Robert Cailliau's world wide web

From CERN to singularity - the digital pioneer and cofounder of the WWW on 20 years of webscapades

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Taken from the August issue of Dazed & Confused:

The sprawling expanse of the World Wide Web is such a major part of our lives that it’s hard to believe that before its release into the public domain on April 30, 1993, few were aware of its existence. Belgian informatics engineer Robert Cailliau was Tim Berners-Lee’s first collaborator on the World Wide Web. The pair met in 1989 when they were introduced at the world-famous particle-physics laboratory CERN. Together they refined Berners-Lee’s proposal for a project that interlinked documents on an internet-accessible network. Their work affirmed Cailliau’s place in history as a technological trailblazer at the frontiers of computer science. His perspective on the internet – equal parts pride, pleasure and paranoia – is rooted in an insightful worldview
concerning its future.

Dazed Digital: When did you realise the World Wide Web was actually becoming worldwide?

Robert Cailliau: At the beginning the web, by its nature, was limited. When we called it ‘worldwide’, we meant in the academic world. The internet was accepted into the business world – by everybody – somewhere in the latter half of 1994. That was the turning point.

Why haven't we seen extraterrestrials? Why isn't anybody out there? Perhaps the digital world, once it takes hold of a planet, destroys it

DD: Once there was public access, was global takeover instantaneous?

Robert Cailliau: No. The internet is creepingly slow because it is a digital technology – it interfaces with your brain. You can’t look at it and say you understand it; you have to use it, explore it. It’s a slow learning-process. Railways and airplanes spread much faster! The difference of speed is interconnected with the digital and physical worlds. Take the first flight, which the Wright brothers made in 1903. By 1909 flights had been completely democratised. Generally speaking, other revolutionary tech-nologies spread much faster.

DD: How do you think it has changed us over the past two decades?

Robert Cailliau: There was a long period where we were just hunter-gatherers. There are still some left in the Amazonian forest. Then we expanded into agriculture before we developed machinery: the industrial revolution was an enormous change. Yet all three periods were tied to the physical world. You could look at things, explain them, and take them apart. There was very little complexity. Machinery has a few buttons, and you know what the effect is if you push them. In the second half of the 70s computers began to influence our lives, and then we had something completely different. It’s not powered machinery, it’s information.

DD: A transition from the physical world into the digital?

Robert Cailliau: Simply something completely different from what we had before. No paradigm for the physical world can be transported to the digital world. Nothing. You can’t have copyright, you can’t have security. I could send you an encrypted email so that no one between us could eavesdrop on it or take a copy for themselves, but once you’ve opened it, the encryption is gone. So you can’t have security or intellectual property. The most recent example is the guy who made the blueprints for the 3D printed gun available. There was outrage and it’s now forbidden to distribute these instructions. But it’s too late, it’s already out there.

DD: What do you think of Ray Kurzweil’s theory of Singularity, the idea that the human mind will be surpassed by artificial intelligence? 

Robert Cailliau: There’s a whole lot brewing under the surface with artificial intelligence and nano-machinery. I think it’s a little over-optimistic, but there’s definitely something brewing. But would I install a chip in my brain so all the information of the internet was a thought–process away? I definitely want the service provided, but I don’t want it to be controlled in the way it is controlled now. If you could sell me the chip in which I could have instantaneous internet access without memory loss and all the rest of it, I would say, ‘Yes, but how can I trust the guy who sells it to me?’

DD: Does that issue of trust apply to all internet-enabled technologies?

Robert Cailliau: I think there’s one glimmer of hope. At some point early last century, mankind learned that it was possible to make an atomic bomb. We’ve got huge stockpiles of them, but even in the most terrible periods of the cold war there was no nuclear war. So there’s hope that unless you get a real madman in control of these corporations, there’s a relative level of safety. Yet there is still this issue of trust: I can trust what I have programmed myself more than what I download from the App Store, because you don’t know what the other guy wrote into the code. Once again, it’s that fundamental difference between the digital world and what came before.

The phenomenon of online community is great: how Wikipedia and Kickstarter projects work, this self-correcting community. It's not the result of an ideology of Big Brother or the inquisition, but a place where people can share knowledge or say, 'I was wrong'

DD: Is there a way to overcome that hurdle for a better future?

Robert Cailliau: I don’t know. Do you know Fermi’s paradox? He’s a well-known physicist who had a theory about intelligent life in the universe. Basically: there are billions of galaxies and billions of stars in the galaxy and millions of planets with life on them. Some of them have had millions of years of headway in technology. So why haven’t they landed on Earth? Why haven’t we seen any extraterrestrials? Why isn’t there anybody out there? I think the answer may be that the digital world, once it takes hold of a planet, just destroys it.

DD: Are the consequences of the internet all negative?

Robert Cailliau: No, I don’t think so. The phenomenon of online community is great: how Wikipedia and Kickstarter projects work, this self-correcting community. It’s not the result of an ideology of Big Brother or the Inquisition, but a place where people can share knowledge or say, ‘I was wrong.’ There has been enormous possibility for youngsters to experiment with their creativity, too: expressing it, sharing it, becoming known.

DD: So you wouldn’t agree that the internet has castrated our creativity?

Robert Cailliau: On the contrary, it has acted as a medium and has led to exploration and expression of all sorts of things. On that level, it is positive and good. Wikipedia is a good example. Suddenly a large number of people who knew just one tiny bit of history that would never have gotten into an official encyclopaedia are able to share it with the world, and so lots of things are discovered. There are many positive things; it’s not all negative.

DD: Do you think an advancement of this scale will happen again in our lifetime?

Robert Cailliau: Well yes, I’m sure all this autonomous machinery will really get us. But the implications would be huge and I don’t know how our stupid, apelike psychological make-up will cope with that. Maybe it won’t be able to. Whether it’s ten years in the future or happens like Kurzweil’s ideas of singularity, it’s certain that artificial intelligence is going somewhere. The internet, on the other hand, is a mature thing – it will evolve, but not past the fridge ordering the milk or lightbulbs with IP addresses. Those things are not so disruptive.

DD: What do you think the future holds for the internet?

Robert Cailliau: Tell me first where the energy will come from to run all the servers and all the computers. That problem needs to be solved first. Everything else is secondary. The fight for these missing resources leads to political and social instability: it’s in the news on a daily basis. Talking about anything that might happen in the next ten years without taking into account how we’re going to solve the total overuse of energies and materials by an overpopulated planet is pointless.

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