Another person in his place would have become a billionaire . She would have patented his invention, turned a protocol into a company and now – probably – she would be on the list of the richest people in the world along with the same age Bill Gates. Instead, in 1994, the British Tim Berners-Lee, born in London in 1955 to two parents both mathematicians, literally decided to give the world his invention: the World Wide Web.
First of all, a clarification: although they are often used interchangeably, the web and the internet are two different things. Internet is the network through which data circulates and which began to develop in the late 1960s (with the name of Arpanet). The web, on the other hand, is one of the main internet services: to be precise, the one that allows us to navigate through most of the content on the network using a browser. In summary, when you play online with friends via console you are using the internet but not the web, while reading this article on the Wired website you are (also) using the web.
That of Tim Berners-Lee is therefore a revolutionary invention, which has brought the internet into everyone’s homes and has helped shape the world over the past three decades. An infrastructure that is now used by about 4.5 billion people around the world and that has been exploited to build technology giants of immense value such as Facebook, Google or Amazon. And to think that, at the dawn of this crucial innovation, Tim Berners-Lee struggled to arouse interest.
Graduated in Physics from Oxford University in 1976, in 1980 he joined CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) as a consultant, but left the position only a year later to head the technology company Image Computer Systems. He will retrace his steps a few years later, in 1984, to start working right at CERN on hypertext : the tool that allows you to connect different documents via the internet via a link. It is the foundation of the web, but at the time Berners-Lee’s goal was only to allow researchers to share their information more easily.
On August 6, 1991 , having completed the research, he introduces his creation to the world and shows the first, rudimentary, website in history , where he himself – in a somewhat pompous language – explains what is what he has just baptized the World Wide Web : “A large area hypermedia information retrieval initiative with the aim of providing universal access to a vast universe of documents” . That day, the web was born. But nobody seems to be particularly interested.
“There was a huge workload ,” he told the New Statesman in 2011 . “I would wake up in the morning and think, ‘What the hell am I going to do today? Should I ask the people at CERN to install browsers? Do I need to run multiple servers, write more browser code, speak at multiple conferences? Or maybe I have to make my own website to set an example for others ? ” . Over time, Berners-Lee’s invention inevitably begins to take hold as a limited group of pioneers – mainly government officials, military and scientists – begin to use it.
Looking at it today, more than thirty years later, it doesn’t really take long before this tool begins to spread. Already in 1994 Amazon and Yahoo were born on the web . In 1995 it was eBay’s turn. The web and internet fever begins to mount, which will culminate in the famous “dot-com bubble” of 2000. Money whirls around the web, which at the time was considered a wild far west , prey to ferocious speculations and whose concrete potential was still to be demonstrated (a bit like today with the world of cryptocurrencies and the web3, if you want).
From this river of money that comes and goes, Tim Berners-Lee keeps his distance as always. But what is the reason he decided not to monetize his invention of him? “If I had turned the web into a product, it would have been in people’s interest to create an incompatible version of it . ” In short, it would not have been possible to use an open and interoperable standard, to which anyone can freely connect and through which everything that lives here can communicate.
Over time, Tim Berners-Lee’s role becomes that of a “noble father”: in 1994 he founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) , a non-governmental body that aims to establish and disseminate common technical standards for the creation of websites , browsers and other online tools, while preserving the interoperability of the web. With the spread of the internet to the four corners of the planet , what worries Berners-Lee – indeed: Sir Berners-Lee, since he was appointed baronet by Queen Elizabeth in 2004 – is instead the growing digital divide between populations and the fact that still today billions of people are cut off from a tool that has in the meantime become essential. To this end, in 2008 he founded the World Wide Web Foundation, which promotes fair use of the internet, net neutrality (i.e. the inability for providers to prioritize some online services at the expense of others) and more.
Its mission, on the whole, is clear . And it is also what he emphasizes when asked – again in the interview with New Statesman – what makes him most proud: “That the World Wide Web is an open platform . I am happy that it has been very clearly designed so that the programs can communicate with each other over the network ” .
Even more surprising is the fact that, already in 2011, he had clearly identified the hidden risks in the spread of the web , at a time when, on the other hand, there was a tendency to sing uncritical praise and to think that it would spread democracy all over the world: “I was recently following a Twitter debate on net neutrality when I realized that no one was holding moderate positions. They were all vehement and angry . It could be the case that, with the rapidity of communications, reasoned opinions do not propagate. These tools accelerate people’s emotions. In addition, we see the emergence of religious sects and conspiracy theorists “. What in the world began to become clearer and clearer starting, more or less, in 2016, was already evident in Berners-Lee’s eyes.
And it is also for this reason that, even today, at almost 70 years of age, it is at the forefront of defending the web . Indeed, to create a new version free from commercial links and in which power returns to users (but without exploiting the speculative tools of the blockchain and cryptocurrencies). In 2018, the inventor of the WWW launched a new decentralized project: Solid . “For all the good we have done, the web has become an engine of inequality and divisions; dominated by forces that exploit it for their interests ” , writes TBL in the presentation of his project. “Solid changes the current model, where users must hand over their personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value.Solid is an evolution of the web that aims to recreate balance ; providing everyone with complete control of their data, personal or not, in a revolutionary way “ .
Solid, in a nutshell, is a decentralized and open source platform that takes advantage of the current web (and without using the blockchain) to make sure that all information and data that circulate are always under the control of users . To give a concrete example, Tim Berners Lee showed, during the interview, how he was using this platform on his PC: “An application, taking advantage of Solid’s decentralized technology, allows Berners-Lee to access all his data. seamless: calendar, music, videos, chat, searches. It’s like a mix of Google Drive, Microsoft Outlook, Slack, Spotify and WhatsApp ” .
Four years after its birth, the attention towards decentralization is entirely directed to the world of the web3, while Tim Berners-Lee’s project does not seem to have gained much traction . Of one thing, however, we can be quite sure: more than thirty years after the birth of the web, its inventor has no intention of ceasing to defend its free, democratic and open nature .