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Sir Tim Berners-Lee fears for the web, Part 4: politics and society

a network cablePolitics, it would seem, knows no limits. Politics permeate every aspect of our lives, no matter where we choose to live out that life, be it in this world or a virtual one such as the web.

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 the third installment, I discussed the plans proposed by Sir Tim and his people to measure and define the web.

In this forth and final installment, I’ll be looking at how politics excludes and how society intrudes on matters web-related.

If there were to be some formal standards arrived at as result of Sir Tim’s “new web science research initiative” and the World Wide Web Consortium were to be involved in some capacity, then there are those that feel that the W3C isn’t in particularly good shape, such as Björn Höhrmann, Joe Clark and Jeffrey Zeldman no less:

“I believe in W3C standards, particularly the ones you and I use every day, but I worry about the direction in which the W3C is headed. Beholden to its corporate paymasters who alone can afford membership, the W3C seems increasingly detached from ordinary designers and developers.”

And that’s just for starters:

“But after ordinary designers and developers spent nearly a decade selling web standards to browser makers and developing best practices around accessibility and semantics, one hoped the W3C might realize that there was value in occasionally consulting its user base … Alas, the organization appears unconcerned with our needs and uninterested in tapping our experience and insights.”

So with that in mind, what form might Sir Tim’s “new web science research initiative” take? In light of the problems outlined previously, could such a thing generate formal web standards that could then go on to exist within the framework of the World Wide Web Consortium?

I confess I don’t fully understand the inner workings of the W3C, or their mandate, so I dare not hazard a guess.

What I can say with some degree of certainty is that Sir Tim certainly aims high with his ambitions:

“All kinds of disciplines are going to have to converge. People with all kinds of skills are going to have to work together to build a new web which is going to be even better,…”

With the likes of “The US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southampton, UK” on his side to help “launch [a] long-term research collaboration” with regards to dealing with the problems of the web, he’s getting a better start than most would.

But herein lies yet another problem: summed up with the words “long-term research collaboration.”

Right now, the web is growing at a pace unseen before. New technologies emerge and combine in intriguing ways not imagined and people make use of services as diverse as, MySpace, Flickr, Flagr and Digg to name but a small few.

To have any affect on the shape of things to come, some stewardship must be exercised right now or whatever is proposed and implemented later will surely be so harsh in weight and scope that society itself will feel the brunt of those changes.

Right now, the web is shuffling under the very feet of its citizens and forming a boundary layer between the foundations of our world and the world above, which is either inaccessible to most of the people in this world.

I have friends in Sofia, Bulgaria, New York, USA and Bogota, Colombia .. none of which would be friends at all had it not been for the web.

I am but one of the first generation to be the principle beneficiaries of the web. Those that come after me in the following generation might not even be aware of the web.

Action is required now to help ‘fix’ the web, but help isn’t something that technology can do alone.

Remember what Vint said? “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.”

If we could do that, the web would be least of our worries…

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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