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The NS Profile: Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee could have been a billionaire if he had sold his invention, the World Wide Web.

This article was first published in 2011

Twenty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web among a small circle of fellow computer enthusiasts. Today, the 56-year-old Briton remains one of the internet's most vigorous advocates. Its vast success, however, has had a downside: it has exposed him to a bombardment of requests from visionaries, obsessives and rubberneckers, as well as hordes of children demanding help with school projects. All expect him to exist as some kind of open-source human being.

Berners-Lee has never been an enthusiastic self-publicist. Nowadays, he shelters behind carapaces of email gateways and protective staff. He seldom gives interviews. If you're not persistent and pertinent, you may not even earn a rebuff. "I'm quite busy," he explains - a huge understatement - when eventually we talk on the phone.

“I have built a moat around myself, along with ways over that moat so that people can ask questions. What I do has to be a function of what I can do, not a function of what people ask me to do." (He tends to use techy terms such as "function" quite a lot. He doesn't mind "geek", either.)

That the creator of the web - a father of two children, separated from his wife and based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he pursues his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - has to live like an electronic Howard Hughes is just one of the many paradoxes that his invention has thrown up over the past two decades.

Nevertheless, Berners-Lee is campaigning for ever more openness, pushing for the internet to exist as a free-for-all, unfettered by creeping government interference or commercial intrigue. He believes that access to the internet should be a human right.

Born to mathematician parents in west London in June 1955, Berners-Lee studied at Oxford University, graduating with a First in physics in 1976. In 1980, he joined the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, better known as Cern, as a consultant but left a year later to become director of the tech firm Image Computer Systems.

Returning to Cern in 1984, he started working on hypertext to help researchers share information. His new project could easily have been dismissed as another case of a back-room enthusiast tinkering with clunky, electronic networks: even though he had the ability to construct a computer using a soldering iron and an old television set, Berners-Lee was just one of many sandal-wearing scientists.

“I wanted to build a creative space, something like a sandpit where everyone could play together," he says now. "Life was very simple. I was too busy to think about the bigger questions. I was writing specs for the web, writing the code. My priority was getting more people to use it, looking for communities who might adopt it. I just wanted the thing to take off."

Berners-Lee formally introduced his hobby-built system to the world on 6 August 1991 by posting a message on an internet bulletin board for fellow hypertext program developers. That day, he put the world's first proper website online. It explained what a website was and gave details of how to create one. Neither initiative caused any immediate interest.

It feels odd to picture him struggling to convince people of the web's potential. "It was just a load of hard work," he says - "getting up in the morning and thinking, 'What the hell will I do today? Should I ask people at Cern to instal browsers? Should I get more servers running, write more code for browsers, or should I talk at a conference? Or should I do my own website as an example for other people?'"

At the time, computer fans were an obscure minority, their efforts loudly derided by analogue hipsters. Steadily, however, the World Wide Web gained momentum as the limited group of early users - computer scientists and military and government agencies - expanded until it attracted a critical mass in the mid-1990s. Now, according to the analyst Internet World Stats, over 30 per cent of the global population - more than two billion people - have online access.

Berners-Lee could have become a billionaire by charging royalties for his invention. Instead, in 1994, he gave it to the world for free, without a patent. "If I had made the web into a product, it would have been in somebody's interest to make an incompatible version of it," he says.

He liberated his precocious brainchild while trying, like any conscientious parent, to guide its path. To this end, he created the World Wide Web Consortium, to help spread high technical standards for building websites, browsers and devices such as televisions that offer access to web content. It hardly sounds like the glamorous end of the action - but then, Berners-Lee is known for preferring to live modestly, driving clapped-out cars and wearing cagoules. He concedes that the web has grown far beyond the scope of his first imag­inings. "I did not dream that it would attain its present scale. It was just supposed to be successful . . . Then again, it is supposed to be the World Wide Web."

The vast expansion of the web demands a change of ethos, he believes. We should no longer consider internet access as optional. "Originally, the web was intended to be universal, to work for any culture or any software, but we did not say that it should work for everyone as individuals. That wasn't important when you didn't need the web to function in everyday life. Now, things such as 0800 numbers are being replaced by websites. If you are not on the web, you will have problems accessing services."

