It’s hard to believe that this year is the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s great invention, the World-Wide Web, and that much of the technology that enabled his creation is still less than 60 years old. Here’s a brief history of the Internet and the Web, and how we got to where we are today, in ten significant events.
#1: 1963 – Ted Nelson begins developing a model for creating and using linked content he calls hypertext and hypermedia. Hypertext is born.
#2: 1969 – The first message is sent over the ARPANET from computer science Professor Leonard Kleinrock’s laboratory at University of California, Los Angeles to the second network node at Stanford Research Institute. The Internet is born.
#3: 1969 – Charles Goldfarb, leading a small team at IBM, developed the first markup language, called Generalized Markup Language, or GML. Markup languages are born.
#5: 1993 – Mosaic, a graphical browser aiming to bring multimedia content to non-technical users (images and text on the same page) is invented by Marc Andreessen. The web browser is born.
#6: 1995 – Jeff Bezos launches Amazon “earth’s biggest bookstore” from a garage in Seattle. E-commerce is born.
#7: 1998 – The Google company is officially launched by Larry Page and Sergey Brin to market Google Search. Web search is born.
#8: 2003 – Facebook (then called FaceMash but changed to The Facebook a year later) is founded by Mark Zuckerberg with his college roommate and fellow Harvard University student Eduardo Saverin. Social media is born.
#9: 2007 – Steve Jobs launches the iPhone at MacWorld Expo in San Francisco. Mobile computing is born.
#10: 2018 – Tim Berners-Lee instigates act II of the web when he announces a new initiative called Solid, to reclaim the Web from corporations and return it to its democratic roots. The web is reborn?
I know there have been countless events that have enabled the development of our modern Information Age and you will no doubt think others should be included in preference to some of my suggestions. Also, I suspect that many people will not have heard of my last choice (unless you are a fairly hardcore computer type). The reason I have added this one is because I think/hope it will start to address what is becoming one of the existential threats of our age, namely how we survive in a world awash with data (our data) that is being mined and used without us knowing, much less understanding, the impact of such usage. Rather than living in an open society in which ideas and data are freely exchanged and used to everyones benefit we instead find ourselves in an age of surveillance capitalism which, according to this source, is defined as being:
…the manifestation of George Orwell’s prophesied Memory Hole combined with the constant surveillance, storage and analysis of our thoughts and actions, with such minute precision, and artificial intelligence algorithmic analysis, that our future thoughts and actions can be predicted, and manipulated, for the concentration of power and wealth of the very few.
In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff provides a sweeping (and worrying) overview and history of the techniques that the large tech companies are using to spy on us in ways that even George Orwell would have found alarming. Not least because we have voluntarily given up all of this data about ourselves in exchange for what are sometimes the flimsiest of benefits. As Zuboff says:
Thanks to surveillance capitalism the resources for effective life that we seek in the digital realm now come encumbered with a new breed of menace. Under this new regime, the precise moment at which our needs are met is also the precise moment at which our lives are plundered for behavioural data, and all for the sake others gain.
Tim Berners-Lee invented the World-Wide Web then gave it away so that all might benefit. Sadly some have benefited more than others, not just financially but also by knowing more about us than most of us would ever want or wish. I hope for all our sakes the work that Berners-Lee and his small group of supporters is doing make enough progress to reverse the worst excesses of surveillance capitalism before it is too late.
This is the transcript of a talk I gave at the 2018 Colloquium on Responsibility in Arts, Heritage, Non-profit and Social Marketing at the University of Birmingham Business School on 17th September 2018.
Good morning everyone. My name is Peter Cripps and I work as a Software Architect for IBM in its Blockchain Division.
As a Software Architect my role is to help IBM’s clients understand blockchain and to architect systems built on this exciting new technology.
My normal world is that of finance, commerce and government computer systems that we all interact with on a day to day basis. In this talk however I’d like to discuss something a little bit different from my day to day role. I would like to explore with you how blockchain could be used to build a trust based system for the arts world that I believe could lead to a more responsible way for both creators and consumers of art to interact and transact to the mutual benefit of all parties.
First however let’s return to the role of the Software Architect and explain how two significant architectures have got us to where we are today (showing that the humble Software Architect really can change the world).
Architects take existing components and…
This is one of my favourite definitions of what architects do. Although Seth was talking about architects in the construction industry, it’s a definition that very aptly applies to Software Architects as well. By way of illustration here are two famous examples of how architects took some existing components and assembled them in very interesting ways.
