[This is an edited/corrected version of the transcript posted by the World Wide Web Foundation (licensed CC-BY). Unfortunately, only part of the original video recording is available, so the cutoff is indicated below and only minimal edits were made from there on.]
Well, thank you, Alberto, for those words. Thank you for inviting us to the dinner. Thank you for your support. I suppose the path to my standing here traces its way at one point back in March to a conversation I had with Gary Kebbel at another dinner with a lot fewer people. And at that dinner, we were just chatting across a small table about our own hopes and fears. And it turned out that Gary’s hopes and fears for journalism, and I suppose maybe the hopes and fears of the Knight Foundation through his eyes, had an awful lot of overlap with the things that I felt about the Web. And of course a lot of journalism happens on the Web, and an important part of the Web is journalism.
And we were worried. We were concerned about, with so much information how do you tell where something came from? How do you tell what’s good and bad? What’s reliable information or not? What is commercially-biased information? We had concerns about how, if you are going to label information good and bad, who’s going to start making the decisions in the new world? How can you build meritocracies which, somehow, select those people?
In general, I suppose, the big question for journalism—the big question for the Web—does it support democracy? What does it take to support democracy? So it turns out that we were both getting very excited about these two things, and indirectly that led to my coming here. But that’s not what I came to talk to you about. I came to talk to you about thinking about the future of the Web, very much more broadly, and see if I can enlist your help in that.
But I’ll start by going back to the beginning of the Web. In fact let’s go a little bit further back, 1989. I’m a programmer. I’m working at CERN. I’m a software engineer. I’m building pieces of software to work in that huge accelerator, that huge collider, that they had built. CERN is on the French-Swiss border; the Collider is underground. At that time, the big collider was the Large Electron-Positron Collider. Now you may have heard in the news recently about the Large Hadron Collider that they’ve just turned on. Well, the Large Hadron Collider, they just built in the tunnel which they made for the previous one. And as it happens, back in 1989, in fact they were just starting that project. Okay. That’s 1989.
I wrote a memo pointing out that with the huge amount of information around at CERN that you had to keep track off, all those big pieces of— You may have seen on television because of the Large Hadron Collider, that there are huge pieces of equipment there. And they had [been] built by teams from all over the planet, and these teams come together using different computer systems, using different software, different documentation formats. They of course speak different languages, but they try at CERN to restrict themselves to a mixture of English and French. But if you’re sitting there as a software engineer trying to make head and tail of it, you feel you really need an integrated information system. Because you have to go and connect to this computer for that piece of information, and this computer for that piece of information. And when you connect to it you have to learn a new program on each computer.
So that was the situation I was in. And I wrote a memo saying, “We should have a global hypertext system to fix this.” The memo, I distributed it to a few people but there’s nowhere really to distribute it to at CERN because CERN is a physics lab. It didn’t have committees for building programs and hypertext systems.
So what happened was basically nothing for eighteen months. But because the old lab in fact was more or less complete and the new LHC hadn’t really ramped up, they weren’t really quite getting into the swing of creating that, there was a bit of a lull. And during that lull, my boss Mike Sendal said at one point, “Well, why don’t you— Tim, why don’t you try out this new computer you’ve got, this new fancy NeXT big black box you’ve gotten? Why don’t you try it out with something, develop something? Why don’t you – you need some program just to see how good it is as a platform for developing things on? Why don’t you do that do that hypertext thing you were talking about?” So, okay! “Sure, Mike.”
So I went away and started middle of October and started programming. So I wrote a thing which you would probably recognize as a Web browser. Actually it was a browser/editor. It would allow you to create Web pages, too, because I thought that actually being able to create was just as important as being able to read.
When I created the program—there’s a nice little sort of program for generating program[s] on that machine. You can say I want to write a new program and the first thing it asks you is, “Okay, what’s the name of it?” Typed in “World Wide Web”. I’d thought about it a bit. I’d rejected a few other things, but you know “World Wide Web” kind of came to the top of the pile of “information mine” and things, and “mine of information.” They were…well, it became…for better or worse I decided to call it the “World Wide Web.”
I wrote the program, wrote a Web server, and defined more importantly the languages which those spoke. The computer language for sending Web pages across the Internet, which I called HTML, and the protocol which happens between the two computers, the Web server and the Web client, called HTTP, and so on. And these URLs, which you know these things start “http” and all that.
And that was all technical. That was all the technical bits of inventing the Web. But of course, to the design of the Web there’s a lot that isn’t technical. There’s a lot that’s social. Because when somebody makes a link, when a link is created from your blog, you link to somebody else’s blog, well, it’s a person that makes the link. It’s a person that follows the link if they want to. So, really, the fact that the whole Web thing works is because people are motivated. And it’s really a system of people. Yes, it’s enabled by technology.
