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If you like Timothy Berners-Lee's story, you might also like:
Jeff Bezos,
Sergey Brin,
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Michael Dell,
Lawrence Ellison,
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Sir Timothy Berners-Lee
Sir Timothy Berners-Lee
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Sir Timothy Berners-Lee Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Father of the World Wide Web

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  Sir Timothy Berners-Lee

What concerns you about the use of the web? Do you have any concerns about it?

Timothy Berners-Lee: I have a whole lot of concerns. The web, of course, is not a network of computers. The web is a network of people. The web is humanity interconnected. Whenever anybody publishes a web page, it is published by somebody. Whenever a web page is read, it is read by somebody. The links are made because somebody felt that this was relevant to that. So if we're worried about the web, it's because we're worried about humanity, and of course, there are all kinds of worries about that. There's worry that people can put up their recipe for how to make atomic bombs. There's worry that people can put up all kinds of stuff which really doesn't help kids keep their eyes on sort of the straight and narrow, and distracts them with naked bodies or violence.

There are worries that, at one end of the scale, people will be able to design websites which all link together and all share a common fallacy, a common myth, so that you end up with getting a cult which can set itself up among people who only read each other's e-mails, and websites that only link to each other, in such a way that when the members of the cult meet somebody from outside the cult, they have no common language -- apart from shooting them. Things like the Heaven's Gate story showed us that people can, in a group, share a common belief which is very, very damaging and really very, very bizarre. It just shocks anybody else. So there's one worry that the web could be a channel for these potholes of culture which people would get trapped in very dangerously.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee Interview Photo
There is another constant worry that the web will just become what's sometimes called the "McDonald's culture." That's what the French were worried about when they put a connection in across the Atlantic between America and France. They worried that the pressure of American culture would rush in, and everything would go down to the lowest common denominator, to the smallest language, the common language used by all the peoples of the world, as they feared McDonald's taking over their restaurants. I used this example in a talk at a conference, and when I got back to my hotel room, I found that just underneath the fold of the International Herald Tribune, which was delivered to my room that day, was a story about the French farmer putting a chain around a half-constructed McDonald's and towing it away with his tractor. This was actually a serious fear for a lot of people in France about their cuisine. They imagine, for some reason, that the pressure of the Louvre and all the huge amount of French culture wouldn't push back the other way.

This is a reasonable fear to have, that if you connect everybody together, they will all end up talking the same, very ineffective, very poor language, and this will be the price we have for common understanding. So, on one side of it, okay. So if everybody talks like teens, with small sentences, very, very simple ideas, but if they do it like teens across the planet, without worrying about who they're talking to, without any initial discrimination against particular types of people -- people of particular color, or race or religion or gender, then maybe the hope is maybe the web can lead to the world becoming a more harmonious place, to giving the greater understanding which we need for peace. But will we have to pay for this by losing the depth of a culture?

The death of a culture? The cult problem? I have this happy optimism about humanity, that actually we naturally steer away from these extremes. I think that naturally, we behave in groups. We don't spend very much time thinking about the whole planet and using the lowest common denominator language. We may spend some of our time listening to a radio station which is about world affairs, or reading a newspaper which is about world affairs, but a lot of the time, we also spend listening to a radio station about local affairs or about a particular form of folk music that we like. We spend a lot of time working within either a geographic area or perhaps among a particular field or people who are interested in a particular music or something.

We exist in lots of different communities: some big global communities, some small; the limiting one being the community of one that happens when I climb a tree and just sit in it and think to myself for a while, which I have to do every now and again, too. I think that if you look at people, you will find that they spread their attention between the large scale and the small scale. I think we have evolved to be people who need to do that. If we spend all our time in a tree, we go crazy. If we spend none of our time in a tree, we go crazy. So we balance it out, and by individually spending our time in these different communities, then we end up connecting them all together. We think locally, act globally; think globally, act locally. We connect these things together. So when we're in something that looks like a cult, we do some global thinking and bring it out. When we look at something that looks too global, we do some local thinking and add a little color, start a spin-off group that might think a little bit different. The challenge, I think, as we engineer the web as a system, given that it is supporting humanity, is that we should make the web to support a very diverse set of communities like this.

This is a set of communities which has got structure on lots of different scales, every scale. We're getting to nearly ten to the power of ten --- that's one and ten zeroes -- people on the planet. So there are ten scales if you go up in powers of ten -- one, ten, one hundred, one thousand -- ten levels. I think that all of those levels are important. So we are trying to build systems which will allow each of those levels, communities of all those different sizes, to flourish and to be interconnected.

What about the web in a social and political context? There are governments that clearly want to limit access to the web.

Timothy Berners-Lee: There are governments and there have been governments always that have tried to limit access to information. I think it's a slow process, but I think it's inexorable that connectivity slowly extends itself. People want it desperately, themselves, individually. Governments realize, bit by bit, that actually having communication is very important for the economic well-being of a country. People realize that trying to filter things is a losing battle. It makes the people who you filter out so much more energized and motivated to try to get around the censorship. So I don't think it's something which a country can change overnight, but I think that we're seeing it change inexorably, so I'm optimistic about censorship slowly being lifted.

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 14:54 EDT
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