When you first proposed the idea of the World Wide Web back in 1990, even people at conferences on hypertext technology couldn’t understand it. Were you frustrated by the resistance you encountered to such a revolutionary idea?
With a paradigm shift, people simply don’t have the concepts in their heads to grasp the change. They didn’t get that you could just go anywhere from a click. I would give a talk to a hundred people, and sometimes only one person would come up to me afterward and say, “This is really exciting. Where do I find out about this?” The really exciting thing about the development of the Web was the spirit of those people who just started doing it because of the twinkle in their eye. They weren’t worried about the return on their investment.
But now the Web is in danger of being taken over by commercial interests that want to block content and give preferred status to large corporations. What’s the worst that could happen?
The nightmare situations all involve different forms of discrimination. Imagine that you have bought yourself a high-speed connection from your cable company, and you try to go to some small independent film site to watch one of their movies. But you can’t, because your Internet provider blocks you and says, “Excuse me, if you read the fine print of our agreement, it says that you should buy all of your movies from us. So please go back to your cable box.” That’s why maintaining Net neutrality is so important.
Does that kind of control have political implications as well?
Can you imagine if, before the election, a large Internet provider decides that it will favor communication with a particular news network? The Web’s becoming our window on the world to such an extent that to have a good democracy, to allow people to educate themselves, it has to be a neutral medium.
How do you rate the Bush administration’s approach to science?
I am frightened by the current situation in America. It’s reasonable to tolerate people’s religious beliefs, but it’s not reasonable to base the decisions of a country on faith which runs contrary to reason. I worry that people will look back on this time in forty years and say we fiddled while the planet burned.
How did you get into computers in the first place?
My parents met while they were working on one of the first commercial computers in the Fifties. When I was six or seven years old, I remember being taken in to see one of the early Ferranti computers. It was in a big rack behind a steel desk, almost as tall as the room. It had a paper-tape reader on one side and a paper-tape puncher on the other side and a clock on the front of the cabinet. I went home and made a computer by taking my cupboard and putting a table in front of it and putting a clock on it. I had two shoe boxes, one for a paper-tape reader and one for a paper-tape puncher.
Were you into science fiction back then?
Oh, yes. The important thing about science fiction was the way it wondered about how things can be different –— the excitement and adventure of imagining different worlds.
You’re already working on an evolution for the Web that you call the Semantic Web. What is our online future going to look like?
The Semantic Web is not like the World Wide Web at all. It’s about a web of data, and data isn’t like documents. Normal documents, you read. Data, you manipulate, you slice it and dice it, you join it, you do queries on it, you bring it up in different forms, and you use all kinds of different visualisations to look at it. Say you go to the Semantic Web and look up your hometown. What you will get is sort of like a spread-sheet, but a spreadsheet with other objects that are connected. Suddenly you not only find out a whole lot of information about the town, but you can also pull in information about the region. You can do a query and say, “OK, I want to make a table of the population and the age of every citizen in that region.” Then you can graph the table or you can put it on a map.
Isn’t that just a fancier version of the Web?
What we’re creating is data that’s linked at a whole new level. Doing things with data is more complicated, it’s much more difficult. But it’s also much more powerful. It’s another paradigm shift. There’s no telling where this is going to take us.
What other technological advances do you see having the most profound impact on shaping the future?
In the next generation, we are going to see huge breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works. It’s very exciting, this piecing together of the genetic pussies of the way a person is built and the way the person thinks. But it’s not just technical changes that are happening: There are also technically based social changes. When Wikipedia started, everybody could edit entries. Now the Wikipedia community is trying to build a new form of self-government, one that grants greater power to some than to others. They are experimenting with different ways of collectively deciding what’s right.
So the problems we experience in the real world are starting to play out online?
During the next fifty years, we’re going to reach the end of the world. We’ve expanded to the point where all the world will be connected – there is nowhere else to go. We’re going to have to get on with each other. We have to find ways of building communities that can resolve disputes peacefully, find ways of making knowledge about the world available so that people can see how important they are, see how other people need help. That will require a big shift of resources from those of us having a great time in the West to those in the developing world. We need to put resources into helping people get along instead of blowing other people up when we’re frightened of them.
Do you think we’ll still be using the Web then, or will there be some advance we can’t imagine yet?
Paradigm shifts like the Web are rare. We’re still writing books, we’re still writing journals by hand, as monks did in the Middle Ages. The telephone remained unchanged for a long time. The telephones are in our ears now rather than on the desk, but the concept is the same. For all the rapid change we’ve experienced in the past ten years, you have to remember that on the whole, things change remarkably slowly.