So as time went on, we stopped thinking about the Internet as a collection of computers, and we stopped thinking about the Web as a collection of connected pages. And now we think of the Web as humanity connected. There’s always been an important social aspect to it. In fact, there were a lot of social constraints behind its growth. For example, early on there was a crucial point— At that point… Does anybody remember Gopher? Who remembers the Internet Gopher? One, two, three—yes! Okay, I know you do. I know you. But not very many people remember the Internet Gopher.
Well folks, the reason that the rest of you don’t remember the Internet Gopher is the Internet Gopher, it was a wonderful system. It was very like the Web and in fact it was growing exponentially like this when the Web was growing exponentially like this. [gestures to indicate two rising slopes, the second at a slower rate] But at a certain point the University of Minnesota, which had produced the Gopher system, sent out a little email that went around which said that there was just a remote possibility that possibly, if you were a commercial person, maybe if you were running a server, they might charge a very small fee for using the system.
So at conferences, at one particular conference I remember, I was just besieged by people in the corridor saying, “We have dropped. We are not doing anything. You know, I’ve been doing all these for free in my garage, why should I work for the University of Minnesota in my spare time?” Or, “I work for a big company. My lawyers won’t allow me to touch the code because now this is a proprietary system. What’s the story with the World Wide Web?”
So actually, I didn’t have a story then. My colleague, Robert Cailliau and I, it took us eighteen months to persuade CERN that the technology behind the World Wide Web should be royalty-free for anybody to use. But it happened, and that was really impo— So, a few months later I could go back to them and say, “You’re safe. You can work on it.” And then Gopher, you could look at the charts of the amount of Internet traffic. Gopher… [hand gesture indicating a sudden drop]. Web… [hand gesture indicating a quickly rising slope] And the rest, well, it was exponential. The exponentials continued in a frightening fashion. But if CERN had not made that really important social step of saying that the Web would be royalty-free, we would not be here talking about it. The Internet would be a very different place.
So that was an important step in the evolution of the World Wide Web. And another important step happened a few years later. The first few years, I had to persuade a lot of people that the Web wouldn’t be too complicated, would be a good idea. I had to try to find people to take the idea that I’d had and I’d implemented on this NeXT machine— Anybody remember the black NeXT machine? Yeah? Anybody still got one? Yeah. Yeah, okay. So I needed it [to] run on PC and I needed it to run on Mac. And people across the world actually volunteered and started to write browsers. And the famous one of course was the one that Marc Andreessen wrote, NCSA.
But as more and more people started writing Web browsers, they started making them more fancy. They added features. At first, the original HTML didn’t have pictures, didn’t have tables. So they added tables. But when you put a table into your Web page, you had to do it differently depending on whether you wanted to read it in this browser or that browser. And now, this was clearly going to be the end of the Web as we know it. The really important point about the Web is it’s one Web. When you make a hypertext link from a Web page, you can potentially make it to absolutely anything on the Web. Everything on the Web has got a URI. (One of those things starting “http”; URL if you like.) You can take it and you can use that, make a link, and you could make that thing link to anywhere. So it’s one big system. That is crucial. If it had broken into pieces, it wouldn’t have worked. And there was a threat that it was going to break into pieces. Everybody was worried. Everybody wanted to have tables, but they wanted tables in the same form.
Something unusual happened at one point. I was this programmer at CERN. CERN is a big campus. Lots of people wandering around looking like…you know, student physicists, programmers, kind of very un-corporate. But I got a call from the CERN reception, which it does have one. And these corporate types turned up. They came from the American computer company, Digital Equipment Corporation. They had suits, and they wanted to see me.
So I found something which looked like a conference room and put them in it, and found what they wanted. And they were the team that was planning Digital Equipment Corporation’s Internet strategy. And they were planning to turn the company around and make that company really completely reset itself, given the Internet.
And so they wanted to know, if we’re going to be basing everything on this Web thing, and it’s based on all these specifications which you’ve got on a disk somewhere in your office (sort of wondering which disk it was), then how can we make sure it’s a little more stable? How can we make it evolve? How can we make sure that our engineers can get their new ideas out into it? How can we make sure that as it expands, as it evolves, it does everything that we want, but it stays one Web? And one of them suggested in fact that I should put together a consortium, maybe that MIT might agree to host it as a neutral body.
Well in fact, to cut a long story short yeah, they did. MIT were happy to host it as they’d hosted consortia before. And also they were happy for it not to just be an American thing and for us to have a base in Japan and a base in Europe.
