The man who wove the web


13 Mar 2009

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As we celebrate the 20th birthday of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee’s 2008 interview with siliconrepublic.com recounts how much it has changed, evovling from the technical to the social, from the particular to the ubiquitous.

Your flight is to JFK airport, your business meetings are in New Jersey but you want to go sightseeing in New York and your hotel must be near a diabetic-friendly restaurant. So you have 20 different webpages open, trying to figure out the best place to stay.

Planning a business trip can be stressful at the best of times but doing it all through the web can be an eye-opening experience, says Tim Berners-Lee (pictured), explaining how his invention, the world wide web, has its limitations and why he has spent the past decade working on its upgrade: the semantic web.

“To make a detailed travel decision or similar, you need to see all that information on the same map. Currently, you have to print out all the data, sort through it and then stand back and see if you can make the connections yourself.

“With a semantic website you could pull all these information forms together instantly and put them on the same map.”

Berners-Lee first proposed the idea of the world wide web, a web of connected documents, while working at the European Particle Physics Laboratory, CERN, in Switzerland, in 1989. Two years later he created the world’s first webpage.

While the web has flourished and become almost synomymous with humanity’s global progress, Berners-Lee is adamant this wasn’t his vision for the web – it needs to be smarter, more social, better connected.

The semantic web is about unlocking data, explains Berners-Lee. For example, if you have dates for business appointments in Outlook Express and need to check these against the date of a family function which your son posted in your Google calendar, it’s not possible because your computer doesn’t realise you are talking about the same types of information.

When you use semantic web technology to represent documents, the items inside are tagged as dates, prices, countries etc. This means computers will finally be able to understand information inside webpages and other documents and do useful things with that data.

“The whole point is that the semantic web goes across all these things. It will be as though a user can instantly put together their own unique website using pieces of information from other sites.”

All this talk of a smarter web that can ‘understand’ webpages and documents would lead one to believe that Berners-Lee sees the internet as a mass of connected machines but this could not be further from the truth.

Timbl, as he is affectionately known to his fans, is excited by the biggest contributors to the web: us. User-generated content in the form of blogging, homemade YouTube videos, personalised Google maps and Wikipedia is making the web a more human and social place and bringing it closer to his original vision, he believes.

“This explosion of possibilities happening online now: I think what we’ve realised is that we’re starting to think of the web as connected humanity as opposed to a bunch of machines.

“To understand the web or to design a better one you have to be thinking about the social side and the technical side together.

“We have to realise what a large impact the web can have on the world economy, as well as the possible impact it can have on political thought or movements,” he adds.

“When we design how a web server works with a web client, we only have a hunch that something very unique is happening. What happens somewhere in between designing a great way for two people to talk to each other?

“All it takes is one person selling something to someone else in an online auction and it can completely change the worldwide market in secondhand goods.”

If sites like eBay can change the global economy, then bloggers could change the global zeitgeist, says Berner-Lee, and in order to observe the way in which the global community thinks and acts he feels the web should be looked at through the lenses of psychology, sociology and economics, as well as technology.

“Look at what happened to countries which became totalitarian states: Germany going to war, despite the fact that individually most Germans did not identify with these actions. The idea took over the entire country, even though it was destructive.

“The trouble with the web is that it is more or less like being in one huge country, so if one idea takes over, it could spread throughout the blogosphere, or blogging community.

While Berner-Lee cannot predict whether another dotcom boom or bust will happen, he says the idea that stocks have been devalued could sweep through the web via bloggers and lead to a recession like the Great Depression, only this time with devastating global effects.

Studying and understanding the behaviour of crowds on the web could not only prevent a potential disaster like this but could also lead to better governance within businesses, organisations, even countries, if we apply the same logic, says Berners-Lee.

“Lots of online communities are creating a new form of governance. We have a lot of creativity going into how we can make communal decisions, how we can get the best of the best.

“How can we make a group of people smarter than one person? This is never obvious but it is really exciting because we could use this to improve the governance of companies or countries by picking out ideas that have come out of the experiment inside this space.”

Berners-Lee’s passion for a collaborative and social web extends to the popular online resource Wikipedia. While the web is a space for technological progression and financial gain, he thinks that it also shows it has room for humanity.

“Wikipedia is one of the most heart-warming things about the web. It is not the technology itself: it’s humanity.”

This new, evolving social and collaborative space is only possible because Berners-Lee and others who followed him made the technology driving the web free of patents and licensing fees. However, Berners-Lee himself says he sees the need for an even mix between free technology and profiting from patents.

“It is very important for companies to hold patents of technologies so that when you buy commercial-grade software you’re putting money into a system that will help develop it further: it is just as important as the open side.”

The important thing is that companies don’t copyright the core infrastructure of the semantic web warns Berners-Lee.

“That is the theme of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): we insist that when people come together they make a standard and they should not be charging royalties for it.”

Out of this standard comes Berners-Lee’s questioning of the .mobi domain, created especially for the mobile web.

“While they are not doing too much, I didn’t think having the .mobi domain name is logical because the whole point of having one web is having one URL or web address.

“The question you have to ask is if adding domains like .xxx or .mobi make life better for web users? Having said that I think adoption of the mobile web is flourishing with increasing screen sizes and better bandwidth.”

However, what keeps Berners-Lee awake at night is not technical standards or interoperability amongst web-enabled devices, it is how people use the web.

“There are about as many webpages as there are neurons in a brain. Those neurons conspire together to make something which is very wonderful in a way that we don’t understand.

The question for Berners-Lee is: “Is the online space going to remain stable or will it end up being a place where a rumour can take off, sweep across the globe and remove people’s ability to think straight?”

Ireland shows community spirit in deciding future of web
Social networking sites like Facebook have received a lot of fame and notoriety, says Berners-Lee, and part of the reason is that they take user data like favourite movies, or group photos and recycle it in useful ways. Unfortunately, this data is locked within the site itself.

The Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI), located in the National University of Ireland, Galway, is carrying out progressive research based on semantic web technology which could lead to a more connected web where people form relationships based on levels of trust.

DERI’s Semantically Interlinked Online Communities (SIOC) project, led by John Breslin, is using the information produced by Breslin’s online discussion board, Boards.ie, to further the idea of a web of trust.

“A project that started back in 2000 called Friend of a Friend (FOAF) represents relationships between people, as well as basic contact details. SIOC does this for groups: it extends the FOAF idea to being able to talk about whole groups of people,” explains Berners Lee.

“Groups are a very important part of the web because online communities are where we form our trust. It is very useful to build tools that apply to all the online communities so they can all generate this social trust information.

“I am excited about SIOC because you can use that information to determine trust, to let people in. If someone is in a group that a friend of mine is part of, I can create another relationship based on that.”

By Marie Boran

Pictured: Tim Berners Lee, creator of the world wide web