Social life of the worldwide web

Weaving the Web
July 14, 2000

The worldwide web is a technology that has impinged on a remarkable number of lives in an extremely short space of time. How did this come about? The ingredients have been available for some time. The internet has been expanding exponentially since 1969, way before the advent of the web, and hypertext was prophetically proposed by Ted Nelson with his Xanadu project, but unsuccessfully promulgated.

Luminaries such as Vannevar Bush and Marshall McLuhan foresaw the coming of the digitally connected revolution, but were not in a practical position to capitalise on this. How did Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist, manage to set the wheels in motion that have spawned this information revolution?

This book goes some way to answering these questions. As its title suggests, it covers the past, present and future of the web. However, this division is not explicit from the book's contents, which are not subdivided in this way. It begins with a background to how the ideas for the web built up in Berners-Lee's mind and then moves on to his experience at Cern, the particle physics facility near Geneva, where the web initially started to take shape.

This was obviously a fascinating environment for the author. He could see that physics and physicists could benefit from a system that would allow them to record and transfer ideas to each other in as simple a manner as possible.

Convincing others of the benefits was much more difficult. However, to Cern's credit, the environment was sufficiently flexible for Berners-Lee to try out his ideas, even if these had to be carried out in a rather underground manner with the constant possibility that he could be stopped from pursuing his goals.

One of the early papers on the web by Berners-Lee was actually rejected, yet he still decided to attend a conference to demonstrate the then-prototype web, despite the problems of modem connection, different voltage and such. Within a year or two, papers concerned with the web dominated subsequent conferences in the same series.

The historical progression of the book makes fascinating and addictive reading for anyone who has become involved with the development of the web.As an academic computer-science researcher, I became aware of the web in 1993 with the release of Mosaic, the first freely and widely available graphical web browser. However, like many others whom Berners-Lee had to convince initially, the web did not seem very exciting, mainly due to the slow speed (especially for transatlantic access) and lack of content.

To help rectify the problem of locating content on the web, Berners-Lee started the "WWW Virtual Library" to provide an encyclopedia of links to online resources, maintained by experts from all over the world.

The success of the web was by no means assured during its gestation, but Berners-Lee is a man with a mission. He has carefully charted the web through difficult waters to bring it to where it is today. He realised that a universal naming mechanism that could also encompass other technologies, a fast access protocol for the internet and a simple document structuring mechanism for providing hyperlinks, were all important constituents to success. What is more, he formulated and implemented the initial versions of these almost single-handedly.

Berners-Lee never lost sight of the importance of free access to this new technology, and he convinced Cern to sign away any rights to the web. He himself has extremely altruistic goals and has never formed a dotcom company even though he was eminently placed to do so - thereby maintaining an independent non-partisan approach to the development of the web. To help avoid any one company taking over, he initiated the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. W3C continues to coordinate new recommendations for additions to the web in a pan-industrial manner.

The last third of the book is more philosophical in nature, covering recent web technology and Berners-Lee's vision for the future. He addresses more general social and political concerns, such as privacy, access by children, and so on. Indeed, he states: "The web is more a social creation than a technical one," and that this is why he designed it.He also outlines a view of the web that may be possible in a further decade of development; he terms this the "Semantic Web".

Much knowledge buried in the web is difficult to access without considerable expertise and human input. This is partly because the encoding of most of the existing web is in the ubiquitous HTML format, which loses a significant amount of the underlying information's semantics.

XML (Extended Markup Language) is designed to allow encoding of documents (and information in general) in any desired markup, with associated Document Type Definitions to prescribe allowed markup, and style sheets to perform formatting for transformation and viewing. W3C is developing a Resource Description Framework to allow the relationships between shared data to be formulated. These, and perhaps future technologies, could allow computers to extract information from the web in a much more automatic and intelligent manner than is possible at present.

Although this book is probably of most interest to computer scientists, I believe most academics from whatever background will gain something from reading it. It does contain technical jargon, but it is written on a level that allows it to be appreciated by experts and non-experts alike. This is a book from the horse's mouth and deserves to be read as such.

Others may agree or disagree with Berners-Lee's views, but he has been proved right more often than not. What is more, he has the technical know-how and personal determination to see his visionary goals through to practical fruition on a timescale that would have seemed breath-taking only a decade or two ago. I recommend this book as a glimpse of how this has been practically achieved in practice.

Jonathan Bowen is professor of computing, South Bank University.

Weaving the Web: The Past, Present and Future of the World Wide Web

Author - Tim Berners-Lee with Mark Fishetti
ISBN - 0 75282 090 7
Publisher - Orion
Price - £12.99
Pages - 244

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