It was a bizarre time and place to find myself in the presence of a man who had, arguably, changed the destiny of the world.
I was lucky enough to be listening to Sir Tim Berners-Lee at Charleston House near Lewes, the East Sussex home of artist Vanessa Bell and a honeypot for members of the Bloomsbury Group early last century. Berners-Lee was there to receive the John Maynard Keynes Prize in memory of the economist, a key figure in the set’s own worldwide web of influence.
It was a strange juxtaposition – 21st century technology meets early 20th century bohemianism. When Berners-Lee talked about “walled gardens” we all first thought of the flower beds we’d passed to get to the marquee and our seats. However, he wasn’t discussing roses and espaliered fruit trees, but his dismay at Facebook and Google’s colonisation of cyberspace.
He believes that by encouraging web traffic to pass through their own ‘territory’ (for example, by asking users to sign up to a third party website via Facebook), these tech superpowers are stopping the web from becoming the open and progressive place he had hoped it would be. We visit sites such as Facebook to build up our comfort zones, only ‘liking’ or looking at things that consolidate our accepted view of the world and making contact with people like ourselves. In doing this we simply bolster our prejudices and the web ceases to be a way of understanding others and encouraging new, exciting ideas.
The great man spoke quickly and softly – the audience had to strain to hear over the pounding rain outside. The ideas poured out of him, before we could grasp each one he was onto the next. But this didn’t make his views about the freedom of the internet any less powerful.
This all happened a few weeks ago – but his words resound even louder now that Microsoft plans to buy LinkedIn and Amazon is selling groceries online to rival the supermarket giants.
Over the years since he designed the worldwide web, Berners-Lee has campaigned strong and hard for net neutrality. In his words, he built the web “as an open platform to foster collaboration and innovation.” For example, he has fought against ISPs creating fast lanes for companies paying to have their content load quicker as this will make it harder for anyone who can’t pay extra fees such as “start-ups, artists, activists and educators”.
Whether it’s because Berners-Lee is so private and self-effacing or simply because the topic is too technical, we hear little discussion around the issue or support for the cause. Yet, one day we might wake up and find these mega-companies now rule the world – or at least the wide expanses of the virtual world.
Their walled gardens may all look lovely at the moment, but is there something nasty lurking under the compost heap?