So I was concerned in 1993 and started sort of rushing talking to people about what sort of consortium we would do. And eventually the result was the World Wide Web Consortium.