The man who invented the Web is on mute. I can see his mouth moving, but no sound comes out. It’s nice to know this sort of thing happens to once-in-a-generation geniuses, too.
“Ah, there we are,” he says, “I’m back.”
Sir Timothy Berners-Lee — OM, KBE, FRS, FREng, FRSA, FBCS, also known to the internet as TimBL — is sitting in his Oxford home. I can see airy windows and an elaborate Victorian dollhouse in the background. I’ve never addressed a knight before, so my first question is one of etiquette. “Err, you can call me Tim,” he says, cracking a lopsided smile. “The rule is, if you call me ‘Sir’ you have to buy everyone a round of drinks.”
It would be kind of nice to imagine the Father of the Web sitting in a leather swivel chair, in a secret lab underneath Geneva, surrounded by dozens of high-resolution monitors. You reach him by unlocking a series of doors, each wired with explosives, which can only be opened at a precise time. When you arrive, breathless, he turns slowly and says something like,
‘Ah yes, the systemic anomaly. I’ve been expecting you.’
Instead, Tim Berners-Lee turns out to be a sixty-six-year-old human man in a black jacket and dark collared shirt. A shock of grey hair rises from his balding head, ‘Doc’ Brown style. His eyes are bright and intelligent behind rectangular specs. When he talks, it’s in fits and starts, head darting side to side like a bird, arms and hands flapping through space. Ideas chase one another around with an audible whooshing noise. The overall impression is a powerful but slightly neurotic hybrid: half Jobs, half Wozniak.
If you’re reading this article on a device, it’s largely thanks to this man. If you’ve ever typed an address into a browser, it’s definitely because of this man. Most of our modern existence can be traced back to a single day in March 1989, when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee pitched the idea for the World Wide Web. He sketched his original vision while working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). In 1990, he published the world’s first website. Shortly after, he gave the whole thing away for free.
In a list of eighty cultural moments that shaped the world, chosen by a panel of twenty-five eminent scientists and academics in 2016, the invention of the Web came in at number one. There was the world Before Web, and the world After Web. Tim Berners-Lee has been knighted by the Queen. Time named him one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. He’s won the Turing Award and been celebrated at the Olympic Games. His face appears on stamps. And for the last thirty-odd years, he’s been quietly working away, brain on high boil, trying to protect his creation from forces that seek to pervert it.
“To a certain extent, we could foresee that monopolies would take over the Web,” Berners-Lee says. “We were always beset by monopolies, really, even in the beginning. What we didn’t see is that disinformation would win.”
“We were always beset by monopolies, really, even in the beginning. What we didn’t see is that disinformation would win.”
After Russian hackers interfered with the US election in 2016, and after Facebook admitted to selling the private data of GD updated million users to political research firm Cambridge Analytica, and after the disinformation shitstorm of the previous decade, it became obvious to Berners-Lee, and to pretty much everyone else, that the Web was sick. Something was going wrong. Our “abstract imaginary space of information”, as Berners-Lee describes it, was becoming less abstract and more nightmarish by the day. The network that was meant to set us free, to democratise information and smooth out inequality, was being debased, corrupted by private interest, locked away in data silos. More and more of the Web seemed to belong to fewer and fewer people. Instead of some boundless creative tundra, the Web felt more like a meat grinder: people go in, and data comes out.
“After two decades, it became clear that people didn’t feel empowered, they didn’t feel safe, they didn’t feel like they had a home on the Web,” Berners-Lee says. “That’s always been the snag with the Web, and technology in general: everyone competes. And if you compete and you win, you become a monopoly. That’s bad for people and bad for innovation.”
So, from his lab at MIT, Berners-Lee set to work hacking the Web, breaking it down and coming up with a brand new project, called Solid. He also started a tech company, Inrupt, to shepherd the project along.
