Tim Berners-Lee: Internet and the Unitarian Universalist philosophy. Tim Berners-Lee also known as Sir Timothy John “Tim” Berners-Lee and “TimBL”, is a British physicist, computer scientist and MIT professor. He is credited for his invention of the World Wide Web because, on 25 December 1990, with the help of Robert Cailliau and a CERN student, he implemented the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the Internet.

Among other duties, Berners-Lee is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, asenior researcher and holder of the 3Com Founders Chair at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Tim Berners-Lee: Internet and the Unitarian Universalist philosophy

People have often asked me whether the Web design was influenced by Unitarian Universalist philosophy. I have to say that it wasn’t explicitly, as I developed the Web well before I came across Unitarian Universalism at all. But looking back on it, I suppose that there are some parallels between the philosophies.

Like many people, I had a religious upbringing which I rejected as a teenager: in my case it was a protestant Christian (Church of England) upbringing. I rejected it just after being “confirmed” and told how essential it was to believe in all kinds of unbelievable things. Since then I have discovered that many of the people around me who were “Christians” in fact used a sort of loose interpretation of some of that stuff, but it relieved a great tension just to say no. In fact, confirmation is when you say “yes”, and well, we all make mistakes. In fact the need for the basis for Christian philosophy but without the dogma was a vacuum for many years.

If you’re used to other religions you might be confused by UUism being called a religion, but it qualifies I think. Like many people, I came back to religion when we had children. Why does everybody do this? Is it just that one feels that values and things are important for kids though one wouldn’t have time for it otherwise? I hope not. Or is it that having kids is such a direct, strong, stark experience that it brings thoughts of life and love again bubbling up through the turgid morass which otherwise clogs our thinking? Or is it that it gives us an excuse? But for whatever, happenstance had our family living in the Boston area, where UU churches abound, and we were lucky enough to hit on a great one, with a great minister.

Unitarian Universalists are people who are concerned about all the things which your favorite religion is concerned about, but allow or even require their belief to be compatible with reason. They are hugely tolerant and decidedly liberal. The fundamental value and dignity of every human being is a core philosophy, and they have a healthy respect for those whose beliefs differ. They meet in churches instead of wired hotels, and discuss justice, peace, conflict, and morality rather than protocols and data formats, but in other ways the peer respect is very similar to that of the Internet Engineering Task Force. Both are communities which I really appreciate.

* The Unitarian Universality Association
* The Internet Engineering Task Force

Can you compare?

And in fact, when you look at the way Unitarians feel society works, and the way a lot of the Internet and the Web works, it might be fun to draw some comparisons. Let’s take this all with a pinch of salt. People, after all, are people, and machines are machines. Unitarians do not have a peer respect for machines! But let’s do it as an exercise.

The Internet community always used to be decentralized as the Internet itself. Newsgroups have no central server, and no central authority to determine what is and what isn’t a new group. When I was developing the Web in 1990, the Internet development community was largely academic in membership and had a very academic style. People were and are judged on what they say rather than who they are. As Dave Clark said,

“We have no kings or presidents. We believe in rough consensus and running code.”

There is very little structure. There is the idea that society can run without a hierarchical bureaucratic government being involved at every step, if only we can hit on the right set of rules for peer-peer interaction. So where design of the Internet and the Web is a search for set of rules which will allow computers to work together in harmony, so our spiritual and social quest is for a set of rules which allow people to work work together in harmony.

It used to be the case that internet protocols were designed with some clear vision of the final harmonious interworking in mind, whereas laws and rules of behaviour tended to be put together without a clear common understanding of what tomorrow’s world would look like. Nowadays, even Web developments happen because of our gut feeling that certain properties of the Web will lead to great things, but we often expect the results to be amazing and good, but unpredictable.


In this decentralized world, the first common principle is of tolerance. The general principle struck me very strongly when I was logging on to the mainframe system at CERN many years ago, before CERN had internetworking. In those days terminals were all connected up by to terminal concentrators which switch you if you were lucky to a free port on the hallowed mainframe. If there wasn’t a free port, it would keep you in a queue. You could wait for typically 35 minutes and then it would suddenly ask you whether you were there. You had a few seconds in which to hit a key to be connected, and if you missed it you would be dropped from the queue. This ratio of 35 minutes to 20 seconds I called the tolerance ratio – in that case, intolerance ratio! It was some indication that the system considered its time about 100 times more valuable than yours. The market pressure for terminal lines had increased their “value” to the level that to deserve one you had to nervously hover over a silent terminal waiting for that special moment. It makes you think about your own tolerance ratio. How much are you prepared to go out of your way, compared with the extent you require to go out of theirs?

