Rory Cellan-Jones

The Web at 20

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 10 Jul 09, 13:07 GMT

At the BBC this afternoon, we've had an event to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the creation of the world wide web and to mark the launch of a major BBC2 documentary series on the web's history and future. The idea is that the series, which will be broadcast next year, will be a truly interactive process, with web users given access to the rushes, and invited to comment, criticise and generally interfere before, not after, the programmes are finished.

And who better a guest to have at this launch than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the web's creator? He gave a short speech, then joined a panel discussion with top technology pundit Bill Thompson and Professor Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist who has expressed some concerns about the impact of the web on children. And Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and Free, joined us by satellite from San Francisco. The discussion was moderated by Aleks Krotoski - the presenter of the forthcoming television programmes. Here are a few scrambled, slightly chaotic notes from the event:

George Entwhistle, Controller BBC Knowledge, explained the process behind this open source programme.
"We'll share our rushes, blog as we go along and aim to build a web community around the programme. Who better to tell us about the web than the web itself?"

Sir Tim Berners Lee:

"I was coming through customs yesterday and when I said I'd invented the web, the customs officer said Why? My answer was that someone had to, and I was frustrated that it did not exist."
(You can hear some of what Sir Tim said here)
He explains the problem of sharing information at CERN, and how that drove him to come up with the web.

Twenty years on, he says, he's having to explain why we all need to put our data on the web. "Linked data is beginning to take off." He praises the BBC for sharing some of its data.

Government data - we must get it all out there so we can start making all sorts of connections.

Each time there is a paradigm shift, you have to look for the people who "get it" and cherish them.

Looking back over twenty years, it's the spirit of the web that matters.People doing it because they think it's a good idea. That spirit has made it very exciting, it's allowed everyone to get involved.People who didn't say no.

Looking ahead, the exciting things are semantic web and mobile. Only 20% of people have web access now. We have to make sure we target things in low bandwidth to people who may have poor connections.

Important to keep an open standards, royalty-free web.

What do you think of the fact that people post anonymously on the web?

Posting things anonymously is better than blowing up buildings. But as a user you have to learn to filter what you read online.

Q. What's the future of video on the web?

As a consumer, I feel that I should be able to get to - and pay for if necessary - anything that has ever been broadcast. I'm looking forward to a time when the BBC archive is online and I can get BBC content from the US. I'm prepared to pay. The common thread is random access.. The concept of a channel is going to be history very quickly.

Q. What is your view of policing the internet?

Things like fraud have moved online, and of course crime should be pursued on the internet just like everywhere else.
My feeling is that the web should be like a blank piece of paper. You can't buy paper on which you can only write the truth, or not draw a nude.
The medium should not be set up in order to constrain it.

Governements should not snoop on what people do on the internet. It will prevent people from using the net properly. "I don't want the governement to know my shirt-size."

Chris Anderson:

The internet lets you broadcast with an infinite number of channels. The web is "scale agnostic" - it works as well for reaching an individual as for reaching millions..

The 20th century was the century of physical production - an inflationary century.
The internet, and Moore's law, means everything gets cheaper. This allows you to be wasteful on the web - the economic cost is so low. It allows us to build businesses without knowing how they will make money. Companies with network television audiences, like Twitter, can be run with 50 people. We are economically and creatively liberated.

Susan Greenfield

My question is what will the web to do us? The brain will adapt to the different two dimensional environment that the web provides. We might be entering a world that is more sensory than cognitive.
When you read a book you are are led through linear steps. When you go on screen, it's a sensory process..
Wonders whether 3 year olds using Google is such a good idea - what have they learned to ask?
Are we changing round from an answer-poor, question rich environment to the opposite?

We need a debate about all of this. Could it be that if you're putting your brain in a situation where you're living for the moment, that could have consequences. Will it encourage greed and recklessness?

The banality of Twitter. "look at me, mummy, I've got my sock on...".If someone says they have 900 friends what does that say about friendship?

Why don't we have a few brain scans of young people to see what's changing? Can we find out what is so addictive about the web experience? Wouldn't it be great to sit down and think what we want to deliver to our kids? We mustn't blow this - the web can be a fantastic resource but we need to sit down and work out whether it's delivering a better society.

