Last night NESTA played host to Tim Berners-Lee, with a talk under the title “Future of the Web“, followed by a Q&A and panel discussion. I’ll come back to the talk, because I want to start somewhere else first: in the past. The history of the web may well provide the best insight into its future. During the Q&A, Bill Thompson, asked a question that reminded me of a meeting I missed a few decades ago.

My brain is great at holding complex, interconnected models, pulling up random associated facts and remembering faces, but my episodic memory is awful. Seriously, ask me what I had for breakfast. I have no idea. May be you have no idea too? Ok, you don’t know what I had for breakfast, but you know what I am driving at. So, when my brain reminds me of things from three decades ago, I pay attention. 

A long, long time ago, I opened a very large package. A very, very large package. In one part was something that looked like a typewriter, except for a sad lack of space to put paper or ink in it. In the other was something that looked like a television, but it was completely unable to receive even BBC1 (in the days when we had less than 4 TV channels in the UK). My dad told me it was going to change the world, and that I should figure out how to use it. My dad was smart like that. He still is.

So, I got to work. I fell in love with that box. Most people that know me will tell you I am still in love with its offspring and distant relatives today. However, there is something in particular that captivated me about it. It wasn’t the ability to type in words and get it to do things – although I did use that capability a lot, and made some very good money in the process, thank you. No, the magic moment for me was when I got another, inauspicious beige box, called a MODEM. A clever box of tricks that allowed the computer to abuse a BT telephone line to talk to other computers.  That might have seemed a little pointless to most around me back then, but connecting computers together was rocket science. And everyone knows that boys love rocket science.

I could dial into something called a PAD, and from there, I could hop to another pad (landing pad, get it?) and so on, until I arrived at a big computer on the other side of the world. This was in the days when international phone calls were inconceivably expensive, and when the only americans I had seen were in movies. In fact, even the local phone calls to those PADs resulted in a £1,000 phone bill.

Now, strictly speaking, I shouldn’t have been on that system. In fact, I’d been a little creative in getting the numbers and codes to access it. That sort of creativity wasn’t illegal back then, and truth be told, the administrators knew that I was there and seemed quite ok about it. What harm was a kid like me going to do? They sent me nice messages, and we got on ok.

Later, they did start to get a little fussy. So I, and many others like me, started to write programs for our little machines to do some of the things that those big machines did. And much more too. Some of us got a couple of phone lines and  MODEMs. We made our systems available for others to dial in to, creating places where they could leave messages for each other and exchange programs. A kind of electronic bulletin board system, or BBS for short. Those phone lines ran at about 1/1000 the speed of the first version of bluetooth – if you think moving pictures off of your phone is slow, you’ll know why there weren’t any pictures at all.

Now, of course, we could have got in our cars and met up, but many of us didn’t have cars. To be frank, many of us weren’t the kind to strike up a conversation with a stranger, or to go out and find people to get to know. We weren’t in the social ‘in crowd’. We didn’t know it yet, but we were geeks. Real geeks.

We exchanged ideas, we explored new ways of using these machines and were generally pretty excited about what we found to do with them. So excited, that we started to meet up face to face, to talk about it all and to swap programs. Then we started to connect our machines together, so that our conversations weren’t isolated in little islands, but flowed like rivers around the world. Mostly, all of this all happened for free, powered by volunteers.

A little while later, I got dragged back to that world of PADs and the systems that belonged to the big people. This time, I was on the inside, as a student and then a lecturer. Those systems were connected together too. A sort of network of networks, or inter-net. Some years later, that was where I first came across hypertext (I’ve written about that before). One of my friends even wrote a program that bypassed the electronic message system and let you send messages directly to another user’s terminal. This was all before the thing that we call the worldwide web.

There’s something about that story. It was all about the people, not about the systems. Together, we steered what happened with the technology, both consciously and unconsciously. A few decades from now, this system I have in front of me, and the Internet it is connected to right now, will seem as alien as that first PC and those early bulletin boards seem now.

Last night Charlie Leadbeater drew some parallels between Internet users and the Levelers, a 17th Century pseudo-political group, who had an agreement to support freedom of the people.  I think those early Internet pioneers, the ones who sweated over the fuzzball routers and the ones who ran the BBSs were levelers at heart – creating something much bigger than themselves. Working with high ideals, connecting people in an attempt to build knowledge. It didn’t always go according to those ideals, and some things failed. Charlie said levelers failure was caused by the lack of an economic model. Well, the Internet has an economic model, all be it a very complex one. However, whatever it becomes, it is all about the people.

To be continued…