Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. And the web, as he conceived it, was made as much of principles as protocols. It would be free, open, and permissionless. Anyone could link to anyone. And in a now-unthinkable act of good faith, Berners-Lee refused to patent his invention. Remarkably, this crazy scheme worked. The web crushed the other Internet protocols like Gopher, and also the surprisingly Facebook-like America Online and its nerdy cousins, Prodigy and Compuserve (even if it did take a decade). Now, the web is so ubiquitous that many people think the Internet is the web.
So, as life accomplishments go, Berners-Lee could have retired, victorious, at the age of 36. (In fact, Berners-Lee has been knighted for his work, so please call refer to him in your head as Sir Tim as you read this interview.) But Berners-Lee has continued working and thinking about technology and society. He’s been an animating presence and conscience of the web and Internet throughout its existence. From his role as a professor at MIT, he’s helped the web and the principles that informed its creation adapt to changing business and technological conditions. His most recent research focuses on how to link together data and sensors and things, not just documents with text and pictures on them.
With the rise of mobile apps that are very unwebby and growing social networks that contain an increasingly large percentage of web user’s outputs, “the future is quite in the balance,” he said. “Everybody is trying to take over the world. That is the commercial imperative with the capitalist system. But against it, there is the force of creativity, and the excitement of the jungle outside the walled garden.” And in this battle between the forces of enclosure and those of freedom, Berners-Lee has earned the right to his optimism. “The permissionless, free-as-in-freedom web always ends up winning,” he concluded.
We spoke with Berners-Lee in his office in Cambridge by Skype…
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