Tim Berners-Lee Response

I was hoping to include some thoughts on the Tim Berners-Lee article that we were assigned this week in my “Inspiration” blog. The whole section grew to be a little longer than I had planned and it didn’t exactly fit into the guidelines for the assignment, so I decided just to make a separate blog post about it.

The article struck me both in terms of how contemporary it felt – the fight over net neutrality is of course still raging – and, frankly, how dated it felt. He was writing in 2010, and at the time I think it made a lot of sense to feel like the would create a new golden age for humanity, so long as certain protocols were maintained. I remember feeling that way. The Arab Spring was still in its most optimistic moment, thanks partly to new internet tools. Facebook still felt like an exciting new tool to bring people together. Heck, the US president had recently run a highly effective web campaign whose slogan was literally just “Hope.” Things were obviously getting better, and the only things that could derail our progress were evil service providers or governments who would destroy our cherished web protocols. The best thing anyone in a position of power, like a company or a government, could do would be to step aside and let this whole glorious wonder that is the Internet unfold naturally.

Of course, that was before Alex Jones. It was before doxing came into vogue. Before Russian botnets distorted the information a large number of Americans received to the point that the difference between real news and fake was tough to discern. Before we elected a goddamn internet troll as President of the United States. It was before we discovered that, as important as ideas like net neutrality or universality may be, they’re not enough. Botnets and trolls don’t need to violate the protocols that Tim Berners-Lee championed to destroy the values that he cherished.

What’s needed, I think, is a culture shift online. We need to move past the idea that the only people who can do real harm to the internet are governments or big companies. We need to take a serious hard look at ourselves. We need to take a tough look at where we get our news from, and we need to understand that our tone has a real effect on what we’re saying. And I know that saying this isn’t necessarily new – online culture has been a much-discussed topic lately. I think what’s needed is for artists to get involved to bring a humanitarian perspective to computing, and for engineers to have a greater appreciation for the impact of their work. Artists need to be coders, and coders need to be artists.