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One of WWW creators: By 1994 I knew that Web would change the world

November 13, 2015, 14:19 UTC+3
One of World-Wide Web founders, member of Internet Hall of Fame Francois Fluckiger told TASS about his view of ideal Internet both in freedom and in limitations
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Francois Fluckiger

Francois Fluckiger

© Claudia Marcelloni/CERN

One of World-Wide Web founders, member of Internet Hall of Fame Francois Fluckiger told TASS about his view of ideal Internet both in freedom and in limitations, the way he uses the Web himself and the hope and the fears for the future on the occasion of WWW’s 25th anniversary.


- Did you realize that this technology would change the world so much?

- By 1994, yes. I even predicted in 1994 that 100 million people would view the 2000’s Olympics on the Internet. What did not happen!

If I look back in 1994, I expected almost all of today’s applications to come one day or another. The Internet commerce, Internet finance and banking, video-conferencing, the multimedia (TV, video servers), personal sites, online encyclopaedia, online administration…

What I had absolutely not imagined was the incredibly fast and efficient search technology that Google invented and that makes results displayed a fraction of seconds after you send the request. This algorithm is one of the three essential technological breakthroughs of the new era (the two others are IP and the Web). None of the technologists I know had dreamed this could even happen. And as a corollary, associated with their colossal computing power, Google algorithms led to the Google applications (Google Earth, Streets) which are something I think no-one had predicted.

Note also that apart Google, I consider that none of the other industrial big players (FaceBook, Amazon, Microsoft) have brought any substantial technological invention or innovative ideas. If think they have made at best incremental improvements of known ideas.

The other aspects I had not fully predicted is the role of the social networks, in particular their invasion in the life of the youngest.

- Maybe you saw the development of the Internet would go in some different direction?

- Well, here we may distinguish between my wishes and my fears back in say 1994. I would have liked the Internet to become a tool for people to express themselves and talk about ideas but I feared they would prefer to talk about themselves. 

I would have liked the Internet to further develop social relationships but I feared it would increase individualism.

Some of the negative developments were already foreseeable in 1995 when I published a thick text Book (“Understanding Networked Multimedia, Prentice Hall, 1995” ) for University students where I discussed some of my concerns.

I feared that the Internet customization capabilities would “narrow  the spectrum of information interests”  because “we shall set these filters according to our areas of interests, or what we believe our areas of interest are. In other words, we shall subjectively determine a profile for our interests. For example, some may only receive sports news or will only be presented with political speeches by their favorite politicians”.

Therefore “excessive customization of the information access sows the seeds of an impoverishment of the spectrum of people 's interest.”

I predicted that on Internet servers “Powerful filters will exist for accessing entertainment or cultural items. We may only be proposed movies of the type we like”. As a result “The probability of impromptu discoveries or cultural revelations may be drastically reduced. Clever servers will try to learn what our tastes are from our requests.”; “After a while, they will restrict the suggested entertainment or cultural programs to items that match "our'' profile.”

I also feared that individualism may prevail in many domains due to the Internet, including in education: “Abusing the individual use of Internet educational material risks spoiling social relationships in the classroom. This is particularly worrying with younger children. Imagine a classroom where kids spend most of their time in front of a screen. Probably the way Internet will be used reflects the overall trend of western civilization towards individualism”. This fear had not yet widely materialized but this is coming.

However, the worst development (accelerated with the use of smartphones) is the disintegration of the non-electronic (that is face-to-face) socialization in particular for the youngest. This is where my fears were most justified: “The percentage of personal consumption expenditure for recreation keeps increasing in Europe, Japan, and North America. A shift can be observed from movies to amusement parks. The latter usually implies collective activities and may contribute to strengthen the social links within families or social circles. But with the Internet, movies-on-demand and remote computer games may constitute new departures in the opposite direction. Remote computer games are essentially individual activities: children will play against a remote machine instead of with friends. Movies-on-demand may be consumed individually by one family member at a time.“

However, as I said, I had not predicted the invasion of the social networks which destroys the life of so many teenagers.

- These were quite negative developments. Any positive changes on ordinary people?

- Yes of course. The above negative aspect is no surprise. To any technological breakthroughs, there are associated drawbacks.

Remember that Socrates was absolutely against writing. He said “With this writing idea, they will remember nothing. They will believe they know but they will know nothing”. And we only know that because Platon wrote what Socrates was saying.

On essential positive aspect is the availability at finger-tip of encyclopaedic information. This does not mean this information can be easily turned into knowledge (that is, a true appropriation by the learner of the information). I define knowledge as the transmissible and reproducible result of an experiment or reasoning. A least, we may hope that this info at finger-tip may limit false statements, wrong references, lies by will or ignorance.

But I am not certain that the average people in, say a European country, is in the end more knowledgeable that in the 1900’s. The other point I have doubt about is if the same person is more intelligent than his/her ancestor (defining Intelligence as the ability to solve with the mind new problems). I have serious doubts indeed, because the development of intelligence is facilitated when people face new problems to resolve).

- But in the end, what is the most important change the Internet has brought to society?

- I think the idea that anyone can not only be a consumer, but also a producer of information, and (but not as often as I would wish) of knowledge.

You may not know that the very 1st idea of the web at CERN was a balanced system, not only a viewing system: the first CERN “browsers” combined the browsing and the editing function.

Then the commercial browsers abandoned the editing functions. It only came back 10 years later and somewhat indirectly via the social networks.

