‘As billions more come online’
Tim Berners-Lee in 1994. Image via ITU Pictures
From Vanity Fair:
Berners-Lee, who never directly profited off his invention, has also spent most of his life trying to guard it. While Silicon Valley started ride-share apps and social-media networks without profoundly considering the consequences, Berners-Lee has spent the past three decades thinking about little else. From the beginning, in fact, Berners-Lee understood how the epic power of the Web would radically transform governments, businesses, societies. He also envisioned that his invention could, in the wrong hands, become a destroyer of worlds, as Robert Oppenheimer once infamously observed of his own creation. His prophecy came to life, most recently, when revelations emerged that Russian hackers interfered with the 2016 presidential election, or when Facebook admitted it exposed data on more than 80 million users to a political research firm, Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s campaign. This episode was the latest in an increasingly chilling narrative. In 2012, Facebook conducted secret psychological experiments on nearly 700,000 users. Both Google and Amazon have filed patent applications for devices designed to listen for mood shifts and emotions in the human voice.
For the man who set all this in motion, the mushroom cloud was unfolding before his very eyes. “I was devastated,” Berners-Lee told me that morning in Washington, blocks from the White House. For a brief moment, as he recalled his reaction to the Web’s recent abuses, Berners-Lee quieted; he was virtually sorrowful. “Actually, physically—my mind and body were in a different state.” Then he went on to recount, at a staccato pace, and in elliptical passages, the pain in watching his creation so distorted.
This agony, however, has had a profound effect on Berners-Lee. He is now embarking on a third act—determined to fight back through both his celebrity status and, notably, his skill as a coder. In particular, Berners-Lee has, for some time, been working on a new platform, Solid, to reclaim the Web from corporations and return it to its democratic roots. On this winter day, he had come to Washington to attend the annual meeting of the World Wide Web Foundation, which he started in 2009 to protect human rights across the digital landscape. For Berners-Lee, this mission is critical to a fast-approaching future. Sometime this November, he estimates, half the world’s population—close to 4 billion people—will be connected online, sharing everything from résumés to political views to DNA information. As billions more come online, they will feed trillions of additional bits of information into the Web, making it more powerful, more valuable, and potentially more dangerous than ever.
“We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,” he told me. The increasing centralization of the Web, he says, has “ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”