No other living person has shaped our lives more than Tim Berners-Lee. Even when Steve Jobs was alive. The personal computer had many architects. And the internet, too, was the work of dozens of scientists at the US Department of Defence going back to the Fifties. But the World Wide Web had just one creator, and he built it for neither profit nor power. The platform on which Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos have built empires was given freely to the world by an Englishman from south-west London, a modest genius who has fought to keep it free and open ever since.
It's a measure of Berners-Lee's influence that the web and the internet are often regarded as synonymous. But they're not. Strictly speaking, the internet is the network through which computers transfer information; the World Wide Web is one of the ways in which that information is accessed and the main one we use (email and instant messaging are among the others). When we say the internet has transformed our communication, media, science, community, commerce, politics, identity — our everything — we really mean the web. Because before Berners-Lee, the internet was largely irrelevant, little more than a raggedy quilt of networks in which engineers pinged information to each other. In the Seventies, Arthur C Clarke envisaged a world in which regular people would communicate through personal computers, but until Berners-Lee, no one had done anything about it.
In 1989, he was an Oxford-graduate physicist working at CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, where the world's finest minds smash particles into each other in giant accelerators in an effort to decode the essential building blocks of the universe. Berners-Lee managed the computer systems, and he was frustrated. All these scientists had different computers that ran on incompatible programs so their data couldn't easily be shared or linked. So, in what he describes as "an act of desperation", he came up with the building blocks of our online universe instead — the common language of HTML, the shared information transfer protocol of HTTP and the URL conventions we know today.
The Berners-Lee story is internet legend by now. And a few lessons ring loud and clear. First: innovation happens on the fringes, not the centre. CERN wasn't interested in a new network or transfer protocol; its main mission is searching for the "God" particle and such like. But Berners-Lee had a boss who gave him room to play, to indulge in a side project and, as he has said, "kick the tyres of this new computer we had…" Let creative people tinker and they might just change the world.
Lesson two: true genius is visionary, not technical. Berners-Lee isn't fêted for creating HTML, but for the imaginative leap that came with it. He asked: what if the internet could host a vast library of documents that people the world over could access and add to? Hypertext had already been invented. The internet had been around for decades in one form or another. But it took Berners-Lee to put them together in the service of a grander idea.
What distinguishes the web among so many technological breakthroughs is it had a moral purpose from day one. While the CERN scientists focused on the smallest particles in the universe, Berners-Lee was thinking big — about making a better world. The revolution he created was no accident — the web was designed to make information free, to accelerate and democratise knowledge and solve humanity's problems. The web was such a powerful idea that, of course, it didn't take off at once.
Lesson three: even genius needs a sales pitch. Berners-Lee could have just surrendered his invention to the market of ideas, let others champion it if they wanted. But instead, he fought for it — he has always fought for it — often in the face of opposition and indifference. He knew that the web, like any network, would only impress if it was big, so he went out and exhorted his peers to participate. At the 1991 Hypertext conference in San Antonio, Texas, his paper proposing the web was rejected, but he went anyway, and set up a demo at the venue for passing delegates. Incredibly, they were unimpressed.
Objectors, Berners-Lee told the Guardian in 2014, were "people with private agendas, or incumbents who have existing systems that aren't compatible. But I learned — don't try to bring them on board. It's a waste of time. There's enough people out there who are excited, so work with them."
And lesson four: keep it free. In the early days, a competing system called Gopher, run by the University of Minnesota, was actually bigger than the World Wide Web. But then the administrators suggested that maybe, just possibly, they would consider a tiny royalty fee for using the network. And just like that, Gopher's numbers crashed.
Berners-Lee, however, made no such demand. He was philosophically opposed. He'd built his web on the principled conviction that great things are possible when free people can connect and communicate without barriers. It's so ubiquitous today, it's easy to forget that the web is also the expression of one man's values, the optimism and altruism of Berners-Lee himself. One wonders how our digital revolution might look had a more mercenary figure been in his place.
Today, 40 per cent of the world is connected to the web and the numbers keep rising. And while a darkness has entered our online lives — as governments surveil and censor, and corporations push for fast lanes and slow — the man who first opened the door to it all continues to set a luminous example.
In 1994, Berners-Lee launched the Worldwide Web Consortium and he has fought ever since to keep the web free and open — his optimism was never naïve. And in the midst of all the hungry capitalism and empire building of the internet, his own selflessness is an important reminder of what the web is really about. It's not theirs, it's ours.
"I believe the web is under threat," Berners-Lee once wrote, "but the future [of the web] depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for this extraordinary resource." We should listen to him.