1989: Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web
The genius of Tim Berners-Lee, when he invented the World Wide Web in 1989, was that he brought together three arcane technologies (hypertext, mark-up languages and Internet communication protocols) in a way no one had thought of before and literally transformed the world by democratising information. Recently however, as Berners Lee discusses in an interview in Vanity Fair, the web has begun to reveal its dark underside with issues of trust, privacy and so called fake news dominating much of the headlines over the past two years.
Interestingly, another invention some 20 years later, promises to address some of the problems now being faced by a society that is increasingly dependent on the technology of the web.
2008: Satoshi Nakamoto invents Bitcoin
Satoshi Nakamoto’s paper Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, that introduced the world to Bitcoin in 2009, also used three existing ideas (distributed databases, cryptography and proof-of-work) to show how a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. His genius idea, in a generalised form, was a platform that creates a new basis of trust for business transactions that could ultimately lead to a simplification and acceleration of the economy. We call this blockchain. Could blockchain, the technology that underpins Bitcoin, be the next great enabling technology that not only changes the world (again) but also puts back some of the trust in a the World Wide Web?
Setting aside the hype, blockchain, at its core, is all about trust. It provides a mechanism that allows parties over the internet, who not only don’t trust each other but may not even know each other, to exchange ‘assets’ in a secure and traceable way. These assets can be anything from physical items like cars and diamonds or intangible ones such as music or financial instruments.
Here’s a definition of what a blockchain is.
An append-only, distributed system of record (a ledger) shared across a business network that provides transaction visibility to all involved participants.
Let’s break this down:
A blockchain is ‘append only’. That means once you’ve added a record (a block) to it you cannot remove it.
A blockchain is ‘distributed’ which means the ledger, or record book, is not just sitting in one computer or data centre but is typically spread around several.
A ‘system of record’ means that, at its heart, a blockchain is a record book describing the state of some asset. For example that a car with a given VIN is owned by me.
A blockchain is ‘shared’ which means all participants get their own copy, kept up to date and synchronised with all other copies.
Because it’s shared all participants have ‘visibility’ of the records or transactions of everyone else (if you want them to).
A business blockchain network has four characteristics…
Business blockchains can be characterised as having these properties:
All parties in the network have to agree that a transaction is valid and that it can be added as a new block on the ledger. Gaining such agreement is referred to as consensus and various ways of reaching such consensus are available. One such consensus technique, which is used by the Bitcoin blockchain is referred to as proof-of-work. In Bitcoin proof-of-work is referred to as mining which is a highly compute intensive process as miners must compete to solve a mathematically complex problem to earn new coins. Because of its complexity, mining uses large amounts of computing power. In 2015 it was estimated that the Bitcoin mining network consumed about the same amount of energy as the whole of Ireland!
Happily, however, not all blockchain networks suffer from this problem as they do all not use proof-of-work as a consensus mechanism. Hyperledger, an open source software project owned and operated by the Linux Foundation , provides several different technologies that do not require proof-of-work as a consensus mechanism and so have vastly reduced energy requirements. Hyperledger was formed by over 20 founding companies in December 2015. Hyperledger blockchains are finding favour in the worlds of commerce, government and even the arts! Further, because Hyperledger is an open source project, anyone with access to the right skillset can build and operate their own blockchain network.
This means that once you add a new block onto the ledger, it cannot be removed. It’s there for ever and a day. If you do need to change something then you must add a new record saying what that change is. The state of an asset on a blockchain is then the sum of all blocks that refer to asset.
Because you can never remove a block from the ledger you can always trace back in time the history of assets being described on the ledger and therefore determine, for example, where it originated or how ownership has changed over time.
The shared ledger is the place that all participants agree stores ‘the truth’. Because the ledgers records cannot be removed and everyone has agreed them being recorded on there, that is the final source of truth.
… with smart contracts controlling who does what
Another facet of blockchain is the so called ‘smart contract’. Smart contracts are pieces of code that autonomously run on the blockchain, in response to some event, without the interference of a human being. Smart contracts change the state of the blockchain and are responsible for adding new blocks to the chain. In a smart contract the computer code is law and, provided all parties have agreed in advance the validity of that code, once it has run changes to the blockchain cannot be undone but become immutable. The blockchain therefore acts as a source of permanent knowledge about the state of an asset and allows the provenance of any asset to be understood. This is a fundamental difference between a blockchain and an ordinary database. Once a record is entered it cannot be removed.
