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Weaving The Web 69

Posted by JonKatz
from the how-the-web-was-born dept.
In his new book, "Weaving the Web," Tim Berners-Lee describes how he created the WWW and his vision and hope for it. Any declarations from this brilliant and selfless man are important and worth paying attention to, but brace yourself: the writing style is somewhere between low-key and comatose, the vision noble but almost hopelessly naive.
Weaving The Web
author Tim Berners-Lee
pages 225
publisher Harper San Francisco, US $26
rating 6/10
reviewer Jon Katz
ISBN
summary How the Web Was Weaved; Where the Web Should Go

Tim Berners-Lee seems to be as nice as he is brilliant, which almost makes one fear for him and the future of his amazing creation, the World Wide Web.

It also makes for a curiously out-of-focus book. It's hard to overstate the importance of his invention; but his own version of the experience is about as exciting as a Pop-Tart. Berners-Lee was one of Time magazine's selections as the 100 greatest minds of the Twentieth Century. This is almost surely true, but doesn't necessarily translate into white-knuckle story-telling.

"Hope in life comes from the interconnections among all the people in the world," he writes near the conclusion of "Weaving The Web," (cowritten by Mark Fischetti, published by Harper San Francisco, $US 26).

"We believe that if we all work for what we think individually is good, then we as a whole will achieve more power, more understanding, more harmony as we continue the journey. We don't find the individual being subjugated by the whole. We don't find the needs of the whole being subjugated by the increasing power of an individual. But we might see more understanding in the struggles between these extremes?"

Then again, we might not. Genius programmers tend to be inward-looking, understandably, and Berners-Lee appears either not to hear or not to want to pay much attention to the frenzied pace of Web development and change. He's much too reflective.

Should we then feel that we're getting smarter as we evolve, he muses? Not really. "Just better connected - connected into a better shape. The experience of seeing the Web take off by the grassroots effort of thousands gives me tremendous hope that if we have the individual will, we can collectively make of our world what we want."

Any declaration by Berners-Lee is an important one, given who he is and what he's done. But it's a good thing he's occupying the 3Com Founders chair at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, where perhaps he can work and think, safe from the rapacious Great Whites circling his creation.

As most Slashdot readers know, Berners-Lee is the Oxford-educated physicist who patched together the software that became the World Wide Web while working at the CERN physics lab (the name CERN comes from the name of the International council, the Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire, which created the lab) outside Geneva.

In the tradition of the brilliant architects of the modern Internet and WWW - Vint Cerf, Jonathan Postel, Linus Torvald - Berners-Lee chose not to make billions from his ideas, but to use his prodigious gifts instead to keep the culture as free and accessible as possible.

For the past five years, he has served as director of the World Wide Web Consortium, whose goal is to ensure that the fundamental software for identifying and sharing information on the Web remains a public, widely accessible standard. This is a monumental political notion, one little appreciated in the offline world, where the very idea of distributing information freely seems traumatizing.

If the Consortium succeeds, there will be something approaching universal access to the Web. If it doesn't, the Web will go the way of mainstream media and become corporatized, privatized, fragmented and soul-less. And some people - but not its inventor - will profit even more from it than they already do.

Berners-Lee is puzzled by the insistence of so many U.S. interviewers on asking about his failure to cash in on the Web. He made eBay, eTrade and Amazon possible, but hasn't made a nickel from them himself.

His failure to grasp the elemental reality of American capitalism permeates this book. "What is maddening," he writes is the "terrible notion that a person's value depends on how important and financially successful they are, and that that is measured in terms of money." No American would wonder at this idea, which is not only terrible but at the heart of American life.

It's also critical to "Weaving the Web," which divides into two parts. The first tells the story of how the author embraced hyptertext and invented the Web in the face of widespread apathy and indifference from his colleagues. This makes for interesting but already widely reported history -- in Web-time, almost ancient. Then there is Berners-Lee's style, which is somewhere between low-key and comatose.

Describing widespread collegial resistance to his ideas at a pivotal moment, he writes: "Some people were intrigued, but many never accepted my argument. Rather than enter into useless debate, I simply forged ahead with HTML and showed the Web as much as possible."

He relates how in l991 he released his "World Wide Web" program to a limited number of CERN researchers. "Word spread within the high-energy physics community," he recalls,"furthered by the cross-pollinating to travel." The Web was born. This is actually the dramatic high point in the book.

The second part of "Weaving The Web" describes how the Web might be kept open despite all the mounting pressures to seal off chunks of it, which is the true drama facing the Web.

Berners-Lee's creation is no longer the exclusive playground of brilliant and creative hackers, nerds, geeks and academics; the big boys are massing at the gate. Entertainment and retailing are the Web's two biggest functions these days, along with e-trading. Increasingly, the ethos behind the Web isn't connectivity but greed.

Berners-Lee seems to float above this harsh, increasingly Darwinian reality. His dream is to have the Web become a much more powerful means of collaboration between people - a place where users come not only to browse but to create - and have those collaborations extend to computers. "Machines become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web - the content, links, and transactions between people and computers."

Both parts of Berners-Lee's dream are admirable, if not exactly stirring, but they're oddly disconnected from the ferocious practicalities of Web design, economics and competition. They're also written in so flat, technical and inaccessible a way that the non-geek hasn't got a prayer, a lost opportunity from an author sure to be remembered as a seminal technological figure of the century.

One of the Internet's great ironies is that it's grown so dramatically and remained so free primarily because none of the most powerful institutions in American life - government, journalism, business - paid it much attention in the first decades of its existence. It exploded before Congress, regulatory agencies, corporations, lawyers or the mass media had a chance to curb, control, exploit or acquire it.

