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November 4, 2006

Berners-Lee Warns on Internet Development

Tim Berners-Lee, acknowledged inventor of the Internet, is concerned that "bad things" could happen if the development of the web is left unchecked.  Sir Tim (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth some time back) has concerns about the impact of the Internet on social experience.  Undemocratic elements and misinformation could arise if the web is not understood better by the people who use it.  This is why he proposes a "web science" discipline that studies social and technological implications of Internet development.  In fact, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the UK University of Southampton will begin collaborating on such an initiative.

Comments in the interview Berners-Lee gave to the BBC suggest that a broader group of people understand the social impact of the web to prevent a few from manipulating  it for negative purposes.  Comments he makes bear this out:

"We're hearing complaints from companies when they need people that really understand the medium from both the technological and social side."

"So we'd like to put it on the curriculum so that there are a lot more people who understand this."

This isn't exactly so startling.  The market has taken the web and thought of new ways to deliver commercial services such as email on cellphones, music on portable devices, wireless capabilities and others.  But ubiquitous services also bring in new criminal or morally questionable intrusions such as identity theft, virus attacks, pornography, stalking, and (I'm talking to all the Mark Foleys out there) inappropriate contacts with minors. 

Given all the flaws in Windows and Internet Explorer that Microsoft has to patch, one wonders if Microsoft was a bit naive when the architecture for Windows embracing the Internet was designed.  Active X controls were looked at as ways of making advanced web programming easier for developers to deliver cool new services for then and for the future.  Did anyone stop to ask what would happen if someone designed a malevolent control?  In fairness, other manufacturers and other operating systems have to be on guard for the same issues via their own protocols and scripts.  The idea of studying the web as a social structure as much as a technical one may help developers anticipate bad stuff before the fact.

A good starting point for some of the literature that has developed is in SSRN.  A search for the terms Internet and social bring up 202 hits.  Another search for Internet and cultural brings up 52 hits. 

Here's one example of the results:

Understanding the Impact of Global Networks on Local Social, Political and Cultural Values 

Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods
University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs

LAW AND ECONOMICS OF INTERNATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS, Christoph Engel/Kenneth H. Keller (eds.), Baden-Baden (Nomos), Vol. 42 [of book series], 2000

Opportunities and risks are twins. There are few to deny the opportunities of global networks in general and of the Internet in particular. But many fear for the concomitant risks, or what they perceive as a risk. Racist speech, pornography and personality profiling rank highest in public awareness. Some concerns are quasi universal, like child pornography. But for others there are at least differences of degree. Following its history, Germany has tabooed right wing publications. And Americans, in their majority, feel hurt by nudity, which most Germans find quite inoffensive. Such examples lure into a simplistic opposition: global values threaten local values. The reality of global networks, and of their interrelation with local values, is much more complex. This volume explores different paths for understanding global networks, local values, and their reciprocal impact. It stretches from social philosophy to technology forecasting, from cultural theory to law, from systems theory to economic history, from sociology to external relations studies, from economics to political sciences.

The volume collects the following papers: W. Kersting, Global Networks and Local Values -- D. Farber, Predicting the Unpredictable - Technology and Society -- P. David, The Internet and the Economics of Network Technology Evolution -- M. Hutter, The Commercialization of the Internet -- D. Baecker, Networking the Web -- M. Thompson, Global Networks and Local Cultures: What are the Mismatches? -- K. Keniston, Cultural Diversity or Global Monoculture -- M. Kahler, Information Networks and Global Politics -- R. Werle, The Impact of Information Networks on the Structure of Political Systems -- S. Sassen, The Impact of the Internet on Sovereignty -- C. Engel, The Internet and the Nation State -- L. Muller, Discussion Report

There are other results that are as relevant.  The BBC story with more Berners-Lee comments is here.

November 4, 2006 | Permalink


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While trying to assess the future of internet, I was reading a survey made in 2005 about where the internet will go in the next 10 years. To read this, you can find in the following blog posting.


Posted by: Ragu Sivanmalai | Nov 5, 2006 2:39:41 AM

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