So that was 1994, was when the World Wide Web Consortium started. And since then it’s been a neutral body, and it’s been a very important part of the Web because it’s where all these competing vendors of Web technology come to agree on the standards. And without the standards we just wouldn’t have one Web. The world gets by with having a different plug on electrical things. You kinda get by, anyway. It’s a pain. But you know, you can get by by having a different plug and all these kind of things that you take when you go abroad to plug into the power somewhere else. It can’t get by if all the Web servers from a particular company speak one language, and all the Web browsers from another company speak a different one. It has to be one Web. The Consortium was a really important part of putting that together. So that was another important step in the evolution, setting up the Consortium to set the standards.
[Available recording ends here]
And as time went on, Consortium ran with a steady technical staff, about sixty people, keeping this going and various new technologies came in and became deployed. Some work better than others, some are great technologies but not completely deployed on all browsers like Scalable Vector Graphics, great technology deployed on all browsers but one, almost there.
But as time went on, it was clear that we had to do more than just roll out the standards. Because standards typically are agreeing about doing things we know how to do. You don’t make a standard normally until it’s something you know how to do. What about the things we don’t know how to do? Shouldn’t we be having students think more broadly? Shouldn’t we be thinking about the Web a bit further out?
And in fact, thinking about the Web, the Web itself now a few years on, it’s not a collection of Web servers. Yes, there was a time I had a list of Web servers. I’ve got a copy that when I had twenty-six entries on it. But it was a lot more than a very large list of Web servers. It was something so big nobody could keep the whole list.
And even the companies that did try to crawl over the whole Web and keep huge indexes of it, they found that actually has a very complicated structure. It has some really, really strong nodes which have huge numbers of links pointing to them. It has the famous Long Tail of lots and lots and lots of very small sites. It has little communities. Communities that sometimes are geographical, sometimes not, has a complicated structure.
Every now and again it has a new phenomenon starts. The wiki changes the way we create communal information in a way that I wouldn’t have guessed would have worked. And I think a lot of people who have guessed wouldn’t work. But we have Wikipedia which in general is not complete nonsense. And we have blogs, which you may think are complete nonsense except for your blog of course.
But that again produced a new genre. So we have these new things cropping up and we don’t – but the Web itself connected humanity with all its complexity, its size, there are more – about the same number roughly of webpages out there as there are neurons in your brain. The bad news is the number of webpages is increasing. [Laughter]
So, it’s big and it’s complicated and for your brain we have cognitive science which brings together lots of different disciplines to look at the brain for we decided we need web sites. So we started talking about web sites three years ago. And we created a Web Science Research Initiative in fact, initiated by some people from Southampton University in the UK and MIT but lots of other people joining in. And web sites now, three years on, we’ve had workshops to try and define new challenges. We’ve got student exchange programs. We want to get people to collaborate together and it’s starting to happen. That is in fact coming out in Scientific American, there’s a nice article on Web Science you might want to look at.
So, Web Science now adds to the standards. We now have a separate but importantly connected body of effort going on towards the science, not the science of studying it but of course also building it, for engineering it. Science in the sense of computer science, writing programs too.
So we have the standards and we have the science. And it was actually, to sort of the segue into the next piece, for me was partly when we were sitting down at the Web Science Research Initiative, defining as one does the goal for the organization. And we decided that probably the best way to define the goal for Web Science was that the Web should somehow optimally serve humanity. That the Web should service humanity. That we should study the Web, develop it, and check that it is serving humanity.
Well, you know, when you’re working on standards and you’re working on science, you’re doing research and you’ve got that goal that the Web should serve humanity. You can’t just sit there and do research about what’s going to put the next latest technology into the hands of the executive, in their PDA on the executive chair. Or the high-powered scientist who’s going to use the Web on their desk to discover course to disease.
When you talk about humanity, you can’t ethically ignore the fact that 80%, I have heard, of the world don’t use the Web. There are people who can’t use the Web because they just don’t have any connectivity. But I think also about the people who actually like if 80% of the world who do have signal, they could if they had the right device, they had a plan and the device had some sort of a Web browser on them that worked. And there was something useful on the Web which would work for them and the information was actually in their native tongue. And they were literate or it provided someway of getting information which worked with somebody who was illiterate. And if the source of things they want to do, the sort of social networking they wanted to do actually worked with their culture in the sort of networking they want to do, then those people would be able to use it.
So as we develop the Web, we shouldn’t just aim to make it the most fancy thing but we should also have a third part which is being very aware of the needs of society as a whole. So there is a third piece.
