Sir Tim Berners-Lee has a Mac, he doesn’t use Skitch though, or Adium, in fact his menu bar was free of clutter when I saw him talk at NESTA on “The Future of the Web” (it was webcast [edit now up here], this isn’t it but the content of TBLs talk was similar). I suspect his mind is fairly clutter free too, you don’t invent the web (an idea his then boss called “vague but interesting”) without a talent for seeing through the mess to a simple system.

Despite that the web is complex, in fact TBL likened what the web has become to (and I roughly quote here and later, from my notes):

“that sort of gunky-hairy thing that you get out when you unblock the sink. You don’t know how it got that tangled, and you couldn’t have planned it, but there are lots of ways for bugs to get from one point to another.”

It’s also huge. He showed us a slide of the exponential growth in the first couple of year and there’s no sign of that slowing.

TBL (and others) have come to the conclusion that the web needs studying:

“Because it’s big, tangled and complex, and we have a duty because we created it. We have to ask ‘is it going to lead to a society that we want?’ ‘How can we engineer it so it does?'”

To do this properly, they argue (they being the Web Science Research Initiative) a new field of science “Web Science” needs to be developed, pulling together the social studies, the networking studies and the data studies. There a few interesting points on this in The Guardian’s interview.

TBL’s ‘Future of the Web’ – Semantics

TBL doesn’t like to predict with “Future of the Web”, which is why he wants to be able to study it in greater detail, his thing at the moment (and as Bill Thompson pointed out, with a question from the floor, for a long while now) is the Semantic Web. He attempts to explain it here on the Today programme (via NBSE blog and others), but it is a difficult concept to grasp. More in depth discussion here as part of a podcast.

In short (now I may be getting it wrong here) the Semantic Web is a bunch of standards that describe the data available on the Web rather than documents (pages, graphics, video and the like) and how the data may be accessed. It’s confusing and scary in a way as the distinction in our minds between the data and the documents isn’t clear. TBL calls it “the interesting bits in the documents”, he means dates, times, facts, relationships. I don’t think interesting is the right word here, for we all enjoy the flowery stuff around the facts, the soft context — but the ability to get at the facts and relationships in a standard way opens up a real progress in the ways we can communicate.

It’s starting to happen a little already, with APIs being a must have for all sorts of services, but “semantic startups are still guesswork”. Like the Web itself, the applications that will build on the Semantic Web are pretty much unknown — TBL says (and what a sentence to be able to come up with:

“When I built the web, I didn’t know what would happen. Soon – as long as we give people a place to play – there will be new innovation, something we haven’t thought of.”

There are already standards being agreed on, by the W3C (an organisation TBL formed, he says “like jumping into a bobsled to try to steer, after pushing it off”), but the data standards are designed so they can be expanded by individuals within the agreed framework.

To get the Semantic Web up and running there is a huge amount of work to do to. It’s daunting because we don’t separate data from our words and pictures naturally. Folksonomies like tagging help but, at least in the short term, if individuals are to contibute to the “web of data” it’s going to be through services designed to take it from us and process it to meet the standards.

The ‘other’ Future of the Web – the battle for control

Alongside TBL on the panel at the event were Charles Leadbeater, author of ‘We Think‘, and Andy Duncan, CEO of Channel 4. You can see why they were invited, to help provide a bridge between the intended audience (not sure that was us geeks) and the super-brain of TBL, but as others have said time with TBL was limited and precious.

Not scientists, these guys were more comfortable with talking about what they thought the “future” would bring, although in Andy Duncan’s case he didn’t seem to have many ideas (he talked of “innovation”, but didn’t manage to get any opinions across).

Charles is a very astute thinker, however — he sees the main question, the main challenge of the web to not only keep it open (echoing TBLs “ISPs – give me fast non-discriminatory access, and don’t sell my click-streams”) and to actually prove the social worth of our connections. “Can we make these open communities last, prevent creeping re-regulation… share skills and values… are we capable of self regulating?”.

I may have missed the point of Andy’s contribution, the two main threads boiled down to – paraphrasing horribly (Simpson’s-style voice in my head) “won’t somebody please think of the children” and “Google’s YouTube is pinching our content”. He was worried about the lack of control over the internet, where as I think that precise “lack of control” is what made our tangled gloopy bunch of hair what it is now.

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