The Internet and Academics

There is a long-standing view that the Internet is the keystone example of why unfettered research in academia is a good idea. Michael Nielsen challenges that canonical story:

It is a staple of wisdom amongst many physicists that “physicists invented the web”. This is a story trotted out particularly when physicists justify their work to the outside world. A string theorist once told me that virtually all his grant applications include a paragraph that says “support fundamental research in physics – that’s what brought us the web”.

In fact, the claim that physicists invented the web is largely mythical.

It’s true that the principal inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, was a programmer working at CERN, the huge European particle accelerator. In 1988 he sketched out a way of hooking up hypertext ideas, developed by people like Ted Nelson and Bill Atkinson, to the internet, developed by people like Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. He talked the idea up at CERN for a year, with no response. In 1989 he wrote up and circulated a formal proposal around CERN. Again, no response for a year. Finally, he coded up a prototype in his spare time. In this, he actually was helped by his manager, who said it was okay if he used one of CERN’s workstations to build the prototype. It was launched to the world about one year later.

Berners-Lee didn’t succeed because CERN was doing fundamental research. He succeeded in spite of it.

Now this isn’t to say that unfettered research didn’t allow Berners-Lee to explore this but it reads more like a story of unmonitored development at work than a triumph of free expression.

3 thoughts on “The Internet and Academics”

  1. For the past few years I have been working at the Epicorp BITS incubator on the Black Mountain site of CSIRO. Epicorp has run its course and the remaining companies are now going their separate ways. The performance of the companies with respect to innovations, patents, value, cost, way the ideas started, could be compared to the output of neighbouring groups within the CSIRO and ANU.

    Such a study would be fascinating and be relatively easy to conduct. Perhaps there is a historian looking for a project that is almost certain to attract funding – if not from the government perhaps from the companies.


  2. A quibble and a more substantive point. The quibble is that the Web is not the Internet – the latter is much older and was developed by academics in a rather different process.

    The substantive point, which I also posted at Michael Nielsen’s site

    I think the lesson is a subtly different one. The Web and Unix arose, in part, because the organizations involved hired bright people and gave them enough slack to pursue creative ideas. The grant-giving committees may not be clever enough to pick the winners, but they did leave enough space for winners to emerge any way. That is all under threat with increasing emphasis on accountability and corporate strategy.


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