Tim Berners-Lee

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  • Don’t blame Tim Berners-Lee, not for cat memes, spam or even the way his gift connected and emboldened the absolute worst among us. A hammer is a weapon or a tool depending on how you swing it, and like almost any invention, the World Wide Web is as good as people utilizing it. A lot of us aren’t very good right now.
  • Marshall McLuhan feared the Global Village even as he was heralding its arrival 50 years ago. He believed all this closeness, these worlds colliding, could explode. He encouraged us to study the new arrangement–“why not devote your powers to discerning patterns?”–lest we’d be overrun by them. Plenty among us know the issues at hand, but they’re not easy to address.
  • There’s no doubt the Internet does a lot of good and some of its worst excesses can be curbed, but the trouble with this tool isn’t that we’re not yet familiar enough with decentralized media and soon enough we’ll have a handle on the situation. The problems seem inherent to the medium, which is a large-scale experiment in anarchy, and just as sure as we correct some of bugs, others will take flight.
  • During the Arab Spring there was much debate over whether the Internet aas actually useful in toppling states. I think it is, regardless of whether the nation or usurpers happen to be good or bad.

In a Guardian essay, Berners-Lee offers biting criticism of his pet project, suggesting fixes. I wonder though, as with Facebook promising to address its shortcomings, if the system isn’t built for mayhem. That may be especially true since most citizens don’t seem very bothered by handing over their personal information in exchange for sating some psychological needs, offering their own Manhattan for some shiny beads.

An excerpt:

1) We’ve lost control of our personal data

The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.

This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with – or coercion of – companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused – bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, such as sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.•

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During the new Ask Me Anything at Reddit with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, it doesn’t seem anyone asked the Web inventor about ISIS using his gift to the world to disseminate decapitation videos. Not that he would have an answer for such atrocities more than anyone else. A hammer can be a tool or a weapon depending on how we swing it, and it’s up to all of us to ensure that things created in good conscience aren’t horribly misused. That won’t be easy with the Internet, which has turned out to be a grand experiment in many things, anarchy and surveillance among them, but we must remain mindful. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

What’s the best thing to come from the Internet?

Tim Berners-Lee:

The spirit of global collaboration among all the people working on it.

Question:

You misspelled “cat videos.”

Question:

You misspelled “porn.”

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Question:

With the developments about internet users’ privacy (or lack of) online, what would you recommend we do? Do we stand up to the government, or get around these problems with encryption, etc.?

Tim Berners-Lee:

Great and very important question, with no simple answer. We must work with government to make them accountable when they use our personal data — however they got it. Just a battle of crypto might is not a solution, we also need to change laws and change the structure of government agencies. We need to give the police certain power in exchange for transparency and accountability. And we need to encrypt email and web traffic everywhere, for general security.

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Question:

Do you remember your first thoughts, or words, when you achieved the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server?

Tim Berners-Lee:

Nope. I was head down getting stuff working…. the server and client were both on my machine at that stage… I wasn’t using source code control, so I could not go back and find the critical commit with the “hmm GET seems to work” comment :-)

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Question:

What are your views/thoughts/feelings on net neutrality?

Tim Berners-Lee:

Net neutrality is really important. Basically we do so much cool stuff on top of the network layer, it has to remain an unbiased infrastructure for all our discussion, innovation, etc. I must have the right to be able to communicate with whatever or whoever I want, without discrimination, be it political or commercial.

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Question:

In his 2012 book Cypherpunks, Julian Assange wrote, “the Internet is a threat to human civilization.” He was referring to the great potential for surveillance and control of people. To what degree do you agree with that statement, and what can we do to ensure the Internet of the future supports life, freedom, and autonomy?

Tim Berners-Lee:

“Any powerful tool can be used for good or ill” <– true but we have to make sure on balance good things win. We need to protect against not only governments but criminals too, and viral conspiracy theories which seem to sprout from nowhere. I think that if we the people stand firm in democratic countries and demand that all power over the net taken by government comes with direct accountability to the people in how it is used, then we can indeed have a wonderful civilization. We need to keep it decentralized both technically and socially. We need to protect our rights using both code and law.

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Question:

What do you think about memes?

Tim Berners-Lee:

One does not simply ask the inventor of the WWW what he thinks about memes.

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Question:

Whats your best non-Internet thing that you love?

Tim Berners-Lee:

People.•

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Despite, you know, the issues, I’m happy there’s a World Wide Web, understanding how much it’s enriched my life with its trove of information. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who gifted the globe with double-yous, spoke about his creation and other topics with Lucy Ingham of Factor-Tech. A passage about AI:

“Turning his attention to artificial intelligence, Berners-Lee argues that it was, more or less, already here.

‘Yes, you don’t have a completely human-like assistant helping you with everything,’ he says. ‘But originally, 20 years ago they taught in schools that there are things that people can do and things that computers can do.