Berners-Lee describes Solid as a “mid-course correction” for the Web. Like knocking an out-of-control asteroid onto a better trajectory. It’s a new platform, built from existing parts, that will (in theory) restore the fundamental principles of the internet. It’ll alter not just how you interact with the Web, but more importantly, how the Web interacts with you.
But to understand how Solid works, and how it might change your life, we have to go back to the early days of the Web itself.
Tim Berners-Lee grew up in London in the 1960s. His parents were both tech pioneers; in fact, they helped build one of the first commercial computer systems. One of Berners-Lee’s earliest memories is talking with his father about how computers would one day mimic the human brain. He studied physics at Oxford where, as a student, he cobbled his own computer together from an old TV, a few odds and ends, and a soldering iron.
In the 1980s, Berners-Lee began working as a consultant at CERN, where he came up with an initial Web-ish prototype, which would allow scientists to share information across emerging systems. He called it, rather charmingly, Enquire Within Upon Everything. It took another ten years to refine the idea and write a memo, Information Management: A Proposal, which mapped out the DNA of the World Wide Web. When researchers found the memo, years later, there was a small note from Berners-Lee’s supervisor scrawled on top: “Vague but exciting…”
It’s probably worth clarifying something at this point: the Web is not the internet. They’re two different things. When Berners-Lee proposed the Web in 1989, the internet had already been kicking around for a decade and a half, although most of the planet didn’t know it existed. It was invented (largely) by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn in the 1970s. They came up with the “Internet Protocol” (IP), by which packets of information could be bounced between computers. The internet is basically a network of networks; a way for one computer to talk to another computer. It’s the physical thing the Web plugs into.
What Berners-Lee did, which seems obvious to us now but at the time required a Newton-level imaginative leap, was pitch a single information system, accessible to anyone, from anywhere, which could (in theory) house every document ever written. It took things that already existed — the internet, hypertext links, the Domain Name System (DNS) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) — and turned them into something new.
The Web was so new, in fact, so earth-shatteringly simple, that when the first website appeared in an academic chatroom in 1991, its significance wasn’t obvious. “No one paid much attention,” Vint Cerf admitted, years later. It was like seeing the first wheel and being asked to imagine the internal combustion engine. Suddenly, humanity had an open-source information system that could be used by anyone in the world. More or less for free.
This bit is important. It’s how the Web won. At the time, there were other information systems out there, but Berners-Lee knew if his creation was going to become dominant it had to be completely unrestricted. Free to use, free to explore, free to build upon. A giant digital sandbox for the world’s collective imagination. So he decided to give it away.
Understandably, computer scientists and academics were the first to jump on-board — in those early days, Berners-Lee mostly imagined the Web as a space to share documents and text — but within a year of the first website launch, developers were already exploring strange new virtual shores. Users were joining all the time. Different browsers launched, email systems sprouted, images popped onto the screen, chat rooms flickered to life, and the blogosphere exploded overnight. By the year 2000, five per cent of the world’s population were using Berners-Lee’s creation. By 2014, nearly half the planet was ‘online’.
“That first decade was very positive,” Berners-Lee says. “We were unfettered by technology. We didn’t need any countries or rules. We thought we’d be able to solve all the problems of humanity,” he gives a tired smile, “which was maybe a little optimistic.”
Inrupt’s CEO and co-founder, John Bruce, first heard about Solid over dinner with Berners-Lee. John is Tim’s right-hand man. They often appear on stage together at conferences: Bruce the savvy, level-headed businessman, Berners-Lee the fidgety, quick-talking genius. “When he first explained Solid to me, I couldn’t glob on initially,” Bruce admits, “I struggled to see how the tech would work, and it wasn’t because he was stupid. One of us was definitely stupid.
“Tim started describing to me his initial vision for the Web, and compared to what we’ve got, it’s vastly different. Tim’s Web is the kind of Web I’d love to live in. I don’t think I misspeak when I say no-one understands the Web like he does. Like, literally nobody.”
