On April 29, 2015, the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute honored Sir Tim Berners-Lee for his pioneering invention: the World Wide Web. Berkman Executive Director Urs Gasser delivered the laudation at the event in Ruschlikon/Zurich.
The story of the Web is ultimately not a story about technology. Rather, Sir Tim programmed the Web to serve as a platform that enables and fosters a deeply social space, opening up new possibilities for human interaction and flourishing. This potential, in my opinion, is Sir Tim’s greatest gift to the world. -- Urs Gasser
(See below for the full text of Gasser's remarks.)
Laudation for Tim Berners-Lee, Gottlieb Duttweiler Prize 2015 Urs Gasser, Harvard University
Dear Sir Tim and dear Rosemary: Dear Guests,
It is a great honor to speak to you this evening. Please let me start by congratulating you, Sir Tim, on this wonderful and much-deserved award, and by thanking the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute for hosting us, as well as for all the important work you do.
Over the next fifteen minutes, it is my pleasure and privilege to share with you some reflections on the importance of Sir Tim’s invention—the World Wide Web—as well as thoughts about his ongoing work and extraordinary leadership more generally.
I am particularly honored to share these observations and reflections as a Swiss citizen living in Boston, given that so much of your past and present work has a special connection to these two places.
About the WWW
I thought it might be helpful to begin with a brief refresher of what the World Wide Web is, the technology Sir Tim invented more than 25 years ago at CERN in Geneva. Wikipedia defines the WWW as “a collection of text documents and other resources, linked by hyperlinks and URLs, usually accessed by web browsers, from web servers.” It turns out that the terms “Internet” and “WWW” are often used as synonyms, but they are actually not the same concept. To distinguish between the two, it is helpful to think in terms of a “birthday cake” with multiple layers: At the bottom or hardware layer, there are computers and networks made out of cables. One layer up, we find a set of protocols—most importantly the Internet Protocol—that allows us to send packets over the network of networks. On top of this layer runs the WWW, which Sir Tim invented. In that sense, it is one service transferred over the Internet. The WWW, in turn, enables many more innovations to be built on top of it.
One initial way to look at the WWW is to see it as a very large collection of interlinked websites: anything from a personal website showing pictures of cute cats to www.wikipedia.com or www.facebook.com. Together, these sites form a massive Web of information made up of close to 1 billion sites, which are hosted on web servers and can be accessed via our PCs, laptops, and mobile phones. It is important to understand that this enormous richness and diversity of this Web is a direct product of Sir Tim’s genius: He designed this new technology to be permission-free. This means everyone can contribute to the Web by linking one page to another, without asking any authority or involving any central coordination mechanism.
The result of this decision and the dynamics it set free is a gigantic network of extremely rich and diverse content. The Web links together texts, pictures, videos and many other types of materials that are created and shared by millions of people from around the globe. To use an analogy, one can see the Web as an information space that is equivalent to a “Global Brain”, which stores, links, and processes the world’s information, and where we as users—with our various contributions—play the role of neurons.
Vision and Some History
This leads us to the origins of the web. Why did Sir Tim invent the Web in the first place? At least on the surface, he was motivated by a very practical problem: solving an information coordination and knowledge management issue. CERN has long been engaged in research on very complex systems, which produces very large amounts of information that need to be managed. CERN is also a place of many cultures, with scientists of different disciplines that all brought their own way of working. In such a vibrant environment with diverse people and operation systems, it became increasingly hard to keep track of information and enable information sharing over time.
To address this challenge, and building upon some of his earlier concept studies, Sir Tim submitted in March 1989 a proposal for an information management system to his boss, Mike Sendall. The proposal discussed the problems of loss of information about complex evolving systems and proposed “a solution based on a distributed hypertext system.” “Vague, but exciting” were the words Sendall wrote on the proposal, allowing Sir Tim to continue.
With support from colleagues, Sir Tim convinced CERN to dedicate some resources, including a share of his own time, to develop the Web as a side project. In the following months, Sir Tim wrote and tested a program he called the “World Wide Web”, the first web browser and editor, together with other key building blocks of the Web, such as the HTML standard. At this point, please allow me to add a small anecdote: As an alternative to the name “World Wide Web”, Sir Tim reportedly brainstormed alternative names. One idea was “The Information Mine”—or in short “TIM”—but Tim decided that this would be too egocentric.
But Sir Tim thought of CERN only as a first use case—a “model in miniature” of the rest of the world, as he put it once. Behind solving a practical problem through technical means, Sir Tim had a larger vision for society—a dream, in fact: To build a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information across the globe. Such a universal Web of connections among any sort of information—so was his brilliant vision—would then allow all of us to communicate, work, play, and socialize in new ways together, across any boundary.
Committed to this vision, Sir Tim and collaborators pushed the CERN management very hard to give the WWW technology to the world for free. On top of the invention itself, this was another stroke of genius—and act of enormous generosity by Sir Tim, given the commercial potential of the technology. It was almost exactly 22 years ago that CERN announced on April 30, 1993 that the WWW would be free to anyone, with no royalties due. This was in many ways a critical step and a precondition for the unprecedented adoption and growth of the Web, and all the innovation it has subsequently enabled.
This brings us back to the present time. Since its invention in 1990, the world has evidenced an exponential growth in the use of the Web. Ten years after the invention, 5% of the world’s population used the Web; seven years later it was 17%, and today 40% of the world’s population or close to 3 billion people are using the Web. But it is of course not only the number of users and growth rate that is so impressive, but also how and towards what ends that we use the technology Sir Tim brought to us.