‘Computers can do calculations; computers can do lots of data. People can do intuitive things like music and play chess. People can do things which need really sort of very powerful parallel processing, like driving a car, which is the sort of thing that computing can never do.

‘Ok, hello? A large number of those things which were up there as challenging for artificial intelligence actually have quietly gone by. AI has done that.’

In the future, Berners-Lee sees AI dominating communications.

‘As the machines get more powerful, and in something like financial trading in a lot of companies the work is all done by machines. The machines are making the trading decisions, the machines are basically running the company. So that means that communication out there is largely going to be machine communication – it’s going to be data.'”

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Two passages, one from five years ago and one from today, about how the anarchy of the Internet has released the devil inside us all.

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In 2009, Jim Windolf of Vanity Fair wrote a good article about Internet trolls even before the term existed, but even though biting blogs have been supplanted by social media, his prediction about the decline of anonymous online hating did not come true–at least not yet–in fact it’s taken on new and even more hurtful forms. An excerpt from his piece:

“Online rudeness probably won’t last forever. I think it’s just a fashion. Things change. Stuff that seems cool gets stale. It feels like it won’t, but it does. So it seems reasonable to guess that online nastiness will fade—not through any enforcement, but just because it will go out of style. There will always be flame wars. There will always be online lunkheads and goons. But in a few years maybe you won’t really want to be the one calling someone else a douche-tard in a comments section.”

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From Alex Hern’s Guardian article, Tim Berners-Lee on what he hath wrought, complete unintentionally:

“Tim Berners-Lee has expressed sadness that the web has mirrored the dark side of humanity, as well as enabling its ‘wonderful side’ to flourish.

The developer, who created the web in 1990 while working for the particle collider project Cern in Switzerland, said that the web is a reflection of human nature elsewhere, but that he had hoped ‘that the web would provide tools and fora and new ways of communicating that would break down national barriers and allow us to just get to a better global understanding.

‘Well, maybe it’ll happen in the future … Maybe we will be able to build web-based tools that help us keep people on the path of collaborating rather than fighting.’

Speaking to BBC News, Berners-Lee said that it was ‘staggering’ that people ‘who clearly must have been brought up like anybody else will suddenly become very polarised in their opinions, will suddenly become very hateful rather than very loving.'”

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who gave us the web and refuses to take it back no matter how nicely we ask, just did an AMA at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

Do you ever look at the stuff on the web now and feel like Robert Oppenheimer?

Tim Berners-Lee:

No, not really. The web is a — primarily neutral — tool for humanity. When you look at humanity you see the good and the bad, the wonderful and the awful. A powerful tool can be used for good or ill. Things which are really bad are illegal on the web as they are off it. On balance, communication is good think I think: much of the badness comes from misunderstanding.

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Question:

Edward Snowden- Hero or Villain?

Tim Berners-Lee:

Because he ✓ had no other alternative ✓ engaged as a journalist / with a journalist to be careful of how what was released, and ✓ provided an important net overall benefit to the world, I think he should be protected, and we should have ways of protecting people like him. Because we can try to design perfect systems of government, and they will never be perfect, and when they fail, then the whistleblower may be all that saves society.

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Question:

What are your thoughts on the increased surveillance on internet based mediums like GCHQ’s monitoring of all the Yahoo video chats. Do you personally think it should be controlled, non existent or fine the way it is now?

Tim Berners-Lee:

I think that some monitoring of the net by government agencies is going to be needed to fight crime. We need to invent a new system of checks and balances with unprecedented power to be able to investigate and hold the agencies which do it accountable to the public.

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Question:

What other names did you consider other than the world wide web?

Tim Berners-Lee:

Mine of Information, The Information Mine, The Mesh

None had quite the right ring. I liked WWW partly because I could start global variable names with a W and not have them clash with other peoples’ (in a C world) …in fact I used HT for them)

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Question:

What was one of the things you never thought the internet would be used for, but has actually become one of the main reasons people use the internet?

Tim Berners-Lee:

Kittens.•

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From John Naish’s New Statesman profile of World Wide Web creator, Tim Berners-Lee, who gave away his invaluable creation and wants it to remain open and unfettered:

“Berners-Lee formally introduced his hobby-built system to the world on 6 August 1991 by posting a message on an internet bulletin board for fellow hypertext program developers. That day, he put the world’s first proper website online. It explained what a website was and gave details of how to create one. Neither initiative caused any immediate interest.

It feels odd to picture him struggling to convince people of the web’s potential. ‘It was just a load of hard work,’ he says – ‘getting up in the morning and thinking, ‘What the hell will I do today? Should I ask people at Cern to instal browsers? Should I get more servers running, write more code for browsers, or should I talk at a conference? Or should I do my own website as an example for other people?'” (Thanks Broswer.)

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Eugene Mirman interviews Sir Tim Berners-Lee:

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