Some blockchain examples
Finally, for this quick tour of blockchain, let’s take a look at a couple of industry examples that IBM has been working on with its clients.
The first is a new company called Everledger which aims to record on a blockchain the provenance of high value assets, such as diamonds. This allows people to know where assets have come from and how ownership has changed over time avoiding fraud and issues around so called ‘blood diamonds’ which can be used to finance terrorism and other illegal activities.
The second example is the IBM Food Trust Network, a consortium made up of food manufacturers, processors, distributors, retailers and others that allow for food to be tracked from ‘farm to fork’. This allows, for example, the origin of a particular food to be quickly determined in the case of a contamination or outbreak of disease and for only effected items to be taken out the supply chain.
What issues can blockchain address in the arts world?
In the book Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain various of the contributors discuss how blockchain could be used to create new funding models for the arts by the “renegotiation of the economic and social value of art” as well as helping artists “to engage with new kinds of audiences, patrons and participants.” (For another view of blockchain and the arts see the documentary The Blockchain and Us).
I also believe blockchain could help tackle some of the current problems around trust and lack of privacy on the web as well as address issues around the accumulation of large amounts of user generated content at virtually no cost to the owners in what the American computer scientist Jaron Lanier calls “siren-servers” .
Let’s consider two aspects of the art world that blockchain could address:
As a creator how do I know people are using my art work legitimately? As a consumer how do I know the creator of the art work is who they say they are and the art work is authentic?
As a creator how do I get the best price for my art work? As a consumer how do I know I am not paying too much for an art work?
Challenges/issues of the global art market (and how blockchain could address them)
Let’s drill down a bit more into what some of these issues are and how a blockchain network could begin to address them. Here’s a list of nine key issues that various players in the world of arts say impacts the multi-billion pound art market and which blockchain could help address in the ways I suggest.
To be clear, not all of these issues will be addressed by technology alone. As with any system that is introduced it needs not only the buy-in of the existing players but also a sometimes radical change in the underlying business model that the current system has developed. ArtChain is one such company that is looking to use blockchain to address some of these issues. Another is the online photography community YouPic.
Introducing YouPic Blockchain
YouPic is an online community for photographers which allows photographers to not only share their images but also receive payment. YouPic is in the process of implementing a blockchain that allows photographers to retain more control over their images. For example:
Image tracking and copyright tools.
Smart contracts for licensing
Every image has a unique fingerprint so when you look up the fingerprint or a version of the image it points out all of the licensing information the creator has listed.
The platform could, for example, search the web to identify illicit uses of images and if identified contact the creator to notify them of a potential copyright breach.
You could also use smart contracts to manage you images automatically, e.g. receive payments in different currencies, or maybe you want to distribute payment to other contributors or just file a claim if your image is used without your consent.
ArtLedger is a sandbox I am developing for exploring some of these ideas. It’s open source and available on GitHub. I have a very rudimentary proof of concept running in the IBM Cloud that allows you to interact with a blockchain network with some of these actors.
I’m encouraging people to go onto my GitHub project, take a look at the code and the instructions for getting it working and have a play with the live system. I will be adapting it over time to add more functions and see how the issues in the previous stage could be addressed as well as exploring funding models for how such a network could become established and grow.
So, to summarise:
Blockchains can provide a system that engenders trust through the combined attributes of: Consensus; Immutability; Provenance; Finality.
Consortiums of engaged participants should build networks where all benefit.
Many such networks are at the early stages of development. It is still early days for the technology but results are promising and, for the right use cases, systems based on blockchain have the promise of another step change in driving the economy in a fairer and more just way.
For the arts world blockchain holds the promise of engaging with new kinds of audiences, patrons and participants and maybe even the creation of new funding models.
The genius of Tim Berners-Lee when he invented the World Wide Web back in 1989 was that he brought together three arcane technologies (hypertext, markup languages and internet communication protocols) in a way no one had thought of before and literally transformed the world. Could blockchain do the same thing? Satoshi Nakamoto in his paper that introduced the world to bitcoins 20 years later in 2009 also used three existing ideas (distributed databases, public key or asymetric cryptography and proof-of-work) to show how a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.
