Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Today I was fortunate enough to see Sir Tim Berners-Lee deliver a talk at the Linux Conference in Canberra, Australia. Sir Tim is best known as the genius who invented the World Wide Web. If you don’t know the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web then the rest of this post will probably be above your head.

Firstly I never realised how fast Sir Tim speaks. The acoustics of the hall where we were made it hard to follow what he was speaking about, that and the fact that he is first and foremost a brilliant computer scientist, not necessarily a public speaker. I felt like I was in the presence of someone who had forgotten more about programming than I would ever know.

Generally the topics he covered were JavaScript, developing Web content to cater for different platforms and Aaron Swartz.

I didn’t follow all the detail of what he meant about JavaScript, other than he seemed pleased that there are frameworks like jQuery and node.js in existence. It appeared that there trend toward making JavaScript a more first-class citizen regarding programming languages meets with his acceptance.

He also spoke about how he would like to see people steer away from walled content in native platforms such as phone apps, and to keep the focus on responsive web content that caters for different devices. Examples of the problems he gave with phone apps that deliver content which could just as easily be pure web content were problems with not knowing the URL of a page of news content and therefore being unable to share it, comment on it or do anything else useful. Of course there needs to be web content on phones and that is the point – keep it to web content, stop making apps that merely repurpose web content and hobble it. I agree with this wholeheartedly. Of course it makes life more difficult for web developers, but so be it.

Sir Tim also spoke at length about Aaron Swartz who committed suicide recently. Sir Tim had met Aaron when Aaron was only 14 and recognised what a brilliant young mind he had. The short version of the story is that Aaron was an internet activist who was arrested and charged with federal charges after the US Secret Service pursued the case where he was accused of downloading content from JSTOR – a system that has archives of journals, manuscripts and more. I believe the problem was how he accessed the MIT network to perform this feat.

Aaron was facing up to 35 years in prison, something which was majorly disproportionate to the crime he had allegedly committed. There are plenty of better descriptions of the sad story all over the Internet so that’s all I will attempt to describe. What was interesting was that Sir Tim had been preparing to testify in Aaron’s defence and so he had obviously been troubled by the whole case and what he hadn’t been able to say as the case was set for February 2013. Sir Tim basically rammed home the point that the legal system was written before the Internet age and relies upon the wisdom of the prosecution to know which cases should be pursued and which shouldn’t. Sadly that didn’t happen in this case.

But it wasn’t all sad and gloomy. Sir Tim was funny. And at the end of the seminar he was asked questions from the audience via Twitter and microphones positioned in the hall. The thing that cracked me up the most was that he was asked by someone what he thought about the inherit security problems in TCP. His response was just 3 words: “Not my layer” which is hilarious to anyone who knows anything about networking. All those years at university learning the OSI 7 layer model paid off for me.

And the last question was about his opinion of the tag which was overused throughout the early days of the WWW. His response (not verbatim): “It sucked then, it sucks now and it will suck in the future”. Great stuff.