I don’t know who formulated the principle of tolerance in Internet circles first as “Be conservative in what you do and liberal in what you expect”. I have heard Vint Cerf quote it. It is a guiding rule in internet protocol design. Always say “http:”in lower case, but in practice understand “HTTP:” too.

Unitarian Universalism is famous for its tolerance. UU people don’t generally go around trying to convert other people. They respect those who believe in some sort of a God different from theirs (if they use the term). Recently I heard a UU remark (I paraphrase from memory – it was not written down),

“I have always been an argumentative type – always tending to play devils advocate and skeptical of everything. I was quite expecting to be thrown out of this church like I’ve been thrown out of everywhere else. I was staggered to be accepted. I was even more surprised to find that in fact, the place was full of people just as argumentative as me!”

UUs perhaps share the view that “If there is one thing I can’t stand – it’s intolerance!”. They fight racism and inequality. They get really upset when people are killed and tortured because they don’t belief in the One True God or the One True Anything.

UUs actually believe in love. But that doesn’t seem to bear analogy with computers!

The Test of Independent Invention

There’s a test I use for technology which the Consortium is thinking of adopting, and I’ll call it the Independent Invention test. Just suppose that someone had invented exactly the same system somewhere else, but made all the arbitrary decisions differently. Suppose after many years of development and adoption, the two systems came together. Would they work together?

Take the Web. I tried to make it pass the test. Suppose someone had (and it was quite likely) invented a World Wide Web system somewhere else with the same principles. Suppose they called it the Multi Media Mesh ™ and based it on Media Resource Identifiers(tm), the MultiMedia Transport Protocol(tm), and a Multi Media Markup Language(tm). After a few years, the Web and the Mesh meet. What is the damage?

* A huge battle, involving the abandonment of projects, conversion or loss of data?
* Division of the world by a border commission into two separate communities?
* Smooth integration with only incremental effort?

Obviously we are looking for the latter option. Fortunately, we could immediately extend URIs to include “mmtp://” and extend MRIs to include “http;\\”. We could make gateways, and on the better browsers immediately configure them to go through a gateway when finding a URI of the new type. The URI space is universal: it covers all addresses of all accessible objects. But it does not have to be the only universal space. Universal, but not unique.

Imagine a Virtue and Veracity church growing up independently, with the same UU principles but none of the same history of vocabulary. What would happen when one of the VV members strolled by accident into a UU church? An enlightened smile of recognition, the same warm feeling which someone who has really unknowingly been a UU all their life feels when walking into a congregation of UUs.

It’s not the same when the followers of divine prophet1 meet the followers of divine prophet2. Divine prophets(often!) know who they are and know they are the only ones. The One True Churches worships the One True Gods and in many cases convince others of their Oneness and Trueness with swords and fire and destruction. The philosophies fail the test of Independent Invention. The result of this interoperability failure is not an error code or an unreadable Web page but hatred and jealousy, war and persecution.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that much of the philosophy of life associated with many religions is much more sound than the dogma which comes along with it. So I do respect them, and you if you belong to one. UUism has looks for its philosophy to contributions and writings from many religions, western and eastern.


A lot of people ask me whether I am disappointed that the Web has taken on such a lot of commercial material, rather than being a pure academic space. In fact, I know it could not be universal if it did not allow any form of communication. It must be able to represent any thought, any datum, any idea, that one might have. So in this way the Web and the UU concept of faith are similar in that both serve as a place for thought, and the importance of the quest for truth, but without labelling any one true solution. The quest for the truth is always accompanied by skepticism of anyone claiming to have found it.

The is one other thing that comes to mind as common between the Internet folks and the UUs. The whole spread of the Web happened not because of a decision and a mandate from any authority, but because a whole bunch of people across the ‘Net picked it up and brought up Web clients and servers, it actually happened. The actual explosion of creativity, and the coming into being of the Web was the result of thousands of individuals playing a small part. In the first couple of years, often this was not for a direct gain, but because they had an inkling that it was the right way to go, and a gleam of an exciting future. It is necessary to UU philosophy that such things can happen, that we will get to a better state in the end by each playing our small part. UUism is full of hope, and the fact that the Web happens is an example of a dream coming true and an encouragement to all who hope.

[Source: http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/UU.html]

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