Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Dude, he invented the friggin' world wide web. Have you heard of it?

There is a concept floating around which is causing me some consternation. Having just got my head around Web 2.0 (or at least, accepted that the term actually has merit), I'm alarmed to find that people are already talking about Web 3.0. What to make of it?

What makes things worse is that one of my personal heroes, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the world wide web, or at least the principles on which it was born) is happy to use this term freely. He talks about "The Semantic Web", an evolution of Web 2.0 where everything on the web is defined in a way that makes it more valuable and extendable. But how does Web 3.0 actually manifest itself?

One of the first examples (and as Web 3.0 is still so new, these examples are somewhat self-prophetizing) is Freebase. You have to sign up for a beta invite and sit and wait, and I'm sitting and waiting. When I've checked it out, I'll write up my findings here. But the general idea is that the world at large will somehow tag all of the data out there, to make it more maliable, more valuable and more usable. But there is so much information out there, and its growing at such an alarming rate, how can we ever keep up? And computers already do this for us - Google have created an algorithm that powers their search engine. So what's the point?

It was with breathless excitement I attended a talk by Tim Berners-Lee this evening, namely the Lovelace Lecture at the BCS. Like a professor giving a lecture, he talked very, very quickly, hardly referred to his notes, looked straight at the audience and enthused about his subject. His thought process and mannerisms were incredibly quick and agitated, as well as most disorderly. His enthusiasm was endearing, and he had a sharp sense of humour, but it was pretty hard to keep up. My smart colleagues felt the same, which made me feel slightly less silly. But it was clear we were in the presence of greatness.

Trying to put structure around his comments would be futile, but the odd nugget did nestle in my cranium and I relate those here for you (apologies for the brain dump format):
  • Referring to doing the presentation in London, he said "As Simon and Garfunkel said in Central Park, "It's great to do it in your hometown!"."
  • Developing the web has been very exciting, especially seeing what people have done with it. Interesting to build big systems on top of very large systems.
  • Computers are now being extended to interact in the same way that people interact.
  • He made a nice comparison between number of web pages (exponential), the number of people in the world (ten to the ten) and our brain cells (depressingly constrained)
  • Looked at the trends on the web as an emergent phenomenon - you can analyze this, and identify issues, which you then apply your values against. This process gives you an idea, which is then tested on the web, people react, and the chain starts again. (Idea > Social + Tech > Micro > Complexity > Macro)
  • Explained how, back in the day, the web idea was actually very simple, they had stuff that needed sharing and linking and bookmarking. Plenty of experiments didn't work, this one did. His reaction: "that's pretty neat!"
  • The power of the hypertext link was that you could link it to anything. You didn't have to convert your existing content to html. You could link to any file. They did.
  • Initially, people used to get worried about following too many links. People felt they had to read *everything*!
  • Interestingly, he talked about the evolution of a note, which goes from a scribbled note, to one discussed with a colleague, to one discussed with a team, to one which is developed, to one which becomes live and receives feedback. The web supports all that.
  • Hooray to the people who inventered TCP/IP; very clean, very simple. They allowed us to invent the web and the things that will come tomorrow that haven't even been thought of since.
  • Case studies: google, wiki - all help answer the question: how can we all be smarter than just one person? Key goal of the WWW.
  • Semantic web is the next step. All the information on your computer can be categorised, tools are used to manage this data. How will data be shared and managed? The Semantic Web is just the web, but think of data instead of projects. Identify and use common terms.
  • On the Semantic Web, everything has a URI. This allows you to define what you're dealing with.
  • People are tempted to go off and find out what the customer wants, but often the most exciting and successful inventions are created by geeks trying to solve a problem all by themselves.
  • Big privacy issues arise when you try to use and categorise data about people, especially in the States.
  • Remember that there are plenty of things out there that can break things e.g. phishing, slashdotting, etc. - these will evolve as the web develops.
A couple of interesting questions came up in the Q&A. One guy asked whether he regretted imposing a royalty system, not for the money but to control people using it for evil means (specifically the Chinese!!). STBL did not regret it at all, he cited several examples where this model had failed and underlined the importance of people contributing to the project, knowing that they weren't sponsoring a corporate project. In any event, the internet and people treat censorship as a fault, and find a way around it. "I have great faith in humanity".

I've rattled on for long enough, but suffice to say that STBL has made a lasting impression on me. As was pointed out in the closing remarks, how often do you get to listen to someone who invented something that has changed the world? Even more rare to hear them talk about how it happened.

No comments: