There’s a story that’s been told about you, that you built your first computer out of spare parts with a soldering iron. Is that true?
Timothy Berners-Lee: Yeah. In those days, the computer and the terminal that you used to talk to your computer were separate boxes. So, during Oxford, I started with building a terminal.
I got a job working in a sawmill over the vacation to get money to go around Europe. And in the sawmill, there was a big dumpster, an empty dumpster, empty except for an old calculator which had these rows of buttons. I had this dream of putting together a computer terminal. So I heaved it out and took it home and removed those buttons and then relabeled them with a QWERTY keyboard and then put sort of diode matrices on the back to produce the right code, binary code for each number. So that gave me the keyboard. Then I went down to the TV store and asked the guy whether he had any TVs which he could give me for cheap which had a working monitor, but where the radio frequency tuner had broken. He rolled his eyes and said yeah, he sure did have lots like that. I could take my pick. I actually got two.
So I bought those, five pounds at a time. One of my friends at Oxford had explained to me how all this valve circuitry in the black-and-white television worked, and how to find the video point where the 1-volt peak-to-peak video could be injected, so that you could use it as a computer monitor. The rest of the computer monitor, the thing which put all the dots on the screen, and the shape of characters, is logic, hardware logic, which I bought piece by piece and sewed it up. So by the time I got to the end of my career at Oxford, on the side I’d also put together a computer monitor with 64 characters across and 16 lines down, because that would use exactly one kilobyte of memory. So then I needed a computer. I think, actually, to be born in 1955 was, in a way, very special because…
There I was in elementary school, winding relays, making solenoids and relays out of wire, which is something you can do when you’re in elementary school. Now, you can actually build something which does a certain amount of logic. You can build a gate out of relays made out of pieces of baked bean can torn up and made into switches, and then the switches are operated by the electromagnets that you made out of nails and wire. So you could actually build a gate, and therefore, you could build a register, and you could build the CPU of a computer, and you can build memory units. So in fact, if you have enough time and enough power and enough nails, you could actually build a whole computer out of nails.
But in fact, when my friends and I got into secondary school, transistors came out. Transistors had already been invented, but when we were in secondary school, it got to the point where you could buy a bag of 500, untested. That is, rejects, untested transistors. So we’d take them home, find out which of them had been incorrectly tested and in fact worked, and then we used to grade them by what sort of amplifying gain they had, put them in different boxes, and then use them to make circuits. So we could use those to make much smaller circuits, and we made flip-flops which remembered whether the model train was going or not, or which would stay in one state or the other, or which would stay in one state long enough for the train whistle to blow and then flip back to turn the train off.
So we had the ability to make logic in transistors. We could have made huge amounts of logic out of that, but it would have been really tedious. In practice, we would never have been able to do it, but as it happened, just when we needed it in our self-education, these little black chips came out. These chips had hundreds of transistors on each shift. So we could buy a shift register, and we knew how a shift register worked because we built the first one out of a few transistors one Saturday. Then we could buy the whole thing all prepackaged, so we could make things out of lots of shift registers. So there were lots of shift registers, each of which was just one of these little black bugs soldered into the terminal.
So riding that wave, in 1976, I’ve got the experience with logic, I know how to build a computer, and I know what it takes. I could have sat down and hard-wired the whole thing out of that, but at that point, miraculously, you could buy a slightly larger chip which actually had the whole processor on board, the M6800. So I bought an evaluation chip, designed as an evaluation, set for 6800. I still had to solder a bunch of stuff, put a clock circuitry around it and connect it up to memory circuitry. I had them on little cards — I guess 3U-high cards, for anyone who is interested. A little back plane with an M6800 bus and I plugged it in. I think I had 256 bytes of memory when I started, and that was a lot of fun. So I think we were really lucky. Now that you have learned how to make a computer, to save you the bother, here it is. So I spent the next few years designing computer languages to run. All these very simple computer little languages, a bit like Forth. A friend of mine pointed me at a very simple language called Forth. I made one called 10PL, which was like Forth, but had parentheses in it. So there was continuing education.
I was really lucky to know how a computer worked, ’cause I’d built one. I built it. I had my terminal with its 64-character lines, and I had it connected to my computer, which was in a crate this big with a big car battery at the bottom in case the power failed. I knew how it worked because I knew how I could have built the chip out of gates, and I knew how I could have built the gates out of transistors. I didn’t really know how transistors worked, but I knew I could have made the equivalents of a transistor. I learned a certain amount from the physics course about how solid-state systems work, and I knew how I could emulate each of those out of nails. So now, when I look at a laptop, I see all those pixels and see the windows moving. I know that I could build the operating systems, and I have built little operating systems since. I don’t know how well anybody nowadays, without going through that historical phase, could ever feel that they really know how a computer works.