Bill Thompson

I saw the web first as a relative latecomer in 1993. The change that it has wrought - it's much bigger than television. What it's achieved in just twenty years is astounding. In fact it's more important even than print.

Think about the web in evolutionary terms - like developing a new eye. Delivering us access to more than a raw collection of facts but to knowledge. One of the most important things we have done as a species. So no wonder so many governments want to control it and see it as a threat.

It was built not to respect boundaries. So governments want to do everything they can to limit its potential. Tim told me in the mid-nineties he hoped the internet would help us to know more about our neighbours. "If we knew more, it would make us less likely to kill them." Sadly that hasn't happened - but the web does allow us to know about neighbours being killed.

But it's just starting - the evolution is at an early stage.

Tim Berners-Lee

People brought up on the web realise that when you give away information you don't lose - no longer a zero sum game. When I speak to government departments about giving away data, they worry that someone else will use that data and make money from it and that will be unfair. On the web the rules are different.

Bill Thompson and Susan Greenfield then have an interesting spat about privacy. Bill is keen to give it all away - and reads his mobile phone number out to the audience. Baroness Greenfield seems shocked.

Tim Berners-Lee explains how we can build structures of trust on the web. You take into account where data comes from, assess its reputation and the people behind it. "There are particular people I trust about movies, and particular people I trust about wine. Concepts of trust are quite subtle."

Baroness Greenfield says young people she meets are beginning to feel uncomfortable about being so transparent online.

Question - is access to the web a human right?

Sir Tim: Yes, like clean water. And of course clean water isn't available everywhere.


  • Comment number 1.

    I wish Susan Greenfield would stop making all these pseudo-scientific claims in the media like "Facebook harns childrens' brains", and DO HER JOB.

    As Ben Goldacre said,

    "We are all free to have fanciful ideas. Professor Greenfields stated aim, however, is to improve the publics understanding of science: and yet repeatedly she appears in the media making wild headline-grabbing claims, without evidence, all the while telling us repeatedly that she is a scientist. By doing this, the head of the RI grossly misrepresents what it is that scientists do, and indeed the whole notion of what it means to have empirical evidence for a claim. It makes me quite sad, when the publics understanding of science is in such a terrible state, that this is one of our most prominent and well funded champions."

    She is a damaging influence on our society.

    Not to mention that she sits in the House of Lords. Why should we let these people near our laws?

  • Comment number 2.


    It seems apparent to me that Susan Greenfield is merely asking questions about the impact that this new, unprecedented resource is having on the population. She seems quite explicit that real scientists, not herself, should study the effects the Web and the applications around it are having on the human mind, especially the minds of children.

    I have utterly distanced myself from social networking and online communication with people I don't actively meet, because I believe human beings require real, natural communication in order to thrive healthily. I am not a scientist, no, but I can make this claim, and I can live by it. Perhaps I fear change, perhaps I fear the futility of social integration into a networked world of total anonymity and total chaos.

    But it is natural to fear change, and, while change may be good, it is surely prudent to make sincere inquiries into how social change is affecting the nation. Unless you idolize social networking to the extent that the Internet performs a spiritual function in your life, to the possible point of worship. In which case, I'm sure you'd never question the impact of the Internet on life.

  • Comment number 3.

    You can state what you believe to be true, but there is a difference between me saying, "I believe Facebook harms children's brains", and, as a leading science advisor, saying, "Facebook harms children's brains". The second needs evidence.

  • Comment number 4.

    To be honest I have noticed how people change when they use computers too much and shut themselves away from real life. I went through this myself previously when playing too many computer games as a young adult. It takes a good few months if not years to get back to normal.

    Where would we go to contribute to this documentary? I'd be interested in contributing...

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Does anyone find it funny that we're discussing the harm of online sociability on a messageboard, on a website?

  • Comment number 7.

    Susan Greenfield has a point though, I find I have a shorter attention span and that when I 'Google' something and expect answers to be in the first few paragraphs. My default mode of reading is skim-reading. Which isn't good when you want to enjoy a book. Even as I type this I am listening to a Podcast.