He worries that the web may become a new cause of global inequality, rather than a positive force for mass collaboration. "The world's urban poor and the illiterate are going to be increasingly disadvantaged and are in danger of being left behind. The web has added a new dimension to the gap between the first world and the developing world. We have to start talking about a human right to connect."

That's not just talk. In 2008, he launched the World Wide Web Foundation, which campaigns to promote internet usage. Back then, he thought that global expansion was desirable. Now, he sees it as essential.

For many of us in the wealthy west, the web has brought the opposite problem. Connectivity has left us constantly at our employers' beck and call. Six in ten workers in the US check their emails while on holiday, according to a survey by the communications company Xobni. Conversations are seldom completed without someone checking a smartphone. We seem unable to switch off.

Berners-Lee acknowledges the problem. "We will find a way to deal with this new medium and learn how to use it appropriately. We are still learning the ground rules. Certainly, one-to-one time without any electronics is something that people should treasure."

He quickly returns to a favourite theme: technology will bring us the answers to the problems caused by technology. "Every now and then, someone will invent a nifty new program to help us to cope with this," he says brightly. "When we are in our meeting room, we have laptops open and running. They enable people to join the meetings while working in other countries. They also help to run the debate. The laptops feature bots that tell us when it's our turn to talk. They remind us what we want to contribute. In cases like this, face-to-face interactions are enhanced."

For Berners-Lee, communication holds the most promise of solving all of our trickiest problems. When I ask him what he is most proud of achieving, he says: "That the World Wide Web is an open platform. I'm pleased that it was designed very cleanly so that programs can talk to each other across the net. It means that there is one information space where you can put everything. I am chuffed to bits when someone tells me, for example, that they found some medical information online that has really helped their life."

His greatest fear is that the opposite might happen - that the web could be killed off by a large company or government. "That is why I campaign for commercial net neutrality," he says. "If large corporations control our access to the internet and determine which websites we can go to, we will lose its openness and its democratic nature. We can all help to campaign for the right to connect. It is essential that we keep the space open as a white sheet of paper that anyone can use, without being spied on, blocked and diverted."

Nevertheless, government encroachment is already rife, according to data from the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Almost all of the developed world's internet is moderately to pervasively censored by the authorities. Only a small number of nations, including Mongolia and Madagascar, have a completely open web.

Countries such as China, Iran and Egypt can even switch off the service. Proposed laws in the United States would enable the government to shut down websites that allegedly breach copyright laws. Net-freedom lobbyists fear that these powers could be misused to block political campaigns, for instance. And the Digital Economy Act, passed last year in the UK, gave the government powers to instruct service providers to cut off the inter­net account of anyone suspected of copyright infringement.

Berners-Lee also worries about the web's potential as a conduit for extremism. "I was following a Twitter debate on net neutrality recently, when I realised that no one was saying anything in the middle ground. They were all vehement and angry. It may be the case that, with fast communications, reasoned opinions just don't propagate. These conduits accelerate people's emotions.

“Also, you get conspiracy theorists and religious cults emerging. Every now and again, human beings get organised in ways such as the Nazi takeover of Germany or the Heaven's Gate mass suicide. These were geographically limited - but could they spread through the internet in the name of some cause or religion?"

Despite these concerns, Berners-Lee remains resolutely optimistic about the future of his invention. "The web is now coming of age. We have to look at it and decide how best to use it for science and technology. I think it can do uniquely important things," he says.

These are big aspirations. A couple of decades ago, they would have sounded wildly optimis­tic; now, they sound eminently reasonable. If an inventor with a more typically inflated ego had created the World Wide Web, he would no doubt be declaring his genius and demanding the right to lead his creation into its promised land. Not Berners-Lee. His ambitions are characteristically self-effacing. No one person can lead the web, he believes. Humanity and the internet will progress only if our egos coalesce in one global effort.

“With many of the significant problems we have now got, such as cancer, no one person can hold all the pieces of the puzzle together in their head. The challenge is whether we can put some pieces of that puzzle together from different heads around the world.

“When I started the web, I wanted to foster creative interconnectivity, in which people from all around the world can build something together. It's about trying to create a sort of human meta-brain - getting connected brains to function as a greater human brain. With these things, we have to trust in humanity. I think human nature, on balance, is wonderful. If we use the web properly, we can enhance that."

