Review of "Weaving the Web", by Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee, the author of "Weaving the Web: the Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web" and inventor of what we now call "The World Wide Web" ("the Web"), has a dream. To him, the Web should become a more powerful means for collaboration between people. All information should be made available and linked to other information, using the Web to create those links. In addition, these collaborations should extend to computers as well as the users, creating a Semantic Web capable of expanding the quantity and quality of information Web users consume and create.

Berners-Lee first describes his dream by exploring the origins of today's World Wide Web. For him, the invention of the Web was based on similar ideas that had come before his, but whose timing was wrong, such as the Xanadu Project created by Ted Nelson. Hypertext, the basic mechanism for linking documents together had been developed and discussed as earlier in the twentieth century. Still, Berners-Lee's desire to create a collaboration system for the researchers working at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland was the impetus for him to create the initial software and protocols used to run the Web.

The key principles of Berners-Lee's Web were a) the idea that universality was of tantamount importance; b) a Universal Resource Identifier (a tag used to uniquely identify the location and format of a document) was needed; and c) a user should be able to link to any document no matter how that document was stored and what format was used in storing it. Based on these key principles, the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP), and the Uniform Resource Link (URL) were created to be the infrastructure over which information would travel and the way they would be linked together.

These principles and technologies helped make the Web grow and mature quickly. Berners-Lee states that "the Internet built the Web in grassroots fashion." Once Berners-Lee made the software and protocols available to the Internet community through newsgroups and mailing lists, others with a similar understanding of how the Web technology could work took up the challenge to make the Web and make better, more advanced versions of the software and protocols.

Eventually, keeping a common vision became difficult for Berners-Lee. For example, the team that developed NCSA Mosaic, a web browser, was more concerned in the broswer itself than the idea of a global Web connecting information. Also, the media was more interested in the presentation of the information than the structure the Web was creating. Additionally, Berners-Lee became very concerned that his work would be ruined by attempts by CERN to license the software instead of placing it in the public domain to encourage development. (This was a mistake made by the University of Minnesota with their gopher software, which would have been significant competition for the Web if not for the licensing restrictions they placed upon it, causing most developers to drop gopher for the freely available Web.)

The last of these concerns was laid to rest due to CERN's decision to place the software in the public domain. Still, Berners-Lee saw the need for a consortium to oversee the development of the Web and ensure it continued to be developed for the common good. Berners-Lee states, "Starting a consortium, therefore, represented the best way for me to see the full span of the Web community as it spread into more and more areas." The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was created to "lead the Web to its full potential", as one of its unofficial mottos stated. The W3C was able to facilitate the development of new standards (though, they called them "recommendations") to extend the Web and allow more forms of information and information systems to become interconnected.

Berners-Lee continued to expand on his original ideas regarding the Web while working for the W3C. One of the greatest driving forces of the W3C was the idea of creating a "Semantic Web" within the World Wide Web. The Semantic Web is defined as the abstract representation of data on the World Wide Web, based on the Resource Description Framework standards and other standards yet to be defined. Through the Semantic Web, computers would be able to gather information and process that information analytically. Human users would create the content and links to the data available on the Web while computers processed these data and connections to better present and link the data.

With this Semantic Web, the Web could enable new forms of interaction and group dynamics, such as managerless business groups or large-scale plebiscite-based democratic practices. All this can only be created if the Web is developed such that form is separated from content, and all content is linked to related content freely. (Berners-Lee does state that authorization to access certain data, such as paying to view an article or restricting corporate data to those within a corporation, must be included in this model. Information should be accessible but not necessarily freely accessible to anyone in the world.) Additionally, webs of trust between data entities must be created to help validate the data and its relationships with other data. The Semantic Web is still under development by the W3C and its collaborators. Many new technologies and processes must be created before the Semantic Web will become a reality.

Berners-Lee concludes his discussion by reminding us that the Web will help us become better connected to our world but not necessarily smarter or better people. It is through these connections, though, that we will gain the ability to collaborate and expand our knowledge and access new information and foreign ideas.

Berners-Lee's vision of the future of the Web is an attractive one. For anyone who relies on the Web to communicate with others, to gather information, or to publish their ideas or works, the limitations of the current state of the Web are easily apparent. The decentralized nature of the Web makes finding specific, reliable data difficult. (We saw an example of this in the last few years where international news services would publish stories that they first learned about on the Web, only to later find out that the details of the story were false or unreliable.) Search engines assist users in finding the data they seek, but the search engines are poor at linking information that is not necessarily related through obvious connections. The Semantic Web will help solve this problem by allowing computers to find those connections to help link the data together in ways that are more practical to users.

Additionally, the collaborative nature of the Web allow users to pool their creative strengths, building off of each others ideas and creating new ideas. No other current technology has the same potential to change the way we work and share ideas and information. We will need to take care that those who feel it is in their best interests to control the way information is exchanged and linked together are themselves controlled and denied the ability to censor or impede the free flow of information and ideas. To quote Berners-Lee paraphrasing deputy president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki in 1995, "...people should seize the new technology to empower themselves; to keep themselves informed about the truth of their own economic, political, and cultural circumstances; and to give themselves a voice that all the world could hear."

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All contents Copyright 2004, Daniel Adinolfi.