Were there books around on how to make a computer or did you discover all of this for yourself?
Timothy Berners-Lee: There were all kinds of things around. There wasn’t the web, of course, but the TTL chips from Texas Instruments came with the Orange Book, which described how each of these things would work. They’d have just these two rows of pins that you have to solder in, and you needed the book to tell you which pin connected to what. I remember my friend Nick and I would look at another page of the book, and there would be some long, complicated description of a circuit. We didn’t really know what it did. We couldn’t figure out what it did. There were magazine articles about transistors. Nick was a great reader, but mainly — we just figured it out by connecting things together.
Is it true that while you were at Oxford, you were caught hacking?
Timothy Berners-Lee: I was caught misusing computer equipment. Yeah. It was the line printer, in fact. Yeah. So I got thrown off. That was another incentive to make my own computer is I was thrown off the nuclear physics lab computer by a system manager, Joyce Clark, who fortunately knew my parents pretty well, worked with them.
You were interested in computers from such an early age. How would you describe your childhood growing up in London in the 1950’s and ’60s?
Timothy Berners-Lee: I suppose the most significant is “happy.” “Fun.” I had a happy childhood. My parents were both mathematicians. They obviously had a lot of fun with math. I was the eldest. I am the eldest of four. We all grew up in an atmosphere where math was sort of interesting, it was everywhere. So making pudding or making a pie involved some calculations and things. I suppose when I was little, I had two friends in elementary school, and we would discuss science. We weren’t very athletic. We would walk around the playground and talk about chemistry and biology and physics, and we would wind electromagnets by taking transformer wire and wrap it around a nail. I remember those electromagnets didn’t work very well. The book said you should put the nail in the hearth, in the embers of the fire, and let it cool, so that it got the right temper — but we didn’t have a fire with embers, so that never happened. The nail would become a permanent magnet. That was the first sort of interest in, I suppose, what was to become later electronics.
How old were you?
Timothy Berners-Lee: I suppose that was in primary school.
Were those early indications of where you were headed in your life’s work?
Timothy Berners-Lee: Oh, I think definitely. The three of us wanted to write a book about science. Then we decided to dig a hole in the backyard to make an underground lab in which to write the book. So the book made slow progress, but I think we were definitely heading in that direction. In secondary school, I commuted by rail, on the trains to Emanuel School in Wandsworth. That school actually was between two train tracks. It was very difficult to escape from. You were surrounded by trains. So a lot of kids train spotted, and I joined the train spotters. I had model trains. But halfway through that, I progressively moved my interest from the trains to the electronics that would control them, and making things, so that the train would stop at the station. I remember I had a mobius loop-type train track where you could switch the points, so that the train would go around one track completely and then switch to the other side and go around it completely and then switch back. Then electronics became more interesting.
What were the early influences in your life? Family? Teachers? Books?
Timothy Berners-Lee: I think family. My parents were both mathematicians, but also excited about it, interested in it and, of course, they encouraged reading. Probably, the absence of television for most of my upbringing must have had all good effects. I become more and more convinced that it drains. As I tell my children, watching television drains your brain out with a small plug.
Later on, as I went through high school, then I came across a couple of teachers who were also great: Daffy Pernell, who taught chemistry; Frank Grundy, who taught math. Both excited, just bubbling over with enthusiasm, just so excited about the idea. So you could talk to them. Just after class, the class would all leave, and they’d continue to talk excitedly about something, maybe going out from the curriculum to something that they were actually personally more interested in. And Frank was great. When he would put a problem on the board for the class, he would say, “Okay. Work this out, for N equals 2,” and then for anybody who was interested, he sort of thought, “Is that true for all N?” or “Is there a quick, better way of doing this?” Just these little teasers. Or he’d end up with having got through the algebraic with a sum, the difference between two numbers to the power of 3.5 or something, and he’d then write it down to three decimal places straight off. We thought that was magic, or he cheated, and then he’d explain how he’d use the binomial theorem or whatever it is, and have an approximation. So he was full of — I guess it’s the passion is the main thing, and just letting it radiate. So both of those were good mentors, role models.
