Thursday, February 7, 2013

Web Weavers of the Future

I attended the lecture given by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, developer of the World Wide Web held at Melbourne University on 4th February 2013.

The lecture was titled ‘Web Weavers of the Future’ and was sponsored by, amongst others, iiNet and the Australian Computer Society.

To begin with Sir Berners-Lee spoke about the impact of existing systems on social structures and industries. In particular he spoke about journalism and how it is designed to provide filtered and yet accurate information about events and issues and that it is like a valve between society and events as it both effects and affects how we live. He sought to consider its core functions (sifting data and communicating information) and noted that in conceptualising core functions in any area one is well placed to then consider how structures and systems shape or direct the achievement of those functions. He noted that a present, with respect to journalism, the internet has undermined the ability of newspapers to sustain themselves and yet he stated that he is repeatedly told by people that the cacophony of information on the internet is too difficult to manage. So essentially there appears some work yet to be done to change the way newspapers are offered to consumers on the web.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee then went on to consider the decentralised nature of the internet and the impact of centralised systems such as Facebook. He suggested that the popularity of Facebook, and indeed other social networking software in other countries, was in effect a bottling up of the internet that taken to its extreme could impact on the availability or appreciation of the wider internet. He commented on the false positives that are emphasised by having a ‘like’ button but not a ‘dislike’ button and how the architecture itself did not facilitate true or all communication equally. Sir Tim Berners-Lee further noted the high quality content that users give to social networking sites in terms of their personal details, their day to day activities, their personal connections, photographs etc. and sought to acknowledge how these networks were placed in terms of their control over our lives and with respect to the level of detailed information they retain about us. What to us is a simple social connection, to them is a wealth of information that can be exploited in ways that we may not yet understand.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee then went on to speak about open education and in particular open access to academic journals. He suggested that the university systems was wrong in the way it ranked or rewarded publications, expressing a need and desire for universities to reward academics for publishing in journals that had open access. He characterised academic articles as in effect being Government data and as such should be as widely available as possible. Sir Tim Berners-Lee expects that the majority of journals will be open access soon and the bulk of new articles will be made available for free with back catalogues being released in due course. 

As an aside to the discussion about open access to journals Sir Tim Berners-Lee spoke in detail about Aaron Shwartz, a young ICT student in America that sought to access JSTOR and download as many of their journals as he could. He noted that as a student Aaron was legally able to access the articles, that he had only liberated or republished the articles that were already in the public domain and how the nature of the research that he was seeking to do, on metatags, genuinely required access to a large database of articles. Aaron was charged with a felony offence based on the law in the United States that specifies that any breach of the terms of service with an internet provider, in this case his university, was to be classified as cybercrime. Sir Tim Berners-Lee noted that there is a clear distinction between cybercrime and activism and that in this case the law was clearly wrong for not setting a clear enough distinction between the two. Aaron committed suicide rather than face the some 20-30 year jail term that would have resulted from a trial. He stated that this was a tragic loss and a sad reflection on the law and the politicians that passed it and the impetus for a new momentum for open access to journals.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee then went on to speak more generally about how it was unacceptable for Governments of today not to understand or to act as though they do not understand the internet. He noted that there are many well qualified people that can be consulted in the drafting of laws, that the social interest is paramount and that politicians themselves need to be using this technology as part of their own function in society.

Indeed society as a whole is yet to experience the true potential of the internet in many ways. One in particular that Sir Tim Berners-Lee referred to is the real time sharing of scientific data and the running of complex and large experiments.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee spoke empathically about the broader political effect that can and will take place using the internet. He said we can change the world with software.

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