Berners-Lee: We no longer fully understand the web

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Do we understand twitter?  Do we even understand the Web?  The answers come so easily but do we really?  I don't think so.  I have my own long list of what I do not know and do not understand and just about everything you can imagine is on the list.  I know very few things well enough to claim I understand them.  Web is too big to be defined adequately except as a snapshot in time.  It is hardly my topic of interest to dig further but this interview touches the surface.

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World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee wants to put the web under the microscope to investigate how it changes our behaviour. Paul Marks asked him what he hopes to achieve

Why did you decide to subject the web itself to scientific scrutiny?

Web science is already happening. People are studying the effect of the web within disciplines like social science, economics, psychology and law. OurWeb Science Research Initiative aims to bring that research together. There are converging web-related issues cropping up, like privacy and security, that we currently have no way of thinking about. Nobody has thought to look at how people and the web combine as a whole – until now.

What do you hope to achieve with the Web Science Research Initiative?

The web is now a massive system of connected people and technology and we have to study it as one. It connects people as they make and follow hyperlinks to a degree that results in complex properties no one expected. It has something like 1011 web pages in it and there are a similar number of neurons in the brain. The brain is something very complicated we don't understand – yet we rely on it. The web is very complicated too and, though we built it, we have no real data about the stability of the emergent systems that have cropped up on it.

How does understanding these emergent systems affect society?

Because if you get it right, you can create a new social phenomenon that changes how people operate. Take designing an online market for second-hand goods: if you get the website's balance of social and technical wrong, or mess up its trust and reputation model, it won't work. But if you get it right, you create a market for used goods internationally that can affect the price of products around the world because it provides the price of the second-hand alternative. It is a web phenomenon that changed the way society works, and we need a science to understand it.

Isn't this better studied in the well-established field of computer-human interaction?

Some in that field are addressing some of these issues, but it is not just about the way information is presented through an interface. Web science is seeking a broad, systems-level view. We need cross-fertilisation between different disciplines.

Will web science improve online security?

There are no one-word answers to security. Security permeates everything, so there are possible attacks on everything. Some security problems are related to complex systems in social networks. For instance, phishing is about an inadequate connection to human trust, making people think they are talking to a bank when it just looks like the bank.

Will it help people trust websites?

In some ways, yes, but that's a bit like asking a cognitive scientist if they can cure warts. Early on there was no encryption but we now have cryptographic protocols to secure communications over the internet. Phishing was an attack few people expected and we are now much better at defending against it with browser bars that warn of certificate errors. Web science will help on issues like security by identifying microscopic problems and linking them to the macroscopic ones.

Your invention has allowed anonymous whistleblowing sites likeWikileaks to spring up. Will web science help maintain the anonymity of those who take a stand?

Well, whistleblowing is an example of the web's collective intelligence and web science needs to study it. But it is very difficult to make a foolproof anonymiser. Frankly, it's a bit hairy to be in that game. Anonymised data about people is deceptive and is rather dangerous because the more datasets you can compare one set of data with, the more likely you are to be able to identify the people in it.

Profile

Tim Berners-Lee read physics at the University of Oxford. In 1989 at CERN, the particle physics lab in Switzerland, he proposed a global hypertext project which became the World Wide Web. He is a co-director of the Web Science Research Initiative, a joint venture with headquarters at the University of Southampton and MIT (www.webscience.org)

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