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We're asking the wrong questions about the Google “anti-diversity memo”

Which sex is better at what skills is less important than which skills we value in the first place. 

Yes, I feel sorry for the Google employee who has been fired for writing an "anti diversity manifesto" and circulating it within the company. (Guess what? It leaked.) Losing your job is painful, and doing it in public is even more so. But the conversation around this is heading in such an unproductive direction (do women suck at maths?) that I can't resist wading in.

I agree with the writer that these issues are hard to talk about, but that pushback comes from both directions. Look at the crap Mary Beard is wading through for trying to inject some facts into a discussion about the racial composition of Roman Britain. Nicholas Nassim Taleb keeps honking about "diversity genes" and refusing to listen to evidence that contradicts him. But in his mind, he's Mr Science - sorry, Professor Science - and she's Madam Arts-Subject.

This matters, because when it comes to diversity, there are fact-based positions on both sides. Yet there is a certain strand of Rational Internet Thinker (let's be honest, mostly men) who solemnly tells everyone that we Must Stick To The Facts while advancing deeply ideological stances, which only happen to look "natural" because they are so embedded in our culture. 

But back to the subject at hand. Here's the recap: the memo was headlined  "Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber" and its writer's firing will be taken as confirmation that his thesis was true. Ironically, this will be done by the same section of the right which usually has no problem with firing at will and normally thinks that HR should be a brutally Darwinian process. (Looked at from that perspective, of course Google would fire someone who brought such criticism on the company.) But now there are Principles involved. Probably Free Speech is under attack. Political Correctness may even have Gone Mad. Social Justice Warriors are on the march. Before it's all placards as far as the eye can see, instead I would like to look at what was actually said, and whether it's an argument with any merit. 

In essence, the memo argued that the gender imbalance of staff in tech companies like Google is primarily the result of biological, not cultural differences. ("They’re universal across human cultures," it argued. "They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone".) There are differences in ability between the sexes, the writer said, and that's why most top programmers are men. Men like numbers, and the numbers like them right back.

The memo added:

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

The section about typically female traits is also interesting, because of a couple of points the writer picks out.

"Women, on average, have more...

- Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).

- These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.

- Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness. This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.

- Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.  

Well, SOMEONE has been reading their Simon Baron Cohen. The first point is a distillation of Baron Cohen's argument about "male brains" being better at understanding systems, and "female brains" being better at feelings - which he extends to say that autistic traits might be an "extreme male brain". Unsurprisingly, there are other scientists in the field, such as Cordelia Fine and Rebecca Jordan-Young, who find a lot of the neuroscience of sex difference quite flaky.

I'm not a neuroscientist, but from a lay perspective, my take is that yes, there are some biological differences between the average male and female brain, but that these pale beside a) the way our brain architecture is shaped by stimuli (like years of being told you're rubbish at maths) and b) the overall effect of culture (eg companies which value presenteeism, or make it hard for women to return after having children, or cover up for senior men who are repeated sexual harassers etc etc). 

The "higher agreeableness" point was dealt with by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. Women aren't stupidly not asking for raises or being assertive in the office because they are delicate little flowers. One of the reasons they are more agreeable at work is because they face heavier penalties if they are not. As Sandberg formulates it: "Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” Women are nicer because there are more negative consequences for them if they are not nice.

The last point about neuroticism is bleakly funny, because while women might report more anxiety, men commit suicide in far greater numbers. Which gender is really more susceptible to stress and anxiety? Women talking more about their mental health on "Googlegeist" is being held against them here, when possibly one of the reasons that more men kill themselves is because of the stigma of talking about their feelings.

Overall, the memo makes some compelling points, but it also chucks in a lot of stuff that "everyone knows" about sex differences, which isn't scientifically supported, and also some evolutionary psychology about "protecting females" which strays into the kind of rhetoric found on MRA sites. Its understanding of male and female work patterns can also be naive, for example:

"Yes, in a national aggregate, women have lower salaries than men for a variety of reasons. For the same work though, women get paid just as much as men. Considering women spend more money than men and that salary represents how much the employees sacrifices (e.g. more hours, stress, and danger), we really need to rethink our stereotypes around power."  

I mean, doesn't this just raise a huge number of questions?

