Internet Review Society & Culture

Sir Tim Berners-Lee fears for the web, Part 2: the potential

a network cableCan the web be brought to heal at such a relatively late stage? And what exactly can be done by way of remedial activities to cure what ills there are presently, as well as deal with those ills yet to come?

In the first installment, that’s how we left the debate that has emerged as a result of the concerns of its creator, Sir Tim Burners-Lee. But there’s much to be discussed before those questions can be approached, let alone answered in any meaningful way.

In this second installment, I’ll be looking at how the web has grown, plus I’ll be discussing the scale of web as well as the potential of the web.

Sir Tim recently told the BBC:

“If we don’t have the ability to understand the web as it’s now emerging, we will end up with things that are very bad … Certain undemocratic things could emerge and misinformation will start spreading over the web … Studying these forces and the way they’re affected by the underlying technology is one of the things that we think is really important,…”

We already have things that are very bad, but it’s not the web itself that’s bad, despite some of my jovial anthropomorphic picture-painting in the first installment.

The worst of the web resides in the intent of those people using the web. And we might do well to remember something said by another industry luminary:

“The internet is a reflection of our society,.. If we do not like what we see in that mirror the problem is not to fix the mirror, we have to fix society.” ~ Vint Cerf

Could we argue that Sir Tim Burners-Lee had his chance? Did he spare the rod and spoil the child?

Personally, I don’t think he or anyone else had even the chance, or if they did, I’d wager they weren’t aware of such an opportunity. Principally because we would be relying on the assumption that Sir Tim et al were in some way able to anticipate the direction of the web at or around the period the web came into being 15 years ago.

I’m sure there were those around at the time that saw such a beast as being an inevitability of the human desire to share, collaborate and to communicate.

But even they might have cause to pause and think for a moment with regards to the deeply intricate way in which the web has since entered our lives, both personally and via our working practices and the work place itself:

“While content is part of the web experience, communication is what really pulls consumers online. Email communication was the ‘killer app’ that made the web a must-have. Communication has taken more of consumers’ online time than content in 12 of the last 13 months, according to the Online Publishers Association’s Internet Activity Index.

As consumer experience and comfort with the technology have increased, these social activities extend to people they don’t know. According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, 44 percent of American internet users read and post on blogs, discussion boards and other “consumer-generated media” outlets.

Blogs have become a habit for almost one-third of internet users. As blogs evolve into more comprehensive social network sites like MySpace and, consumers expand their circle of friends and develop close relationships with scores of people, even though they may never meet them.”

So I’m not even sure if Sir Tim or any of his contemporaries were aware of the true potential scale of the nascent web, created in 1990 while Sir Tim was working at CERN in Europe.

When I read about Sir Tim and his various concerns for the web, I see a man who appears very sensitive to the many ills that have poured forth from the web in recent times. Sensitive and also protective towards something that is the product of his hard labour.

Only recently did Sir Tim Berners-Lee call for some calm, measured consideration with regards to “Web 2.0” which is as much a mystery to him as it is me.

Recognizing the sheer depth of the social aspects of this ‘new’ web, clearly the potential now is far greater than it ever was.

Some might object to that last observation of mine, but let me first clarify. In the beginning, even the most mighty of minds would not have known what they did not know about the web. Even though all of this vast, untapped potential lay before them.

Since that time, so much has since been achieved on and with the web which cannot be re-achieved. However, we now understand more of the potential of the web, and know enough to realize what more, and how much more can be achieved with the web.

And from where I sit, I see much more yet to be achieved in front of us than what lies behind us.

So those two questions still remain: can the web be brought to heal at such a relatively late stage, and what exactly can be done to ‘fix’ the web?

Well I’m coming to that .. don’t rush me, OK?!

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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