Achieving his vision is what drives Berners-Lee. "I designed the Web for a social effect—to help people work together," he writes in Weaving the Web. "The ultimate goal is to support and improve our Web-like existence in the world. We clump into families, associations and companies, and connect between such groups. If we can produce a structure in the Web that allows us to work together harmoniously, then I can imagine a metamorphosis of society." Further advances would create a Web where the intuition of people and the reasoning of machines coexist in a powerful mixture. People could engage in a new kind of computer-mediated creativity, which might give rise to the global brain that has been the ultimate grail of computing since it began. Society could advance "with cooperation rather than conflict" as its basic mechanism.
The vision implies that Berners-Lee is as much a social architect as a software architect. "I haven't thought too much about creating a specific kind of society," he says, "but we all should be social architects." W3C itself is one testing ground. "The consortium is halfway between corporate America and the Internet culture," he says. "It's a halfway house between total control and total anarchy, which is a reasonable definition of a democratic society."
Since coming to the States, Berners-Lee has gotten involved with Unitarian Universalism, not a church but a convening of people of all faiths who discuss, argue, but always try to be accepting of differences in opinion. Berners-Lee says Unitarian Universalism, CERN, the consortium, and the Web itself share a common theology: "When people work together based on mutual respect toward some greater vision, they find a great freedom. This produces a weird and wonderful machine, which needs care to maintain, but takes advantage of the ingenuity, inspiration and intuition of individuals in a special way. That, from the start, has been my goal for the World Wide Web."
With the book in hand, Berners-Lee and I agree to celebrate. He chooses not some big party, but an afternoon paddle in his canoe. "How about Walden Pond?" he suggests, the retreat where Henry David Thoreau escaped the modernity of 1840s society to reconnect with nature. It seems an appropriate place.
The inventor arrives in a gray Volvo stationwagen, with his 16-foot canoe on top. He puts the boat in the water, and places a waterproof box between the cane seats, which holds his digital camera, tape recorder, note pad, and two bottles of Samuel Adams Summer Ale. He takes the stern. We paddle around the lake, marveling at the water clarity and looking for Thoreau's one-time shack on the banks. He is at ease. His minimalist Web-design philosophy is the same as his minimalist life philosophy: Keep it simple. Indeed, we are not sailing a yacht on Boston Harbor.
We stop along a shaded shore, and sit in the sand for a toast. He takes a picture of us, of the water. Back at W3C, industry titans are calling, yet he's taken time out to be on this pond. He recalls peaceful evenings on the porch of his little slab house skirting the tiny French village of Cessy, basking in the serenity of the shining Lake Geneva below and the quilted pasturelands above. I wonder if he enjoys his life as much now, commuting to citified Cambridge, resisting the press's constant demands for his time, preventing thunderous commercial forces from controlling his medium for the masses, tirelessly trumpeting the Web's greater potential while hashing out the complexities of emerging code.
During his days around Geneva he played the parts of oddball characters in amateur plays, from Marcello, the wacky sidekick in The Music Man, to a crude, buxom woman in a British pantomime of Peter Pan whom audiences would hiss and boo. "It was pretty therapeutic" Berners-Lee says, tugging on his standard polo shirt, but he doesn't act any more. He used to escape to an ancient, rudimentary stone house he purchased along an open stretch of remote hillside in Wales. His parents go there now.
Berners-Lee won't say life was easier then, just different. To relieve some pressures he has moved certain W3C management responsibilities to others. And now that he has the 3Com chair, he says "in principle I can do more research than I have been. Yesterday I spent two hours reading a paper about higher-order mathematical logic, necessary for the Web to advance to the next level, so I can't complain."
Whether or not Berners-Lee is happy with cosmopolitan life is almost immaterial. He manages the Web as a public trust. He has created a situation where he can be with his family despite being who he is. As long as he's protecting and advancing the Web, he's content. There, perhaps, lies the great lesson of his life. "Understand what your passion is and follow it with determination," he says, happily sitting barefoot on the damp, sandy shore of Walden Pond, while his creation storms the globe. "Be optimistic and open-minded, while keeping one eye wide open toward making a positive impact. The rest will take care of itself."
As the sun dips toward the horizon, we become aware that it is getting toward dinnertime. Now Berners-Lee moves us along; he should get home to his kids. Their time with him comes first. The shadows of tall pines stretch across the water as we paddle back to the cars. In some way the Web is like another child. It is certainly not as important to him as his flesh and blood, but he created it, introduced it to the world and now watches it take on its own identity. He wants to guide it to the kind of maturity he originally had envisioned, and this child has a chance to improve society for millions of people. What parent wouldn't be happy?