The Future of the Web with Sir Tim Berners-Lee at Nesta, London, July 8.
My notes from the Nesta event, The Future of the Web with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, held in London on July 8, 2008.
As usual, let me know of any errors or corrections, comments are welcome, and comments in [square brackets] are mine. I wanted to get these notes up quickly so they're pretty much 'as is', and they're pretty much about the random points that interested me and aren't necessarily representative. I've written up more detailed notes from a previous talk by Tim Berners-Lee in March 2007, which go into more detail about web science.
[Update: the webcast is online at http://www.nesta.org.uk/future-of-web/ so you might as well go watch that instead.]
The event was introduced by NESTA's CEO, Jonathan Kestenbaum. Explained that online contributions from the pre-event survey, and from the (twitter) backchannel would be fed into the event. Other panel members were Andy Duncan from Channel 4 and the author Charlie Leadbeater though they weren't introduced until later.
Tim Berners-Lee's slides are at http://www.w3.org/2008/Talks/0708-ws-30min-tbl/.
So, onto the talk:
He started designing the web/mesh, and his boss 'didn't say no'.
He didn't want to build a big mega system with big requirements for protocols or standards, hierarchies. The web had to work across boundaries [slide 6?]. URIs are good.
The World Wide Web Consortium as the point where you have to jump on the bob sled and start steering before it gets out of control.
Producing standards for current ideas isn't enough; web science research is looking further out. Slide 12 – Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) – analysis and synthesis; promote research; new curriculum.
Web as blockage in sink – starts with a bone, stuff builds up around it, hair collect, slime – perfect for bugs, easy for them to get around – we are the bugs (that woke people up!). The web is a rich environment in which to exist.
Semantic web – what's interesting isn't the computers, or the documents on the computers, it's the data in the documents on the computers. Go up layers of abstraction.
Paraphrase, about the web: 'we built it, we have a duty to study it, to fix it; if it's not going to lead to the kind of society we want, then tweak it, fix it'.
'Someone out there will imagine things we can't imagine; prepare for that innovation, let that innovation happen'. Prepare for a future we can't imagine.
End of talk! Other panelists and questions followed.
Charles Leadbeater – talked about the English Civil War, recommends a book called 'The World Turned Upside Down'. The bottom of society suddenly had the opportunity to be in charge. New 'levellers' movement via the web. Participate, collaborate, (etc) without the trappings of hierarchy. 'Is this just a moment' before the corporate/government Restoration? Iterative, distributed, engaged with practice.
Need new kinds of language – dichotomies like producer/consumer are disabling. Is the web – a mix of academic, geek, rebel, hippie and peasant village cultures – a fundamentally different way of organising, will it last? Are open, collaborative working models that deliver the goals possible? Can we prevent creeping re-regulation that imposes old economics on the new web? e.g. ISPs and filesharing. Media literacy will become increasingly important. His question to TBL – what would you have done differently to prevent spam while keeping the openness of the web? [Though isn't spam more of a problem for email at the moment?]
Andy Duncan, CEO of Channel 4 – web as 'tool of humanity', ability for humans to interact. Practical challenges to be solved. £50million 4IP fund. How do we get, grow ideas and bring them to the wider public, and realise the positive potential of ideas. Battle between positive public benefit vs economic or political aspects.
The internet brings more/different perspectives, but people are less open to new ideas – they get cosy, only talk to like-minded people in communities who agree with each other. How do you get people engaged in radical and positive thinking? [This is a really good observation/question. Does it have to do with the discoverability of other views around a topic? Have we lost the serendipity of stumbling across random content?]
Open to questions. 'Terms and conditions' – all comments must have a question mark at the end of them. [I wish all lectures had this rule!]
Questions from the floor: 1. why is the semantic web taking so long; 2. 3D web; 3. kids.
TBL on semantic web – lots of exponential growth. SW is more complicated to build than HTML system. Now has standard query language (SPARQL). Didn't realise at first that needed a generic browser and linked open data. (Moving towards real world).
[This is where I started to think about the question I asked, below – cultural heritage institutions have loads of data that could be open and linked, but it's not as if institutions will just let geeks like me release it without knowing where and why and how it will be used – and fair enough, but then we need good demonstrators. The idea that the semantic web needs lots of acronyms (OWL, GRDDL, RDF, SPARQL) in place to actually happen is a perception I encounter a lot, and I wanted an answer I could pass on. If it's 'straight from the horse's mouth', then even better…]
Questions from twitter (though the guy's laptop crashed): 4. will Google own the world? What would Channel 4 do about it?; 5. is there a contradiction between [collaborative?] open platform and spam?; 6. re: education, in era of mass collaboration, what's the role of expertise in a new world order? [Ooh, excellent question for museums! But more from the point of view of them wondering what happens to their authority, especially if their collections/knowledge start to appear outside their walls.]
AD: Google 'ferociously ambitious in terms of profit', fiercely competitive. They should give more back to the UK considering how much they take out. Qu to TBL re Google, TBL did not bite but said, 'tremendous success; Google used science, clustering algorithms, looked at the web as a system'.
CL re qu 5 – the web works best through norms and social interactions, not rules. Have to be careful with assumption that can regulate behaviour -> 'norm based behaviour'. [But how does that work with anti-social individuals?]