How do you explain your early interest in computers?
Timothy Berners-Lee: My parents met on the team that was designing the first computer in the UK. Manchester University had produced a booster computer. Ferranti took it over for commercial production and they called it the Mark I. It was built at Ferranti in a little tin shed attached to the main building. It wasn’t in a normal department.
My mother was one of the earliest programmers. My father, he worked in London, but he took the train up to Manchester a whole lot, increasingly as he got to know my mother. Then they moved down to London, and then they had me. Ferranti’s had an office in Putney, which later became International Computers and Tabulators and then International Computers Limited. So they started off when there was all of the excitement when the second register was added to the computer, a second accumulator. So I think when they started, all of these mathematicians were full of the idea that what you could do with the computer was limited only by your imagination, and you could prove that. If somebody else built another computer which was fancier, you could program your computer to emulate that computer, and therefore, your computer could do whatever their computer could do. So it’s just a question of the imagination you can put into the program, and that is quite a challenge. I think later on, with network information systems, people felt the same thing, this “Wow! We can build huge systems!” Now on the web, what you can do with building a web site, what you can do building a new web application, is limited only by your imagination. That’s the challenge that’s out there for people today.
Do you recall your first encounter with the computer?
Timothy Berners-Lee: I think I was taken to see them. When I was very small, maybe five or six, I was taken in to Daddy’s work, to see a computer. I remember it as being a big cabinet with a clock on it, and with a desk with a paper tape reader. One box which was a paper tape reader and one box which was a paper tape punch. So I came home and put a clock on my cupboard, and put a desk in front of it, and I put one cardboard box, which you pushed the paper tape into, and one cardboard box that you pulled the paper tape out of. So that was my first computer. I didn’t get to really use computers until I got to Oxford.
What did you read growing up? What interested you?
Timothy Berners-Lee: As a teen I read science fiction. I read whodunits, Agatha Christie. I read John Wyndham, Arthur C. Clarke. I has a problem with sci-fi books. I’d get stuck in them and not stop until morning, having finished a book, which would be kind of disastrous for the next day. Apart from that, I always liked the outdoors, walked with friends over the mountains, first around the hills in England and then those in Wales and Scotland, later in the Alps.
We saw a reference to a particular Arthur C. Clarke story that excited or inspired you in some way as a kid.
Timothy Berners-Lee: I’m not sure. I think there’s probably one you’re talking about which has been seized on by lots of interviewers, because I used it as an example to somebody interviewing me. Somebody was afraid of the web itself becoming a conscious being which would take us all over, and I said, “What do you mean? Like in Dial F for Frankenstein?” So Dial F for Frankenstein is the Arthur C. Clarke story which embodied that. For me, it’s a label for that fear of the web waking up, like a baby taking its first cry. But I wouldn’t say that it was an inspiration for doing the web.
What interested you most in school?
Math was my favorite subject, I suppose, at school, but on the other hand, I was interested in this electronics. So I thought I’d do physics as being a compromise between the two. It wasn’t. It was something completely different, I realized. The philosophy of physics is different, and I think physics is pretty special. I’m glad that I did do it, but it did not prepare me. It did not turn me into a mathematician, and it did not really allow me to do electronics. It allowed me to do a lot of thinking, all sorts of interesting ways, and I realized the relationship between the microscopic and the macroscopic. The microscopic rules of behavior of atoms, and the macroscopic behavior of them and so on, is really very interesting. That difference is now crucial between the microscopic way in which two computers interact over the network and the way the whole web behaves, which we’re now calling “web science.” The difference between the microscopic and the macroscopic is still a challenging step.
You went to Queen’s College at Oxford. What was that like?
Timothy Berners-Lee: College was a really exciting time, really one of the best times. Suddenly being an independent person, meeting all these exciting, interesting people. At Oxford, I felt a sort of mixed blessing, this huge weight of all those who have gone before through those hallowed arches and echoing cloisters. I found it was great just to be in that environment, to walk into the library which was hundreds of years old. I felt a lot of respect had been conferred upon all of us who’d been allowed to go there and that it should be mutual. It was really a very powerful feeling to be somewhere which has been created for study and learning. This is the place. This is the way of life that has been created for study and learning. So that was, as we would now say, “awesome” to be involved in. And then, on the other side, of course it’s such a lot of fun to be with so many people, and this constant tension between whether you should be punting on the river up to the Victoria Arms for a pint or finishing some more physics problems. I realized that, actually, the physics problems probably wouldn’t have gone so well if it hadn’t been for the punting in between, and the punting would not have had that incredible feeling if we hadn’t known in the back of our minds that we ought to be doing physics problems.
