The Internet should be open.
This was the message from Sir Tim Berners-Lee during his keynote address Sunday. Berners-Lee, knighted for his invention of the World Wide Web, spoke to the assembled crowd during the SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin.
Prior to that talk, Berners-Lee sat down with The Washington Post to discuss a variety of topics, including the townhall held Friday recognizing the life and work of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year old programmer and activist who took his own life in January. Swartz, founder of the activist group Demand Progress, faced multiple charges for taking the content of numerous scientific journals off JSTOR, a subscription-based service, and making them available to the public.
Berners-Lee, who had mentored Swartz, participated in the panel discussion at an open townhall on Friday during the conference.
“He realized,” said Berners-Lee of Swartz, “he had to fight for the open Web.”
Berners-Lee went on to call Swartz an “ethical person — a thinker.”
“He thought; he blogged, and he took action,” said Berners-Lee during the townhall. “I mention this because there aren’t that many people doing it effectively, doing it sincerely. … If you’re wondering how to spend your time, I recommend: Do like Aaron.”
Berners-Lee sat down with the Post the following day. Asked to give his assessment of the event, he said he felt there was “some considered discussion about some serious topics. I think there’s a lot of strong feelings.”
The inventor was there along with Karen Bartleson, president of the IEEE Standards Association, which in partnership with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), was launching its “Open Future Series,” of events headlined by Berners-Lee.
In that vein, when asked about what he was paying the closest attention to at the conference, Berners-Lee said it was HTML5.
“The main wave from the point of view of the open standards is obviously HTML5, which is the current flavor,” said Berners-Lee of the open Web platform, which makes every Web page a computer. “This is a platform for all kinds of massive platform innovation. … It’s also cool because it lets you program for a browser — and browsers run everywhere.”
Asked whether it could be rendered obsolete by virtue of innovation in hardware technology, Berners-Lee said it was possible, if only because disruption was endemic to the Web.
But what of the nature of the competitors and the barriers many face when it comes to learning code? Berners-Lee was encouraging, but practical. “I think in how you get on with coding really does depend on what you’ve been exposed to and to a certain extent, how you’ve been wired,” he said. “But I wouldn’t try to pre-judge anybody, and I don’t think you should pre-judge yourself. I think the important thing is people are exposed to it.”
That said, Lee says there are two digital divides now — the more widely acknowledged divide between those who don’t have digital tech and those who use it every day, and then, of the people to whom the technology is accessible, those who code and the people who don’t.
“And that is an important digital divide,” said Berners-Lee, going on to say that girls, especially, should be encouraged to code, “because it’s a lot of fun, and the boys aren’t always [smarter].”
As for Berners-Lee’s vision for the future of the Web, he said the openness of the Web has meant he hasn’t had to think about it very much. But he did have a prediction, given the presence of HTML5. “What we will see,” said Berners-Lee, “we will see obviously some large platforms written. People will be developing new platforms on top of the open Web platform, and when they do that, the sky is the limit. It will be up to their imagination again.”
“We’re making new worlds. We’re building new societies. And we’re going to have to make some very powerful, democratic fair societies for the future, or we won’t be able to solve the massive problems that we have out there.”
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