    Better to wonder what new ways of interacting with the world do to our brain, than let ignorance rule, and possibly create problems for ourselves in the future. Research has shown that children who grew up with black and white TV dream in black and white 50 years later [See - what will people who grow up spending their spare time on Guitar Hero be dreaming in 50 years I wonder?

    deamon138: If you have an alternative theory or can answer any of these questions, then please, start typing now - as I'm interested. Quoting some newspaper columnist doesn't mean anything.

  • Comment number 8.

    The problem with some of Susan Greenfield's comments, as other people have clearly said, are that they are statements (which are most probably to grab headlines), not hypotheses. As a scientists she should know this, How Science Works is the basic principal of science after all (sorry if that was very GCSE orientated). I assume she does know this and therefore wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that she chooses to ignore the basics of science in order to get attention? (which is not excusable).
    I'm not saying that research should not be done, but that people who only have the motivation to find the truth and have the skills required should carry it out. There is not harm in knowing after all.

    David-Whitehouse, I concur. I also recently was addicted to computer games. It did take a long time to wean myself of them to an "acceptable" degree and even now (about a year later) I would still not consider myself back to the normal me.

  • Comment number 9.


    I am curious about your statement: "I have utterly distanced myself from social networking and online communication with people I don't actively meet, because I believe human beings require real, natural communication in order to thrive healthily," because it is clearly, to me, fallacy.

    (Please note the qualifier - "to me" - before taking any offense at that. Thanks.)

    The problem herein is that people see the internet - something new - and the web - something also new - and assume that everything on it is therefore new. This is at best lazy thinking, and at worst a sign of just how lazy we are becoming cognitively. This is not true.

    People have interacted at distance for centuries. The distances have grown wider, but any distance beyond say 5 meters (not really a comfortable talking distance, face to face, but just about close enough to hold a conversation without yelling) is long-distance for humans. We've passed notes, sent letters, sent smoke signals, tossed bottles with messages in them into the sea (or other methods other than bottles), for centuries, probably millennia. This is nothing new. Only the speed has changed, and that is largely irrelevant.

    To use analogy - a bad idea usually but often unavoidable - my ancestors considered a long journey to be a few miles in many cases. To leave the comfort zone of home and go to Leeds from Bradford was a major event. Now, this is fairly normal. But that does not make the event itself new. The actual distance has merely decreased, because now I may move more rapidly.

    But it is not new experience.

    By the same token, lovers sent letters across whole oceans merely a couple of centuries ago, and had entire (long, too, sometimes lifelong) relationships with no face to face contact whatsoever. It was not the norm, of course, but it happened. Contracting distance a little, the same thing happened with people merely living in different villages.

    And of course, books.

    Books have gone around the world many times over, have been passed, dog-eared, from hand to hand. The author is never met by the vast majority who read his works, but who can read a book and know nothing about the man or woman who wrote it? Something of the writer passes into the words and becomes known to us, and we feel as if we know them beyond mere anonymity as a result.

    This too is true of the internet. You claim you shy away "totally" from social networking online, but you have done it all your life. You may not choose to do it on the web, but you read books, I presume; you watch movies; you allow access to your memory and reasoning to people who you will never meet, never know, never understand in face-to-face context.

    There is, I'm afraid, no difference whatsoever.

    The web and everything on it is old. Only the speed changes.

  • Comment number 10.


    People change how when they use computers too much? What is too much? Which kind of use? Is that use beneficial to them or negative? Is the change beneficial or negative?

    It is of very little value to make a statement without explaining it's meaning.

    Playing games constantly is clearly unhealthy in the long-term (ask certain Korean youngsters who died doing so ... well, not literally ask, obviously...), but playing games is in fact beneficial to the user with small, controlled usage. It has been demonstrated to enhance reflexes, for example, to promote problem-solving skills with some kinds of games, and, if we exclude mindless first person shooters, probably also improves attention spans.

    Socialising online also has fairly vast benefits when done in moderation: improved communication skills, potentially (if mixing in the right crowds) better grammar and punctuation... the list is fairly long, in fact.