How often do men and women do the same work, and for what reasons might they not? (Clue: women do far more unpaid care work and housework.) Are women spending that money on themselves, or are they running household budgets, which is an unpaid project-management task they are doing alongside any paid work? What an individual finds stressful is also entirely subjective.

The author chucks in a reference to "Marxist intellectuals" but doesn't seem to have read any of the vast and fascinating literature on unpaid care and its interaction with paid work. I'd recommend starting with The Second Shift or Wife Work. Angela Saini's Inferior is a good recent choice, too, on women's overlooked contributions to science.

When I talk about feminism with self-styled rationalist men, this dynamic comes up again and again. They will present my arguments as mere anecdote and emotion, which - sad shake of the head - is contradicted by the available evidence. When you point to peer-reviewed studies, or great ethnographies, supporting your point, which they haven't bothered to read, they steam on regardless. It makes the contest deeply unequal. Internet skeptic types talk about the need to engage with writers they don't agree with, and the importance of free and open debate, but often actually don't want to read the contrary view. 

 

***

If you want to read more about the discussion of the science of sex differences which has arisen as a result of this memo, then this piece by Slate Star Codex is interesting - it argues that interest in STEM subjects, not ability, might be the key difference between the sexes. It also completely misses the point. 

Here's a thought experiment. Say you were recruiting for a spoon-juggler. Your advert would probably mention "needs to juggle spoons". But, almost certainly, there would be other skills involved. Turning up to performances on time. Keeping your spoon inventory in check. Not turning up drunk. Not stealing forks from the fork-juggler. 

This is what the argument that women can't succeed in tech because they are innately bad at the skills needed to succeed in tech sounds like to me. We know that many of the early programmers were women, back when the job was considered to be largely secretarial. (Go watch Hidden Figures for more on this, and also because it's just a lovely film and I am so happy for Mahershala Ali and Taraji P. Henson.) We know that the fastest way to depress wages in a job is to feminise its workforce. It's not unreasonable to wonder if we've constructed the whole idea of "success in tech" in such a way that it makes men's success look natural and pre-ordained. Yes, you need to be able to code to be a coder. But there are other skills you need too. 

Yonatan Zunger, who recently left Google, makes this argument better than I could. And he seems to own a pair of testicles, so you know he's more rational and objective than me:

"Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering. Anyone can learn how to write code; hell, by the time someone reaches L7 or so, it’s expected that they have an essentially complete mastery of technique. The truly hard parts about this job are knowing which code to write, building the clear plan of what has to be done in order to achieve which goal, and building the consensus required to make that happen.

All of which is why the conclusions of this manifesto are precisely backwards. It’s true that women are socialised to be better at paying attention to people’s emotional needs and so on — this is something that makes them better engineers, not worse ones."

As I said on Twitter, this is a pattern we see again and again - a high status job is coded as "male", requiring "male" traits, to justify men's dominance of it. The same thing happens in politics: we are assured that politicians need to be "strong" and "decisive", when many of the most successful male politicians today have incredible people skills. Jeremy Corbyn makes time for everyone he meets, hugging them and posing for endless selfies. Sadiq Khan has that Queen Mum ability to remember your name and a key fact about you. What's the real difference between the Clintons? Bill demonstrated huge empathy and made people he was talking to feel special; Hillary didn't. But still, maybe men dominate politics because they are just more aggressive and ambitious. Yeah, OK. 

Tech suffers from a similar silent rewriting of core competencies to flatter its mostly male leaders.

We have all these conversations about how hard it is for Mark Zuckerberg to make the leap to being a frontman CEO because he's a maths guy, not a people guy. We treat this like he's doing an amazing project of personal growth. We don't go, "wow, they really lowered the bar for CEOs to let someone without some of the key skills have a go at it". Or, "his poor colleagues, having to make up for the stuff he's not naturally gifted at". 

There was a similar reaction when Sergey Brin and Larry Page brought in Eric Schmidt when it was time for Google to "grow up". We didn't say, "How embarrassing, they have to find someone to counteract their deficiencies." We said: "Smart move. Not every human can possess all skills, it's wise to have a range of experience and aptitudes at the top of your company."

So this, for me, is the most interesting takeaway from the Google memo. "Do women suck at maths" is a complicated question, and I'm not sure how far answering it will move the conversation forwards. "Have we structured society so that those competitions between the sexes that men can win are deemed to be the most important competitions?" is a better one.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.