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Can Tim Berners-Lee Change The World Again?

World Wide Web Foundation formed to find out

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Close to twenty years ago Tim Berners-Lee changed the world. He may, judging by a recent speech before the Knight Foundation, amend that to say it was the developed world that was changed, and not entirely for the greater good. There is still the optimistic sense, though, that the Web is a work largely unfinished, leaving lots of good to be done.

How is the Web completed? Well, it’s hard to complete infinity, but the inventor of the World Wide Web has his ideas about making it more complete, anyway, and those ideas border on the nether regions of unreachable ideals—I’m still hopeful, though, because not a shred of progress was ever made in this world with stubborn devotion to pessimism or, arguably, even realism. It takes optimists to change the world. It always has. 

“I have read that 80% of the world do not have access to the Web,” said Berners-Lee, before noting that the Web has been developed by the developed world for the developed world. In other words, it seems we’ve left some people out, and the Web as we know it serves the lifestyles of the world’s technologically privileged minorities.

The Knight Foundation seems to have agreed with Berners-Lee’s rousing speech laying out the philosophy and goals of the World Wide Web Foundation, and have supplied him with $5 million in seed money to launch it in 2009.

Well, if the creator of hypertext asked you for money for a new project, wouldn’t you give it to him? It wasn’t without good reason. Or without three of them:

  • to advance One Web that is free and open,
  • to expand the Web’s capability and robustness,
  • and to extend the Web’s benefits to all people on the planet

This is usually the kind of stuff Google trips over itself throwing money toward. Nothing out of Mountain View just yet, though.

Berners-Lee thinks the mobile Web will be the version reaching that last 80 percent, and he’s surely right about that I think. He and his colleagues at the World Wide Web Foundation will be setting off the next phase of the Web, then, with the lofty, ultimate goal of a “humanity connected by technology,” success likely measured by the singing voices of all the children of the world.

“Our success will be measured by how well we foster the creativity of our children,” he said.

Well, I wasn’t too far off, was I? He goes on, detailing success measured by “whether future scientists have the tools to cure diseases. Whether people, in developed and developing economies alike, can distinguish reliable healthcare information from commercial chaff. Whether the next generation will build systems that support democracy, inform the electorate, and promote accountable debate.”

That last part, the “accountable debate” part, Berners-Lee seems to elaborate on for the BBC, exposing optimism both audacious and admirable. He fears the Web in its current form is too easily abused as a channel for the spread of misinformation.

"On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable," he said. "A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."

A mind virus. A meme. More likely, infinite networks of memes, and anonymous beasts to bear them out. Yes, we’ve seen it time and time again; the extent of their damage, however, is always debateable. 

The solution isn’t easy, but Sir Tim and friends are leaning toward some kind of system that would label websites as trustworthy once they’ve been vetted as reliable sources of information, a highway among a system of half-truth and untruth access roads.But who will vet them?

Imagine, then, a kind of accreditation system forming in the future, likely staffed by a committee sharing some modicum of agreement on truth, tagging and scoring certain websites as havens for truth and at best ignoring the rest.

It’s an idea that has a date with destiny. Unfortunately, the potential for a happy destiny in that respect is slim (but I’m optimistic still, I swear), because not only does the mere suggestion evoke images of abusive, ideological stamps of approval from shadowy, somehow populous-minded Aristotelians, but also perpetual controversies and complaints from those who don’t make the elusive list of approved sources.

Is Berners-Lee such an optimist that that he believes in true objectivity and benevolent virtual society judges? Is the crowd the source of this objectivity and benevolence or the enemy of it? Is it really possible to have six billion people of one accord?

These will be hard questions to answer, and hard bumps to beat smooth. I’m hopeful for, I dive into and swim in this benevolent future while the tenacious piranhas of human observation nip at the bleeding gladness of my heart. Can a man change the world twice? God, I hope so, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
 

Can Tim Berners-Lee Change The World Again?
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