SEPT 24 — In her retrospective lecture on the birth and explosion of the World Wide Web, Dame Wendy Hall, professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, makes one very key point.
“The hypothesis of what would become the World Wide Web could only have worked if it worked — meaning either everyone used it, or no one will, as it is only worthwhile to put content on the Web if other people are going to look at it,” she said during her guest lecture at the university’s Nusajaya Johor campus recently.
Science fiction author William Gibson famously defined ‘cyberspace’ as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation” in his 1984 book Neuromancer.
However, this consensual hallucination that now underpins a very real economy, a digitally-driven network of information, goods and services, is not without its weaknesses.
“The scary thing is that the Internet as we know it is still a baby and we have to take care of it. We created the Web, so it’s up to us as a society to look after it, to help make sure our governments or big companies not do things to it,” Hall said.
On-going issues with online social etiquette and cyber-bullying form part of the current crop of issues that can only be solved if we begin with education, Hall believes.
“Most of the public have no real understanding. Few people understand how the Internet really works and how everything is connected and amplified with real-life consequences,” she said.
According to Hall, the need for the digital population to exercise its voice is especially pertinent against the backdrop of on-going revelations and discussions sparked by the public outing of America’s National Security Agency’s clandestine surveillance activities via initiatives such as PRISM.
“The most important thing to push for now is a code of conduct for governments and big corporations that collect or already hold our data. There is a need for these entities to be open and transparent about the collection of information that they are doing,” she said.
It is a discussion that governments around the world need to be having with its citizens.
“If you are creating a system that would allow governments to conduct surveillance, then people won’t use it. Net neutrality is fundamental to the online world; you break that and you break the Web,” she said.
“The thing about the Web is that things emerge from it. It isn’t owned by any one person; you can’t build things on the Web the way you do other products. That’s not how it works — it’s an emergent platform,” she added.
Meeting the demands of a new world
In her outline of the Web’s brief history, Hall pointed to the inherent characteristics of the Internet, which is geared toward being open and free, making the initial exploration of online commerce difficult.
“It was very hard initially to sell something on the Web, because that was the nature of the beast; everyone wants to use it for free,” she said.
Hall also pointed out one of the driving reasons behind the first dotcom bust was due to the simple fact that people were trying to “sell to a market that didn’t yet exist.”
Hall’s more recent work has been focused on the ‘Semantic Web,’ a collaborative movement led by the international standards body, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The term was coined by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.
The standard promotes common data formats on the World Wide Web. By encouraging the inclusion of semantic content in web pages, the Semantic Web aims to converting the current Web, dominated by unstructured and semi-structured documents, into a “web of data.”
Until now, the vision of the movement has not been fully realised; however Hall noted that the topic is gaining more interest and being revisited.
“We’re now in the proof and trust stage,” she said.
Alongside her research into applications of the Semantic Web, Hall is also exploring the interface between the life sciences and the physical sciences, more prominently in the promotion of the Web Science discipline.
Web Science is the socio-technical science that investigates how the World Wide Web evolves given the regulations, technology and content imposed, engineered and contributed, respectively, as an effect of human behaviour and vice versa.
“It is quite risky and radical as an idea and for our postgraduate courses we take students from almost any discipline,” said Hall, adding that there were 50 doctoral students in this year’s intake.
“You’re studying something that is changing in real time and it is a much more diverse class than your usual computer science course. The clashes are quite friendly and the hardest thing is learning each other’s vocabulary. For example, the word ‘ontology’ is just part of the vocabulary in computer science, but in philosophy, it’s a world,” she added.
Hall said that plans are underway to introduce an undergraduate Web Science course at the University of Southampton and added that the approach could be summed up as the theory and practice of ‘social machines.’
She said that one of the things on her wish list was realised with the birth of the global information network, and something that she has devoted much of her academic career to.
“I feel hugely privileged to have live to see it and study it,” she added.
When asked what else was on her list, Hall listed teleportation and fully immersive and realistic holograms.
“I’d love to be able to teleport! I think I will never be the first one to do it though, as it would be a bit scary. What I’d really like to see is advanced telepresence in the form of holograms but I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime,” she said.
However one technology that she predicts will see faster than average mainstream adoption is 3D printing.
“It’ll be quite quick as the money is there and the technology has been sitting around in research labs for ages,” she said. — Digital News Asia