That is, sadly, no longer the case. The predators are paying a lot of attention. Government regulators and law enforcement authorities are drooling over the Net and Web as unclaimed bureaucratic turf. Powerful institutions like law, medicine and education are frantic about the open sourcing of information - the sometimes involuntary use, re-use and sharing of information once closely held and copyright.

And business has now grasped that the techno-economy - in a few years, economists estimate the Net will be a trillion dollar economy in its own right - isn't winding down but just cranking up. The Web has become, for all these parties, too important to ignore.

Not surprisingly, Berners-Lee argues for the continued universality of the Web across the spectrum of human invention. People and organizations may have different motivations for putting things on the Web, but "for information to be universal, it can't discriminate between these. The Web must include information that is free, very expensive, and every level in between. It must allow all the different interest groups to put together all manner of pricing and licensing and incentive systems and always, of course, allow the user to just say no."

We need this kind of univerality, Berners-Lee argues, because that's how people operate in the real world. If the Web is to represent and support the "web of life" off-line, it has to cross all kinds of social, cultural and geographic boundaries.

A good argument, and well made. But what does it really mean?

The problem for the reader is that it's hard to find anybody arguing that the Web shouldn't be open - including the people trying to cordon it off and suck it dry. The problem with the way this book is written is that it ensures that mostly, Berners-Lee will end up preaching to the converted. He fantasizes about where the Web ought to go, but don't look for any useful guidance in how to actually get there.

The Web's next major stage, he writes, has enormous promise to radically increase the creative productivity of groups, corporations, society, depending on the evolution of new technical standards that the Web consortium is developing.

If the Web's first stage was about addressing and presenting documents, the next --- based on XML (extensible mark-up language) and RDF (resource description framework) -- may allow the Web to become more intuitive, intelligent and logical. The benefits are obvious, Berners-Lee says, the dangers a "Balkanization of the Web."

If companies, for example, insist on creating their own XML tags that aren't universally readable, the Web would no longer be an open medium for sharing information.

How would Berners-Lee prevent this from happening? How can anyone?

His simplistic response: support the Web Consortium in its fight as guardian of the Web.

As its creator, Berners-Lee is already one of the century's most influential scientists. But reading "Weaving the Web," one senses that his scientific skills are way ahead of his political and cultural instincts.

Fair enough. Supporting the Web Consortium is a worthy idea; it's hard to believe all but a handful of those reading this review on Slashdot would disagree.

But Berners-Lee is almost naïve in interpreting the political, cultural and economic context in which the battle for an open Web will will take place, and how profoundly different that environment is from the one facing the Internet's architects when they were designing domain names and protocols a generation ago.

He underestimates the rapacious power of American capitalism, especially the new media variety. The Information Age has spawned a whole new breed of corporate monsters - CBS Viacom, Time Warner, Microsoft, the Sun-Netscape Alliance, AOL, the computer companies, the telcoms - whose very existence depends on controlling chunks of the new digitally-sparked economy, sealing territory off and charging for access to information and services.

None of these billion-dollar powerhouses are likely to fall quietly in behind the Web Consortium because it's the right thing to do. Armed with lawyers, capital, and lobbyists who are influential in shaping policies in Washington, they're moving towards the Net with a fury.

They're not likely to encounter much in the way of organized resistance. Most Americans on the Web are amusing themselves with games and movie sites, e-trading or shopping. The computing professionals at the core of Web design and commerce take their freedom online for granted; they've never experienced any other reality.

In the United States, corporations have only one ideology: make the most money at all times in the most expedient way. There's no room in their management philosophies for ceding money to equalizing fantasies about the Web. If the Web is to remain as open and universally accessible as Berners-Lee and millions of others would like, there is only one way that's going to happen - head for the trenches and join in one of the bloodier brawls in the history of capitalism.

Because the Web is so individualistic a medium, with the technology surrounding it evolving so rapidly, it's difficult to imagine it being ovewhelmed by even these behemoths in the same way they've gobble up much of the rest of American culture and journalism. But it's not nearly as impossible as sometimes arrogant and spoiled nerds and geeks like to think.

Apart from the dangers of corporatism, the American political culture is one of the more primitive in the West. In Scandanavia countries have worked feverishly to wire up their governments, schools and residents. Not here. Presidential candidates like Elizabeth Dole have made restricted access to the Internet the centerpieces of their campaigns. Even techno-political opportunists like Clinton and Gore spend more time talking about V-Chips than Net access for kids. The primary response of the U.S. Congress to the emergence of the Net and the Web has been to pass not one but two laws restricting freedom of speech online. Blocking and filtering technologies have proliferated.

This week, in fact, a German policy research group teamed up with a U.S. scholar of the First Amendment to urge the creation of an international rating and filtering system for the Internet, a step towards the irrational and censorious rating systems that already presume to make movies and TV shows "safe" for children. The proposal generated substantial media attention and approval in the United States.

Overall, the response to the Web's growth hasn't been a movement to ensure universal access to digital technology, but a campaign to regulate, curb and privatize the net and the Web.

Despite all the hype about the government's efforts to rein in Microsoft's aggressively monopolistic business practices, few analysts believe the federal government is really a match for gargantuan Microsoft, or can actually curb its power.

If Berners-Lee has identified the right issue - keeping the Web open and free -- "Weaving the Web" stumbles badly in offering concrete solutions. An open Web won't depend on standards and protocols nearly as much as on politics and power. The epic political struggle of the 21 st Century looks to be about individualism versus corporatism, and the Net and the Web will be prominent battlegrounds.

Berners-Lee is heroic in his creativity and selflessness, but unless you want to fling "Weaving The Web" at the charging legions of the Sun-Netscape Alliance, his literary venture isn't as useful or inspiring as the author or his great creation.

Purchase this book at Amazon.

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Weaving The Web

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