Inventing the world wide web might be considered a remarkable enough achievement for one lifetime. But Sir Tim Berners-Lee has another burning ambition: to reinvent it.
Thirty years ago, Sir Tim designed much of the architecture for our information age, ensuring that the web was open, free and accessible to everyone. The creation of this user-friendly interface with the internet has led to an astonishing explosion of communication and creativity, changing our world in incalculable ways. Some 4bn people now enjoy near-instant access to more information than their grandparents could ever have imagined.
But in more recent years the web has taken a dark turn as corporate, state and criminal interests have sought to exploit its radical openness. Our information age, which still promises so much, has been disfigured by the emergence of surveillance capitalism, electoral manipulation and cyber crime.
Sir Tim has grown increasingly distressed at how his invention has turned into an “engine of inequity and division”, as he describes it. Fixing this emergent “anti-human” phenomenon has become the urgent priority of his life as the remaining unconnected people in the world today and future generations come online over the next few decades.
“We did create all kinds of wonderful things on the web. But looking back at the past few years, we have realised that there has been a lot of dysfunction in society,” says Sir Tim, in an interview down a crackly line from Australia. “People are being manipulated to vote against their own best interests. The foundations of democracy are threatened.”
The critical question confronting all our societies is whether the web’s flaws are a temporary bug that can be fixed or a permanent feature that can, at best, be contained. Ever the computer geek, Sir Tim is convinced there is a technological solution. His purpose is now to fix the bug and build a more respectful and powerful web that answers to our real human needs.
Since 2015, Sir Tim has been working with a small team of computer scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to design a new data platform called Solid (the name is derived from “social linked data”). Last year, he announced the launch of Inrupt, a for-profit company intended to put Solid into operation.
Thousands of developers across 26 countries are experimenting with 50,000 Solid personal online data stores (PODs). The company is also collaborating with some bigger partners, including an Indian telecoms company and the UK’s National Health Service, to explore how Solid could be configured at scale.
To that end, Inrupt is aiming to complete a multimillion-dollar fundraising by the end of March, enabling it to launch a user product by the end of the year. In tech jargon, Solid is aiming to “re-decentralise” the web, returning ownership of data to the users who generate it and empowering them to give consent to others to access it.
“Solid solves a few problems at once because it is a paradigm shift,” says Sir Tim. “But if you had to pick one it would be: giving people complete control of their data.”
The challenges of scaling Solid are daunting, to say the least. Companies and governments have strong vested interests in maintaining the current data ecosystem; billions of users have built their lives around free and convenient services; and the technological and financial demands of launching an alternative platform are immense.
But friends say the 63-year-old computer scientist has been energised by his latest mission. “It is rocket science. It is tricky. Things can blow up on you,” says Sir Tim. “But we know how to fire rockets into the sky. We should be able to build constructive social networks.”
Given what has happened over the past three decades, the origins of the web now seem a long time ago and far, far away. Back in 1989, Sir Tim was working in Switzerland as a software engineer at Cern, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. Bashing away on his NeXT computer, he devised an online information space in which documents could be identified by uniform resource locators (URLs) and connected by hypertext links, enabling easy navigation between pages.
In his book Weaving The Web, he compared the effort needed to launch the web with that required to race a bobsleigh: everyone had to push hard for a seemingly long time, but once the bobsleigh built up momentum, everyone could jump on board and enjoy the ride.
The critical accelerant for the web’s development was Sir Tim’s selfless decision not to patent his invention, probably passing up the opportunity to earn billions of dollars in the process but keeping cyberspace open and non-proprietary. In the words of the science writer James Gleick, the web was “The Patent That Never Was.”
As a result, cyberspace has grown at mesmerising speed. There are now almost 4.2bn internet users around the world, accessing close to 2bn websites, according to the latest ever-changing data from internetlivestats.com.
Ian Goldin, a professor of globalisation and development at the University of Oxford and co-author of Age of Discovery, argues that the mass adoption of the web can only be compared to the invention of the printing press in 15th-century Europe and its revolutionary effect on communication. The arrival of the web has opened a new era of information abundance, cheap distribution, radical variety and wide participation, he argues, that is comparable to a new Renaissance.
“The web has been a huge net positive for humanity. It has been as revolutionary as the Gutenberg press in transforming the way that ideas are shaped and shared,” says Goldin. “I cannot think of another technology over the past 30 years that has changed so much for so many so quickly.”
The widespread adoption of the printing press in Europe and the mass diffusion of ideas helped transform one of the most backward regions of the planet into its leading centre of innovation. “This is now happening at a much, much bigger scale with the web, enabling people from all corners of the planet to learn from each other,” says Goldin. “Hip-hop dancers in Harlem can now learn moves from hip-hop dancers in Shanghai.”
But communication revolutions enable bad ideas to spread just as quickly as good. “The Gutenberg press led to the explosion of genius, but it also led to 200 years of religious wars and gave voice to Savonarola,” says Goldin, describing the publicity-savvy Florentine firebrand as a “15th-century Donald Trump”.
Inrupt’s ambition is to maximise the upsides of the web while minimising its downsides.
John Bruce, Inrupt’s chief executive, argues that the Solid platform will create tangible benefits for all three of the web’s biggest constituencies: its users, service providers and developers.
Users, he says, will enjoy greater privacy and functionality by integrating all their digital services more securely on their devices. Service providers can concentrate on what they do well, such as selling shoes, rather than worrying about things they do badly, such as managing data. And developers will be able to design apps for the direct benefit of users, rather than the tech companies and advertisers that stand behind them.
“Solid is hugely liberating for all of us, which is why it is so significant for the web,” says Bruce. “Some people say we are turning the web on its head. But we like to think we are turning it the right way up. Inrupt is not just encouraging this new ecosystem but leading it.”
Sir Tim says the Solid team are laying down new architectural rules about how things can operate online. “For the moment, it is a team of people with a vision making a very co-ordinated effort to do things in an extremely deliberate way so that we make sure this thing does behave like we want it to and it has the impact it promises,” he says.
If Inrupt can get things right, Sir Tim believes Solid could help unleash an exciting new wave of innovation as developers benefit from the freer flow of valuable data. “If you pay a developer to make trusted apps, or you use open-source apps that are not going to advertise to you, or ambush you, or distract you, then you trust them more and you will give them access to a lot more data,” he says.
“I think we will be able to use very powerful apps that have access to all our data. We will be able to share anything we want with anybody. I can share my hospital records with my doctor, I can share my photos with my cousin.”
The odds would appear to be stacked against Sir Tim and the Solid team. First, they are betting against complacency, assuming that users care enough to pay for trusted apps and spend time managing their own data settings. Second, they are betting against deeply entrenched interests that did not exist when the web was first created.
“It may be possible to create a clean web,” says one digital expert. “But there are too many powerful and corrupt state and corporate interests intent on keeping it dirty.”
If Sir Tim really does succeed in revolutionising mass communication for a second time, his latest accomplishment may yet be considered almost as significant as his first. One adjective best describes Sir Tim’s ambition: bold.
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