Why the Man Who Invented the Web Isn't Rich

I hadn't realized that the World Wide Web turned 21 this week until I saw the nice birthday card that Megan Garber sent it yesterday. And it's a good thing I did--because otherwise I would have missed a fabulous recycling opportunity!

In the summer of 2001, shortly before the 10th birthday of the web, I did a Time Magazine profile of its creator, Tim Berners-Lee. Re-reading it just now drove home how young the web was back then, and how much it's changed. (Berners-Lee was critical of the state of the web when I interviewed him, but I think his criticism has lost some of its force.) The profile also reminded me what a thoroughly decent and public-spirited guy Tim Berners-Lee is. Sometimes people who do great things turn out to be jerks, but he definitely isn't such a case. One other thing Tim Berners-Lee isn't is fabulously wealthy--and finding out why he hadn't taken the road to riches (and that he almost had) was for me one of the more interesting outcomes of this reporting project.

Below are the first few paragraphs of the piece. If you like them, you can click on a hyperlink, which will take you to Time's website, where you can read the whole piece and learn about, among other things, the evolution of the hyperlink.


You might think that someone who invented a giant electronic brain for Planet Earth would have a pretty impressive brain of his own. And Tim Berners-Lee, 41, the creator of the World Wide Web, no doubt does. But his brain also has one shortcoming, and, by his own account, this neural glitch may have been the key to the Web's inception.

Berners-Lee isn't good at "random connections," he says. "I'm certainly terrible at names and faces." (No kidding. He asked me my name twice during our first two hours of conversation.) Back in 1980 he wrote some software to help keep track of such links--"a memory substitute." The rest is history. This prosthetic extension of his mind took a vast evolutionary leap a decade later, and then grew to encompass the world. It is the reason that today you can be online looking at a photo, then mouse-click on the photographer's name to learn about her, then click on "Nikon" to see the camera she uses--traveling from computers in one end of the world to those in another with no sense of motion.

Berners-Lee is the unsung--or at least undersung--hero of the information age. Even by some of the less breathless accounts, the World Wide Web could prove as important as the printing press. That would make Berners-Lee comparable to, well, Gutenberg, more or less. Yet so far, most of the wealth and fame emanating from the Web have gone to people other than him. Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, drives a Mercedes-Benz and has graced the cover of several major magazines. Berners-Lee has graced the cover of none, and he drives a 13-year-old Volkswagen Rabbit. He has a smallish, barren office at M.I.T., where his nonprofit group, the World Wide Web Consortium, helps set technical standards for the Web, guarding its coherence against the potentially deranging forces of the market.

Is Berners-Lee's Volkswagen poisoning his brain with carbon monoxide? He wonders about this by way of apologizing for the diffuseness of his answers. "I'm not good at sound bites," he observes. True, alas. But what he lacks in snappiness he makes up in peppiness. Spouting acronyms while standing at a blackboard, he approaches the energy level of Robin Williams. He is British (an Oxford physics major), but to watch only his hands as he talks, you'd guess Italian. Five, six years ago, during his "evangelizing" phase, this relentless enthusiasm was what pushed the Web beyond critical mass.

The breathtaking growth of the Web has been "an incredibly good feeling," he says, and is "a lesson for all dreamers ... that you can have a dream and it can come true." But Berners-Lee's story has more facets than simple triumph. It is in part a story about the road not taken--in this case the road to riches, which in 1992 he pondered taking, and which he still speaks of with seemingly mixed emotions. His is also a story about the difficulty of controlling our progeny, about the risky business of creating momentous things, unleashing epic social forces. For Berners-Lee isn't altogether happy with how the World Wide Web has turned out.

He says he'd give the Web a B-plus, even an A-minus, that on balance it is a force for good. Yet an "accident of fate" has compromised its goodness. And that accident is intertwined with--perhaps, perversely, even caused by--his decision back in 1992 to take the road less traveled. The question that fascinates people who have heard of Berners-Lee--Why isn't he rich?--may turn out to have the same answer as the question that fascinates him: Why isn't the World Wide Web better than it is?

You can read the rest of the piece here.

[Photo: Creative Commons]