It is Tim Berners-Lee’s world; we just live in it. But you’d never get that impression from Sir Tim himself, the man who invented the World Wide Web barely a decade ago with nary a thought of power or glory, fame or fortune. He runs the World Wide Web Consortium from a modest academic suite of offices at MIT. He’s an accessible scientist who speaks warily, almost defensively, about the miracle he wrought. It is his pleasure, or perhaps his habit by now, to tell you what the Web is not.
The Web is not, first, what Tim Berners-Lee thought he was designing in the early ’90s: a collaborative medium for researchers working together at a distance. That part, for a variety of technical and legal reasons, just didn’t work. Neither is the Web a superhighway of anything, if the highway motif makes you think of concrete, steel, and fixed routes to anywhere. The Web is not, and must never be, the avenue of a monoculture. It is not the outline of a universal brain that will reduce human beings to mere neurons in a Global Mind. It is not a monument to the “Me Decade.” That is, it’s not all about expressive blogging. Or rather: it’s equally about listening and learning. It is about them as much as it’s about us. It is not, he insists, a structure. It is not an active agent–even as it kicks into the cultural and political life of the United States in the presidential decision year of 2004.
“The general public is seizing on the Web as a way to have a conversation,” he said in our own chat this week. “That for me is very inspiring. It doesn’t tell me something about the Web. It tells me something about humanity. The hope for humanity is that people do want to work things out. They do want to come to common understandings, and they will do it by constantly refining the way they’ve expressed their own ideas–and occasionally, on a good day, listening to the way other people have expressed theirs.”
Sir Tim uses the word “fractal” a lot. We live in a fractal world, he kept saying, meaning a world of many levels of structure, where the shapes of mountains often resemble the shapes of sand grains at a different scale; or giant clouds replicate tiny puffs of steam, or human communities at the village level tell you about affinities and tensions at a global level. One of his most compelling digressions was the thought that we should organize our days accordingly. We should live some part of our lives in each of the human orders of magnitude: from the family unit of six to the global population of six billion. Spend a few moments of the day with a consciousness of our individuality, then our closest family circle, our 60-member squad, platoon or company, our 600-member church, our 6000-citizen village in a 60,000-citizen city, in a 600,000 metropolitan area in a 6-million member state; then: our 60-million nation on a 600-million continent, and on to our full species extension.
At each of those levels, and others in-between, we human beings have a distinctive place in a different structure. Perhaps the main message from Tim Berners-Lee at this moment of the Web’s further emergence is simply this: that it serves the conversation at each and every level of a fractal society and a fractal universe. It remains a blank page –a means of getting human clusters of infinite variety on the same page. The nightmare is that it might deliver human experience to the world the way McDonalds delivers burgers, but at this early state of the Web’s evolution, it does not seem a real prospect, not at least to Tim Berners-Lee. “What’s great is to see this diversity of what’s coming out of it. And the diversity does not seem to be slowing down in any way.”
Our conversation is in two files here: Part One on the surprises between the first conception and real growth of the Web. And Part Two on the ways in which the Web may yet realize the visions of diverse geniuses and prophets from Walt Whitman to Teilhard de Chardin.