Cerebral Fodder

June 2003


Whither the Web—Or will it wither?

by Jayant Deshpande

To continue with my online thoughts 'about the web':

At some point anyone who starts his own website, for whatever noble or altruistic reason, will ask: How does one make money in cyberspace?

It doesn't take an intelligent person long to learn the ropes that make up the Web. And in any case the smart tools designed by whiz kids do most of the work anyway. All you need is a good idea and a command of the protocols available to design, present and disseminate. Not a tall order most of the time. But since there are countless masters of the game vying for the same attention, there is stiff competition, at least for your time if not money. So that is the real challenge—get the attention, then try to attract with further goodies that people want, and may even pay for. Yet the challenge doesn't end there. A great player must be in the vanguard of web design, for which he needs innovative tools. Is he man enough, or bright enough, to invent new tools? But one has to look further still: what about the protocols and software needed to make new patterns and codes go? Can he do that too?

But the question to ask is this one: Can the Web as a whole do more for everybody?

Tim Berners-Lee*, the inventor of the World Wide Web, thinks so. He speaks of the "Semantic Web":

"The Semantic Web is a web of data, in some ways like a global database, which responds to human needs and queries in real time, as people log on the web and go about their business, expecting related or relevant information to be presented to them as they need it........the Web that I have tried to foster is, not merely a vein of information to be mined, nor is it just a reference or research tool. Computers were good at logical organizing and processing, but not random associations. A computer typically keeps information in rigid hierarchies and matrices, whereas the human mind has the special ability to link random bits of data. When I smell coffee, strong and stale, I may find myself again in a small room over a corner coffeehouse in Oxford. My brain makes a link, and instantly transports me there.

Not too long ago a universal HumanMarkup Language (HumanML) was being developed by a web standards group that will allow software engineers to write abstract, non-verbal human communications in computer code. This will give computer users the power to communicate their emotions and gestures to other computer users over the internet, regardless of their native tongue or culture. Perhaps that aroma of coffee and its myriad associations can be made to waft over the web to your friend half way around the world!

"The goal of the semantic web is to express real life. Many things in real life, real questions which we will face, are not efficiently computable......The Web was designed as an information space, with the goal that it should be useful not only for human-human communication, but also that machines would be able to participate and help. One of the major obstacles to this has been the fact that most information on the Web is designed for human consumption, and so the structure of the data is not evident to a robot browsing the web. "

So you see, the web is an intricate organism, an increasingly complex puzzle, where growth and ingenuity go together, seemingly without end. Yet many aspects become ubiquitous sooner or later and the field gets levelled—secrets are unravelled, bluffs are called.

The final question that nags all Net-comers: how does one get the upper hand long enough to make money, if that indeed be your goal? The medium is so prevalent and democratic that it works better not as a money-maker but as as a leveller—through information and rapid commmunication—that has all the potential to civilize us as never before.

The web should be thought of—and used—as a social tool, not merely as a hi-tech toy. Also as a creative tool and an agent for change.

The rule of law and decency that everyone wants may yet become a dream realized. No pockets of privilege secured by power and perks. No clandestine operations to scuttle the public interest. And most important, no unsanctioned control over people's lives. All this is surely an asset superior to money because it renders money, with its stink of power and control, impotent. We will simply need less and less of it as we regulate on our own the processes and meaning of wealth creation. The web could really become a panacea, a utopia if used in the right spirit, the way we use—and have assimilated—older technologies, some of which like the library, letter or telephone have been largely subsumed by this new mode of communication. Used in the wrong spirit, it may end up being dystopic, as the recent phenomenon of personal blogging, or keeping a diary online, warns us. Having limitless possibilities also implies that some may go terribly awry. But nothing can truly diminish the immense power of the Web to transform our lives for the good. What is 'good', of course, is open to debate.


* Tim Berners-Lee is currently the director of the World Wide Web Consortium, the coordinating body for Web development, and he occupies the 3Com Founders chair at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Excerpts have been taken from his website and from his book Weaving the Web.

see also

The Web and Whitehead

Cyber Musings