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If you like Timothy Berners-Lee's story, you might also like:
Jeff Bezos,
Sergey Brin,
Stephen Case,
Michael Dell,
Lawrence Ellison,
Bill Gates,
John Hennessy,
Ray Kurzweil,
Craig McCaw,
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and Larry Page

Related Links:
Timothy Berners-Lee
World Wide Web Consortium
The Data Web
The Semantic Web: An Overview

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Sir Timothy Berners-Lee
Sir Timothy Berners-Lee
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Sir Timothy Berners-Lee Interview (page: 7 / 8)

Father of the World Wide Web

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  Sir Timothy Berners-Lee

What responsibility do you think computer scientists have in society? You're associated with the idea that there is a moral responsibility as well as a technical responsibility.

Timothy Berners-Lee: I think everybody has a moral responsibility, wherever they participate in the planet, to try not to do anything bad, to try to do good things. Achieve that first. I'm building the web. It's a program, and also a web browser, or a web editor to talk to a server. It allows you to make links, but in fact, there is a social part to the design as well.

The social part of the design is that -- one -- I, psychologically, would like to be read, I would like my output to be read. To do that I am motivated to make it of apparent value. So I try to put good stuff in it. I try not to lie. I try to be entertaining maybe, or I try to be valuable or useful, depending on what sort of web page I'm writing. And also, I realize, to be valuable, the only way I can really make my page valuable is to make links, to allow somebody who has got there, but needs something related to it -- so it had to be a source for other things. So I collect things which are related to my page, and I make helpful links. So I do that, and I'm motivated to do that 'cause I want people to come to my page, because I want them to read. Nowadays, it is because of advertising. Originally, it was just because people wanted to feel useful. They wanted to be read just for the kudos.

So there is this little system here. It's a psychological system, maybe an economic system, which involves people and links. That's why the World Wide Web works, apart from the technical fact that when you click on a link, you go to another page. There are an awful lot of systems which, in fact, have a technical part intimately bound up with a social part.

Most systems that even the most technical geeky-looking person is doing, when you ask him why he is doing it, he's doing it for some social effect. He's doing it because he wants to solve a problem, a problem that he's got maybe. I think, often, some of the best programs are written by people who want to solve their own problems, even though they're supposed to go out and find focus groups and ask general people in the street what their problems are. A lot of people do it for their own benefit, or for somebody very close to them, a problem they see. So you'll find there's always a social motivation between these things.

The tricky thing is that when we make a system like this, there is the relationship between the microscopic and the macroscopic. I can make a system which allows me to make some links and you to follow it. How do I know if that will lead to a web of good stuff?

Somebody designs the idea of a Wiki, a place where anybody can edit. They say, "Okay. The technical pieces, we've taken out all the access control. The social pieces, this is your space. Please be careful. Respect it. Okay?" It worked. Who would have guessed? Ten years ago, who would have guessed that a Wiki would have worked. I think very few people would have actually believed it. I don't think that necessarily venture capitalists would have invested in it, but somebody had a gut feeling that this thing would scale, because actually, the kudos of having contributed to a Wikipedia page, and the frustration of seeing -- of avoiding -- of being able to fix the fact that a Wikipedia page actually was slightly wrong, and the satisfaction of being able to find more or less anything on Wikipedia, all combined motivate the construction of Wikipedia. So Wikipedia has produced a huge social benefit.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee Interview Photo
It has happened because of microscopic design. Set a scale of Wiki, scale up to this macroscopic emergent phenomenon of Wikipedia, which is not managed. So computer scientists have to make sure the computer doesn't hurt anybody. When a web scientist designs something with millions of computers connected to each other, then a web scientist has the moral responsibility to think about what's going to happen on the large scale. What is going to be the emergent phenomenon that happens with this? Then, when something happens, normally we have to analyze it to see whether it looks good and then make a new version which fixes the bugs in the original version, and so on and so on.

Do you ever stop and think about the fact that you have revolutionized the way we access information?

Timothy Berners-Lee: No, I don't. I don't stop and think about the fact that I have revolutionized the web except in interviews like this. We have revolutionized the web. It's been a long journey. I've never pushed a bobsled, but the analogy I use is a bobsled. It looks as though bobsled teams start off pushing really hard, and the bobsled seems to be moving not at all. Then it picks up speed slowly, everybody pushing very, very hard, and then at a certain point, you have to jump in because it goes over the edge and it's going faster and faster. There was a bit of that with the web. Forming the consortium, rising, we have to have steering. We have to have some social structure around this to hold it together. So in all this pushing and all this jumping in and all this steering, there isn't a lot of time for looking back and saying, "Oh, what a nice, shiny bobsled! We get to the bottom really fast in this bobsled!" It's still going on. It's not finished. There are lots of concerns about the future.

There are lots of new things ready to be designed. Really, you have to think about web technology at the moment as the tip of a very large iceberg. When the first Internet messages were sent, or the first e-mail messages, some people may have thought, "Wow! We have changed the world now. You can send a message across the world just by typing it, and it arrives before you can read it out loud. So now, how will the world be different?" As though there's been a sea change, and now we're going to settle down to a stable life. You were wrong. The pace of change is increasing. It's not getting any slower. The web has happened, but it's one step. The web itself, to start with, it's part of a plan. We've got the Data Web, which we haven't got out there yet, and that's going to have very dramatic effects. Going to make us much more powerful in the things that we do. There are going to be a lot more things built on top of the web. There are going to be layers and layers on top of the web. And all the time, computers are getting more powerful. People are becoming connected together, the world being smaller. So there's very little time for sitting back and thinking, "Oh, look what we did."

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