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Flash! Web's creator doesn't fear for its future

About the author
Becky Hogge is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She is the former executive director of the Open Rights Group, a London-based campaigning organisation that fights for civil and consumer rights in the digital age. She was previously the managing editor, and then technology director, of openDemocracy.net. She blogs here, and co-presents acclaimed London radio show Little Atoms. Her first book, Barefoot into Cyberspace, was published in summer 2011

And so, one week after the first meeting of the Internet Governance Forum in Athens, mankind continues on its spiral down the rabbit-hole. Speaking to the BBC's Pallab Ghosh last week, World Wide Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee warned of doom and destruction if the http protocol were to continue its grotesque adolescence unchecked. Within hours, the story was around the world. Victor Frankenstein has seen the dull yellow eye of the creature open, and had fled in disgust.

A search on Google News several days after the event reveals tremors still reverberating from as far as Spain, India and Taiwan. "World Wide Web developer concerned Internet could be misused" and "World Wide Web creator warns of cheats and liars" scream the headlines; my favourite being from Mac Daily: "World Wide Web creator (and Apple Mac user) Berners-Lee fears for Web's future."

Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:

"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)

"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
(November 2005)

"Global voices: blogging the world"
(December 2005)

"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)

"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)

"Payday for the free internet" (March 2006)

"Internet Hoaxes hit politics" (April 2006)

"Microsoft: closed windows and hidden vistas" (April 2006)

"The battle for net neutrality" (May 2006)

"Open source ubuntu" (May 2006)

"The Crown's copyright con" (July 2006)

"Amnesty's China hit-list" (July 2006)

"Whose space? Abuse and control in social networks"
(August 2006)

"Anonymity on the net" (August 2006)

"Revolution at our fingertips"
(September 2006)

"Claiming our digital rights"
(October 2006)

"Consumer or citizen?" (October 2006)

"Information between old and new worlds" (October 2006)

It was the story the traditional press had been waiting for. Misinformation will take over the web, warns internet inventor; "undemocratic things" will start happening. Quick, big media, save us! And then, just as surely, the backlash: "Hands off the Web, Sir Tim," demanded Sarah Dempster in the Times on 6 November, presumably so that her paper's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, can continue to get his hands on it.

One lonely blog post tells the real story. What had been an attempt to explain how reputation works in the blogosphere had apparently been misinterpreted, and Berners-Lee's words had been "turned upside down into a 'blogging is one of the biggest perils' message," as the Guardian reported on 3 November. The author of said lonely post was one Tim Berners-Lee.

As this episode shows, misinformation wasn't invented by the internet. However, were it not for Berners-Lee's self-publishing habit - one he shares with millions of other people (not all of them benighted inventors) who regularly update a personal weblog - such rampant misinformation might be harder to spot. In the end, the situation is a complicated one: the new pressures that cyberspace exerts on democracy's fourth estate will act in both positive and negative ways - ways which may not be wholly predictable.

This, despite the misreporting and reporting of misreporting, is the basic situation that Berners-Lee had set out to address, with the launch of a multi-disciplinary initiative into the study of web science, housed jointly at the University of Southampton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The initiative recognises that the effects of the World Wide Web require academic attention from a wide range of disciplines, from engineering to the political sciences. It was in speaking to reporters on the eve of the launch that the wires got crossed.

Writing in Science, Berners-Lee and the other Web Science Research Initiative directors observe that "the Web is an engineered space created through formally specified languages and protocols. However, because humans are the creators of Web pages and links between them, their interactions form emergent patterns in the Web at a macroscopic scale." This bottom-up development pattern, observe the authors, has led some to view the Web's development as evolutionary in nature, but it is equally interesting to mathematicians partial to a bit of complex dynamical systems analysis, or chaos.

Beyond these areas of study, the Web Science Research Initiative aims to ensure that web development "supports the basic social values of trustworthiness, privacy and respect for social boundaries," through promoting an understanding of the unique social and public-policy challenges presented by a decentralised information system as pervasive as the Web. As the example of the contagious headlines proclaiming Berners-Lee's despair over the blogosphere suggest, familiar economic, political and social pressures may play out slightly differently - faster or more pronounced - on the macro scale of a Web news aggregator like Google News.

Theories from the biological and physical sciences may go some way towards an understanding of this vast network of information, but the humanities and social sciences also hold the key. It is a vast prospect and, as Berners-Lee told the BBC's Ghosh, "all kinds of disciplines are going to have to converge. People with all kinds of skills and knowledge are going to need to work together in order to understand the Web."

As an undergraduate, I studied linguistics, and the experience feels suddenly familiar in this context. Human language, where tantalising parallels with logic exist alongside network theory and a dynamism born out of constant contact with human society, made for a fractious academic pursuit. Linguistics students would find themselves visiting university departments that normally would not come into contact with one another. The field attracted inspirational thinkers, many of whom, like George Lakoff and Noam Chomsky, venture regularly into political discourse. Yet attempts at unifying theory (such as Chomsky's universal grammar of the 1960s-70s) were highly contentious, and often put aside in favour of more specialised lines of inquiry.

The Web Science Research Initiative heralds a new age for the generalist. And the call is not before its time. Those returning from the IGF in Athens report no such inclusive vision, but, rather, a set of competing priorities struggling for airspace at a conference crowded with concerns. "Long on words, short on ideas," Economist journalist and forum moderator Kenn Cukier put it. Let's hope the academic community will rise to the challenge.


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