Notes from #SXSWi: Lessons from the Creator of the WWW Not Named Al Gore

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The crowd was wildly snapping pictures and the star of the show grabbed his camera and started snapping back. Fans who surrounded the spectacle started then taking pictures of the audience and the icon taking pictures of each other. It was like a moment from a rock concert, with the exception that instead of throwing guitar picks to the audience, the superstar was throwing HTML5 stickers and was the biggest geek (a term I use with love) in the room.

The Anti-Gore

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Tim Berners-Lee, the literal inventor of the World Wide Web, had come onto the stage at SXSW to a starstruck crowd and after the cheers drowned out Tim began to give a history lesson on the open web platform that he created. Sure, others have made very big contributions (I seem to remember that Al Gore, who came 3 speakers later, once said he did something or other connected to the Internet). Given that Tim Berners-Lee created the URL, the http protocol, the first browser and the first web server (all working on the NeXT -- thanks again Steve Jobs), his claim (although he never goes so far as to say it) as the Gutenberg of our times is pretty safe.

Tim geeked out for a good 20 minutes and explained at length the differences between declarative languages (HTML and CSS) and procedural Turing complete languages (JavaScript) and left the audience wondering if the Internet legend would use the full hour to talk about stuff only hard core computer scientists care about. Then the pivot came in the form of a principal and everything made sense; the principal of least power -- use the least power you can to achieve a goal. 

TimBL, as he is known on throughout the interwebs, laid it out for everyone to understand. In order to build interoperable foundations and platforms that are truly powerful and long lasting you must use a mix of declarative and Turing complete procedural languages. The declarative nature of HTML and CSS, given that they don't require or interact with anything from the OS or hardware, gives the ability to be broadly accessible to be used on any computing platform without any danger of doing harm. The procedural capabilities of JavaScript complement the markup to make the open web platform, in the words of TimBL, "useful for the things you cannot imagine (because you don't have time to think of them)".

From Teaching to Preaching

Once the full context for why the web was established was given, TimBL went on to implore the larger web community to do our parts in keeping the web open. TimBL being TimBL, this was a mix of technical advice and inspirational advice. In the technical arena, Sir Tim (yes he has been officially knighted) schooled the audience on architectural concepts like we were all in Comp Sci 101. Sir Tim taught people how to think in the converse of modules. Designing and developing in modules creates a mindset that the module is the universe. The secret, per Sir Tim, to building platforms is to turn modularity inside out; In anything you do, imagine that what you create needs to communicate with peers -- assume that your universe is part of a larger universe with multiple universe peers inside it.

These are the principals that allow the internet to work as it does, because this is the principal that implores technical designers and programmers to ignore how the things they write will be used. The creators of TCP completely ignored how it would be used and this is what has made it so powerful. The entire internet and the WWW rely on the  assumption that TCP works perfectly. This brought TimBL back full circle; the assumption about TCP is false! If just one of your TCP packets is intercepted, it can be used to understand everything you search on and interact with in order to create spy on and block your traffic.

Learning Opportunities

According to TimBL, spying and blocking by corporations and governments is the biggest threat to the Internet: "In some countries you worry about the government, in others you worry about the companies. When the government and companies are too close, this is bad. Spying and blocking enables dysfunctional government. Democracy depends upon open systems without spying and blocking"

Paradox and Irony Come in Pairs

After the session was done, I spoke briefly with John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of the EFF, about the paradox where spying threatens democracy and wikileaks mission to expose secrets protects democracy. Mr Barlow agreed and was not taken off guard at all (no surprise given his background as a poet). Quite often in nature and society one finds ideas that are mutually exclusive and yet somehow both true.

My favorite part of the whole session was the beautiful irony. The man who is arguably the world's most foremost champion of open standards (he chairs the w3c) created the world's most used open platform (the web) on what is arguably the pinnacle of closed platform machines (the NeXT).

Editor's Note: Follow all of Stephen's coverage from SXSWi

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