Sir Tim Berners-Lee is an intimidating interviewee. It’s not so much the worry about keeping up with the brain that invented the world wide web; it’s that when you Google him (in the circumstances, there seems no shame in this method of research), you soon find he has compiled a list of answers to questions that journalists have asked too many times before.
No, he patiently explains on his website, he did not invent the internet; the web is an application that runs on the internet like a fridge uses the power grid. And no, he states, he does not have mixed emotions about his refusal to “cash in” on his invention – “You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.” Nor will he tell you much about his personal life because “what is on the web on this page and my home page is all there is”.
“I thought once I’d put a question on the web, I’d never have to answer it again. And I thought once I got a photographer to take some darn photos of me and put them on the web, then I’d never have to be photographed again,” he says when we meet at his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Was I wrong!”
Though it would be fitting for Berners-Lee to live some sort of open-source existence, he has never been keen on publicity. Even after starring in Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony, where he coded away at a Steve Jobs-designed NeXT computer like the one on which he created the first web server, the 57-year-old says he is rarely recognised. (NBC’s Olympic commentators told viewers, “If you haven’t heard of him, we haven’t either.”)
Boyle chose Berners-Lee’s summation of his uncommercial approach to innovation – “This is for everyone” – as a theme for his Olympics ceremony. But why, I ask, did he agree to appear in the show? He replies that he had acted a little and done “amateur operatics” in Geneva years before but this was a chance to be part of a cast of 15,000. “It was staggering.”
“It was a very web-like spirit,” he adds. “The whole web had always been done by people who were very internationally-minded, very public-spirited, and very excited about the outcome.”
Nobody pays much attention as we stride across campus from his office, where multicoloured scribbling decorates a white board and one wall. The professor of engineering seems anxious to get started on lunch. As he marches towards the food trucks that have become MIT institutions, he talks in a staccato rush, as if his mouth is struggling to keep up with his mind.
The academic year has yet to begin and the campus is quiet, orderly and sunny. We go through another building and out to a side street where four trucks are lined up. Berners-Lee steers me to the one with the longest queue, where the Clover Food Lab offers pitas filled with organic ingredients.
It is a hot day and we both order iced tea and cups of gazpacho. I opt for a chickpea fritter sandwich, while he picks the egg and eggplant (aubergine) pita. One of the Clover team is taking payments on his iPhone, using one of the Square credit card readers developed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. The truck has a website, Berners-Lee tells me, which I find out later advises that his pita takes 5.8 minutes to prepare. He hovers impatiently, inquiring several times after our order’s progress. He tucks a straw into his shirt pocket, alongside two pens and a pair of spectacles.
Finally, we juggle our pitas, soups and ice teas and head back to where Berners-Lee works in the Frank Gehry-designed Stata, with its jutting angles, tottering stacks of window frames and silver curves glinting in the New England light. When Gehry consulted faculty members, Berners-Lee recalls, they asked for trees, opening windows and a building with “the complexity of Italian hilltop villages”. We climb the steps of an amphitheatre to find a shady lawn where a single café table sits under a tree. Berners-Lee has reserved it for us with a low-tech slip of paper, weighed down with pebbles.
As we start on our gazpacho, which is thick and sharp with vinegar, I ask about his latest project. The World Wide Web Foundation, which he founded in 2009 to harness the web’s social and democratic power and to promote web access as a human right, has produced its first assessment of the technology’s global impact.
The Web Index ranks infrastructure, content and the web’s political, economic and social impact in 61 countries. Sweden, the US and the UK top the list; Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe and Yemen are at the bottom. Berners-Lee did some of the fieldwork himself, travelling to Uganda to visit ministers, internet cafés and hospitals.
The goal, he says, was to go beyond past studies of connectivity and ask for the first time: “Is the web serving humanity?” By highlighting barriers to what he calls “web for everyone”, he hopes to apply pressure on those obstructing the web’s advancement. “It’s an agenda,” he says. “When people in each country ask, ‘What do we do next?’, here’s a list of things in which you may have to put a little bit more effort and here are the things where really you are behind.”
Berners-Lee waves away a wasp as he admits that the index displays a concern about the flipside of his invention: the digital divide between those with web access and those without. “The [World Wide Web] Consortium and the industry and all the geeks in town are pushing [the web] up every moment to great heights, which then obviously leaves a widening gulf with the people who don’t have it,” he says.
Technology itself, notably “the on-rush of mobile” access, is helping to narrow that gap, he says. When I ask how realistic it is to hope that Yemen will ever enjoy MIT’s connectivity, he replies: “I think you might have asked that question about Uganda a few years ago but now mobile is all over Uganda.” Soon, he adds, “I think we’ll see a very lucrative investment by telcos which wire up the remaining countries, even the deep jungle perhaps.”
A childhood trainspotter who learnt about electronics from tinkering with a model railway, Berners-Lee had impeccable geek beginnings. Born in London to parents who had both worked on the first general purpose commercial computer, the Ferranti Mark 1, he was educated at Emanuel, a private school in south-west London, and Queen’s College, Oxford University, where he studied physics and made his first computer using a soldering iron and an old television set.
By 1984, after stints at telecoms and tech companies, he was working in a computing services section of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, the particle physics lab better known as Cern, home to the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva.
As I pick up my pita bread, I observe that his 1989 proposal for the universal linked information system that became the web reads more like an attempt to solve nitty-gritty organisational problems than a utopian dream of social change. At Cern, he was struggling to collaborate with volunteers around the world. Cern’s multinational staff moved around so much that the institution’s telephone directory was among the first databases he wanted to link up online. “The other projects I was doing were done by volunteers all over the world,” he recalls. “I wanted to be able to have it as a very collaborative play space, and still the web hasn’t fully provided what I wanted then in terms of being a really powerful collaborative medium.”