Did you play tiddlywinks against Cambridge. Is that true?
Timothy Berners-Lee: I did play tiddlywinks. You’ve dug up all kinds of interesting little things. That’s actually true. It’s not as though that would characterize my life as a great tiddlywinker. I only played tiddlywinks once. I found out that some of my friends in another college were going to Cambridge in a bus. My good friend, Nick, that I had all these childhood adventures with, with electronics, was at Cambridge. He switched to biology and genetics. Now he’s a Fellow of the Society and a very respected professor of genetics up in Edinburgh, but at that point, he was in Cambridge. I wanted to go and see him, and I heard that there was a bus going, taking the entire Oxford University Tiddlywinks Team for a varsity match, no less, between the two universities. I knew all the people on this tiddlywinks team were not very serious people; this was not like a rowing team. So they said, “Oh, come along. All you have to do is you have to learn a few terms,” which now have completely escaped me. “We’ll probably get knocked out pretty quickly, because the Cambridge people are really serious about tiddlywinks. We’re just up there for the ride.” So I caught a ride and got to see Nick, played a little bit of tiddlywinks, and got back.
We thought maybe you’d discovered some unknown way to win at tiddlywinks.
Timothy Berners-Lee: Absolutely not.
We all take the web for granted now. We use it every day without thinking about it, but somebody had to think of it and realize its potential and usefulness and how to achieve it. How did you do that?
Timothy Berners-Lee: I think the creative process is fascinating. One, because it’s essential to progress. Two, because it’s really exciting. I get a kick out of designing something, making something that works. I think we all do. We have different forms of creativity, but just as we get a kick out of skiing down a mountain or eating sugar, we get this visceral — I don’t know whether it’s a dump of dopamine or what. People will tell us soon what it is, but we get it from solving a problem, from things falling into shape.
It’s interesting, the creative moment. The creative process, I should say, which is not a moment. I think it ‘s a long-term process. I think what’s interesting about it is the way it’s inaccessible to us. We can think of a lot of thoughts, but if we think too closely about the creative process, if we put our thoughts in too much order on the page, nothing comes. That’s when you get your writer’s block. That’s fine for writing a recipe. It’s fine for writing a manual for how to put a car together. But if you’re trying to think of something new, or you’re trying to write a poem, you have to let everything flow. The ideas have to be half-formed, and half-formed ideas, we don’t have language to express well.
They float around. They come from different places, and the mind has got this wonderful way of somehow just shoveling them around until one day they fit. They may fit not so well, and then we go for a bike ride or something, and it’s better. Then the more mechanical part takes over and turns it into program. I think that’s exciting too, if you get a kick out of that too. I think it’s fun to take the half-formed idea. I think it would be really nice if we could do this, if this program were to be able to do that. I think it’s great. It’s a challenge, really, to think, “Okay. I can now tell you how to write the code to do that. We’re going to have these types of objects, and we’re going to take this interface apart this way, so now you’re going to be able to look at it this way, and we’re going to make it a whole lot simpler, because otherwise we’ll add too much complexity…” All that sort of process is really interesting too. But…
What people describe as the “Aha!” moment, the “eureka” moment, I think this idea of it being a moment, I’m very suspicious of. I don’t actually believe that Archimedes sat in the bath, saw the water up, and said “Eureka!” I think he probably tried all kinds of things. He tried ways of filling the crown full of little marbles maybe and counting the marbles. Goodness knows what. No, he tried all kinds of ways of estimating its volume. And then he figured, “Ah goodness! Yeah. Water will do it!” But he’d done a lot of preparation, and he probably had a lot of ideas pretty close to it. And in fact, it didn’t happen — (snaps). If you’d started him off on the problem totally fresh and sat him in the bath, nothing would have happened. It wouldn’t have happened without him discussing the problem with people, without him starting to form all of these hypotheses, half-formed things.
I think one of the challenges now is how can we do that better in groups. That’s where I was coming from with the web originally. I wanted it to be something which would allow us to work together, design things together. Now, the really interesting part of the design is when we have lots of people all over the planet, for example, who have part of it in their heads. They have parts of the cure for AIDS, part of an understanding of cancer.
