Featured Session Feature: Tim Berners-Lee of MIT

Written by Hugh Forrest | February 26, 2014

Tim Berners-Lee speaks at SXSW on Monday, March 10

Featured Sessions at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival showcase some of the world’s most innovative thinkers. Today’s installment of the Featured Session Feature focuses on Tim Berners-Lee. At SXSW, he will be part of the “Computing the Future: MIT Scientists Tell All” session on Monday March 10 at 11:00 am. Other speakers on this session include Andrew Lo, Daniela Rus and Russ Tedrake.

Today's edition of the Featured Session Feature is written by Jon Lebkowsky. Read more of Lebkowsky's insights at Weblogsky.

Who “invented the Internet”?

Actually a number of forward-thinking engineers advanced ideas and innovations that led to advanced thinking about computer networks, and ultimately to the development the Internet.

It started with the evolution of the computer. The persistent, pervasive global matrix of information sharing and media distribution that we so casually use today evolved from much simpler systems the origins of which are in various computing projects that were percolating in the 80s, though their origins are in the work of predecessors like Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and Alan Turing. Digital computers as early as the 1940s, the Univac was storing programs in 1950, and the first personal computer, the IBM PC, was released in 1981. The invention and commercial release of the PC was a turning point.

Once you had many personal computing machines proliferating digital data, it made sense to connect them to each other - and once you had networks of computers, it made sense to connect those networks to each other, forming networks of networks. Hence the creation of the Internet, a network of networks interconnected via a suite of standard protocols that facilitate the rapid, open, widespread exchange of data. There’s a list of thinkers who inspired and/or created ARPANET, Telenet, Ethernet, TCP/IP, UDP, DNS - components of the contemporary Internet. They include Leonard Kleinrock, author of "Information Flow in Large Communication Nets," J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor of DARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office, and others who worked direct development of Internet components.

Unlike the Internet, the creation of the World Wide Web is attributed to just one man, Tim Berners-Lee, working at The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Others were doing related work, like Douglas Engelbart at Xerox and Ted Nelson (who coined the term “hypertext”) at Autodesk, but Berners-Lee made it happen. He was looking for a best and most efficient way to facilitate information sharing among researchers.

The web wasn't, at first, a platform for media; in fact it was text-based. Same with the PC: the first personal computers had no graphics, then primitive graphical user interfaces were developed, and by 1990 most personal computers had visual point and click interfaces.

The Internet was still text-only through the early 90s; in 1993 the famous New Yorker “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon appeared. The problem of finding information on the Internet was also ripe for resolution. You could access files in public FTP directories on Internet-connected computers, but you had to find them first. The first Internet search tool, Archie, appeared in 1990, and in 1991 we had Gopher, a system for indexing files for access via a menu. A couple of search engines, Veronica and Jughead, were developed for Gopher files.

Berners-Lee, trained as a physicist, having worked with both computer network and computer publishing systems, built a hypertext prototype called ENQUIRE at CERN in 1980. He saw in hypertext “a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will.” ENQUIRE was limited as a project restricted to a department and without broad access to other data within the organization. Because of this, it wasn't successful, but its failure pointed to the need for a system that would be accessible to everybody and link to data everywhere.

So a few years later, in 1989, Berners-Lee brought hypertext and the Internet together. “Creating the web was really an act of desperation,” he said in 2011, “because the situation without it was very difficult." But he had the ingredients for the more ambitious application, he said, because "most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together. It was a step of generalizing, going to a higher level of abstraction, thinking about all the documentation systems out there as being possibly part of a larger imaginary documentation system.”

The first release of the World Wide Web was relatively simple, which is probably why it caught on so well. Web technologies included the hypertext transport protocol (http) and hypertext markup language (html), along with a web server to deliver the content and a simple text-based web browser (Lynx) to request, receive, and display it. The web launched in 1991; the Mosaic web browser appeared in 1993 and popularized the graphical World Wide Web.

Berners-Lee envisioned an open system with what we later came to call "freedom to connect": anyone anywhere should be able to connect and have access to all parts of the network, in a relatively permission-free zone.

In 1994, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web consortium (W3C), an international standards organization that seeks to enforce consistent and compatible technologies through open standards for the web. In 2009, he created the World Wide Web Foundation to promote "his vision of an open Web available, usable, and valuable for everyone." Berners-Lee is quoted at the Foundation's website:

"Our success will be measured by how well we foster the creativity of our children. Whether future scientists have the tools to cure diseases. Whether people, in developed and developing economies alike, can distinguish reliable information from propaganda or commercial chaff. Whether the next generation will build systems that support democracy and promote accountable debate. I hope that you will join this global effort to advance the Web to empower people."

Tim Berners-Lee will join other scientists from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT for a SXSW Interactive Session, “Computing the Future: MIT Scientists Tell All”. The panel will consider and discuss challenges facing today's computer scientists.

Register now to be part of the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival and to attend the “Computing the Future: MIT Scientists Tell All” session on Monday, March 10. For the full picture of all sessions and evening events at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival, visit the day-by-day schedule. Also, learn more about the best of the best programming for the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival by visiting the new Recommendations page.