He is an Internet icon, and his name is cause for fascination even among those who are too young to imagine a world without the World Wide Web: Sir Tim Berners-Lee - the ‘father of the World Wide Web’, as ETH President Lino Guzzella referred to him in his welcome address - made a guest appearance on Wednesday morning at Worldwebforum Next Generation at ETH Zurich. In his presentation before a predominantly young audience, he traced out how the Internet has evolved from its infancy through to the present day and why this development now frustrates him.
A world without borders
The Brit started off by saying that he belongs to a fortunate generation, because he has been able to witness the evolution of the computer from its beginnings through to the present day. Back in the 1950s, his parents, both programmers, were captivated by the unimaginable possibilities that would eventually be opened up by computers. Even when the fantasies of former times are by and large an everyday reality today, the vision of breaking limits and using electronic devices to create things that had once seemed unthinkable is still entirely relevant.
He himself later played a significant role in Cern’s achievements in expanding the range of possibilities in the realm of computers. Working at Cern in Geneva in 1989, he developed the groundbreaking concept of the World Wide Web, and with it he ushered in a whole new era. In the years that followed, his invention brought about a veritable sense of social transformation in the making: anyone could now put up their own website and communicate with other people anywhere in the world. Information suddenly became freely accessible, it seemed as though there were no longer any limits on creativity, and institutions that had hindered the free flow of opinions could now be circumvented.
Contrary to the original idea
Today, Berners-Lee is clearly disappointed, as there is little left of the original spirit of optimism and transformation. As he describes it, most people are no longer active in developing the Internet further, for example, by publishing their own websites online, but instead moving increasingly toward certain platforms where they communicate only with individuals like themselves. Social networks like Facebook have led to a centralisation of the Internet, he said - in other words, the complete opposite of the original idea.
This centralisation is extremely problematic, as we saw in the past year, with Facebook determining what we see in our feed, shaping our thoughts and ultimately our feelings. And this is being exploited: in contrast to Twitter, where everyone sees everything, it is possible to influence people on Facebook in a more targeted (political) manner - at times even with deliberately false information. The internet pioneer is resolutely calling for a re-decentralisation of the Internet and urging that we break down the structures currently in place.
Berners-Lee was asked by a student at the end what it feels like to live in a world created by his own invention. ‘I may have invented the Internet, but it was created by others,’ he said, putting his role into perspective. ‘And you will hopefully help it to evolve further.’
Worldwebforum Next Generation is part of the Worldwebforum , which will be held in Zurich this week. Leading figures and pioneers come together at the annual event to discuss the latest digitalisationrelated topics. ETH Zurich is one of the co-organisers and has planned a special session on the topic of machine learning to be held on the second day.