The documentary The Blockchain and Us made by Manuel Stagars in 2017 interviews software developers, cryptologists, researchers, entrepreneurs, consultants, VCs, authors, politicians, and futurists from around the world and poses a number of questions such as: How can the blockchain benefit the economies of nations? How will it change society? What does it mean for each of us? The intent of the film is not to explain the technology but to give views on the it and encourage a conversation about its potential wider implications.
Since I have begun to focus my architecture efforts on blockchain I often get asked the question that is the title of this blog post. According to Gartner blockchain has gone through the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and is now sliding down into the ‘trough of disillusionment’. The answer to the question, as is the case for most new technologies, will be it’s “good for” some things but not everything.
As a technologist it pains me to say this but in the business world technology itself is not usually the answer to anything on its own. As the Venture Capitalist Jimmy Song said at Consensus earlier this year*, “When you have a technology in search of a use, you end up with the crap that we see out there in the enterprise today.” Harsh words indeed but probably true.
Instead, what is needed is the business and organisational change that drives new business models in which technology is, if required, slotted in at the right time and place. Business people talk about the return on investment of tech and the fact that technology often “gobbles up staff time and money, without giving enough back“. Blockchain runs the risk of gobbling up too much time and money if the right considerations are not given to its use and applicability to business.
If we are to ensure blockchain has a valid business use and gets embedded into the technology stack that businesses use then we need to ensure the right questions get asked when considering its use. As a start in doing this you could do worse than consider this set of questions from the US Department for Homeland Security.
Many blockchain projects are still at the proof of technology stage although there are some notable exceptions. The IBM Food Trust is a collaborative network of growers, processors, wholesalers, distributors, manufacturers, retailers and others enhancing visibility and accountability in each step of the food supply chain whilst the recently announced TradeLens aims to apply blockchain to the world’s global supply chain. Both of these solutions are built on top of the open source Hyperledger Fabric blockchain platform which is one of the projects under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation.
What these and other successful blockchain systems are showing is actually that another question should be tagged onto the flowchart above (probably it should be the first question). This would be something like: “Are you willing to be part of a collaborative business network to share information on a needs to know basis?” The thing about permissioned networks like Hyperledger Fabric is that people don’t need to trust everyone on the network but they do need to agree who will be a part of it. Successful blockchain business networks are proving to be the ones whose participants understand this and are willing to collaborate.
Today (12th March, 2018) is the World Wide Web’s 29th birthday. Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the “inventor of the world-wide web”), in an interview with the Financial Times and in this Web Foundation post has used this anniversary to raise awareness of how the web behemoths Facebook, Google and Twitter are “promoting misinformation and ‘questionable’ political advertising while exploiting people’s personal data”. Whilst I admire hugely Tim Berners-Lee’s universe-denting invention it has to be said he himself is not entirely without fault in the wayhe bequeathed us with his invention. In his defence, hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, no one could have possibly predicted at the time just how the web would take off and transform our lives both for better and for worse.
If, as Marc Andreessen famously said in 2011, software is eating the world then many of those powerful tech companies are consuming us (or at least our data and I’m increasingly becoming unsure there is any difference between us and the data we choose to represent ourselves by.
Here are five recent examples of some of the negative ways software is eating up our world.
Over the past 40+ years the computer software industry has undergone some fairly major changes. Individually these were significant (to those of us in the industry at least) but if we look at these changes with the benefit of hindsight we can see how they have combined to bring us to where we are today. A world of cheap, ubiquitous computing that has unleashed seismic shocks of disruption which are overthrowing not just whole industries but our lives and the way our industrialised society functions. Here are some highlights for the 40 years between 1976 and 2016.
I have written before about how I believe that we, as software architects, have a responsibility, not only to explain the benefits (and there are many) of what we do but also to highlight the potential negative impacts of software’s voracious appetite to eat up our world.
This is my 201st post on Software Architecture Zen (2016/17 were barren years in terms of updates). This year I plan to spend more time examining some of the issues raised in this post and look at ways we can become more aware of them and hopefully not become so seduced by those sirenic entrepreneurs.
As software architects we often get wrapped up in ‘the moment’ and are so focused on the immediate project deliverables and achieving the next milestone or sale that we rarely step back to consider the bigger picture and wider ethical implications of what we are doing. I doubt many of us really think whether the application or system we are contributing to in some way is really one we should be involved in or indeed is one that should be built at all.
