Electronic spaces

Berners-Lee casts a web as wide as the world

Tim Berners-Lee spoke to a packed auditorium at the Cabot Center on March 28, and if his speech were a website, it would have been rich with links, allowing the audience to wander off and connect to technical information, questions about society and government and notions about what the web should be in the future.

Tim Berners-Lee chats with students after his lecture. © MELODY KO

Berners-Lee is the inventor of the World Wide Web, and he spoke as part of the Richard E. Snyder Presidential Lecture Series at Tufts.

“It’s impossible to calculate the impact Tim has had on modern life because the results continue to unfold at a blinding pace…The web has truly become a fabric of our life,” Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow said in introducing Berners-Lee. “Tim has been a pioneer for a new generation and helped to create new communities in electronic spaces, communities that span oceans and languages and culture. This is the kind of activity we value at Tufts,” Bacow said.

Berners-Lee engaged in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the founding of the web and what he hopes it will become. He was a researcher at the Geneva-based European Center for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, when he took the tools that made up the Internet and transformed them into a common language that eventually allowed everyone to share all kinds of information.

He is currently at MIT, where he directs the nonprofit World Wide Web Consortium, a group of 400 companies and organizations that collaborate on standards and technologies for the web, and also holds the 3Com Founders Chair at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab.

Berners-Lee is currently working to develop what he calls the “semantic web,” a collection of data instead of websites. The data would be available to everyone, and what he relishes is the notion that no one can predict the many ways in which that data will be used. For example, he said a farmer wanting to know whether he should water his crops would be able to have direct access to real-time weather information and make his decisions based on relevant data.

“You should have the periodic table of the elements so any school kid could go out there and write a program using it,” he said. “You should have the basic proteins out there with their structures as a basic reference notebook for anyone working in the field.”

It is important for the web to be decentralized, Berners-Lee said, and to remain universal and independent. That independence ranges from ensuring that hardware and software do not limit access to the web as well as making sure the web is not censored.

“There are lots of people who said, ‘Tim, why didn’t you make two webs—one for the nasty stuff and one for the other stuff?’ If everyone agreed what is nasty, that would be one thing. I have a high tolerance for nudity and low tolerance for violence. Some people have it the other way around. It’s important that the web doesn’t embody just Washington, D.C.’s version of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu