Weaving the Web (Book Review) [about ten years later] by jgn on Tuesday, March 18, 2008 in Reading and Reviews

Tim Berners-Lee (with Mark Fischetti), Weaving the Web (1999). [Amazon Ir?t=jgn09 20&l=ur2&o=1]

We are coming up on the 10th anniversary of the publication of Tim Berners-Lee's Weaving the Web, so it seems appropriate to reflect on it about ten years later. Re-reading it now, it is striking how utopian it is. Berners-Lee ended the book on an incredibly hopeful note, talking about how the Web models the real-life web of human relationships, and there is a lot of stuff about how the Web will be about everything, and will be the vehicle for human/computer augmentation. It may be hard for you to remember it, if you read the book when it came out, but it finishes with reflections on faith, as Berners-Lee talks about his personal discovery of Unitarian Universalism which in his view "match[ed . . .] the objective I had I in creating the Web" (207). He saw Unitarianism and his practices for the Web allowing for "decentralized systems to develop" emphasizing the value of individuals and the common good (208).

I wonder what Berners-Lee thinks now? In the last chapters of Weaving the Web, we hear of many technologies sponsored by the W3C that, while they are everywhere, have hardly become dominant. Most images on the web are still GIF or JPG (not PNG), SVG is not available on all browsers (IE requires a plugin), PICS doesn't seem to be in use, and P3P was a bust. The semantic web is still a project of the universities and startups (though perhaps it is about to explode, through simplified analogues such as microformats). Compared to the explosion of activity in the years covered by the book (1989-1999), 1999 to the present has represented a refinement of the standards created before 1999. Perhaps the most significant triumph of the W3C has been the emergence of a mostly standard DOM on most browsers, and the advent of XML as the most important data-exchange standard; while its low point has been SOAP and a disdain for REST.

And it would seem to me that the idea that the Web emphasizes the value of the individual and the common good is contested on all sides.

Still, the book has significant high points and sections that deserve re-reading today. Throughout the book, there is a critical drumbeat around the failure of browsers to provide an easy means to edit an arbitrary page, which is still a huge gap. In Berners-Lee's view, the whole point of the Web client was to provide for both reading and creating content. Nowadays, content creation has largely been relegated to hosted apps, and those apps rarely respect nicely the idea of the URI, which Berners-Lee considered the most important standard element of the Web, ahead of HTTP and HTML (p. 36). (The idea that the Internet should balance production and consumption of content was everywhere in the late 90s -- you also saw it in Negroponte's Being Digital [1995], where he strongly advocated having the same bandwidth upstream and downstream to facilitate home video production and transmission.)

Other fascinating areas where Berners-Lee is prescient regard "code" and net neutraility. He agonizes over the tension between human-made laws and the protocols of code (pp. 123-124) -- it is almost as though he is writing the brief for Lawrence Lessig's later work on the real-world primacy of "code" in dictating how things (really) work in society. Regarding net neutrality, Berners-Lee is an absolutist, and provides the core reasons for preventing companies from making certain types of content privileged on their public networks (p. 130).

The last thing I would want to say about the experience of re-reading this book is that the core structure of the web is still pretty basic compared to the visions of hypertext from the 1960s and 1970s. Anyone who has read Ted Nelson knows that he was onto something when he advocated micro-payments as a part of the core infrastructure of hypertext systems. We still don't have decent micro-payments. Another gap is around transclusions: links are great, but transclusion remains a hack. But the book answers the question as to why the web is so basic in its protocols: It's because the process of introducing these standards was inherently political, and the raw standards were about the most anyone was willing to adopt.

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