To be clear, I’m not just talking here about software systems for the defence industry such as guided missiles, fighter planes or warships which clearly have one very definite purpose. I’m assuming that people who do work on such systems have thought, at least at some point in their life, about the implications of what they are doing and have justified it to themselves. Most times this will be something along the lines of these systems being used for defence and if we don’t have them the bad guys will surely come and get us. After all, the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) fueled the cold war in this way for the best part of fifty years.
Instead, I’m talking about systems which whilst on the face of it are perfectly innocuous, over time grow into behemoths far bigger than was ever intended and evolve into something completely different from their original purpose.
Obviously the biggest system we are are all dealing with, and the one which has had a profound effect on all of our lives, whether we work to develop it or just use it, is the World Wide Web.
The Web is now in its third decade so is well clear of those tumultuous teenage years of trying to figure out its purpose in life and should now be entering a period of growing maturity and and understanding of where it fits in the world. It should be pretty much ‘grown up’ in fact. However the problem with growing up is that in your early years at least you are greatly influenced, for better or worse, by your parents.
“I articulated the vision, wrote the first Web programs, and came up with the now pervasive acronyms URL, HTTP, HTML, and , of course World Wide Web. But many other people, most of them unknown, contributed essential ingredients, in much the same, almost random fashion. A group of individuals holding a common dream and working together at a distance brought about a great change.”
One of the “unknown” people (at least outside of the field of information technology) was Ted Nelson. Ted coined the term hypertext in his 1965 paper Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate and founded Project Xanadu (in 1960) in which all the worlds information could be published in hypertext and all quotes, references etc would be linked to more information and the original source of that information. Most crucially, for Nelson, was the fact that because every quotation had a link back to its source the original author of that quotation could be compensated in some small way (i.e. using what we now term micro-payments). Berners-Lee borrowed Nelson’s vision for hypertext which is what allows all the links you see in this post to work, however with one important omission.
Nelson himself has stated that some aspects of Project Xanadu are being fulfilled by the Web, but sees it as a gross over-simplification of his original vision:
“HTML is precisely what we were trying to PREVENT— ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can’t follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management.”
The last of these omissions (i.e. no rights management) is possibly one of the greatest oversights in the otherwise beautiful idea of the Web. Why?
Jaron Lanier the computer scientist, composer and author explains the difference between the Web and what Nelson proposed in Project Xanadu in his book Who Owns the Future as follows:
“A core technical difference between a Nelsonian network and what we have become familiar with online is that [Nelson’s] network links were two-way instead of one-way. In a network with two-way links, each node knows what other nodes are linked to it. … Two-way linking would preserve context. It’s a small simple change in how online information should be stored that couldn’t have vaster implications for culture and the economy.”
So what are the cultural and economic implications that Lanier describes?
In both Who Owns the Future and his earlier book You Are Not a Gadget Lanier articulates a number of concerns about how technology, and more specifically certain technologists, are leading us down a road to a dystopian future where not only will most middle class jobs be almost completely wiped out but we will all be subservient to a small number of what Lanier terms siren servers. Lanier defines a siren server as “an elite computer or coordinated collection of computers, on a network characterised by narcissism, hyper amplified risk aversion, and extreme information asymmetry”. He goes on to make the following observation about them:
“Siren servers gather data from the network, often without having to pay for it. The data is analysed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analysis are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the rest of the world to advantage.”
Lanier’s two books tend to ramble a bit but nonetheless contain a number of important ideas.
Idea #1: Is the one stated above that because we essentially rushed into building the Web without thinking of the implications of what we were doing we have built up a huge amount of technical debt which could well be impossible to eradicate.
Idea #2: The really big siren servers (i.e. Facebook, Google, Twitter et al) have encouraged us to upload the most intimate details of our lives and in return given us an apparently ‘free’ service. This however has encouraged us to not want to pay for any services, or pay very little for them. This makes it difficult for any of the workers who create the now digitised information (e.g. journalists, photographers and musicians) to earn a decent living. This is ultimately an economically unsustainable situation however because once those information creators are put out of business who will create original content? The world cannot run on Facebook posts and tweets alone. As the musician David Byrne says here:
“The Internet has laid out a cornucopia of riches before us. I can read newspapers from all over the world, for example—and often for free!—but I have to wonder if that feast will be short-lived if no one is paying for the production of the content we are gorging on.”
Idea #3: The world is becoming overly machine centric and people are too ready to hand over a large part of their lives to the new tech elite. These new sirenic entrepreneurs as Lanier calls them not only know far too much about us but can use the data we provide to modify our behaviour. This may either be deliberately in the case of an infamous experiment carried out by Facebook or in unintended ways we as a society are only just beginning to understand.
