Books - E-Saint as heroic thinker - Robin Hunt salutes Tim Berners-Lee, 'creator' of the world wide web and champion of its freedom, and discovers that the best is yet to come.
Weaving the Web
Tim Berners-Lee Orion Books £12.99
They say that if you can remember the '60s you weren't there. In the late '90s if you aren't part of a new media start-up you aren't there either: you are in the physical world dreaming of a time past when computers were for geeks, not for changing the world as we know it.
So it is very easy in the current e-frenzy to forget people like Tim Berners-Lee, the 'creator' of the world wide web. Easy, because Berners-Lee isn't one for the medicine-man quackery of the internet. Neither is Berners-Lee one of the new 'e-state agents', talking up the potential revenues coming - or coming shortly - from e-commerce.
In a virtual world where an IPO is but a PowerPoint presentation away from any internet entrepreneur or politician worth his salt, Berners-Lee speaks with a quiet, undeniable but easily overlooked authority.
Berners-Lee is a programming whiz whose insight has changed the world.
Now he has written the story of the world wide web, and sadly the history part is pretty routine stuff. We already know about his triumphs, but we want to know how Berners-Lee overcame the many obstacles - economic as much as technical - in evolving the web. To know how a committed believer in technology got away with it in the face of the immensely powerful telecommunications and computing lobbies in the US.
It is, perhaps, significant that at the close of this book Berners-Lee talks of the parallels between the web and his more recent discovery of the Church of Unitarian Universalism - a movement that wraps ideas and philosophies from many types of religions 'into an environment in which people think and discuss, argue and always try to be accepting of differences of opinion and ideas'.
Because in a world where seemingly everyone is in, on, or profiting from the internet, Berners-Lee is a virtual saint. He is 'the man who didn't get rich from the internet'. And for that we should all shout hallelujah. For, without Berners-Lee's zeal for transparency of information and technologies, the internet and its world wide web would not be the universal metaphor for hope (and profit) it is today.
A decade on, the web has spawned many, many dreams. Which, of course, is where the trouble starts. For the dreamers include pornography e-millionaires, privacy space invaders and pirates on a scale not seen since Long John Silver rode the waves. And, from this book at least, Berners-Lee feels a little at sea himself when confronted with such 'behaviour'.
The real joys of this book are found in the last 60 pages, when the historian becomes the heroic thinker again. Read about semantic webs and inference languages and realise that the medium hasn't yet left junior school. In terms of the networking of creativity, of information, of systems, in the words of the song: we've only just begun. And if you've been dreaming of floating your internet start-up too long - you're not going to be 'there' in the decades to come. Because the web, as Berners-Lee triumphantly illustrates, is going to be about the real world, not the virtual. About our history as much as technology. About good people.
Or so the virtual saint, Berners-Lee, hopes.
Berners-Lee must have fought many battles to win the world wide web's basic freedoms. To have seen his vision of its continuing transparency now enshrined in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) of which he is director, required more than programming skills and a warm feeling for an eclectic religious movement. And this part of the story - the social and political stuff - doesn't yet have a hypertext link to the interesting footnotes and diary entries. One day, no doubt ... but not yet. Instead, Unitarian Universalism is probably the only clue in Weaving the Web to the kind of man he is. He reads, as he has acted for a decade, as a real hero of our e-times.
Robin Hunt is creative director of web design consultancy arehaus.com.