My Interview

So, here it is.  I just completed my interview with Robert Cailliau.  He responded very quickly to me, for which I am very grateful.  He provided many interesting insights in the process and what he considers important. I feel very thankful that he took the time to respond to my questions.  Here’s my results.

How did you meet Tim Berners-Lee? What was your first impressions?

Well, I met Tim first when he was a contract programmer for the computer controls renovation of the accelerator. That was at the end of the 70s. We occasionally had coffee, but I did not really work with him then. He was there only for 6 months. I was extremely busy getting the P+ language up and working.

I think neither struck the other as very special. But then at CERN there are lots of interesting people everywhere, so to stand out you have to be really very special. Plus that of course we have a healthy attitude of no respect at all for people’s past performances; we deal with problems at hand and trust only what we see.

What was your part in the development of the World Wide Web? What was Mr. Berners-Lee’s part in the development? Do you feel you got the recognition you deserved for the part you played?

This is the most difficult question, since it has so many parts.

First, it implicitly asks what invention really is. Invention is a very curious thing. Usually the inventor works within an environment where a lot of tools and technology is present, plus some problem. He/she works with the experience and ideas of all those who have worked on the same problem before.

Mostly what happens is some small improvement. In the case of the web, it was more: there was a combination of ideas that became important. But if we want to speak of invention, then where was the invention in the web phenomenon?

I thought very hard about that. Because Ted Nelson had visions of the web long before we did. I had a vision, totally independently of Tim’s. And that parallel vison happened even inside the same laboratory. Yet Tim’s approach was the one that made it. Why? I tried to figure out if the web was an invention or just an improvement. In the end I eliminated all features from the web that had been thought about before: the markup (HTML), the protocol (http), the hyperlinks, etc. etc. I was left with one thing that truly is at the heart of the web: the URL.

The URL is a crummy way of specifying a document (think about it: the first part is inversed to the second part, i.e. in www.cern.ch we go from the specific to the general, then after the slash that we go from the general to the specific).

But for all its shortcomings, the URL lets us define a unique name for every document that exists, that can be made on the fly or that has not even been thought about.

That is Tim’s contribution and it was such an important insight that I would indeed call it an invention.

My personal part was in supporting Tim, hiring people, convincing management, getting support from the European Commission, placing the technology into the public domain, starting the conferences, and many other things.

I feel I get enough recognition for that part.

How do you think the World Wide Web changed the world? Was it for better, or worse?

Any new technology can be used for good or bad. On the whole I think the web has been very beneficial. It may be the technology that will save us from ourselves.

Sure, there has been a lot of shouting about pornography, but that existed anyway and technology exists to shield young children from it. More worrying is the amount of subtly but purposely warped information (e.g. see my blog about the Ben Laden portraits) and outright bogus stuff. Plus the attacks on good information that is however exposing truths or is uncomfortable to some. The Wikipedia is subject to a lot of criticism just because it has allowed everybody who had a little scrap of information to contribute that scrap (1).

The web allows for diversity that is impossible with the traditional press.

What is the best thing about the World Wide Web? The worst?

Perhaps the best thing the web did was to force all the existing information networks to meld together. There were many: the internet, Compuserve, the Minitel in France (2) and so on, but they were all incompatible and limited to geographical areas. Now we have a single system.

The worst thing is that the web runs on the infrastructure of the internet. The original internet (up to 1993) was built entirely by academics, for academics. They did not send spam e-mail, they did not hack into each othe computers, they are a community in themselves. But this does not work in society at large. Therefore we see all the current problems: viruses, spam, hacking, phishing, no micropayments, no identity, … They will (I hope) all go away when the infrastructure will be that of the phone. This will probably come as more and more people go entirely mobile. Fortunately we do have a standard in mobile phone infrastructure (GSM) and it has the right characteristics. But the change to that infrastructure is purely coincidental.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? If you could change one thing about the World Wide Web?

