A lesson in morality from the father of the web
Let’s start at the very beginning. Sir Tim Berners-Lee is something of an enigma. The man who was the architect of the World Wide Web in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which some say was the biggest contribution to human communication since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, is remarkably modest and self-effacing. It tells you something about his character and ideals to know that when he finished writing the tools that defined the Web’s basic structure he did the unthinkable: he gave them away.
On the rare occasion that he offers an opinion on his extraordinary innovation, it demands that people take note of what he has to say.
The law of unintended consequences
Recently Berners-Lee told Today, the early morning news programme on BBC Radio 4, that he was anxious about the direction in which his invention was going. If it is left to develop unchecked it could, he fears, develop into a seedy lair for cheats, fraudsters, liars and pornographers.
It is the law of unintended consequences. The fact is that the web has already become a conduit for all of the groups he listed. Indeed, Sir Tim’s fears that “certain undemocratic things could emerge and misinformation will start spreading over the web”, was welcomed with loud guffaws, in some quarters of the world media.
“Believing, or even hoping that a medium available to anyone with knuckles and access to a computer will be used solely by nice boys and girls who love their mummy is, frankly, barking. It’s like leaving the door open during your toddler’s birthday party and then expressing surprise when a bunch of teenagers with their bums hanging out of the jeans wander in and steal all the Quavers” commented one columnist.
However, others wrote expressing views that pretty much echo Berners-Lee’s own. They argue that, while the web may have its fun areas, too much misinformation is a dangerous thing, and when it comes to privacy the user needs some legal or regulatory protection.
Filtering the good from the bad
In many ways Berners-Lee views weblogs as the invention that takes the biggest stride towards his original idea of a read/write web. They have allowed people to be creative and think for themselves. The interactive nature of corporate blogs, for instance, has given customers the freedom to say what they want about a company and ask awkward questions. It has given them the right of reply.
“For years I had been trying to address the fact that, for most people, the web wasn’t a creative space. Editing web pages was difficult and complicated for people.
What happened with blogs and with wikis, these editable web spaces, was that they became much simpler. When you write a blog, you don’t write complicated hypertext, you just write text so I’m very, very happy to see that it has now gone in the direction of becoming more of a creative medium.”
However, Sir Tim has also singled out the rise of blogging as one of the most difficult areas for the continued distension of the web. He believes followers of weblogs take too much information on trust.
“Blogs work by people reading them and linking to them. You’re taking suggestions of what you read from people who you’ve probably never met, but whom you trust. That is a very simple system, but in fact the technology must help us express much more complicated things about who we trust with what.”
Building trust in the Web
Despite the fact that many users of the web don’t seem as interested in combating rogue websites as Berners-Lee, his proselytising mission now is to try and rebuild its fragile reputation, and revitalise it by better policing and monitoring of the Internet.
With more than a billion people now wired to the Internet around the world, which even by the most conservative estimate is set to double again in size over the next couple of years, Web 2.0 he says must be able to reassure users that they can establish the original source of information they read.
“We should all learn to be information smart: to understand when a web site, or a piece of software, is giving us biased information. We should learn to distinguish quality information and quality links. I feel that the web should be something, which basically doesn’t try to coerce people into putting particular things on it. We need to individually work on putting good things on it, finding ways to protect ourselves from accidentally finding the bad stuff.
Remember, the bad stuff is from humanity communicating over the web, just as it is communicating over so many other different media. It’s a universal medium and it’s not itself a medium which inherently makes people do good things or bad things. I certainly do not think that monitoring content better will suck all the fun out of it.”
The Web Science Research Initiative
Berners-Lee, a bouncily happy man with relentless energy, is a scientist energised by a strong moral and political code. He rejected the Anglican teachings of his parents, and has adopted the beliefs of the Unitarian church, a creedless religious movement that encourages freedom of thought and nurturing community.
The church stresses ‘the inherent dignity of people and the need to work together to achieve harmony and understanding. “Unless technology respects human needs,” he says, “it is worthless.” He says that he is happy at the incredible richness of material on the Web, and in the diversity of the ways in which it is being used. But there are parts of the original dream that are not yet fulfilled.
Analysis is one of these. In order to understand the social implications of his phenomenon, something that has grown from zero to worldwide domination in less than two decades, and how it has transformed the lives of millions of people around the world, he has launched a joint initiative between Southampton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.
The aim of the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) is to allow researchers to take the Web seriously as an object of scientific inquiry, with the goal of helping to foster the Web’s growth and fulfil in Berners-Lee’s words, “its great potential as a powerful tool for humanity.”
Of particular interest will be the volume of information on the Web that documents more and more aspects of human activity and knowledge. WSRI research projects will weigh such questions as:
- How do we access information and assess its reliability?
- By what means may we assure its use complies with social and legal rules?
- How will we preserve the Web over time?
The vision for web science embraces traditional technology subjects such as computer science and engineering, but also brings in a touch of sociology and philosophy.
Students will be expected to explore Internet privacy, spamming, hacking and regulation, as well as looking into the social trends behind hugely popular websites such as eBay, Youtube and MySpace.com.
The new field of study (long overdue in some people’s minds) is expected to gain widespread support from those who have made many millions by applying Sir Tim’s invention to suit their own ideas.
Uninterested in the huge material reward his creation could have brought him, (though he is far from a poor academic having won Finland’s million-euro Millennium Technology Prize) he is encouraging companies such as Google, Yahoo and as well as more traditional computing giants, including Microsoft, IBM and Hewlett Packard to get involved. The lack of cash therefore, a traditional stumbling block to academic research, shouldn’t be a problem.
The ultimate task for students of the new discipline will be to come up with the next generation of the Internet – bringing about the Holy Grail, the natural language or ‘semantic web’ a more intelligent version of the system in use today.
The future of the semantic web
As well as working to refine the web still further, he has accepted, reluctantly it has to be said, a role as governor and prophet. Nevertheless, he is still visibly more comfortable talking about technology than being lionised as the ‘father of the web.’
So what exactly is Web 2.0, the semantic web, all about, what is the common thread and what is the driving force behind it?
“The common thread to the Semantic Web is that there’s lots of information out there – financial information, weather information, corporate information, on databases, spreadsheets, and websites – that you can read but you can’t manipulate. The key thing is that this data exists, but the computers don’t know what it is and how it interrelates.
But when there’s a web of interesting, global semantic data, then you’ll be able to combine the data you know about with other data that you don’t know about. Our lives will be enriched by this data, which we didn’t have access to before, and we’ll be able to write programs that will actually help, because these programs will be able to understand the data out there rather than just present it to us on the screen.
The semantic web will connect together all applications that use or can see other data. The concept adds definition tags to information in Web pages and links them in such a way that computers can discover data more efficiently and form new associations between pieces of information, in effect creating a globally distributed database.
This does not imply some magical artificial intelligence that will allow machines to comprehend human mumblings. It only indicates a machine’s ability to solve a well-defined problem by performing well-defined operations on existing, well-defined data. Instead of asking machines to understand people’s language, it involves asking people to make the extra effort.”
Berners-Lee is not just creative but democratic, diplomatic, polite and generous with credit and praise. He is precisely the kind of hero we need more of.