Mankind does not have — humankind, excuse me — does not have an understanding of cancer, but we have all of these half-formed ideas. Can we somehow use the web to transmit those half-formed ideas? Can we make it a space where I can leave a trail? Express to you my half-formed ideas in such a way that you, who have the other part of it — or can see how to take it next — can see that, pick it up, without still having a solution to the problem, and then take it on to somebody else, or add a little piece to it, contribute your piece? So that after a while, eventually, somebody manages to put all the pieces together and solve one of these really big problems which we’ve got before us now. I finished a sentence! Rare thing, huh?
All these other questions aside, what motivates you?
Timothy Berners-Lee: What motivates a human being? I think the excitement of solving problems motivates me. Working with other people, the excitement of doing things together, it’s a fairly visceral sort of thing. I enjoy working with students who have got lots of fresh ideas. I enjoy working with people who have been in the business for ages and who have got lots of new wisdom about it all. There are other things — like flying all over the world persuading people that something is going to be a good idea — which I find that I am not so good at. I’m not a natural fund-raiser. I’m not a natural for explaining to somebody why they need to use this technology, which is what we have to do now with the Semantic Web. I’m back in the same place as I was with the web in 1991. So…
In 1991, ’92, every day I’d have to decide whether to write some code, or go and persuade somebody else to write some code, or write some documentation, or persuade somebody else to write some documentation, or go and give a motivating talk somewhere explaining what the whole thing is supposed to be about, or try to argue with administration for funds or resources or whatever it takes. Today, everything — the same sort of choices exist all the time, and I have to balance my time and find more things. Some things are more motivating than others, but I find to stay sane I have to keep working with other people, and I have to keep programming. I have to keep involved with the actual design.
Other people might have seen this work as a way to become very rich, but you chose to make the web free and available to everybody. Did you ever consider turning it into a commercial enterprise?
Timothy Berners-Lee: Well, let’s get this little myth out of the way. No, I couldn’t have been rich. I’m not a very good entrepreneur, for one thing. Secondly, the whole ethos of the people who designed the Internet, the Internet Engineering Task Force, was a sharing of new ideas, bootstrapping, making systems which would allow us to communicate in such a way that we can then design systems even better. So now we have e-mail, or now we have net news, or now we have the HTTP. The whole ethos was of sharing. The idea of patenting it and trying to run off with the keys to the cars was not part of the world in which I lived. And also, had I done it, I knew very clearly that everybody would have dropped it like a hot potato.
The people who were crucial to the pickup of the web were, for example, people in companies who probably had day jobs, but were doing this out of interest, engineers who were picking it up. If there had been patents around it, their lawyers would have told them not to even read the code, not to download it, not to install it, not to read anything about it, in case they were tainted by something which would allow the company later to be sued. So similarly, somebody else in their garage or their basement, just doing it for fun, they’re doing it because they think it would be really exciting. Because they share the twinkle in their eye, they understand what it would be like if everybody had a web server, or if everybody had a web page and everybody had a web browser. So they’re some of the people who do it because it would be cool if everybody did it. Right?
People who are doing that are not going to do it if the work will actually be intellectual property belonging to this or that company. The web relied, and still relies, on people contributing because they know it’s an open, common system. They know this is the commons. This is our common grazing ground. It’s our common thoroughfare. It’s a space that we’re using together. They are only contributing because of that. When we make new developments like the data protocols, the Data Web, Semantic Web, same thing again. Everybody is excited about the new things which can happen when everything you can do on a computer, you can now do on a phone, as we move towards the mobile web. Whole new markets open up.
Everybody realized that these new markets, these new spaces, these new ideas — there will be new spaces of things in which other things will be built — but they will depend on the basic web infrastructure being royalty-free. It’s always been like that. Every now and again, we’ve had a hiccup when somebody didn’t understand it, when somebody thought that maybe they’d try to make a quick killing by somehow getting a stranglehold on it, somehow finding a way to be able to limit your access — everybody’s access — to the web, and then they would be able to charge for it. Yeah. You can see they had a different gleam in their eyes. But rapidly, they found that really people treated them with the utmost contempt and programmed around them, went around them, and left them, having learned a lesson, and generally picking up the pieces and moving on and joining this world of openness, of open standards, of royalty-free standards.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
You’ve been recognized with so many honors: the Quadriga Award, the Millennium Technology Prize, honorary degrees, knighthood. How do you yourself measure achievement?
