[March 12, 2019] Tim Berners-Lee liberated data so it can eat the world. In his book Weaving the Web, he wrote:
I was excited about escaping from the straightjacket of hierarchical documentation systems…. By being able to reference everything with equal ease, the web could also represent associations between things that might seem unrelated but for some reason did actually share a relationship. This is something the brain can do easily, spontaneously. … The research community has used links between paper documents for ages: Tables of content, indexes, bibliographies and reference sections… On the Web… scientists could escape from the sequential organization of each paper and bibliography, to pick and choose a path of references that served their own interest.
With this one imaginative leap, Berners-Lee moved beyond a major stumbling block for all previous information retrieval systems: The pre-defined classification system at their core. This insight was so counter-intuitive that even during the early years of the Web, attempts were made to do just that: To classify (and organize in pre-defined taxonomies) all the information on the Web.
Thirty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee circulated a proposal for “Mesh” to his management at CERN. While the Internet started as a network for linking research centers, the World Wide Web started as a way to share information among researchers at CERN. Both have expanded to touch today more than half of the world’s population because they have been based on open standards.
Creating a closed and proprietary system has been the business model of choice for many great inventors and some of the greatest inventions of the computer age. That’s where we were headed towards in the early 1990s: The establishment of global proprietary networks owned by a few computers and telecommunications companies, whether old or new. Tim Berners-Lee’s invention and CERN’s decision to offer it to the world for free in 1993 changed the course of this proprietary march, giving a new—and much expanded—life to the Internet (itself a response to proprietary systems that did not inter-communicate) and establishing a new, open platform, for a seemingly infinite number of applications and services.
As Bob Metcalfe told me in 2009: “Tim Berners-Lee invented the URL, HTTP, and HTML standards… three adequate standards that, when used together, ignited the explosive growth of the Web… What this has demonstrated is the efficacy of the layered architecture of the Internet. The Web demonstrates how powerful that is, both by being layered on top of things that were invented 17 years before, and by giving rise to amazing new functions in the following decades.”
Metcalfe also touched on the power and potential of an open platform: “Tim Berners-Lee tells this joke, which I hasten to retell because it’s so good. He was introduced at a conference as the inventor of the World Wide Web. As often happens when someone is introduced that way, there are at least three people in the audience who want to fight about that, because they invented it or a friend of theirs invented it. Someone said, ‘You didn’t. You can’t have invented it. There’s just not enough time in the day for you to have typed in all that information.’ That poor schlemiel completely missed the point that Tim didn’t create the World Wide Web. He created the mechanism by which many, many people could create the World Wide Web.”
Metcalfe’s comments were first published in ON magazine which I created and published for my employer at the time, EMC Corporation. For a special issue (PDF) commemorating the 20th anniversary of the invention of the Web, we asked some 20 digital influencers (as we would call them today) how the Web has changed their and our lives and what it will look like in the future. Here’s a sample:
Howard Rheingold: “The Web allows people to do things together that they weren’t allowed to do before. But… I think we are in danger of drowning in a sea of misinformation, disinformation, spam, porn, urban legends, and hoaxes.”
Chris Brogan: “We look at the Web as this set of tools that allow people to try any idea without a whole lot of expense… Anyone can start anything with very little money, and then it’s just a meritocracy in terms of winning the attention wars.”
Dany Levy (founder of DailyCandy): “With the Web, everything comes so easily. I wonder about the future and the human ability to research and to seek and to find, which is really an important skill. I wonder, will human beings lose their ability to navigate?”
We also interviewed Berners-Lee in 2009. He said that the Web has “changed in the last few years faster than it changed before, and it is crazy to for us to imagine this acceleration will suddenly stop.” He pointed out the ongoing tendency to lock what we do with computers in a proprietary jail: “…there are aspects of the online world that are still fairly ‘pre-Web.’ Social networking sites, for example, are still siloed; you can’t share your information from one site with a contact on another site.”
But he remained both realistic and optimistic, the hallmarks of an entrepreneur: “The Web, after all, is just a tool…. What you see on it reflects humanity—or at least the 20% of humanity that currently has access to the Web… No one owns the World Wide Web, no one has a copyright for it, and no one collects royalties from it. It belongs to humanity, and when it comes to humanity, I’m tremendously optimistic.”
Originally published on Forbes.com