The Web: Looking back, looking forward

Spider Web Concept 'With a computer you can pretty much do anything and with the web you can do almost anything you could possibly imagine' said Sir Tim Berners-Lee, chief architect of the World Wide Web, at the start of this year's prestigious BCS Lovelace lecture, held at London's Congress Centre. Justin Richards reports.

His lecture examined the ideas behind the origins of the internet and web and considered how things might continue to develop in future.

The number of web pages now exceeds the population of the planet and this number continues to grow exponentially, year on year. Berners-Lee indicated that more should be done to monitor this growth and to nurture developments which improve the user's experience. In fact web science is a new multi disciplinary science which Sir Tim Berners-Lee is championing, although research projects under this banner have only just begun.
 
Computer science can largely be seen as an engineering discipline, one originating from physics, which itself has been known as philosophical engineering. By examining microscopic rules and macroscopic behaviour one can describe and define how computers operate and the connections between them.

Designing a system

A system exists when there is communication between two computers. Physics can propose the microscopic model and relate it to the macroscopic purpose. The same principle applies for computer science and the web. However, modelling will only work so far before real world complications have to be factored in.

Creativity is crucial to engineering, but more importantly is collaboration between people. For example, the first websites had instructions to make other web pages and little else on them. However, it was because of this free advice that the internet has grown as more and more enthusiasts took up the baton and ran with it. In fact throughout the first three years the web saw constant exponential growth.

The twin 'magics' for the creation of the web have been collaboration and creativity. However, even before the web there was the internet; 20 years before in fact.

Within this system the need to communicate was fulfilled by the use of internet messaging, which operated on a store and forward SMTP principle, and was used mainly by friendly academics.

Email developed between not only interconnected academics but also throughout the general public as there became a greater dependence socially and for business on technological communication. Unfortunately, with increased traffic comes increasing numbers of problems including spam and cyber-crime.

WWW and universality

Tim's goal as a software engineer had simply been to help people communicate and transfer data/information between one another efficiently.

He wanted to find a means to move documents between computers regardless of what system they were running or what make of computer they had. Hence, by using URL, HTTP, and HTML he was able to produce a Hypertext + net system which retained incentives to help people further down the line.

Over time there was a massive web explosion but people still got lost within the maze of the internet and couldn't find stuff. Tim wanted to get them there more efficiently.

The web had to be approachable and usable by all. Experts talked about mainframes while most people just switched off - they didn't have access to mainframes at home so it didn't apply to them.

Likewise he didn't want a situation where providers were charging users 2p for each link used or to make it language specific. In designing the web Berners-Lee wanted to ensure the quality of the information and universal access.

Layering

The internet was designed independent of application, regardless of whether a user is sending an email, using FTP, or voice. Likewise the web was also designed to be independent of application, whether it's being used for shopping, browsing, participating or searching.

Right from its foundation technologies through to its ceiling technologies the web had to be comprised of royalty free standards with a clean interface, one which makes no assumptions and is flexible for all its user's needs.

Originally it was thought that one couldn't index the web. However, the Google search engine has come close to doing so, by analysing the link structures and maintaining them during its search.

Wiki phenomena

Originally Tim didn't think that people would be able to read the web without being able to create new pages themselves. Now users can edit pages, while sticking to guidelines set by each particular wiki site.

The most famous example is Wikipedia, which has to be both democratic and autocratic, where necessary, following running battles amongst its contributors. Wikis force us to ask the question 'how can we all collectively be smarter than any one of us?'

Semantic web

This term is actually about data sharing, where through the use of URLs and links interested parties can share ontologies of information, and therefore gain access to more relevant information. One aspect of the semantic web would be to use the same URL for both latitude and longitude. This is still very much in its infancy and is mainly used for social networking.

Within the semantic web everything has a URL. One doesn't just say 'colour' one says example.com/2002/std6#col. You can make up your own terms and take ownership of that term, thus emphasising the concept of definitive meaning. The semantic web will provide layers for people to illustrate what web functions we can trust.

What defines the web?

The web is where anything can be connected to anything else; hence the use of a spider's web to illustrate it is probably not very accurate! Spider webs have a definite centre, a definite pattern - the web does not.

Society consists of many different types of community at different levels. A universal web must reflect this and include communities on many different levels, including those relating to work, home and play. Society is complicated and the web must mirror this. The web is structured on many levels and is perhaps best described as a fractal tangle.

The question is who will create all the future ontologies? We can't assume that they will be spread across orders of magnitude, and that if you do your bit others will do theirs. However, on the positive side, creating ontologies requires a small, finite amount of time, time which will shrink if we all collaborate.

Web science - the challenges

Techie geeks have created software products that don't always have the customer in mind. The user-interface is a significant challenge since this should have a generality enabling users to browse any data anywhere. They should also be able to dynamically pick up from ontologies, allow independent control and 'blow spreadsheet tools away' with their user-friendliness.

Other significant challenges include data policy (identity, privacy, and transparency); resilience (social breakage, e.g. phishing: internet breakage, e.g. slash-dotting; web breakage, e.g. Error 404); and new devices.

With the cost of pixels going down, we now have a greater diversity in their usage with pixels now beginning to replace neon, for example in Times Square. There is greater emphasis on portable devices, particularly in developing countries, and mobile technology will continue to grow exponentially as the industry calls on outer layers of web technology and transfers it into pixel technology.

Intercreativity

By creating together, both the top and bottom magics can be brought to bear on the fractal tangle that is the web. A new geography of free connectivity with more intuitive interfaces and new forms of democracy can be created with increased collaboration and intercreativity.

Ultimately, advances are most regularly achieved through the connection of people's half formed ideas, whether they are scientific, political or cultural.

Questions

When asked whether he regretted not establishing an intellectual copyright on the ownership of the web, to prevent its misuse and sometime lack of democracy, he responded by saying he had no regrets since there could be no compromise if people wish to have a web which works as it should do.

One can't establish a system where you have one rule for one person and another rule for others. If he had copyrighted it the whole web would not have taken off, at least not in the same way it has. It certainly wouldn't have attracted the amount of voluntary contributions it has done.

Berners–Lee was also asked whether web developers have aided the democratic process. He felt that eBay was a good example of peer opinion on services and individuals. His dream would be that politicians would say something and one of their aids would create a wiki to allow people to have their say on that subject in response.

Sir Tim doesn't entertain a 'Terminator' view of a future world where machines have a thinking power equal to that of humans. When asked about the future of machines he replied that he foresaw chips gaining greater ability than neurons but didn't see it extending to emergent behaviour.

More likely increasingly bizarre human behaviour will cause there to be a rise of cults leading to the destruction of mankind from within ourselves. He did, however, feel that web science does have a responsibility to monitor the way society interacts with the web.

Finally, in response to a question about increased professionalism within the industry leading to a greater degree of trust, he stated that 'people building systems have to be aware of the laws of creation and of its consequences'. Perhaps this was a fitting last word from someone who is the creator of an artefact which has changed civilisation on a massive scale.

- BCS Lovelace Lecture and Medal

27 March 2007