Victorian woman walking between two men in bowlers. Vintage Field and Garden, small business / blog license.

How Berners-Lee Finally Built Hypertext By Taking It Back 30 Years

Forrest Christian Computers/IT, Knowledge, Organizations, Reviews - Articles Leave a Comment

Peter Denning, past president of ACM, has published an article in this months’ Communications of the ACM that discusses how innovations, as opposed to inventions, get made. He discusses Peter Drucker’s 1993 book, Innovations and Entrepreneurship, claiming that the most of the DotBombs failed to understand one his most salient points; i.e., that new knowledge is only one of several instigators of innovation and the least likely to be successful.

Denning posits his own “8 Points for innovation”, emphasizing the need for new ways to be adopted by people, not simply be inventive. I paraphrase them below:

  1. Awareness
  2. Listen to others’ ideas and blend them into yours
  3. Focus on your innovative vision and persistence to see it happen, including the persistence to compromise
  4. Declarations that stir men’s souls, which is highly connected to
  5. Destiny, the idea that this is what you are here to do, a higher calling
  6. Learning
  7. Leadership action

Denning uses Berners-Lee’s description of how he developed the World Wide Web to illustrate the necessity of these points. Berners-Lee wasn’t the first person to think up a world-wide library of interlinked books. Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson come quickly to mind. Nelson even spent years working on his Xanadu project only to never see it work. Berners-Lee got Nelson’s dream when Nelson couldn’t by having all the right elements together. He was a tireless evangelist of HTTP and HTML.

Denning writes:

Rather than write research papers about this possibility [of using hypertext to enable collaboration], he looked for process needs at CERN (his employer) that could be solved by hypertext linking. [“Social Life”, pp. 18.]

I remember those early days of the World Wide Web. I remember the long discourses about how HTML had brought hyptertext all the way to 1970. And it was true.

There were lots of more interesting and much more robust systems that provided better access to knowledge. But they didn’t have Berners-Lee and his peculiar mix of vision and practicality. That mix was uncommon, and for innovators to be successful with bringing technology to change the world, they have to believe that they work for a greater good.

The leaders of those innovations [of the Web, the Internet and Linux] understood that they were working for a social change and not just inventing a new technology.

Many of you are interested in social change of some sort. Some are interested in bringing new systems up. Some others are interested in increasing the ability of companies to use the knowledge they already possess. Others dream of a new organization for religious life. These are all social innovations and all of us could do with a spin through Denning’s article and Drucker’s book.

Image Credit: Three’s a Crowd Vintage advertisement image from B. Kuppenheimer & Co. From Vintage Field and Garden. Small business / blog license.

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