It’s said that you should never meet your heroes in case they turn out to be a disappointment. That’s not something that’s ever really bothered me before - the chances of bumping into Asterix and Biggles is fairly low - but I was a bit apprehensive about seeing Tim Berners-Lee speak at NESTA’s The Future Of The Web event last night. In the event it was a bit of a disappointment, although nothing to do with the man himself.
The Great Man himself probably doesn’t like being billed as that - refreshingly, he comes across as being totally free of ego. Ten minutes prior to the presentation, he was on his hands and knees plugging in his Mac, which is the antithesis of the superstar CEO keynote speaker.
Hearing the story of the genesis of the web from the man who invented it made it worth the trip, although he was at pains to point out that he wasn’t the web’s creator - just the inventor of a small part of it. And just as fascinating was hearing that in the early days, he had difficulty in explaining to people what it was.
Berners-Lee also has passionately held opinions about net neutrality and privacy. One of the later questions referred to ISPs as the “villain of the piece”, which prompted the nearest thing to an outburst that I think you’re likely to hear from him - he wants just three things from an internet service: “give me plenty of bandwidth, don’t sell my clickstream and let me connect to anybody”.
And the others
And that’s about as much as it’s possible to say about Tim Berners Lee, because that’s about all we got to hear from him. He was bookended by Charles Leadbetter, author of “We Think”, and Andy Duncan, Chief Executive of Channel 4. Whether that was because the organisers thought the audience might get bored of just one speaker I’m not sure, but the end result was frustrating in the extreme - Leadbetter is such a talking head it’s possible to hear him any night of the week, whereas Berners Lee speaks much less frequently.
And Andy Duncan was something of a bizarre choice given the main speaker. I really wasn’t sure about his description of Channel 4 as “open source television” - I suspect he might have different ideas if I was to take a creative commons approach to his content and start remixing it? His other main point seemed to be a plea to Google to “put more back” - presumably the cry of a man watching his traditional advertising revenues disappearing online.
The evening itself was the usual tired NESTA format - three suits on a stage, compered by a simpering Chief Executive. There was no attempt to control either of the two subsidiary speakers, who rambled on at length, and that was aggravated by the frankly bizarre practice of taking questions in threes. All that happens is that the first two get lost, particularly if the chair doesn’t prevent the habit of the usual suspects forgetting that questions have a question mark at the end.
Fortunately for my blood pressure, there was an active backchannel on Twitter, which was being “monitored” during the event itself. I know there are conflicting opinions about the benefits or otherwise of a backchannel, but if it rises above the bitching it can become a great aggregation tool for catching points and opinions that you might otherwise have missed.
See you there again?
Despite the problems with the format, it was an excellent evening - it’s not often you get to meet the person who started this all. And despite the inevitability of the format being repeated, I’ll likely go along to the next one, if only because they tend to attract interesting people to talk to - and moan about the format with - over the canapes afterwards.