Now, I must admit, I had some concerns about this. Because I felt that it is possible that when you’re looking at a developing country, really what they need is healthcare. They need food. They need clean water and who are we as technologists to come along, who are we who should suggest that they need our Internet, the thing that we play with. And I express this in fact, sitting down on a log by a lake, talking to a missionary. Somebody who’d been to outer Africa and who had done lot of work, working with people who had been in war-torn areas, recovering from the terrible effects of war.
And so, I suggested that maybe we should leave it and wait until there was water in there. And she said, “Well,” all she had to do was tell me one story of one person. This person, this man had taught himself English by using various books that he’d come across. Among them are the bible I understand, something that he could get in both languages. Having taught himself English and having got some sort of rudimentary Internet connection, then he could sell his services as a translator on the open market out there in the big wide world. He could not only – so he could bring money into the village but also he could be a channel to bring information into the village. He could translate the stuff that was out there into the village. And he could operate – so he could enable commerce.
So, there are a lot of anecdotes we’ve heard about both ways. I think we really have to listen to the stories, go out there, understand and talk to everybody who’s got experience about it. To make sure that we really do understand what the needs are before we make any rash assumptions about the fact that – assuming that they would want the same sort of thing which we would want.
But, the results of this then of stepping back is, if you like, for me the next phase in the evolution of the Web. The next piece of, if you like, of duty. Of the thing that we feel we have to do that we have an obligation to do. And that is that there is the Web for all of society. There is the science and the standards.
And so, it is my pleasure and honor to unveil this evening at this dinner that we will be creating a Web Foundation. The Web Foundation will coordinate these three things. It will be unique in that it will be able to use the experience to influence the research. Use the research to suggest to people in the underserved areas what might be possible. To let them think outside the box and demand something better. And use both of these to feed into the process that makes the standards, that make the new protocols for the Web.
So, the Web Foundation’s mission is to advance one Web. One Web which is free and open. I don’t need to talk to you about the First Amendment. I talked in a lot of other places about Net neutrality, the openness of the Web. The fact that I can choose what source and information I take is very important.
So, it will advance one Web that’s free and open. And it will extend the capabilities of the Web. The capabilities and also the robustness of the Web. Can we trust this thing? It will still be there in a few years time. How do we know? And also, it will extend the benefit of the Web to everybody on the planet. It will try to. It will do it’s best to do these three things. [Applause]
So, I mentioned I’m grateful to being here. While I’m grateful for the fact that the Knight Foundation in fact have given us a $200,000 planning grant in order to start this work to start figuring out how to put together the Foundation. Steve Bratt, my colleague at the World Wide Consortium has guaranteed, has volunteered to take on the job of leading the Web Foundation. Certainly in these early stages as it takes off.
You know this is not a launch. This is just, as I say the starting of the planning. We expect a launch as we put it together with our initial founding donors. We expect a launch at the beginning of next year. In the meantime, watch this space. Well actually, watch www.webfoundation.org, a domain name to which we actually got hold of a couple of days ago. Before that, we had to have a dash in it. So now, you can use all one word.
So, the Web Foundation we’re putting together, it’s in a way it feels like a very big undertaking. Because the things that we hope for, for the Web, well in a way, we want the Web to support humanity. Of course, we have huge hopes for humanity. Many of them in this building the hopes of information service to humanity you see are sort of etched into various pieces of rock around this building. The hope that people will be able to build on the Web.
But it’s all this question of building on the Web you noticed? It’s not that we’re going to design the Web to do a particular thing for a particular application. The point about the Web is it’s a platform. It should be, for the next generation, for the people who are students now, for people who are children now, they should find that the Web is a canvas that they can draw wonderful things on. If somebody asks me, “OK, so what’s going to be the result in ten years? What do you imagine is going to be the result in 10 years if this all works out?” And the answer is, well, my imagination ought not to be a gauging factor. If we in the end of ten years produced everything I can imagine, we have failed. The idea is to produce everything other people can imagine.
I just hope that they will take the foundation that we give them – sorry about the pun – foundation in the Web. They will take it and they will build on it and they will be able to give us tools. Give the next generation tools to be able to solve the huge issues that we have. Allow scientists to collaborate together across the world to share their half-born ideas and be able to find the cures for disease. And pursue those ideas about new forms of democracy and meritocracy that had been created on the Web. Pursue them and maybe even in web sites, and by building new web protocols, build new forms of democracy that turn out to be actually even better. Even more efficient, better forms of argument, better transparency, better accountability so that we can actually move on and improve the way we manage ourselves, OK?
They’re huge hopes and dreams in a way and it’s a big step. I’m very honored and grateful that we’re making the first little steps towards the Web Foundation here tonight. Thank you.