A man with the world at his web feat

November 27, 1998

Ayala Ochert meets fast-talking WWW inventor Tim Berners-Lee.

For as long as Tim Berners-Lee can remember, computers have been a natural part of life. His parents met while working on the world's first commercial computer, so he grew up surrounded by the paraphernalia of the fledgling computer industry. It was only later that he began to feel that computers could be more natural - if only they were more human.

It was that feeling which led to the invention for which he has since achieved global recognition - the world wide web, the ever-growing galaxy of connected electronic pages.

The year was 1980 and Berners-Lee, then a computer programmer, was on a six-month contract at Cern, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva. Looking for a better way to order his ideas than pencil and paper, he wrote a simple computer program that he named Enquire.

"The Enquire program was short for Enquire Within Upon Everything, after a Victorian book full of all sorts of useful advice," he recalls. "The program was something I found really useful for keeping track of the random associations one comes across in life. Brains are supposed to be good at remembering these, but mine sometimes wouldn't. The program was very simple but could track those associations that would sometimes develop into structure as ideas became connected."

Though it was little more than a glorified aide memoire, the central concept was to form the basis for a huge revolution in the way people use computers. What set this program apart was that it was structured in a "brain-like way". While computers need to put everything into neatly labelled boxes, the more fluid nature of human thought prefers loose connections between apparently different ideas. This difference meant that each time a person sat in front of a computer there was a fundamental incompatibility between their mental hardware and the computer's.

But with the use of hypertext - electronic text arranged in such a way that readers can cross-refer between related pieces of information - Berners-Lee taught computers the art of free association. "My idea was that no matter what the structure of the information in (a person's) own mind, they would be able to express it. Hence, the web," he says.

Yet it was to be almost a decade before he put forward his proposal for a global hypertext project. He was back at Cern when it occurred to him that the coffee area was the only place physicists would get together and share ideas. Hardware and software incompatibilities made electronic collaboration virtually impossible - a real problem for a research institution with scientists spread around the world.

Berners-Lee saw the possibility of reproducing that "coffee-room effect" over the internet, which was by then well established in the high-energy physics community. "The whole point about hypertext was that it could model a changing morass of relationships that characterised most real environments I knew - and certainly Cern," says Berners-Lee. The world wide web also allowed communication between different computers running different software. "It was designed not to have any boundaries, to be able to envelop almost any other information system," he says.

Designed for growth, that is what the web did with a vengeance. Between 1991, when he first released his program on the internet, and 1994, its use increased tenfold each year, and the web has been characterised by a rapid rate of growth ever since. A "web year" is now between two and three months and getting shorter all the time, a pace Berners-Lee relishes. "We will be able to live for 300-400 web years, which will be very exciting."

His quick thinking is matched by his rapid style of talking, as he jumps from one subject to another, making connections between ideas. In a recent interview via a live satellite connection, he was asked to slow down as the limited bandwidth could not cope - a fitting analogy for the current state of the web.

In those first years, Berners-Lee single-handedly dealt with all web problems, but one day four people turned up unannounced in his office in Geneva. As they explained how their entire business strategy revolved around the web, he realised that things could no longer continue as they had. The job of managing web development was now too important to fall to one person. So in 1994 he set up the world wide web Consortium (W3C), and invited interested parties to join.

Now based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Berners-Lee is director of the consortium, which includes over 300 groups, most from the IT industry. Remarkably, representatives from companies in fierce competition with one another (eg Microsoft and Netscape) are able to sit at the same table and reach a consensus over the future standards of the web. "As long as there's the web and it's this exciting, there's going to be innovation. When there's innovation, there's competition. It is the tension between this competition and the need for standards that drives the web forward at such a speed," he says.

Common standards, openness and the principle of universality are at the core of his web vision. Despite its enormous success, he is all too aware of its fragility. One company could easily try to take it over. It is not merely a matter of ethics. Berners-Lee believes that if that were to happen, it would be the death of the web. Limit the web, and you stifle it; control it, and you kill it, he contends. "The question 'May I link to your website' has got me really upset", he said recently. "Websites should be free to link to other sites."

Many have wondered at Berners-Lee's decision to remain in academia rather than trying to "cash in" on his idea. He is horrified by the notion. It is perhaps ironic then that as head of the W3C he is largely funded by big business and mostly represents their interests, yet he remains idealistic, believing the web "can help us work together more effectively, remove misunderstanding, and bring about peace and harmony on a global scale".

And, although he looks toward a future in which the web plays a greater role in our social interactions, he does not diminish the importance of real human contact, especially in education.

"(As the web develops) we will see how essential people and their personal interactions are to the educational process," he says. "A university is a lot more than its library."

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