Timothy Berners-Lee: I have never liked to put people on a scale. I don’t think it’s helpful. I think that people are all wonderful. They all have different talents. They all have something to contribute. I’ve worked with people who contribute in very different ways. Some of them have contributed in a very introverted fashion, getting one piece of the system working. Others have done it in a very extraverted system: motivating, blogging, speaking, traveling all over the world, trying to get people to move just in a particular direction. It ‘s a very complicated system. So I’m dubbed the “Inventor of the World Wide Web.” So the role I have to play is to speak for the web, to speak about what it is like to be the inventor of the World Wide Web, to encourage people to study computer science and physics and math, and to point out that it is really, really exciting, really, really fun, and that it’s only just beginning. I’ve got these roles. They’re not necessarily roles that I’m particularly good at. What I actually did was write a program that happened to work. Okay, so I think it’s really important. One message for people out there is that…
I’m just an ordinary person. Okay? I wrote this program fairly late in life compared to some people, compared to piano prodigies. I’m just an ordinary person with ordinary faults, who’s difficult to talk to on Monday mornings when they’re grumpy and things. I have lots of problems remembering people’s names and turning up at appointments on time. I’ll get distracted easily, especially if there is some programming going on in the vicinity. So everybody is just a person. We’re all just a person. I think we’re all, if you like, we’re all divine in some way. We’ve all got that. We’ve all got sparks. We’re all very, very special. So I don’t want to explain what it’s like to be special, because I’m not more special than anybody else.
When bright young people come to you for advice, what do you say to them?
Timothy Berners-Lee: I don’t know really. I suppose I could try all kinds of potted aphorisms, sort of “stay off drugs” sort of thing. Maybe in this interview, quite a lot has come through, that math and physics are fun. Mostly, I think I would have to listen to them. I would have to find out who they are and where they’re coming from, because you can’t really advise somebody or explain anything to anybody until you understand where they’re coming from.
Let’s put it in a different way. If you were making a commencement speech this week, what would you emphasize?
Timothy Berners-Lee: Okay. If I’m put on the spot and forced to make general remarks to people irrespective of where they come from, I suppose one of the things that people perhaps don’t realize, particularly with this “Inventor of the Web” title, is that it’s all been about people, it’s all been about collaboration. Originally, the web technology was to enable collaboration. Everything I did at CERN was in collaboration with other people. The most exciting thing about it has not been, in fact, the technology at all. It’s been the people I’ve been working with. It’s been the spirit of collaboration.
When, initially, the thing was released on the Internet, it went out in various obscure news groups, e-mail messages, and I got messages back from people I didn’t know at all, on completely different continents and islands, saying that they had installed a web server or a new web browser. It helped in some way. Introducing themselves with two lines and just joining in with lots of enthusiasm, lots of creativity, and with their own very special different way of looking at life, and with their own motivations. That has been really, really exciting. When people like that have got together face to face, it’s been electric. The World Wide Web conferences we have — now the Semantic Web Conferences as well — have just got a tremendous energy about them. So doing this thing, doing this web science, is about building a huge system together, and that spirit of collaboration — international collaboration — has been by far the most exciting thing.
Looking ahead at the 21st Century, what most concerns you?
Timothy Berners-Lee: I suppose the biggest threat, if I have to name something, its some organization taking control of the system, some organization getting between the arbitrary person browsing the web and the arbitrary resource and restricting who they can talk to. At the moment, the web’s an open space. You can put up a film, and anybody can go browse it. If somebody tries to go to a site and look at a movie, for example, and then their Internet provider says, “Oh no. Sorry. We sell you movies separately. Because we sell you movies, we don’t want you to go to that site.” Or actually, “We’re worried about your children. So we don’t want you to see sites of that religion, because we feel that religion could be harmful to them,” or perhaps, “We don’t want you to see sites from that particular political debate because we don’t think that it shows our party very well.” You can see how, whether it is a government organization or a commercial organization, once somebody manages to control that information flow on the planet — that is so valuable, it is really important that we keep it open, keep it neutral, that it must be managed with just public good as the goal, by people who are dedicated to keeping it neutral.
What would you have your legacy be? How do you want to be remembered?
Timothy Berners-Lee: How would I want to be remembered? As just a person. I think it’s important to remember that I’m just an ordinary person. I was just a programmer. I wrote a program. It happened to work. This could happen to you.
We’re very grateful to you for taking the time to talk with us. It was wonderful.
Timothy Berners-Lee: You’re welcome.