TBL re qu 6: e.g. MIT Courseware – experts put their teaching materials on the web. Different people have different levels of expertise [but how are those experts recognised in their expert context? Technology, norms/links, a mixture?]. More choice in how you connect – doesn't have to be local. Being an expert [sounds exhausting!] – connect, learn, disseminate – huge task.
Questions from the floor: 7. ISPs as villains, what can they do about it?; 9. why can't the web be designed to use existing social groups? [I think, I was still recovering from asking a question] TBL re qu 7 and ISPs 'give me non-discriminatory access and don't sell my clickstream'. [Hoorah!]
So the middle question (Question 8) was me. It should have been something like 'if there's a tension between the top-down projects that don't work, and simple protocols like HTML that do, and if the requirements of the 'Semantic Web' are top-down (and hard), how do we get away from the idea that the semantic web is difficult to just have the semantic web?'* but it came out much more messily than that as 'the semantic web as proposed is a top-down system, but the reason the web worked was that it was simple, easy to participate, so how does that work, how do we get the semantic web?' and his response started "Who told you SW is top down?". It was a leading question so it's my fault, but the answer was worth asking a possibly stupid/leading question. His full answer [about two minutes at 20'20" minutes in on the Q&A video] was: 'Who on earth told you the semantic web was a top-down designed system? It's not. It is totally bottom-out. In fact the really magic thing about it is that it's middle-out as well. If you imagine lots of different data systems which talk different languages, it's a bit like imagine them as a quilt of those things sewn together at the edges. At the bottom level, you can design one afternoon a little data system which uses terms and particular concepts which only you use, and connect to nobody else. And then, in a very bottom-up way, start meeting more and more people who'll start to use those terms, and start negotiating with people, going to, heaven forbid, standards bodies and committees to push, to try to get other people to use those terms. You can take an existing set of terms, like the concepts when you download a bank statement, you'll find things like the financial institution and transaction and amount have pretty much been defined by the banks, you can take those and use those as semantic web terms on the net. And if you want to, you can do that at the very top level because you might decide that it's worth everybody having exactly the same URI for the concept of latitude, for the number you get out of the GPS, and you can join the W3C interest group which has gotten together people who believe in that, and you've got the URI, [people] went to a lot of trouble to make something which is global. The world works like that plug of stuff in the sink, it's a way of putting together lots and lots of different communities at different levels, only some of them, a few of them are global. The global communities are hard work to make. Lots and lots and lots of them are local, those are very easy to make. Lots of important benefits are in the middle. The semantic web is the first technology that's designed with an understanding of that's how the world is, the world is a scale-free, fractal if you like, system. And that's why it's all going to work.'
[So I was asking 'how do we get to the semantic web' in the museum sector – we can do this. Put a dataset out there, make connections to the organisation next to you (or get your users to by gathering enough anonymised data on how they link items through searching and browsing). Then make another connection, and another. We could work at the sector (national or international) level too (stable permanent global identifiers would be a good start) but start with the connections. "Small pieces loosely joined" -> "small ontologies, loosely joined". Can we make a manifesto from this?
There's also a good answer in this article, Sir Tim Talks Up Linked Open Data Movement on internetnews.com.
"He urged attendees to look over their data, take inventory of it, and decide on which of the things you'd most likely get some use out of re-using it on the Web. Decide priorities, and benefits of that data reuse, and look for existing ontologies on the Web on how to use it, he continued, referring to the term that describes a common lexicon for describing and tagging data."
Anyway, on with the show.]
[*Comment from 2015: in hindsight, my question speaks to the difficulties of getting involved in what appeared to be distant and top-down processes of ontology development, though it might not seem that distant to someone already working with W3C. And because museums are tricky, it turns out the first place to start is getting internal museum systems to talk to each other – if you can match people, places, objects and concepts across your archive, library and museum collections management systems, digital asset management system and web content management system, you're in a much better position to match terms with other systems. That said, the Linking Museums meetups I organised in London and various other museum technology forums were really helpful.]
Questions from the floor: 10. do we have enough "bosses who don't say no"?; 11. web to solve problems, social engineering [?]; 12. something on Rio meeting [didn't get it all].
TBL re 10 – he can't emulate other bosses but he tries to have very diverse teams, not clones of him/each other, committed, excited people and 'give them spare time to do things they're interested in'. So – give people spare time, and nurture the champions. They might be the people who seem a bit wacky [?] but nurture the ones who get it.
Qu 11 – conflicting demands and expectations of web. TBL – 'try not to think of it as a thing'. It's an infrastructure, connections between people, between us. So, are we asking too much of us, of humanity? Web is reflection of humanity, "don't expect too little".
TBL re qu 12 – internet governance is the Achilles heel of the web. No permission required except for domain name. A 'good way to make things happen slowly is to get a bureaucracy to govern it'. Slowness, stability. Domain names should last for centuries – persistence is a really important part of the web.
CL re qu 11 – possibilities of self-governance, we ask too little of the web. Vision of open, collaborative web capable of being used by people to solve shared problems.
JK – (NESTA) don't prescribe the outcome at the beginning, commitment to process of innovation.
Then Nesta hosted drinks, then we went to the pub and my lovely mate said "I can't believe you trolled Tim Berners-Lee". [I hope I didn't really!]