Idea #4: Is that the siren servers are imposing a commercial asymmetry on all of us. When we used to buy our information packaged in a physical form it was ours to do with as we wished. If we wanted to share a book, or give away a CD or even sell a valuable record for a profit we were perfectly at liberty to do so. Now all information is digital however we can no longer do that. As Lanier says “with an ebook you are no longer a first-class commercial citizen but instead have tenuous rights within someone else’s company store.” If you want to use a different reading device or connect over a different cloud in most cases you will lose access to your purchase.
There can be little doubt that the Web has had a huge transformative impact on all of our lives in the 21st century. We now have access to more information than it’s possible to assimilate the tiniest fraction of in a human lifetime. We can reach out to almost any citizen in almost any part of the world at any time of the day or night. We can perform commercial transactions faster than ever would have been thought possible even 25 years ago and we have access to new tools and processes that genuinely are transforming our lives for the better. This however all comes at a cost even when access to all these bounties is apparently free. As architects and developers who help shape this brave new world should we not take responsibility to not only point out where we may be going wrong but also suggest ways in which we should improve things? This is something I intend to look at in some future posts.
Twenty years ago today on 30th April 1993 CERN published a brief statement that made World Wide Web technology available on a royalty free basis and changed the world forever. Here’s the innocuous piece of paper that shows this and that truly allowed Tim Berners-Lee, at the fantastic London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony to claim “this is for everyone”. Over the past twenty years the web has become imbedded in all of our lives in ways which most of us could never have dreamed of and has probably given many of us in the software industry quite a secure (and for some, lucrative) living during that time.How fitting then that yesterday, almost 20 years to the day since CERN’s historic announcement, IBM announced a new appliance called IBM MessageSight designed to help organizations manage and communicate with the billions of mobile devices and sensors found in systems such as automobiles, traffic management systems, smart buildings and household appliances, the so called Internet of Things.
I’ve no idea what this announcement means in terms of capabilities, other than what is available in the press release, however it is comforting to note that foundational to IBM MessageSight is its support of MQTT, which was recently proposed to become an OASIS standard, providing a lightweight messaging transport for communication in machine to machine (M2M) and mobile environments. Today more than ever enterprises and governments are demanding compliance with open standards rather than proprietary ones so it is good to see that platforms such as MessageSight will be adhering to such standards.
I have said a number of times in this space that I believe Tim Berners-Lee to be one of the greatest software architects of all time. This conversation, as recorded in Wired, not only reiterates this belief but also shows how incredibly humble and self-effacing Berners-Lee is, as well as being the grand master of the understatement.Last week in a place called Tyler, eastern Texas, a scene which could have come straight out of a Woody Allen film was played out. For background on the case see here but, in a nutshell, a company called Eolas, claims it owns patents that entitle it to royalties from anyone whose website uses “interactive” features, like pictures that the visitor can manipulate, or streaming video. The claim, by Eolas’s owner, one Michael Doyle, is that his was the first computer program enabling an “interactive web.” Tim Berners-Lee was called as an expert witness and was being cross-examined by Jennifer Doan, a Texas lawyer representing two of the defendants Yahoo and Amazon. This is how part of the cross-examination went.
“When Berners-Lee invented the web, did he apply for a patent on it,” Doan asked.
“No,” said Berners-Lee.
“Why not?” asked Doan.
“The internet was already around. I was taking hypertext, and it was around a long time too. I was taking stuff we knew how to do…. All I was doing was putting together bits that had been around for years in a particular combination to meet the needs that I have.” [My italics]
Doan: “And who owns the web?”
Berners-Lee: “We do.”
Doan: “The web we all own, is it ‘interactive’?”
“It is pretty interactive, yeah,” said Berners-Lee, smiling.
I just love this. Here’s the guy that has given us one of the most game changing technologies of all time FOR NO PERSONAL GAIN TO HIMSELF, finding himself in a out of the way courtroom explaining one of the fundamental tenets of software architecture: putting together bits that have been around.
Setting aside the whole thorny question of software patents and whether they are actually evil this is surely one of the greatest and most understated descriptions of what we, as software architects, actually do by the master himself. Thank you Tim.
Today is the 20th anniversary of the world wide web; or at least the anniversary of the first web page. On this day in 1991 Tim Berners-Lee posted a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup:
The World Wide Web (WWW) project aims to allow all links to be made to any information anywhere. […] The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation. We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas, and having gateway servers for other data. Collaborators welcome!
