He soon grows frustrated trying to explain his ideas in words. He admits he can no longer write straight text; he writes in hypertext, highlighting key words and making links to Web pages about them. That way he doesn't get bogged down in details and can keep bouncing ahead. Some observers have accused him of having Attention Deficit Disorder, or simply of being a geek, but he's neither. His mind just works this way.
Exasperated, Berners-Lee finally says, "I have to draw this out." He looks hurriedly around the room for a sheet of paper large enough. His eyes sparkle when he sees a giant map of the world taped to the house wall. He pulls it down, turns it over, and begins scribbling circles and filling them with technical acronyms. His speech quickens. With each mental leap he draws an arrow connecting different circles. He feeds me Web addresses. Two hours later every inch of the poster, three feet on a side, is covered in scrawls.
Berners-Lee is pleased. He pulls out his digital camera, takes a picture of the mess, plugs the camera into his computer, and stores the image there. He acknowledges a paranoia about losing any random note or half-formed thought. He is forever taking digital pictures of people for his electronic scrapbook. But then he adds, "If we were publishing this book on the Web, we could just show the diagram, put in hypertext links that explain the circles, and be done." If he is ever impatient, it is with people who resist new ways of conveying information.
During my drive home it strikes me that Berners-Lee had just mapped out a grand evolution of the Web. The canvas of intellectual spaghetti, now folded in the briefcase beside me, was a tour de force. How could he make such large leaps in thinking while simultaneously burrowing into technical minutia?
One answer comes from Robert Cailliau, the compatriot who helped create the Web. "Tim has a special brain with lots of cross-links," Cailliau says. "So if you can't find something on the Web, it's because the Web is like Tim's mind!"
Peggie Rimmer, Berners-Lee's one-time boss at CERN, says, "When Tim really got carried away he would start one sentence and finish it with another sentence he hadn't quite started. This would leave a room full of Italians, Greeks and Swedes sort of stunned. We would hold up pieces of paper that read 'Slow Down.' Tim really created the Web as a way for him to sort out his own thinking. The trick was that he no longer needed to remember anything in particular, just that it was in that web somewhere, and with the right tools he could dive back in and find it."
Armed with this great discovery, I later press Berners-Lee during a phone call to agree that the way the Web works is unique to the way he thinks. With patience he says, "Perhaps. But isn't that the way we all think? We all follow many unconscious paths at once. Maybe that's why the Web has become so popular. Finally, there is a computer network that operates the way our brains do."
By the summer of 1999 the book is finished. It will hit the stores in September. In the past few months numerous W3C working groups, made up of representatives from member organizations, have been busily drafting recommended extensions of Web software. Because W3C members pay up to $50,000 annually to be part of the proceedings, the activity is closed to outsiders. Yet Berners-Lee also wants to convey that the consortium is not some hidden hand that directs the Web, but a collaboration of a diverse community. The staff decides to let me observe one of its technical review meetings.
The meeting is to be held in a small, converted classroom at W3C. It is lined with whiteboards and markers—the modern equivalent of blackboards and chalk. Seven staff members settle around a large, white table at the center. Several are in their twenties, the rest thirties and forties. Clockwise, there's Berners-Lee; Janet Daly, head of public relations; Joseph Reagle, an analyst with blond-streaked black hair and goatee; Marja-Riitta Koivunen, a visiting engineer from the Helsinki Telephone Corp.; Eric Prud'hommeaux, a programmer with a string pony-tail; Ralph Swick, a black-bearded engineer who today will also act as scribe; and Daniel LaLiberte, a French-Canadian computer architect in jeans.
The staffers plug their laptops into a little black box on the table. It connects to a large monitor at one corner. In the middle is an ultra-modern speakerphone that will pick up everyone's voices and deliver those of people joining from offsite. And offsite they are: One by one they dial in from Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; the INRIA lab in Grenoble, France, that is W3C's European host; and W3C's base at Keio University in Japan. It's 9:00 a.m. here, 3:00 p.m. in Grenoble, and 10:00 p.m. the night before at Keio.