Gongs for geeks

Does Tim Berners-Lee's Best Briton 2004 award signify a shift in the UK's attitudes towards the technically gifted?

Nerd, geek, boffin, techie, propellerhead: this is just some of the charming phraseology used by the popular press to describe those of us with an enthusiastic -- if sometimes bordering on the obsessive -- interest in all things technical.

Whereas the US was quick to embrace its technical innovators (admittedly mostly for their phenomenal financial achievements), the UK didn't take to the techie in quite the same way. Instead of Silicon Valley, we have the M4 corridor. Instead of Bill Gates, we have Clive Sinclair.

But times may be changing. Spurred by the spread of the Web and e-commerce, and the increasing popularity of digital music, techies could slowly be earning the respect of the iPod generation.

The news this week that the creator of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, blew away all contenders to be named the Great Briton of 2004 surprised even ZDNet UK, whose parent company CNET Networks UK recently awarded him a lifetime achievement award. A knighthood makes sense, as did the £1m award last year from the Finnish Technology Award Foundation. But Best Briton?

This time, a techie isn't just being recognised just for being smart, but has been singled out as the finest example of all things British. Can this be the same country that for years automatically equated long hours in front of a computer with social ineptitude, unfashionable rainwear and a deep fascination with train timetables?

According to the judges, what swung it in Berners-Lee's favour is that he embodies key British characteristics, including modesty, determination and a sense of humour. His biggest act of modesty-cum-unselfishness was that after inventing the foundations of the modern Web, his first thought was to try and popularise his invention rather than make money from it. Let's put that gesture in context: in 2001, US revenues from the Internet alone were around 2.7 percent of GDP, which equates to around $2tn! Extrapolate that worldwide and even with a tiny licence fee, Berners-Lee would be rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

Except he wouldn't be. The problem with the scenario outlined above is that a licence fee would almost certainly have killed off the fledgling Web before it had a chance to develop. How likely is it that a Web hamstrung by fees and intellectual property lawyers would have prospered within academia, its initial breeding ground?

This is why Berners-Lee and his ilk deserve all the recognition they can get from the British public. Not only are our technical innovators as good as those in the US, but they are able to operate in an environment that doesn't measure research completely in terms of it monetary value. It's high time they got the respect they deserve -- and now it looks like they will.