The Contributions of Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners Lee signature

Meeting Sir Tim Berners-Lee is a little like meeting Johannes Gutenberg in recognising an inventor who has fundamentally changed the way we engage in engage in communication and provide information. As a person who has been interested in the pragmatics, phenomenology, and political economy of such technologies for more than two decades, the lure was two strong, listening to his speeches at both ANU (for LCA) and the University of Melbourne, where he spoke on various contemporary developments especially on the legal circumstances surrounding the suicide of Aaron Swartz.

To get one issue out of the way, as many have remarked, TBL is not a great public speaker. He speaks quickly, tangentially, and without a conventional narrative - not unlike his own invention. But that's a rather trivial concern for who we're dealing with here. Anything more than a passing criticising of the inventor of the world wide web for poor public speaking skills is not unlike criticising Martin Luther King Jnr, for not inventing the world wide web. It should be added that on one-to-one questions and answers that he is able to focus his knowledge exceptionally well.

There was of course, a couple of fortuitous events that caused TBL's invention to succeed. Computers were just moving towards a graphic user interface. The Internet was about to become available through commercial providers to the mass market. But more importantly was the vision that TBL had, and this is his motivating contribution, the spiritual lesson (if you will) that one can learn. There were of course other technologies available at the time, most famously being Gopher. Two key differences of the WWW was that (a) it was released into the public domain, rather than a commercial license (Gopher largely died because the owners suggested that maybe, one day, people might be charged for using it), and (b) that it empowered users to determine for themselves what was going to link where and how it was to be structured. Michael L. Dertouzos makes this point quite clear; the difference between TBL and others at the time is that whilst they were interested in "How do I make this mine?", TBL was interested in "How do I make this yours?".

It is this sort of combination of a moral motivation with a technical ability that has provided a product which, in the advanced post-industrial economies, is providing the information infrastructure that really is contributing significantly to the efficiency and effectiveness of finance, scientific an other research, productivity, and so forth. It is also providing the opportunity for others (especially in north Africa and the Middle-East at the moment) to realise the degree that their governments are lacking in the provision of civil rights, democratic management, and public wealth. This will inevitably continue.

Of course, Sir Tim Berners-Lee is not the only person who has contributed to what must be seen as a revolution in international communication and information technologies. To continue the medieval analogy, there is Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, who would have been the equivalent as the cartographers, navigators, and road-builders, the developers of web-servers who have the equivalent of print-shops, and, of course, the passionate reforming spirit of people like Richard Stallman.

There is some biases that I have towards TBL. Firstly, his predecessor to the world-wide-web, called Enquire, was written in Pascal, a programming language that I still have an attachment with. Secondly, I suspect that he's done a little bit of table top-roleplaying in his time, even in recognition of the contribution of such games to Multi-User Domains. Finally, he's a member and advocate of Unitarian-Universalism, spending the last pages of Weaving The Web, drawing comparisons between the web and this free religious community.

For quite sometime I resisted using the web, just as I resisted using graphic-user interfaces. When people expressed the depth of resolution, octave range, and range of colours their system had, I would remark "When I want colour and sound, I go outside." The web, to me, was slow and distracting; I preferred usenet. Even today, I still prefer to see computers used for, well, computing. I still prefer to use the command-line, as a consistent and powerful user-interface. As much as I remain an advocate for such things, I also have come to see the value of the WWW in providing a easy to use platform for global information and communication to everyone. It is a tool they can use, and it is in their hands. To that, we can thank Sir Tim.