Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Tim Berners-Lee invented World Wide Web creating 21st century mass media

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
by Michael J Morris

Tim Berners- Lee 'invented' the World Wide Web just over 25 years ago, but chances are you have never heard of him. If he hadn't, it is quite likely you would not be reading this article, or for that matter anything else online.

In 1999, Time magazine named Berners- Lee as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century, saying, "He wove the World Wide Web and created a mass medium for the 21st century. The World Wide Web is Berners-Lee's alone. He designed it. He loosed it on the world. And he more than anyone else has fought to keep it open, non proprietary and free."

In  November 2009, Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web Foundation in order to "Advance the Web to empower humanity by launching transformative programs that build local capacity to leverage the Web as a medium for positive change."

Anniversaries of the World Wide Web don't get much media attention today. Its inventor Tim Berners-Lee is not well known outside academia.

But Berners-Lee may be the single most important person since Guttenberg in changing the way we communicate. I was so privileged to spend an afternoon listening to him in 1996 while attending a conference "The Internet Beyond the Year 2000" at the University of Toronto. 

To be honest, even though I had developed and was teaching in one of the first graduate programs in New Media Communications in Canada at College of the Rockies, I had no idea who Tim Berners-Lee was before that afternoon.
MJM at COTR circa 1996

Perhaps most striking about him was his great modesty.  Here was one of the great thinkers and scientists of our time, and he had no need to be 'the sage on the stage.' After giving his talk, Berners-Lee sat on the edge of the stage to take questions.

The first question was from 'Dr Somebody' from 'Some University', who started his question with "Dr Berners-Lee.." and before he got any further, he was cut off by Berners-Lee who said, "Tim will do." The professor didn't get it and again said, "Dr Berners-Lee." only to be cut off with "Tim" and a shake of his head. The room broke up.

He was asked many questions but one that stuck in my mind was, "What would you do differently now." Berners-Lee replied after a moment, "I realized I didn't need the forward slash." Again the room broke up.
MJM 2015

I was delighted to see on Wikepedia that he confirmed it years later after I heard him speak at the University of Toronto. In a Times article in October 2009, Berners-Lee admitted that the forward slashes ("//") in a web address were actually "unnecessary". He told the newspaper that he could easily have designed URLs not to have the forward slashes.

 "There you go, it seemed like a good idea at the time," he said in his lighthearted apology`.

He was also asked about the process involved in inventing the web and how long it took. He said that he had been "thinking" about it for a long time and then one day simply decided to get it done.

Perhaps the single most impressive moment I saw of Berners-Lee was at a showcase of technology and industry. Students from Confederation High School in Nepean had created a web page, and Berners-Lee, hands behind his back, went up to them and asked some questions. At no time did he identify himself as the inventor of the web.

After he left I went over and asked the students if they knew who their visitor was. They didn't and when I told them, like students everywhere, they were afraid they had made mistakes. I assured them Berners-Lee was likely delighted to see their work.

For those who don't know exactly what he did, Berners Lee wrote the first Web clients and server and defined the URL, HTTP, and HTML specifications on which the Web depends. He was then working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory.

Knighted in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth, Sir Tim Berners- Lee is now the director of the W3 Consortium and is a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Berners-Lee commented that,  "the web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for social effect - to help people work together - and not as a technical toy. The ultimate goal of the web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the world. We clump into families, associations and companies..." 

A year later, I was back in Toronto, speaking at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Journalists on the topic of whether or nor I thought the internet could be used to defeat politicians, or conversely, help them win. I said "Yes" resoundingly on both counts. The best example so far of a winner is Barack Obama..

Interestingly, oldtime journalists, to which I belong at least by age, disagreed with me vehemently, while young students tended to agree.... be interesting to see if positions have changed almost 20 years later.

All to be expected perhaps when I think that most of the folks at College of the Rockies back then, never thought email would really catch on. Yet, we are still failing in many respects to maximize the potential of the World Wide Web, but that is a story for another day.

But with websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and so on we are getting there.

For me, to have been able to spend time listening to him has to count as one of the most truly memorable moments of my entire teaching career,  and now that I am retired I remain a Web junkie -- but not a techie!   

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