The Web Turns 20: Web Science Reveals Human Interactions, Part 4 of 4

In this fourth article of a four-part series commemorating the World Wide Web's 20th birthday, Tim Berners-Lee tells Scientific American editor Mark Fischetti that we still have a lot to learn about the Web's design, operation and impact on society


Editor's Note: The World Wide Web went live 20 years ago this month, on a single computer in Geneva, Switzerland. For the anniversary the Web's inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, has written an exclusive article for Scientific American. In it he confronts various threats that could ruin the Web, and explains why preserving the basic principles that have allowed the Web to flourish is essential to preventing its destruction.

While preparing the article, Berners-Lee also spoke to
Scientific American about emerging Web capabilities that could change how the online and physical worlds work. This four-part series covers some of the most intriguing, including the power of linked data, social machines, free bandwidth to the masses, and Web science.

Indeed, the Web is thriving—a recent cover story in
Wired magazine to the contrary notwithstanding. Scientific American editor Mark Fischetti tackles the differences between the two magazine's treatments in his blog, "The Web is (Not) Dead."

The Web is 20 years old this month. We all know how it works, what it can do and what it can't do, right? Hardly.

"The Web's remarkable progress to date has been quite gratifying to me," says Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web and first took it live in December 1990. "But the Web is by no means finished. Every bit of past and future advancement rests on two things: technological protocols and social conventions. The protocols, like HTTP and HTML, determine how computers interact. Social conventions, such as the incentive to create links or the rules of engagement on a social networking site, are about how people like to, and are allowed to, interact. We still know surprisingly little about these technical and social mechanisms."

Berners-Lee says we have only scratched the surface of what could be realized with deeper scientific investigation into the Web's design, operation and impact on society. "Robust technical design, innovative business decisions and sound public policy judgment all require that we are aware of the complex interactions between technology and society," Berners-Lee says. This awareness will come from Web science, which Berners-Lee hopes can improve "the science and engineering of this massive system for the common good."

Several years ago MIT and the University of Southampton in the U.K. created the Web Science Trust to advance Web science as a new academic discipline. The organization brings together an international advisory council of distinguished computer scientists, social scientists and legal scholars. Their goal is to create an intellectual foundation, educational atmosphere and resource base that help researchers build up a new science of the Web.

To learn about threats that could ruin the Web, and what Berners-Lee thinks should be done to prevent them, see "Long Live the Web."

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