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Sir Tim Berners-Lee fears for the web, Part 3: web enabled

a network cableIf we accept that the problems of the web are not a part of the web itself but more the people within it, what can be done to solve these problems?

In the first installment, I discussed the worries voiced by the founder of the web, Sir Tim Burners-Lee, where I quite colourfully portrayed the web as a wayward adolescent, but an adolescent with enormous potential.

In the second installment, I looked at how the web has grown over the years, and latterly the scale and the potential of the web.

In this third installment, I’ll discuss the plans proposed by Sir Tim and his colleagues to measure, analyze and define the web of the here-and-now and the web of the future.

Those that are more familiar with my earlier missives know my views on technology. Technology can enable and disable in equal measure. But mostly, technology enables.

Almost all technology is needs-driven. A need provides a reason for a given new technology to exist. The technology exists to fulfill those needs. What we’re seeing more and more of is the division between device and personal activity vanishing.

Technology is seen less as being intimidating and obtrusive, and those desires / needs (call them what you will) are rapidly being married off to the appropriate devices that enable all kinds of different social activities – PDAs for business people on the go, mobile phones that include music playing software video games for example.

Enough people now rely on their mobile phone that to remove them from this small device would in all likelihood ruin not only their social life, but their ability to do business as well.

Anyone familiar with the hot topics in the news recently will have read about the ‘happy slapper‘ idiots who go around beating the bejesus out of people, filming the attack on their mobile phones and then posting the video onto the web.

This is new technology enabling stupid people to do bad things. Worse still, the whole craze is entirely dependent on these arguably nascent technologies.

Why post this stuff onto the web? Because they want to share with everyone else, that’s why! Or, at the very least, to share with those that are like-minded enough to take some pleasure – however truly misguided – in what they’re viewing.

Be the intentions of the individual good or bad, the key word here is social, and it’s something that’s becoming more and more a feature of the web.

So what we’re seeing is that the web is fast becoming a crucible for all kinds of content from all kinds of people. Whatever it is that floats your boat, chances are, you’ll find your particular poison on the web.

Do we point the fickle finger of blame at the web, or do we instead focus our attention on the intentions of the people using the web?

Clearly our beef is with the latter rather than the former. After all, the social aspects of the web are a direct reflection of society, all of which is simply enabled by web technology.

But what are the other possible consequences of the web being abused?

“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’re already seeing this with certain nations censoring the web and certain companies being complicit with their desire to do so:

“Sir Tim added that he hoped [his new web science research initiative] would create a new science for studying the web, which he believes would lead to newer and more exciting systems.”

Sounds fantastic! But I have a question: who would be entrusted to manage such an idea?

Or, thinking ahead a little further, assuming some kind of formal standards were to emerge from their studious efforts, would such a thing fall with the remit of the World Wide Web Consortium, for example? Might this idea be a prelude to more fundamental, foundational standards?…

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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