Sir Tim Berners-Lee talks


Hopping on stage, and effusively regaling tales about the formation of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was captivating his audience.

I was there, at the opening talk of the Every Second Counts forum, hosted at The Guardian HQ. The day was a series of inspiring talks, discussions, and presentations from some of the foremost innovators in the world of business and technology, celebrating the progress made in making the world a better place through harnessing technology in creative ways.

Alas, I could only stay for the first talk; with the keynote speaker.

Tim Berners-Lee at Every Second Counts

Tim Berners-Lee at Every Second Counts

Having never seen him speak before, all of the stories he told were new to my ears. Perhaps these are well-known anecdotes for the knowledgeable amongst you, but coming at this green, I thought I would distil the points that resonated most.

 

Your laptop is like a fridge

You open up a laptop, and there’s lots of lovely stuff in there ready for your consumption. If you want more of it, so simply go online and get more stuff (programs, apps, videos) to put in it.

This is different to how computers used to be, where if you wanted something, you had to make it. This is the key point that got him excited: how being able to program a computer allowed one to make a machine do what we wanted it to.

In the advent of computers, people had to (metaphorically) code their groceries. Now, they can conveniently be downloaded.

 

Every webpage is now a computer

It used to be that pages were static, in that they displayed information. The programming used to be done at a computer level and so the skills needed were in how the computer was set up.

With the advancements in Javascript, and other programmable elements on webpages, it is now possible to create a similarly interactive experience on a webpage, an advancement in how people interact with the web.

This has created a whole new genre of creative possibilities – and means that even more is possible with combinations of 0s and 1s.

 

His background

This served as an informative segway into his upbringing, and why he was so well placed to be the inventor of the world wide web.

Son of two mathematicians working on the first commercial computers he spent his childhood physically constructing electrical circuits with his friends. By the time he left university, he was able to create a computer using input/output mechanisms between a television screen, and a worn out keyboard.

At the physics institute CERN he was tasked with unify various processes between the early operating systems. He disproportionately felt the pain of an unintegrated system of interpreting information.

No response came from his initial proposition for the world wide web, sent via a paper memo to the committee that allocated resource at CERN. A year later, he sent it again, and was able to attract the attention of his boss

 

Vague, but exciting

These are the words scribbled on the resent memo by Berners-Lee’s superior.

The dynamics of CERN were such that time and resource could only be allocated if it met certain criteria. The boss was able to define the project in such a way that Tim could be left to explore the possibilities of a world wide web.

In the world of companies like Google offering employees 20%, I was getting 100% time.

In the months/ years that followed the world wide web grew, as more people started contributing to its development. The key, he said, was keeping the protocols free, and open, meaning anyone could use and create, rather than restricting users by requiring them to pay.

 

Don’t focus on people who won’t play the game…

… even if they’re very talented. You can spend all of your efforts trying to get users to convert their legacy work, or instead spend this time building a community of people who will feel ownership of using the new approach.

In creating a movement like writing for the world wide web, Tim felt that this was an appropriate approach, and one of the reasons for its success.

 

Lunch with Gordon Brown

When asked by the then-Prime Minister what action the government could take that would have a disproportionate impact, Berners-Lee asked for open data.

There boundless reports of information existing in PDF format, that simply can’t be analysed if those numbers cannot be extracted. The act of reformatting certain data types to allow people to access, and interpret data, would give oxygen to ideas that might otherwise not have the opportunity to be investigated.

The result was http://data.gov.uk/

 

Paying for content

The question was raised about whether the rise of the internet has meant that people now feel entitled to free content. Music piracy, streaming free movies, and torrents being cited as the main mechanisms.

To this, he disagreed.

People inherently want to give to causes that they support, but also where they feel they can make an impact. Spending money that laces the pockets of record labels feels detached, but contributing towards the production costs of a small film via Kickstarter is something most people would feel comfortable with.

This led to an insight into the some of the future web conventions, discussed with W3.

In short, it will be the ability to transfer micropayments to content producers that you have enjoyed on the internet.

A monthly limit is set, and then divvied up between the sites that you have enjoyed most in that time period. A way to seamlessly reward/ thank those people that you’ve benefited from, without the hassle of having to enter credit card details etc.

 

Conclusion

The talk ended on a positively – reminding the room how technology is connecting people around the world in ways that never used to be possible. The very notion of programmable computers means we have an almost infinite toolbox at our disposal, and in theory are only bounded by our imagination.

This was the end of my day at the event, though I hear reports of how the rest of the speakers were equally impressive.