Weaving the Web: A book review by Bob Morris

Weaving the WebWeaving the Web: the Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web
Tim Berners-Lee
HarperSanFrancisco (1999)

How and why, “if we have the individual will, we can collectively make of our world what we want.”

I read this book when it was first published (in 1999) because I was curious to learn more about the World Wide Web (Web) from its inventor. Recently, I re-read it while preparing for several interviews and was surprised to learn that, if anything, Tim Berners-Lee’s core concepts are even more relevant now than they were almost 15 years ago. Of special interest to me is this passage early in Chapter 1: “The vision I have for the Web is about anything being potentially connected with anything. It is a vision that provides us with new freedom, and allows us to grow faster than we ever could when we were fettered by the hierarchical classification systems into which we bound ourselves. It leaves the entirety of our previous ways of working as just one tool among many. It leaves our previous fears for the future as one set among many. And it brings the workings of society closer to the workings of our minds…Inventing the World Wide Web involved my growing realization that there was a power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained, weblike way. And that awareness came to me through precisely that kind of process…through the swirling together of influences, influences, and realizations from many sides.” These comments suggest precisely the process of integrative thinking that Roger Martin discusses in The Opposable Mind (2007).

I was especially interested in Berners-Lee’s concerns about the Web in 1999. For example, the challenges faced by contract programmers to understand the human and computer systems; electronic incompatibility between and among computers and their operating systems; documentation storage systems; universal adoption of hypertext; servers of sufficient speed and flexibility; governance issues; ownership issues; ease of access to sources; adoption of the universal resource identifier (URL); adoption of simpler language, XML, to supercede SGML; national and international legal issues (e.g. intellectual property); ethical standards and business issues; creation of “social machines”; and development and dissemination of metadata. Many — but not all — of those issues have since been resolved.

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which several merchants offer slkices of fresh fruit as samples. In that spirit, I share three excerpts from Berners-Lee’s narrative:

“In an extreme view, the world can be seen only as connections, nothing else. We think of a dictionary as the repository of meaning, but it defines words only in terms of other words. I liked the idea that that a piece of information is defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related, There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. There are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected.” (Page 12)

“To build understanding, we need to be able to link terms. This will be made possible by [begin italics] inference languages [end italics], which work one level above the schema languages. Inference languages allow computers to explain to each other that two terms that may seem different are in some way the same — a little like an English-French dictionary. Inference languages will allow computers to convert data from one format to another.” (Page 185)

Concluding paragraph:

“Should we then feel that we are getting smarter and smarter, more and more in control of nature, as we evolve? No really. Just better connected — connected into better shape. The experience of seeing the Web take off by the grassroots effort of thousands gives me tremendous hope that if we have the individual will, we can collectively make of our world what we want.” (Page 209)

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For those who are curious, Amazon provides this information: “Sir Timothy John “Tim” Berners-Lee, OM, KBE, FRS, FREng, FRSA (born 8 June 1955), also known as “TimBL,” is a British computer scientist, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. He made a proposal for an information management system in March 1989, and he implemented the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the Internet sometime around mid November. Berners-Lee is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which oversees the Web’s continued development. He is also the founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, and is a senior researcher and holder of the Founders Chair at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). He is a director of the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI), and a member of the advisory board of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.”

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