Berners-Lee’s pitch was simple in theory and thorny as all hell in practice. The basic idea of Solid was to separate the Web’s apps from its data. To give information and power back to users. People like you and me. To smash the stranglehold of Big Tech and make the Web more open, more private, more democratic, more useful and more secure. All at the same time.
“Once I understood the mission, the whole thing became immediately exciting,” Bruce says. “Could we, in fact, with miniscule resources, pivot the Web? Could we knock it back onto its true course?”
Solid works like this: it’s a platform you can access from your browser, like any other app. Only it’s not an app. It’s a way for you to store your private data in something called a ‘Pod’. Your Solid Pod becomes your home on the Web, your safe space, your lockbox, the one spot where all the fractured digital bits of you fuse together. And, most importantly, you own the key.
“The problem at the moment is, I don’t exist holistically anywhere on the Web,” Bruce says. “There’s a fraction of me in all of my apps, but no assembly. What Solid does is recompose all of those factoids into one holistic Me. And now I can enjoy a real relationship with the Web on my terms. Not just little bits of me, but the whole me.”
The beauty of Solid doesn’t become apparent until you “get down into the weeds”, to borrow Bruce’s phrase. Imagine having total and absolute control over your own data. Imagine government departments who could collaborate based on shared, up-to-date citizen information. Imagine better public policy based on deep insights. Imagine big apps having to ask your permission, or being able to share the information you wanted, when you wanted. Imagine developers exploring a new open-source world, where every app talks to every other app. Imagine never having to remember another password — your Pod is your gateway to everything. Want to start a business in Europe? No problem. All your application data is already on your Pod, safe and sound. Give your bank access to your Pod’s financial info and they can provide an instant guarantee, without revealing how much money you’ve got.
Solid takes all the existing tension on the Web — between users, companies, developers and governments — and unwinds it, all in one go. Instead of a centralised Web, belonging to a rich few, we could have a de-centralised Web in the hands of the many. You can imagine it as an ecosystem, although Berners-Lee prefers a different metaphor.
“I think of the Web as a town,” he says, “and in that town I have a house, and in that house I have a room. There are buildings where I go to meet other people, shared public spaces, but also private spaces for myself. Like a town, it’s got lots of stuff happening, and I can choose what to participate in.”
Berners-Lee and Bruce realised early that if Solid was ever going to work, it needed to mirror the launch of the Web itself. That means it needed to be easy, free and open-source, and it needed to provide value to everyone. Big business included.
“I think you might be shocked at some of the businesses we’re talking to,” Bruce says. “Having the CEO of a huge tech company say, ‘I want all of our four billion users on this’, or when the Prime Minister of Flanders in Belgium says, ‘Every Flanders baby will get a Solid Pod. This is how our social services are going to run’, you know something big is happening. We needed to get to a place where tech companies realised that change was inevitable.”
In some ways, we’re already at that tipping point: the imaginary wave crest where companies realise there’s more money to be made from privacy than blatantly selling user data. People are, quite frankly, pissed off with the Web. They’re finally ready for something better.
Last year Apple launched App Tracking Transparency, which allowed iPhone users to block apps from harvesting their data. It crippled one of the pillars of digital advertising and coincidentally pissed off Facebook big-time. “What we’ve been all about is putting the power with the user,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook. “We’re not making the decision, we’re just simply prompting them to be asked if they want to be tracked across apps or not. And, of course, many of them are deciding no.”
Google and other tech companies are doing similar things, with varying degrees of sincerity. Even Facebook, which is essentially a data-mining organisation with a news feed stuck on, has launched a new ‘Privacy Centre’ for users, in an attempt to appear more transparent — which is a bit like a fast food chain inserting a dew-fresh lettuce leaf into a double bacon cheeseburger.
The point of Solid, Bruce says, is that it can actually flip the entire users-versus-Big Tech debate and create simultaneous value for everyone. The Web, in its ideal state, should be a marketplace, not a battleground. With Solid, ordinary people will have total control over how much data they give away, and companies will have a better understanding of you, and your preferences, than ever before. In theory, everybody wins.