For the world I would like to reduce the global population to about 500 million people. That’s about as many as we can afford if we all live in “Northern” comfort (Japan, Canada, US, Europe). I’m working on that with the World Economic Forum’s Global Redesign Initiative, and I’m happy to say I’m not alone. The idea that more people means more ideas is just wrong. Better educated and less pressured people means more ideas: witness Finland, Canada, Switzerland, Norway, … All these countries put together would make a small province in China, but their weight in cultural, scientific and technological achievements is huge.

For the web I have already given a hint: micropayments. I want digital cash, paid out automatically by the browser directly to the author, in the same way that you incur a cost each time you phone. There are numbers you can call for free, other numbers are expensive (e.g. if you tried to call my number), yet others may be free but need a yearly subscription, and so on. Something much similar would apply to the web: the BBC pages would be free inside the UK, they would be free but full of advertising outside the UK (as is the case now) or free of advertising but charged at 1 cent a page, etc.

How did you become interested in the field of computer science?

I always say there is no such thing as computer science. Science, to me, is about the things that are out there in nature that we need to study because we have not made them ourselves. There is no airplane science, but there is airplane engineering. We know how we have designed it and put it together, down to every rivet. The same should apply to computing. Computing consists of to separate disciplines: mathematics of computing (Turing’s theorems for example) and computer engineering.

After graduating from university (I think most of this is in the book) I started working on problems in fluid dynamics (that is a very specialised little area of physics) related to flow of air in turbo machinery. To do my research I needed at least one digit more precision in measurements than anyone before me had achieved. I first made all measurements digital (costly, and not an easy thing to do in 1969) but then I ended up having ten times more data than before. I could not deal with that in the old way by using a slide rule (3). So I started to learn programming and used the university computer (there was exactly one). Fortunately it had a plotter (this one actually except it was 1969 and we had the original paper rolls with holes in the side, so no need for sticky tape)

However, there was such an amount of data that I needed a data base, although at the time that name & technology had not been invented. There were no people knowing anything more than what was in the manuals of the machine, I could not study it anywhere. So I looked around and found a few courses (not many!) in US universities. I went to the university of Michigan for a year to pick up whatever I could. When I came back, I was much more interested in computing than in fluid dynamics, and I stayed in computing (4).

What do you feel are the main differences between the W3C and your conferences?

Ah, well that one is simple, but only in the original 1994-2003 time frame. Things have changed since I left, and I have no idea what is going on now.

First, I set up the conferences as a necessary place for the developers to meet. There was no consortium yet. The consortium was set up a year later with the aim to bring together the industrial players and make them adhere to a single standard. I often say (maybe this is not in the book) that the consortium was like the church: the pope lives there (Tim) and there are strict notions of how one is allowed to think. The conferences were more like the state: freedom of speech, anyone can set up anything, as long as there is general civilised behaviour.

Is there anything else you feel I’ve missed, or something you think is important?

There are the social aspects: the terrible phenomena of Facebook, Google, Skype, Twitter, and everything driven by advertising. Neofeudalism: your private life entrusted to commercial companies with no accountability to anyone.

But that is a subject for another book.

(1) Thus the article about aviation shows that many people were flying before the Wright brothers were. This does not diminish the fact that they were the first to have all aspects right. But it disturbs people who think the plane is a uniquely American invention. It certainly was not, and the large number of little scraps contributed to the Wikipedia bring this out. Likewise the web was not a single, point-like invention but a coming together of the best from lots of attempts and visions.

(2) as you know from the book, France had the highest density of people on-line, the best service and it even implemented micropayments, which we still do not have.

(3) get a slide rule from somewhere. Possibly an elderly engineer if you know one, or on a garage sale. If not, get one from e-bay, they are between 10 and 20 dollars, but make sure you get the instruction manual. Then try to do all your calculations with that. Have fun.

(4) But my background is mechanical engineering. So I get pretty upset when people break things by forcing them because they do not understand the mechanics. And I get even more upset when youngsters tell me something is no good because it is mechanical and the electronic stuff is better. Because their pretty, shiny electronic toys are only possible through very high precision mechanics which is to all our industries like agriculture is to civilisation: without it there can be nothing else.