    And socialising online has even greater benefits for those who do not have time to do so offline - for example, new mothers who must work long hours and then care for their new children, or those who work long hours and are too tired to go out afterwards; certainly social interaction at distance is better than no social interaction at all.


    Your addiction to computer games is only an indication of your own behaviour, not anyone else's. This is not meant to be a put-down of any kind - I'm merely pointing out something that we're all guilty of, and naturally so: using our own experience as an expectation of others. And have you considered that there is no normal you? That you will change, every day of your life, for the rest of your life? That you will NEVER be "normal" even compared to yourself?

    Worth thinking about.

  • Comment number 11.

    Sir Tim Berners Lee says:

    "Government data - we must get it all out there so we can start making all sorts of connections."

    hear, hear.

  • Comment number 12.


    A lot of government data is already in the public domain. The public doesn't actually care.

    How do you think we should tackle the problem of voter apathy? The public only seems to actually give a damn if someone tells them things; making the information available to all changes nothing at all in this respect.

  • Comment number 13.

    Auqakuh1123 #12.

    the points about voter apathy and an uncaring public are well made; I think that those attitudes are the result of (a) the knowledge that we're being lied to and (b) there's no real choice between professional (if that's the right word) politicians and parties.

    yes, "a lot of" data is available but not all. all information "on the table" would help tie the hands of both politicians and corporates -- a good thing, I'm sure you'd agree.

  • Comment number 14.


    I completely agree. I also have a number of ideas with regards enhancing voter interest, but this probably isn't the place... heh.

  • Comment number 15.

    I run a small IT business.

    My 18 yo daughter grew up with the net, apart from one time when risque photo`s were put on she has been no problem. Except for the fact every second of free time is spent infront of her PC. There are times howether she becomes embroiled in arguments online that spill into real life and some have become feudal.

    I have alway`s policed my kids MS Messenger,MySpace, Facebook rigourously much to most peoples disdain in the beginning. What occurs on my internet is my responsibilty.

    My 14 yo, at 12 was flashing on taken away. Sexually oriented conversations/swearing from that point on resulting in internet being withdrawn for periods. These things were no different to what her peers were/are doing. She had sex at 13, arranged via internet convo`s, arranged drinking sessions/liasons. Take a good look around your teenagers MySpace/Facebook and see our very kids trying to copy Jordan poses in some cases explicitly imho. These kids are unpoliced in most cases as parents do not know how. Her internet now has parental control where all Social Networking is barred. Her life has changed. She gets far more exercise, moans that her friends sit in all the time wasting their lives and is a far better person to live with. Her moods have changed being no longer involved in the bullying, one side or another, and the gossiping trouble has all but stopped.

    My 8 yo, I fear will have the same no Social Networking parental control added when she reaches that stage as I am now experienced enough to realise what teenagers and others use the net for.

    Humans get satisfaction from power, greed, sex etc., and most have very little self control when it comes to these basic instincts. Look at what the net has become on the dark side untold numbers of sex sites, a lot free for teemagers to delve into, drugs onsale online, scams, viruses etc. Yes it is only a mirror of real life but so much more influential and very much quicker.

    Lots of online activity is illegal and no one cares because everyone is doing it even the schools where a teacher states "Download a picture" or other but the teacher fails to state "Get the copyright holders permission". I had a child recently in performing arts school stating he had been told to download an amount of music without him being told he should do it legally and how/at what cost. I had to lecture him on how would he feel if in future he became a recording artist and his music was pirated.

    Yes there are fantastically good things about the internet but bad news travels faster than good and makes more money. With the internet growing, the recession and cuts in public services who will police the new laws related to the internet that must come ?

    Somewhere out there is a person making a database of all the information your kids are putting on social networking, their name, address, dob, school, friends etc., and he isn`t the good guy the Tim Berners-Lee is. He`s thinking "Me", money, power, sex, wealth,fame, power, control.

  • Comment number 16.

    carl2407 #15.

    sorry, I think you're not cynical enough.

