Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Weaving The Web

Tech 198
Technology and Civilization
Inst: Jack Mc Keller

Book Report: Weaving The Web
Authored By Tim Berners-Lee

Imagine a world where people can access, create and share information and ideas with anyone in the world regardless of geographical, political and social boundaries. While scholars and journalists may cite many individuals who contributed in the creation of the Internet as a mans to communicate these ideas and information, Tim Berners-Lee is the single individual who has brought the means where people can create and share information in the world. With his creation of the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee elevated the Internet from an academic network requiring computer knowledge and technical skills for accessing this information to a global communications media which anyone can access any type of information anytime on the Internet. Now Tim Berners-Lee tells his own story on the creation of the World Wide Web in Weaving the Web: The Ultimate Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web.

Tim Berners-Lee begins his story saying he was the son of mathematicians. His parents were part of a team that programmed the world’s first stored-program computer, the Manchester University “Mark I” in the early 1950s. He then explains that while computer are good at logical organizing and processing information, computer could not randomly associate different bits of data and link them. Computers are not intuitive. Berners-Lee Graduated from Oxford University in 1976 with a degree in physics and then became a consultant at the European Particles Physics Laboratory or CERN in Geneva, 1980. It was at CERN that Berners-Lee would tinker with the challenge of having computers randomly associate different bits of data. His first attempt at tinkering with this idea was when he compiled CERN’s phone directory into a database he created which he named Enquire. Enquire could link people, phone numbers and files on a single terminal, but the program could not work on a network. This was the start. In March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for developing an information network. This network would be set up as a large hypertext database, which would allow individuals to click on a particular word in a document and be able to access other documents through an internal link. This database would allow some degree of automatic analysis. A person who accessed a document on a computer could click on a word or phrase in that particular document and access a completely new document. Berners-Lee called this new database the World Wide Web.

The rest of Berners-Lee’s account describes the development of the Web from its proposed concept to the finished global computer network. However, there are two key points in the development of the Web. First, Berners-Lee decided to use the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) as the basic programming language for the web. He felt that HTML could be easily understood by any computer system—UNIX, Macs, PCs. This common programming language would be an excellent cross platform language between computer systems and also a common language between different software programs that would constitute the documents to be accessed to the web. However, what Berners-Lee did not expect was the human readability of the HTML source code, which allowed ordinary users to write their own HTML documents and provide their own information on the Web. The second key point to the development of the web was Berners-Lee’s decision to open the source code for the Web browser and server without any charges or royalties. By opening the source code, Berners-Lee allowed programmers to test the programs and develop improvements for the Web that could include the use of sound or graphics in browsers. In addition, open source code for the Web server programs would bring business and industry’s interest in the Web primarily in the interest of using the Web as an advertising medium, then later on in developing electronic commerce. Finally since the programs were free to use, people would test the Web, then give their own opinions on the Web to others through word of mouth, fueling a growth in Web interest and use over a long-term period. Both of these steps would allow for open access and contribute to the explosive growth of the Web as a communications medium on the Internet.

Tim Berners-Lee’s book is a fascinating study on how the Web was developed. He explains the theoretical concepts of how computers originally think in a hierarchical way of identifying one piece of data, then logically processing this data in a vertical stream moving up or down to generate new data, whereas in the Web, computers must attempt to link two different bits of data horizontally in a stream and the difficulties of trying to make a computer think intuitively. He claims this single concept was his single dream—an idea that stayed with him after he found his father working on a speech of that same subject for the Basil de Ferranti when Berners-Lee was in high school. It was this idea that drove him to create the Web.

But the book is more than just a story on the creation of the World Wide Web. The book shows some of Tim Berners-Lee’s personal views of the Web and its future. One view that he continues to reiterate throughout the book is decision not to charge any fees or royalties for his creation. In one respect, Berners-Lee could be considered as a realist. He feels that the Web as a free and open medium where all people could communicate their ideas. However, he also believes that the Web can be a place where information may be sold for a commercial gain. Both are important for the Web’s success. He has taken a middle road between extremes of academics who feel the Internet should be a free network for their own academic use while criticizing the commercial pollution of the web, and the other extreme of the businessmen who can only value the Internet as a means to gain profit. A second concern that Berners-Lee has considered has been the use of censorship on the Web. Censorship became a sobering concern as the Web became a popular place for the posting of pornographic material and the public’s concern that this material could be accessed by children. Berners-Lee feels that industry should provide a solution through software technology that would allow the parents to limit access of pornographic material on the web to children. In fact, he states that the World Wide Web Consoritorium--which develops general standards for the World Wide Web—defined programming languages for writing rating schemes on the Web called Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). PICS have allowed companies to develop software programs such as Net Nanny for parents to control the Internet content their children may see. One final issue, which Tim Berners-Lee takes a stand on, is privacy. While he feels that the Web should be an open forum for the communication of ideas, the web should also be a place where the individual should have the choice in giving away personal information. He feels that one major problem with current Internet browsers is that web servers can collect whatever personal information from a browser and use that information without an individual’s choice. Berners-Lee would like to see Internet browsers negotiate different privacy policies with Web servers and claims that the Web Consoritorium is working on creating such standards. He is also for public encryption technology on the web as a means for transmitting sensitive information such as credit card numbers for the purchase of products over the web. He also would like to see this encryption technology in the hands of private individuals where the individuals can make the choice of sending information over the Web which is encrypted, however Berners-Lee understands that governments fear a loss of control with the private individual’s use of encryption technology. He states that the United States still classifies cryptography software as a “munitions” and bans such software for export.

Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of the World Wide Web has brought about a profound change in how people communicate over the Internet. It is a story where Berners-Lee asked a simple question of how to make computers think intuitively while at the same time revolutionized the Internet by elevating it to a level where anyone can communicate information and ideas. It is a worldwide view of how people can communicate with each other.

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