Honorary Graduates

Orations and responses

Response by Timothy Berners-Lee

26 MARCH 1998

Well, normally I am quite happy to address a bunch of people about things about which I am enthusiastic for about an hour or so, but I won't do that: I will just address you for five minutes. But it is difficult even to find five words after having such a flattering description of oneself precede one.

It is a very great honour for me to be here and to be awarded an honorary degree in a room where 250 people are being given their degrees for which they have done lots and lots of hard work, rather than just a five-minute talk!   It is nice to be in Colchester.  Actually, I did wonder after I read in the Boston Globe of the couple from Arizona who saw the Colchester television camera on the World Wide Web and decided to move there, I wondered whether there would be any space. I thought it might catch on, but I am glad to see that you still have a certain amount of room to move around in the town!

Actually I must say that a lot of people have been involved in the World Wide Web. For one thing it was very fortuitous that the Internet had, just in 1989/1990 got to the point in its development (which I was nothing to do with, I hasten to point out) such that most people in the physics community had networked computers on their desk tops. So there was that entire group that had developed the Internet in the preceding 15 years on which the Web relies. From then on, after a couple of years of trying to persuade everyone that the Web would be a good idea, it then took off and everything has been put in there by millions of  people using their own creativity: I think that is what is exciting for me.  I wince a little when I am described as the creator of the World Wide Web because once somebody actually called me after such a description had been used and said, "Honestly, I can't believe that you created it. I've browsed some of it and there is so much stuff there you couldn't possibly have typed it all in!"  Fortunately none of you are under that illusion.  But let me clarify a couple of  things.

One is that the dreams for the Web originally were maybe not exactly what you see today.  I would say that what you see today is part of  the dream for the Web. The idea was that the Web should be one universal, abstract space for us to communicate together for living and working together.  It should allow information of any description and on any scale.  The idea was that it would be a very interactive space, so in other words, anybody who has a browser should also be able to create things.  I hope that in the future we will get to that point, so that, for example, when you are making a family photograph album you will easily just drag the photographs into an album you can share immediately with the family. Also it will be very intuitive. When you are reading something on the Web, perhaps something in your University which you disagree with, that you can go and annotate it with a big yellow sticker, or the metaphorical equivalent of a yellow sticker.  So part of  the original idea was that the Web would be a very interactive, creative space, in which  everybody could work together.

It was also a dream that once everybody is working in the Web it becomes a sort of mirror of  society, mirror of the organisation, mirror of the groups who are using it.  Then, wouldn't it be fun to start writing computer programs to analyse it?   At the moment, those of you who have used the Web will find that the only programs you can really use to help you out there, the only times when you see a machine try to help you, is when you use a 'search engine'. The search engines are really very crude at the moment because they don't understand the Web.  The Web is written for people. Now I hope that will change as well.  I don't imagine that for a while computer programs will be able to understand the sorts of things we write and especially the sorts of things some people write on their Web pages.  However, I think that we will move to a point where, when you are selling your car, you fill in a form to say you are selling your car.  The computer will understand that that is what you are doing, and automatically match you up with people who are buying cars, for example. 

So those were two parts of the plan.  A conclusion from looking at how things have progressed, is that the Web, even though it is not a very collaborative medium, is becoming more than just a mirror of society.  It is becoming part of society.  So when you put something on the Web, you are publishing something, you are making an action of a human being, you are not just making a copy of something which was originally on paper.  So as we build the Web we are building society.  People’s interactions over the Internet are a part of society. When we define new protocols to operate between computers, when we define what it is actually like to sit in front of a browser, or a hypertext editor, the sorts of things you can do there actually define the sorts of society we can build. We have to be aware of this. So we can either build-in the concept of privacy, of intellectual property (can you actually own information?) things like that; or we can decide not to build it in and make it very difficult to actually build a society that has those concepts.  There are a very large number of concepts. Every year we hit new ones, and so the community of people developing the Web, but also the community of people writing Web pages, and even browsing the Web, have got to be aware of this. You have got to remember all the things that you learned perhaps even before you went to school, and you are still learning now - and we are all still learning - about the ethics of information and honesty and privacy, etc., and remember that they still apply on the Web. We are having to relearn them in the new context.

There is one happy thing that I would like to just deposit with you and tear it up into a lot of pieces so you can pass it around, it is this. Suppose for a moment we forget all the wonderful things you find on the Web, forget the wonderful technology. Just the fact that one can go out there and write a program, think something up and put it on the Internet, and have people pick it up, and have an idea actually come to fruition, is just very exciting, never mind what the idea was. So, just the fact that, even though at first people say that you are crazy or its too complicated, etc., etc., it is possible to have a dream and for that dream to come true. This dream came true through a lot of people, and not just my personal effort. So I would like just to let you take away that incredible hope and apply it to lots of other things.  Here you are, coming to the end of a phase in your life, with a great sigh of relief I should think, and looking forward to the next phase, and I hope that you dream carefully - because when you dream you never know where it will take you.  And when you do, I hope very much that for you also, your dreams will come true.