    "Somewhere out there is a person making a database of all the information.."

    you say you work in IT. then you'll appreciate that it is only the state (ie. the NSA and their likes) which has the means to collate, tabulate and analyse the information on a meaningful scale. rather than "a person" you should worry specifically about the unscrupulous civil servant(s) who disseminate this information to their "contacts".

  • Comment number 17.

    The internet is always being monitored, Big Brother is watching you. The UK is police state. Look at all those cameras outside, watching your every move. The avarage Londoner is filmed 300 times a day by CCTV.

    Phone calls, e-mails, text messages, IM messages... They are all logged.

  • Comment number 18.

    [to continue from my previous message]

    Not even dictatorships have as many cameras as we do. Sure, the government says they are there for our saftey, but what they don't tell you is that studies have shown CCTV doesen't prevent crime.

    Even though that huge internet/phone call/e-mail database didn't happen at the last minute, all internet history is still logged for a year by your ISP.

    Texts are logged by the phone networks for 3 years.

  • Comment number 19.

    carl2407: I feel sorry for your kids. Seriously, being monitored like that does nothing to help them in the long term, in fact it's more likely to cause long term damage such as paranoia.

    Let your kids be kids...

  • Comment number 20.

    @9 - very well put.

  • Comment number 21.

    Kids - or "people under the age of 20" - cause the most crime to the extent that the police are relegated to the position of baby sitters.
    The "bobby on the beat" used to watch people and people were always asking for more police to be on patrol. Now, with cameras, the watching can be much more effective and yet it's being treated as a bad thing.
    I say watch these youngsters 24/7 until their frontal lobes develop and they can be classed as responsible citizens.

  • Comment number 22.

    I believe that as long as you don't allow the internet / computers to be the be all and end all of social encounters (i.e. you still make the effort to do some physical socialising - and have occasional 'complete breaks' e.g. going on holiday), then the internet needn't be necessarily harmful. Indeed, as time goes on, you may even find your internet usage evolves.

    When I attended university (late 1990s), I was very keen to get to grips with the "newfangled" internet (bear in mind at that time, the internet was just starting to take off with home users - the first browser I used was Netscape 1.1N), and spent far too much time on newsgroups, IRC and MUDs. Although I was foolish, in retrospect it taught me all about netiquette, and other aspects of 'good' net behaviour, e.g. thinking carefully about what I write (especially if on a controversial subject!) to avoid triggering a flamewar.

    In my time, I've played SimCity far too much, got engaged in various kinds of Facebook game, and even joined Twitter (same username as here). However, nowadays I rarely load SimCity, have uninstalled most FB games (I have about 2 FB apps I use frequently, contribute to one group, and communicate via Facebook mail - and that's about it!), and have attempted to rationalise my Twitter usage (not that most of my tweets bear any resemblance to rational, sober thought...)

    I don't see the point in Tweeting every minute aspect of the day, but I do use it as a combination of posts about the odder things I discover / do, commenting on other people's tweets, and as a text-based discussion medium for a certain performance art project about 8m above Trafalgar Square...

  • Comment number 23.

    It's called progress!
    It's new, it's exciting and the communication brings us all together to allow what we're doing right now - expressing ideas and sharing thoughts. We do lose some of our social barriers but it's enabling, not disabling.

  • Comment number 24.

    Ah, the internet at 20 - who would have thought all that time ago that it would be so badly littered with adverts and porn. The dreams of "how can we share information" seems to have been replaced with "how can we make money".

    Truly sad.

  • Comment number 25.

    What is wrong with only doing online based socialising? Don't forget that there are many people, such as those on the autistic spectrum, who are bad at talking to people in real life but want to socalise, and in that case making friends online - friends who are also on the specturm.

    Being on the autistic spectrum myself, I can tell you that this is a very good thing. I met my girlfriend on a site for people with Asperger's Syndrome and I'm very glad I did.

  • Comment number 26.

    I meant "in that case making friends online - friends who are also on the specturm - is the best option."

  • Comment number 27.

    I liked Sir Tim's answer to Question - is access to the web a human right?

    Sir Tim: Yes, like clean water. And of course clean water isn't available everywhere.

    Wouldn't that be Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

    Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.


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