He certainly found a lot of collaborators!
As I’ve said before I believe the WWW is one of the greatest feats of software architecture ever performed. Happy Birthday WWW!
Seth Godin has a great definition of what an architect is in his blog here. Here’s the description:
Architects don’t manufacture nails, assemble windows or chop down trees. Instead, they take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways.
He goes on to say that:
…intentionally building a structure and a strategy and a position, not focusing your energy on the mechanics, because mechanics alone are insufficient. Just as you can’t build a class A office building with nothing but a skilled carpenter, you can’t build a business for the ages that merely puts widgets into boxes.
I like this because for me this is absolutely the essence of what an architect does, take existing components and put them together in new and interesting ways. That’s exactly what Tim Berners-Lee did when he created the web. The key skill is not to get bogged down in the detail but to maintain the big picture of whatever it is you are doing. It applies equally to IT systems just as much as it does to buildings.
You know how annoying it is when someone does something that is so blindingly obvious in retrospect you ask yourself the question “why didn’t I do that”? I’m convinced that the next big thing is not going to be the invention of something radically new but rather a new use of some of the tools we already have. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide web he didn’t create anything new. Internet protocols, mark-up languages and the idea of hypertext already existed. He just took them and put them together in a radically new way. What was the flash of inspiration that led to this and why did he do it and not someone else? After all that is basically the job of a Solution Architect, to apply technology in new and innovative ways that address business problems. So why did Tim Berners-Lee invent the world-wide web and not you, I or any of the companies we work for? Here are some observations thoughts.
Tim had a clear idea of what he was trying to do. If you look at the paper Berners-Lee wrote, proposing what became the world-wide web, the first thing you’ll see it has a very clear statement of what it is he’s trying to do. Here is his statement of the problem he’s trying to solve together with an idea for the solution: Many of the discussions of the future at CERN and the LHC era end with the questions – “Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?” This proposal provides an answer to such questions. Firstly, it discusses the problem of information access at CERN. Then, it introduces the idea of linked information systems, and compares them with less flexible ways of finding information. It then summarise my short experience with non-linear text systems known as “hypertext”, describes what CERN needs from such a system, and what industry may provide. Finally, it suggests steps we should take to involve ourselves with hypertext now, so that individually and collectively we may understand what we are creating. Conclusion: Having a very idea or vision of what it is you are trying do helps focus the mind wonderfully and also helps to avoid woolly thinking. Even better is to give yourself a (realistic but aggressive) timescale in which to come up with a solution.
Tim knew how to write a mean architecture document. The paper describing the idea behind what we now call “the web” (Information Management: A Proposal) is a masterpiece in understated simplicity. As well as the clear statement on what the problem is the paper goes on to describe the requirements that such an information management system should have as well as the solution, captured in a few beautifully simple architecture overview diagrams. I think this paper is a lesson to all of us in what a good architectural deliverable should be.
Tim didn’t give up. In his book Weaving the Web Berners-Lee describes how he had a couple of abortive attempts at convincing his superiors of the need for his proposal for an information management system. Conclusion: Having a great idea is one thing. If you can’t explain that idea to others who, for example have the money to fund it, then you may as well not have that idea. Sometimes getting your explanation right takes time and a few attempts. The moral here is don’t give up. Learn from your failures and try again. It will test your perseverance and the faith you have in your idea but that is probably what you need to convince yourself it’s worth doing.
Tim prototyped. Part of how Tim convinced people of the worth of what he was doing was to build a credible prototype of what it was he wanted to do. Tim was a C programmer and used his NeXT computer to build a working system of what it was he wanted to do. He actively encouraged his colleagues to use his prototype to get them to buy into his idea. Having a set of users already in place who are convinced by what you are doing, is one sure fire way of promoting the worth of your new system.
Tim gave it all away. In may ways this is the most incredible thing of all about what Tim Berners-Lee did with the web; he gave it all away. Imagine if he patented his idea and took a ‘cut’ which gave him 0.00001¢ every time someone did a search or hit a page (I don’t know if this is legally possible, I’m no lawyer, but you get the idea). He would be fabulously rich beyond any of our most wildest dreams! And yet he (and indeed CERN) decided not to go down this path. This has surely got to be one of the all time most altruistic actions that anyone has ever taken.