According to the most recent survey data, for instance, one quarter of American teens are almost always online—all day long. When I told my 14-year old daughter Ananda that I would be in Switzerland today, she asked what I was doing here. After I told her about the event, she sent me a note back via WhatsApp. I quote: “For me, the Web is a way of communication and it plays a very important role in my life. I use it daily. It’s not just good for communicating but also for research, entertainment, and stuff I like to do as well.” Ananda’s quote indicates just how much the Web has transformed our world and affects our lives.
For instance, it has a deep impact on how we learn about the world and explore it, whether with the help of Wikipedia, YouTube, or Google Streetview. Educational institutions are beginning to embrace the potential of the Web for new forms of pedagogy. Universities like Harvard or MIT make accessible their knowledge to much larger audiences via MOOCs, with democratizing and empowering effects. We can also observe how the Web is used to create new, engaging, and more exciting learning environments at other levels of education, connecting spaces of formal and informal education.
The structural impact of the Web on how we do business and trade has also become apparent, whether we look at the ways in which we buy music and movies, book flights and make restaurant reservations, or order books and read breaking news. In light of these transformations, the World Economic Forum recently launched a new global initiative, examining the deeper changes to business models and the digital economy that the Web and other digital technologies have facilitated—with the goal of learning from these experiences for the future models and other industries.
In addition to these transformation processes (and many more could be added), my daughter’s quote also points out a second, even more fundamental aspect that I would like to highlight for you: Inspired by his original vision, Sir Tim has not only invented a technology that allows user to create and maintain a huge collection of materials. In fact, the Web is far more than a large collection of websites: Sir Tim created for us an entirely new experience regarding how we can learn about the world and explore it.
I recently heard someone saying that “meeting Tim Berners-Lee is like meeting Johannes Gutenberg”. While there are of course fundamental differences, it puts Sir Tim’s invention in the correct historical perspective when we try to understand its significance and transformative impact. Gutenberg’ printing press was one of the greatest inventions of the modern era, boosted mass literacy, and enabled revolutions in the arts, sciences, religion, and many other fields. Sir Tim’s Web has taken Gutenberg’s analog information world into the digital space with all of its capabilities, and added a third dimension to it: Browsing the web is like walking in a library in which the library is itself the book we seek to explore. From that angle, the Web enables a new way of “seeing”—a new type of literacy. This “Gutenberg versions 3.0”, if you will, has similarly important ramifications for world, whether looking at progress in science or political change.
I would like to highlight a third and final element of Ananda’s quote: “The Web is a way of communication”, she wrote. Indeed, as Sir Tim envisioned more than 25 years ago, the universal Web of connections has fulfilled its potential as the foundation of new ways in which we can communicate, work, play, and socialize together, across boundaries. The Web has deeply changed our degree of interconnectedness and provides a platform for communication and relationship building across all sectors, from private to public. This is perhaps the greatest contribution among the many: The story of the Web is ultimately not a story about technology. Rather, Sir Tim programmed the Web to serve as a platform that enables and fosters a deeply social space, opening up new possibilities for human interaction and flourishing. This potential, in my opinion, is Sir Tim’s greatest gift to the world.
At this point in time and stage of development, however, we should not only use this gift, but also collectively share responsibility with Sir Tim when discussing and shaping the future of the Web. While we have proof that the Web can serve as a unique platform for humankind, much work remains to be done to unleash its full potential. This applies to both the opportunities and challenges of the Web, as well as the citizens that it seeks to connect.
The list of opportunities and challenges is long and urgent. Perhaps the biggest opportunity in front of us is to close the digital divide and the participation gaps, particularly between the Global North and the Global South, cities and rural areas, wealthy and poor, and young and old. As mentioned earlier, 60% of the world’s population is not yet connected to the Web. Global efforts by governments, companies, and philanthropist are underway to bring the next 2 billion people online. Let us join and support these efforts—an area where Switzerland as the Web’s “Place of Birth” has a special role to play. Similarly, we have a shared social responsibility to support efforts that allow all people to acquire the skills and literacies necessary to navigate the Web and benefit from its full potential—across all demographics and income levels.
The list of challenges is equally long and at times daunting. Among the pressing issues, in my opinion, is redefining the meaning of privacy in the age of the World Wide Web, and reaching a new societal consensus about it. Such a shared understanding is the pre-condition for any successful reform of our privacy laws, and will greatly inform and guide the use of other governance instruments to ensure the future of digital privacy. The debate about privacy must not only look at the hard questions involving national security and government surveillance in the Post-Snowden world, but also find a new and better equilibrium regarding data collection and usage practices by the increasingly powerful companies in the Big Data world.
The World Wide Web Foundation, founded by Sir Tim and led in partnership with his wife Rosemary Leith—a close collaborator of mine at the Berkman Center at Harvard—invites us to reflect on these larger normative questions and take action to preserve a free and open Web. The recently launched Web We Want initiative offers a particularly good staring point for everyone in this room and beyond to actively engage in shaping and making the future Web. 25 years ago, Sir Tim gave us a tool to communicate, collaborate, and build a better world. Today, it is our turn to work with him, Rosemary, and many fellow travelers to shape the Web’s future.
In that spirit, Sir Tim, I would like to end by expressing my deep admiration and gratitude not only for the wonderful invention you have shared with us, which has already changed and improved our lives in so many important ways but also for your outstanding leadership across the Atlantic and for your continued commitment to making this world a better place, for and with all of us. I am excited to join you and Rosemary on this long journey, and I hope everyone here in the home country of the Web will follow as well. Thank you.