Present at the Creation

Mar 18, 2009 7:00am

Twenty years ago, at a lab in Switzerland, a young British software engineer sent out a memo suggesting a new information management system for his employer, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. The engineer’s name was Tim Berners-Lee, and you probably know the rest of the story.  His proposal, printed on paper (you remember paper?), evolved into the World Wide Web, and if Berners-Lee had a nickel for every time someone called him the "father" of it, he would be far wealthier than he already is. He has won countless awards in the years since that paper, and he is properly addressed as Sir Timothy; the Queen knighted him in 2004.  But he has not cashed in on the advent of the web nearly as much as many of the entrepreneurs who came after him.  Now 53, he is a professor at MIT. Berners-Lee, in a speech at CERN last week, said we’re only at the beginning.  "The Web is not all done, it’s just the tip of the iceberg," Berners-Lee said. "I am convinced that the new changes are going to rock the world even more." He did confess to some regrets: He’s a little sorry web addresses begin with "http://" (as in HyperText Transfer Protocol).  Why those two slashes?  About ten years went by before browsers became smart enough to let you skip it all.  How many millions of people, he mused, wasted how many billions of keystrokes typing that little prefix? "To sum it up, the Web has completely democratized access to information, products, services, applications, and other human beings," writes Gene Phifer, an analyst at Gartner.com, the market research group.  "Prior to the Web, we had to travel to libraries to look up information. Prior to the Web, we had to go to bookstores to buy books. Prior to the Web, we had to use travel agents to set up a trip. And prior to the Web, the best place to meet friends was at church or a bar." But there are, of course, larger questions.  Is it a good thing that we’re going to fewer churches (or bars) and sending instant messages more?  It’s easier to order a book online…but is there something to be said for the book you find by accident on your way to the back of the store? Or does it matter?  Andrew Grove, the former head of Intel, famously said, "Technology happens, it’s not good, it’s not bad. Is steel good or bad?"

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