However, we may have hoped that the bulk of what would be produced would be at least information, or ideas and in best cases knowledges.

Unfortunately, on the social networks which are the vehicle of choice today for content production by the general public, people talk about themselves almost exclusively (myself, who I am, what I do, what I like, how I looked like). Selfishness: is it all about Me. I find amusing that the latest example of selfishness production is precisely called “selfies“. 

On a completely different tone, and from a more academic-centric angle, the Internet also had a significant impact on the image of academia. Academic organizations – be they universities or research centres - are sometimes opposed to industrial companies in unfavourable terms regarding aspects like efficiency, organization, rigor. This is often viewed as the price to pay for creativity. The development of the academic and research networks demonstrated that the academic community can also deploy globally extremely complex systems and operate them professionally. Not only this generated self-confidence in the academic computing and networking spheres, but within other disciplines too.

- What do you think about a balance of freedom and security in the net? Do you think this environment should be absolutely free or somehow regulated by governments?

- I believe in democracy. And democracy is difficult. All mechanisms that apply to societies should have as objective to improve the happiness of the people leaving in that society. Rules are necessary as not everything is permitted in a society. And we know that the majority suffer from mechanisms and controls designed to enforce rules that a minority may not respect.

More specifically for the Internet, if we trust those who govern us, if we are confident they will respect democracy, we should not worry that they monitor the Internet in order to protect us.  Unless we, ourselves, are not respecting laws. However, we know that trusting even elected government is not a guarantee of non-abuse.

What on the other hand is absolutely undisputable is the intangible and absolute freedom for people to access any legally publicly available information. The difficulty is that the definition of what is legally publicly available is not universal. Starting with the definition of what defamation is.

In an ideal world, this could be the role of the UN to precisely define what are the absolute and undisputable domains where censorship should never apply. But even though democracy became universal and absolute everywhere, there could be no agreements until systems of believes (i.e. religions) exist.

- What is the greatest threat to the Internet  today and why?

- Fragmentation.

Today anyone can send a letter or give a phone call to anyone else, without using a specific mechanism depending on the way in which the recipient is connected. This is because the technology used to support the email and telephone services are publicly open, known by anyone interested in developing a device or software offering these services.

This is still true for sending a mail, but no longer for making a video call or for e-socializing.  Again, giant companies make all they can to increase the fragmentation. 

The lowest level technologies (IP, TCP, HTTP) remain universal and open though. A small light in a movement.

- What does the ideal Internet look like?

- The ideal is a dream, it would be an Internet which is:

  • Free to everyone, that is that no one is banned to use any of its functions anywhere is the world, in including the less favored regions.
  • Open, that is its technology and principles, at all levels, are known by everyone.
  • Respective of the privacy of the individuals, their data, and their life.
  • Not dominated by a few giant companies.
  • Less addictive. Addiction (not only of the youngest) is I think the most negative effect of today’s Internet.

- How do you think the Internet will evolve?

- I am not very optimistic.

I see more fragmentation of application user communities.

I see a continuing increase in individual consumption of the Internet (if you can view the TV as a group, navigation, facebooking is a solitaire activity).

And more intrusions of governments in our lives … unless some sort of revolution breaks out.

I pray for Wikipedia to stay free of charge. Not for myself, but for all those for which a charged access would be a barrier. More generally, I pray for some activities to remain free of charge in our society in general (walking in the streets, breezing the country air, swimming in the sea, asking a policeman the way) and in the Internet in particular. But I fear a narrowing of the free space.

But as Niels Bohr said, prediction is extremely difficulty, in particular when predicting … the future!

- How much do you use the Internet yourself?

As everyone, as much as I can, except for gaming. But I have major difficulties with the social networks. I do have an empty Faceboook page, and I have Twitter account on which I posted 4 or 5 messages at most. My exception so far is LinkedIn.

- What advice would you give to future generations working in your field?

  1. Technology is not an end. It is a possible means. The objective is individual and collective happiness. The way to it is freedom and passion: in what you do, in life.
  2. The key of success is work.
  3. Humanity makes progress when it creates knowledge, and does not favor believes.

Believes are by nature ignorance (if I believe this is because I do not know).
Since believes can’t be demonstrated or proved by experience or reasoning, their promoters tend to replace arguments by force, wars…

This stands for individual beliefs and organized systems of believers and rites.  Think, humanity has seen and will see so many devastating religious wars … but no one has never made a war in the name of mathematics.

Knowledge and Science is Progress.
Believes and their systems are Regressions.

François Flückiger

Francois Flückiger is one of the founders RIPE,  the nonprofit organization that conducts the technical coordination of the infrastructure of the Internet. In 1992, he contributed to the creation of the pan-European Internet backbone, Ebone, by drafting the Memorandum of Understanding which laid down its basic principles. The same year Francois Flückiger became a founding member of the Internet Society (ISOC) of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Flückiger also created cartoons exemplifying the ineffectiveness of battling against the Internet. A graduate of the Ecole Supérieure d'Electricité, Flückiger holds an MBA from the Enterprise Administration Institute in Paris. He is a member of the ISOC Advisory Council and of the W3C Advisory Committee, a lecturer at the University of Geneva and the author of the textbook "Understanding Networked Multimedia” and more than 80 articles. Today, he is CERN’s Knowledge Transfer Officer for Information Technologies and the Director of its School of Computing. At CERN his responsibilities have included the management of its World Wide Web team after the departure of Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.

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