What: The unique inventor of the world wide web giving a rare speech at Sydney CityTalk
Overheard: “What we do with a computer is only limited by our imagination.”
When I discovered that Sir Tim Berners-Lee was about to give a talk in Sydney, I felt immediately happier and excited. He was coming to Australia for the first time in over a decade. You see, I am not a geek nor an IT programmer. I don’t even know how to code (but this may change soon if I follow the recommendations of Sir Tim). But I am really passionate about the Internet, and how it changed everything, from the way we live to the way we travel or consume. And I knew enough to be aware of the role Sir Tim played in the world as we know it today. For those of you who are not good at remembering names, Sir Tim Berners-Lee happens to be the most important creator alive today. He’s the guy who invented the world wide web, the thing that allows us to surf the web, consult Wikipedia, like a status on Facebook, share a picture of our last meal on Instagram and tweet like crazy while he spoke at a Sydney City Talk on Tuesday 5 February 2013.
The atmosphere was electric while the crowd was waiting for Sir Tim Berners-Lee to make his appearance. But first several introductions were made by, among others, Sean Aylmer,the editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. The former recognised how the new media landscape was all but recognizable from the 1990s; the latter detailed how the technology revolutionised the way we experience our city, from libraries to public transport.
When Sir Tim finally appeared, there was almost a standing ovation from the audience of self-confessed nerds, programmers and entrepreneurs. From then, the magic flowed through the room, borne by the energy, wittiness and passion of Sir Tim.
In 1969, when the Internet was invented (not by Berners-Lee, he was only 14 years old at that time), a lot more people were excited about Led Zeppelin and the moon landing than the Internet. 20 years later, in 1989, while working at the CERN, Berners-Lee was frustrated at the crude and cumbersome way the Internet worked. He wrote a memo to his boss about a hint he had that it was possible to create a common language for all computers. His boss wrote in the margin of the paper: “Vague… but exciting idea”. Berners-Lee received the authorisation to play with his idea and in September 1990, he took an Apple computer out of the box and two months later, the http protocol was born!
This is the first great lesson Sir Tim shared: innovation comes from giving people time to play.
Sir Tim also asked relevant questions: Who controls the Internet? Monitors it? How much power do we give our governments to block sites? As he said himself “Providing the Government with the trust of blocking websites is something I wouldn’t recommend”. As the question of trust is not a simple one, Sir Tim chooses transparency and open access to data. He asks for government and scholars to give full access to data. Data is the source and the more the data, the more you can develop and create new things. The Internet should be a blank piece of paper that anyone can write upon it. The web revolutionized the way we have access to knowledge. But with knowledge come duties. One of them is that every individual has to understand its impact on the web. This means being able to understand the technology, the language its uses. But most people experiment computer as a commodity, an appliance like a fridge and only few will actually experiment with it. That’s why we need more people teaching code in schools.
Coding is not gender-specific. We need more people who code, especially girls, especially in schools.
If you don’t know how to code, it’s your duty to write/blog about how you’d like computers to work or find a programmer who can do it. Sir Tim encourages more people to learn to program and take control of the machines at their fingertips to solve problems. The future is not about predictions, it’s about realising what we want. As expressed by Sir Tim, “Saying what you want is far more productive than guessing. I don’t do predictions”.
The second great lesson that Sir Tim taught us is that yes, the web has revolutionized the way we live: it took IT from the fringe to the centre and it also put the power in consumer hands and made technology a lot easier to use… as long as we learn how to use it. Collaboration, transparency, individual responsibility, all are key words to the future of the web: learning to code allows us to make the world a better place. It’s not too late.
What you do with a computer is only limited by your imagination. You don’t need permission to innovate on the web.
The growth in data is exponential. It continues to rise not only because of new applications but because other devices are coming online. Take videos for example: video is planned to grow significantly over the next five years and this not only due to cat videos. Even though Sir Tim acknowledged: “Cat videos were a very important part of the plan for adopting the web”. The whole web is becoming more and more mobile, which makes the whole web social. It’s constantly reshaping our lives and the way we consume, exchange, communicate. Collaborative consumption models build trails of reputational data that doesn’t exist anywhere else. And the question remains: Who owns that data? Is the Government? Companies? How will the commodification of data affect the growth of the Internet? Recently, the Australian government said it wanted to collect and store data on its citizens for at least two years, for security reason… but, argued Sir Tim, who’s to say that stored data wouldn’t fall in the wrong hands? What about data mining? Or data hoarding? Or even identity fraud? Again, according to Sir Tim, transparency and open data are our best tactics to prevent this from happening. Like the media considered as the fourth estate, the Internet should be free and be like a “fifth estate”.
The third lesson Sir Tim shared is that we have the answers to our own questions. We are the ones who can shape the future, by living today and learning and sharing, we are shaping the world of tomorrow according to our expectations and hopes.
Regarding the future of the media and the dying newspapers, Sir Tim reminds us that the average person, most of us, is overwhelmed by junk information. We want professional guidance. That’s why the news industry should concentrate on the value of the information they’re giving rather than the medium. Good quality content will always be king on the web. People need the profession of journalists, they just don’t want it on dead trees! So the news industry needs to experiment with new business models for providing information online. Content providers are already directly addressing to their public. The new role of journalists and editors will be to make sense of the mass of information of the net. Journalists need to be in the digital space and format people want it…
To conclude, if Sir Tim could change one thing in the past, he would take out the two slaches; if he could do something in the present, it would be to ensure complete access to open data. For the question of the future, “What is after the web?” His answer is crystal clear: Whatever you can imagine it’s up to you, go build it!
About our ambassador // Delphine Vuagnoux is a community ambassador for Sydney. She is passionate about innovation and social change. She is a communications professional at All Together Now and Medianet. You can find her on Twitter: @delphinevuagnou.