A number of points came out of Berners-Lee's (short) introduction. He described how he was allowed to go away for a month or two to "design the Web". Discussing the Web Science Research Initiative (a joint initiative by MIT CSAIL and ECS and the University of Southampton) he noted that they are more interested in Web links than server links, and more interested in data links (semantics) than Web links. He also noted the importance of 'open linked data'. Of Web science he believes that we need to think about the people using the Web and how that changes the world. On innovation he observed that he considered it important to create the Web as an open platform. "Somebody out there will imagine things that we in this room can't imagine" he said. "You can't describe what we want them to produce." (How refreshing this was compared to the instrumentalist approach of the UK government, and the increasing short-termism of business. If Prime Minister Gordon Brown had taken questions after his cameo at NESTA's Innovation Edge conference in May I would have cited back to him Berners-Lee related points made earlier in the day in a conversation via video link.)
In his response Leadbeater referred to The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution by Christopher Hill, claiming that developments around the Web represented a new 'Levellers' movement, possibly leveling economic models. And he described the recent 2gether08 conference (which I also attended) as a meeting of 'new Levellers'. Hill is one of the historians I most respect, and I have since read The World Turned Upside Down. Apart from the fact that the 'English' Civil War was the product of huge societal and economic changes, there are a number of points that jump out of the book that should make one question the parallel. For instance, the prominent radical Gerrard Winstanley argued:
- for the benefits of communal cultivation with capital investment, and believed that the proper use of land could maintain ten times the population
- that punishment should be corrective not punitive
- for education for both sexes
- that liberty should be secured by a right of popular resistance
- for a classless society as a new heaven and a new earth
This was 350 years ago. Can we really detect this degree of radicalism, humanism and ambition among our 'new Levellers'?
The event programmer Roland Harwood, Head of NESTA Connect, expressed concern about restricting Berners-Lee's introduction. I think this was the right approach. Berners-Lee's thoughts are well known, and anyone who wanted to do some preparation would have not found anything particularly new or surprising in his talk. It is much more important to be able to interrogate such people. But we should be wary of worshipping them, or over-estimating their importance or wisdom. Berners-Lee was likely the most brilliant person in the room. But he also benefited from adapting an old idea – hypertext systems – at the right time and place and with the right affordances. He may not be sufficiently brilliant to understand why he (and his rarely acknowledged facilitators and collaborators Mike Sendall and Robert Cailliau) succeeded, or to do it again. From the audience Bill Thompson rightly asked what happened to the Semantic Web, which was announced at the 1994 WWW Conference. These are the kinds of enquiries we need to make with people such as Berners-Lee.
In my enquiry I noted that the Web is a success and partly because of this it is being expected to solve a lot of problems in areas in which we feel we have failed, for instance politics, economics, social inclusion, and societal fragmentation (as Leadbeater suggested). Is it appropriate to expect so much of the Web, I asked, and do we risk undermining what the Web can deliver by asking so too much of it. Berners-Lee's response was surprising, and showed he is more humanistic than most of our 'new Levellers'. He noted that the Web is about making connections between people and turned the question around to ask "Can we expect this much of humanity?" I am an optimist, he said. Humanity has taken great steps forward and some steps back, and we need to be vigilant: "the risk is not expecting too much of humanity but too little". [This response was also approvingly reported by Leadbeater in his reflections on the event.]
A valuable event overall. For me, we need to do more work to understand why the Web succeeded, and from these lessons facilitate more innovation, not just online but across society.