Berners-Lee’s belief that his invention is unfinished has turned the geek into an activist. “The web is a social invention as much as a technical invention,” he says. “It’s the whole cat and mouse game between the readers and writers that makes the web work.”
What also made it work, he adds, is that he and Robert Cailliau, his collaborator at Cern, “badgered” the institution not to seek royalties from the invention. The free web soon raced ahead of the rival Gopher protocol, developed at the University of Minnesota, which charged a licence fee.
Berners-Lee, who now divides his time between MIT and a computer science professorship at the University of Southampton, left Cern in 1994 to set up the World Wide Web Consortium. Known as W3C, it defends his creation’s free nature by developing and promoting open standards such as HTML5, the coding language bringing slicker multimedia experiences to computers, smartphones and tablets. His activism, he says, stems from “realising that some political and social and legal aspects need to be all clear before the technology and the system will work”.
But as he pushes for a more open web, he is battling closed systems from Apple’s iTunes app store to social networks such as Facebook. Berners-Lee throws out references like hyperlinks (in W3C meetings, those links are minuted) and he cites the Canadian journalist Cory Doctorow’s warning of a looming “war on computation” as he talks about the unprogrammable, closed platforms smartphones have become.
In 2010, Berners-Lee warned of the web being “broken into fragmented islands”. Yet Apple is the world’s most valuable company and Facebook, even after the slump following its initial public offering, is worth tens of billions of dollars. Don’t the very people who are undermining the open web seem to be winning?
“You’re asking me about monopolies,” he replies. Remember AT&T, AOL, Netscape and Microsoft, he adds. “You know about this, Mr Financial Times. There’s always an incentive to create a monopoly but the monopoly then threatens the health of the market.” When they get too dominant, he explains, monopolies lose their incentive to innovate.
Advances such as HTML5-based web applications are part of W3C’s pushback. (“Thank you for building a web app,” he interjects, noting that the FT was among the first publishers to create an HTML5 app outside Apple’s app store.) But Berners-Lee also faces battles over net neutrality (he supports regulation to stop broadband providers playing favourites with internet content), web users’ privacy fears (W3C is working on “Do Not Track” standards), and media owners’ piracy concerns.
Berners-Lee copyrighted his own website’s list of frequently asked questions, and I ask him whether web openness proponents and copyright owners can ever come to an agreement. There is a rare pause before he replies: “Umm. I hope that we can. There’s been this assumption that the web is only there for stealing music and that the most important industry is the media industry,” he says a little mockingly, “but I think it’s reasonable that I should pay for music.” There is a constructive tension between academic and commercial interests in the web, he says, likening the two forces to the wind blowing a sail one way and the water pushing a keel another, driving the boat forward.
He does not think it is reasonable that copyright infringers should have their internet access cut off, as envisaged in France under the Hadopi law. “I think you can fine people but disconnecting a family from the internet is not appropriate. It’s like a form of imprisonment. Psychologically, for a teenager, they would probably go to jail with their iPhone rather than be deprived of connectivity.”
I take another bite of my lunch. The chick pea fritter, as brown as the pita, is cut with a colourful kohlrabi, carrot and red cabbage coleslaw. It is hard to keep it from spilling out, and I notice that Berners-Lee’s side of the table is already decorated with bits of egg and diced cucumber.
Anxious governments like to ask Berners-Lee how they can foster innovation and I ask the same question. His answer surprises me: the conditions behind the invention of the web were rather specific, he says. “Like gorgeous situations when you’re sitting out having coffee, you’re looking at the Alps, when you feel as though the air is so clear you can touch Mont Blanc if you reach your hand out, then it lifts the spirit.”
Surroundings matter, he says. Gehry’s Stata Center is a building where you bump into people because “it’s so confusing that they’re quite likely to get lost and find their way wandering past your office”. Such encounters give a campus value even in the online education era, he adds. “Otherwise we could each have bought a sandwich in our respective offices and communicated over the internet, couldn’t we?”
He continues: “I think a lot of great software has been written by people who are scratching a short-term itch, something which has been niggling them for ages, but in the back of their mind they’ve got a wonderful long-term plan.”
But is there enough big academic innovation going on, I ask, or do Silicon Valley wannabes now just dream of an Instagram-style fast $1bn from creating applications that make digital snaps look like their parents’ Polaroids and selling them to Facebook?
“I’m biased to think that there hasn’t been enough. I would have liked to have seen more development around open data,” he replies. Berners-Lee, who has spent years working on the “semantic web” of machine-processable data, is a director of the UK government’s new Open Data Institute, which aims to make more official data available and to train people how to use it to commercial and other ends.
He puts aside his unfinished pita, and pulls out an iPhone, the first time he has consulted a gadget since I arrived. Stopping a passer-by, he asks her to record our lunch with a picture. Surely I should be the one asking for a souvenir, I say. “That happens too often,” he replies, adding that at one point he had “religious rules” about photographing people he meets. “It could make quite a good coffee table book about photography,” he says as we gather up the remains of our lunch. He picks up the pebbles that weighed down our “reserved” note and walks to the side of the lawn, carefully replacing them in the gravel border.
As we walk off, I ask what he was coding during the Olympics opening ceremony. When his children were young, he answers, he would tell them, “Everything you don’t understand is magic.” As they grew up, he refused to repeat his old magic tricks. “When you understand things, there’s no more magic,” he smiles. “So I think that the opening ceremony should remain as magic.”
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s media editor
Clover Food Truck,
77 Massachusetts Avenue, US
Gazpacho x2 $6.00
Egg and eggplant pita $6.00
Chickpea fritter pita $6.00
Iced tea x2 $4.00