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8 things we learned from Tim Berners-Lee’s AMA on the web’s 25th birthday

Sir Tim Berners Lee

We have a lot to thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee for. It is, after all, thanks to his invention of the World Wide Web 25 years ago that we have so many of the things we now take for granted. From a proposal for an information management system made in March 1989, the web has grown into a massive, barely tangible, almost-living entity.

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As part of the web’s 25th birthday celebrations, Berners-Lee took part in a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) session fielding questions from users on site, which styles itself as the “front page of the internet”. Here’s what we learned from it.

1. He wasn’t expecting kittens

When asked what one of the most major things he never thought people would use the web for, Berners-Lee’s response was simple: “Kittens”. Some people seem to think he might have meant something different by the term “kittens”, but given the amount of attention Grumpy Cat gets every time she goes to SXSW, we’re willing to take his word on this one.

2. The other names he considered for the web weren’t great

When you think about it, the term World Wide Web has always been a pretty apt name for Berners-Lee’s creation and it’s only grown more so over the years. There were however a couple of other names he was considering. They included “Mine of Information”, “The Information Mine”, “The Mesh”.

The British scientist admits however that “none had quite the right ring”. “I liked WWW partly because I could start global variable names with a W and not have them clash with other peoples’ (in a C world) …in fact I used HT for them),” Berners-Lee explains. If we’re honest, “The Information Mine” (TIM) would’ve also been a touch vain.

3. He thinks we all need to get involved in saving net neutrality

When asked if “in the (not too distant) future we’ll look back and think ourselves lucky to have witnessed a neutral, free, and uncensored world wide web?” Berners-Lee’s response was:

I think it is up to us. I’m not guessing, I’m hoping. Yes, I can imagine that all to easily. If ordinary web users are not sufficiently aware of threats and get involved and if necessary take to the streets like for SOPA and PIPA and ACTA. On balance? I am optimistic.

There’s not much more we can add to that really.

4. He’s not big on predicting the future

As someone who’s seen a technology grow from something that was originally intended to streamline communication within an organisation into a completely world-changing technology, it’s understandable that Berners-Lee isn’t too keen on predicting how the web will change in the next 25 years.

He does however think we could achieve really important things “when your vision can be completely surrounded with pixels so small you can’t see them, a very powerful interface — how cna [sic] we use that — and to be creative together, not just watch? Inter-creativity I called it early on”.

5. He’s not afraid to use sarcasm

Sarcasm’s not all that easy to convey online, but Berners-Lee did a pretty good job when he was asked whether he ever predicted the internet would get so big.

His response, in full:

Yes, I more or less had it nailed down when it comes to the growth curve. I didn’t get it completely right — 25 years ago I was predicting Id [sic] be asked to do an AMA on reddit next wek[sic], but it turned out to be this week. Well, we all make mistakes.

(no of course not)

6. He comes from some serious geek lineage

During the AMA, Berners-Lee listed his parents as his role models, before revealing that they met while “building the first computer commercialized in the UK — the Ferranti Mk 1“. That’s right, Berners-Lee’s parents were working on computers way back in the early 1950s. And you thought you were cool for remembering MS-DOS?

7. His first computer probably makes yours look positively futuristic

No seriously, read Berners-Lee’s description of the computer and never call your first machine complicated again:

I got a M6800 evaluation kit in 1976, and built a bunch of 3U high cards, put them in a rack with a car battery in the bottom of the crate as UPS. All hand-soldered on veroboard, and programmed in hex. 7E XX XX was a long jump, and 20 XX a relative jump IIRC. The display was an old TV and some logic and a bunch of discarded calculator buttons lovingly relabeled with transfer letters. Those were the days…

8. He’s pro-Snowden

While Berners-Lee wouldn’t be drawn on whether or not former NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero, he does think he deserves protection. This, he says, is because Snowden “had no other alternative ✓ engaged as a journalist / with a journalist to be careful of how what was released, and ✓ provided an important net overall benefit to the world.”

“We can try to design perfect systems of government, and they will never be perfect,” says Berners-Lee, “and when they fail, then the whistleblower may be all that saves society”.

Image: cellanr (via Flickr).

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