In the list of Greatest Briton of All Time, Sir Winston Churchill is usually picked at or near the top. But there is a solid case to be made for Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
It seems pretty classic great man theory of history to pick a war, leader, and it also shows the remarkable present-focused-ness of the process.
Yet if we are to remain in the 20th century, there is one man who should top all the rankings. In 1989 Berners-Lee created the world wide web, revolutionizing communication as we know it. If you are looking at the long game, the invention of the internet far outstrips WWII in terms of importance (it’s doubtful that the absence of Churchill on his own would have made much of a difference to the outcome of the war).
For the first time in human history, the internet has enabled direct peer-to-peer communication between strangers on different continents. Not only that, but people can communicate instantly, and without any input from traditional gatekeepers like community leaders, members of the clergy, journalists, politicians, landed aristocrats, business magnates, socialites, charity and development workers or interfering busybodies.
We have not yet fully realized the potential of that seismic shift.
We have seen an upsurge in anger, confusion and a collapse in the old certainties which dictated our political discourse. The internet has also enabled the creation of new communities, business to be conducted at lightning speed and the invention of entirely new forms of media. It has (along with jet travel flattened geographical distance enabling live media coverage of events around the world to be commented on in real time by millions of politically engaged citizens.
Of course, with every revolution comes a counter revolution. Fearful of losing power, old elites are cooperating with major tech companies to ensure that only “the right sort” have access to these new speech enabling platforms.
Yet there is no reason to despair. The participation of the citizens of the world does not need to be a disaster. It can be empowering and revolutionary.