“App developers and organisations, they’re bound by the same problems we’ve got,” Bruce says. “They’d love to know more about me, because then they’d be able to deliver a better product or service. But they’re constrained. Not just in what they can entice me to give up, but by squirrelly APIs and all these regulatory hurdles. At the same time, they have to become experts in data law and privacy, even if their core competency is making shoes!
“I think the Web shows symptoms of an illness, and people are trying to attend to the symptoms. What Solid is doing is curing the disease. That’s how we talk about it. The Web is organic and it continues to grow. It just so happens that it’s sick.”
It’s in the nature of networks to become exponentially more useful, and more powerful, as more users join. Isolated, the Web is meaningless; connected, it has almost limitless utility. That’s how it went with Web 1.0, back in 1991, and it’s how Solid is currently tracking. The project is still in its infancy. Right now, Berners-Lee and his team are building scalable enterprise functionality, to make Solid more useful for big tech companies, and even governments. “We’re not quite ready for end users to rush towards us,” Bruce admits, “because there’s not a whole lot to provision them with — yet.”
Still, if you want an example of a Solid world, look to the little Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in Belgium.
Inrupt are working closely with the Flemish government to build a service called ‘My Citizen Profile’, where every Flanders citizen will be given their own Solid Pod from birth. Free of charge. Through Solid, the people of Flanders will be able to quickly update every single government department in one place: a change of address, the birth of a child, sharing their work history with potential employers, or registering a new company. Public policy will be informed by what’s actually happening on the ground. Health care will become more efficient, infrastructure projects will go where they’re needed, and education initiatives can have a bigger impact.
“People will get addicted to that value, addicted to the control, addicted to the way all their apps link together,” Berners-Lee says, growing excited. “We’ll get to the point where, if you’re going to start a company, it makes more financial sense to start it in Flanders. Bit by bit the platform will spread.”
Bruce and Berners-Lee both talk about Solid as the inevitable next phase of the Web’s evolution. Like losing your appendix. “I’m utterly convinced we’re going to make it happen,” Bruce says. And when you hear him, it sounds true. The biggest hurdle the pair face right now is one of vocabulary.
“In the short term, Solid is difficult to explain. A bit like the original Web,” Berners-Lee says. “You can imagine, before the Web was invented, explaining a ‘click’ to somebody. Before the Web, that just meant a mouse click, it didn’t mean anything else. When you explained to people that ‘clicking’ one piece of hypertext could take them literally anywhere, it sort of blew their minds. They couldn’t grasp it. That’s what a paradigm shift is. It’s when the situation afterwards needs words to describe it that don’t exist yet.”
That’s how Berners-Lee views Solid, as an epoch-defining collective leap. One that we have to take together. A better Web is out there, just over the horizon line, but we can’t quite wrap our heads around it, and that lack of imagination is holding everyone back.
“If I could bottle what I feel when I go around the world and talk to very smart people, and hear what they’re going to do with this technology, honestly it’s so energising,” Bruce says. “When I go home to my kids, they actually ask me about my work, because for the first time in my career, they’re interested in what it means. I think they can see it. So we can’t fail. We’re not going to fail.”
Every year, on the anniversary of his creation, Tim Berners-Lee writes an open letter to the Web. Some of them read like manifestos, others like love letters. In 2019, he wrote this:
“It’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the Web is really a force for good. But given how much the Web has changed in the past thirty years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the Web as we know it can’t be changed for the better. If we give up on building a better Web now, the Web will not have failed us. We will have failed the Web.”
This article features in the June 2022 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
Whether you’re a fan of music, you’re a supporter of the local music scene, or you enjoy the thrill of print and long form journalism, then Rolling Stone Australia is exactly what you need. Click the link below for more information regarding a magazine subscription.