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The Web is (not) dead…if you believe Scientific American , not Wired

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Berners-Lee, Web, InternetToo often, we don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. That could happen with the World Wide Web—unless we protect the basic principles on which the Web is built.

Protecting principles is also the key to the Web’s future growth, an argument laid out in "Long Live the Web," written as an exclusive for Scientific American by the man who invented the biggest killer app of all time, Tim Berners-Lee. Twenty years ago this month, the Web went live inside a single computer on Berners-Lee’s desk at CERN, the high-energy physics lab in Geneva.

People like to reflect on anniversaries, but Berners-Lee—who rarely writes for anyone or agrees to be interviewed—had a stronger motivation: to wake us up. Threats are rising—from business and government—that could compromise the Web, and all of us who use it. As the article reveals, in recent months large social networking sites have tried to use your personal information for their own gain while making it difficult for you to access it. Wireless Internet providers have slowed traffic to sites with which they do not have commercial deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—as well as local Internet service providers, have snooped into your online habits, filtered the information you can see, censored certain Web sites altogether and disconnected people accused of wrongdoing before they are proven guilty.

Some Internet carriers, and some big Web sites, are also bent on fragmenting the Web, so that when you search for something you won’t find all the possible answers, and when you publish something it won’t be seen by everyone who might be interested.

Protecting the Web’s principles is critical not merely to the digital revolution but to our continued prosperity, our free speech, even our liberty. It is also necessary if the Web is to bring us much more online power than it already does. As Berners-Lee often says, "The Web is not done."

Berners-Lee and I were well into the editing—targeting the magazine’s December issue to mark the anniversary—when a red-faced reminder arose about one of the most sinister threats to the Web’s ideals: cynicism. The September issue of Wired magazine appeared on newsstands. It had an all-orange cover with four black words that said: "The Web is Dead."

Needless to say, Berners-Lee was not amused. Neither was I, as his editor. Full disclosure: the two of us co-wrote a book in 1999, long before I joined the Scientific American staff, titled Weaving the Web. It told the true story of how the Web was created (Al Gore didn’t invent it) and how it grew. One revelation the book made, which few people knew, was that several times during the 1990s, one company or another tried to rebrand the Web as its own product, or tried to violate the Web’s principles so it could attempt to take over the new medium.

Partly motivated by those threats, Berners-Lee founded the international World Wide Web Consortium, with a U.S. base at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The consortium brought together individuals, companies and universities that were devising all sorts of Web technologies, so that instead of competing, the stakeholders could work together in open groups to build a better Web than any company could build by itself. Raising the tide would float everyone’s boat higher. All the major Web companies signed on, and the approach has worked remarkably well, to this day.

The Wired story, however, made the same "Tired" argument (to borrow one of its monikers) that has been made for two decades: that the idealistic, grassroots intention to continue building a tool that benefits all of humanity will inevitably crumble, as some big company or companies inevitably take over. "The delirious chaos of the open Web was an adolescent phase subsidized by industrial giants groping their way in a new world," Wired said. "Now they’re doing what industrialists do best—finding choke points." In other words, commercial powers will take over any application that rides on the Internet, especially the Web. May it rest in peace.

This point of view is nothing more than naked cynicism, which is bad enough. But Wired made its jaded portrayal worse by opening the article with an enormous, misleading two-page graph. It showed the percent of Internet traffic taken up by various applications, indicating that video’s share was growing while the Web’s share was shrinking—shrinking enough to claim that it was doomed. So there you have it: data. The Web must be dead.

What the graph did not show—because the editors chose to display relative percentages of Internet traffic—was that raw traffic related to the Web was still expanding, rapidly. Video was just growing faster. Hardly a death sentence.

Smarter—or less deceptive—analysts immediately jumped all over the gimmick. Rob Beschizza at the technology Web site BoingBoing said it best. He wrote that he "found this graph immediately suspect. The use of proportion of the total as the vertical axis instead of the actual total is an interesting editorial choice. You can probably guess that total use increases so rapidly that the Web is not declining at all."

Beschizza didn’t just guess. He replotted the graph and showed that the Web is growing just fine, thank you very much. Furthermore, he pointed out, "It doesn’t even seem to be the case that the Web’s ongoing growth has slowed. It’s rather been joined by even more explosive growth in file-sharing and video, which is often embedded in the Web in any case." Other media, including The New York Times, saw through the misleading graph also.

The Wired argument sticks in my craw for several reasons, one of which I came to understand while Berners-Lee and I were writing the book. Once the media realized the Web was growing like mad, it began to hound Berners-Lee for interviews. And once reporters learned that Berners-Lee did not turn his creation into a company but instead put it out there as a tool for the good of humanity, he was asked time and again, "Why didn’t you get rich off the Web?" Meaning, "You fool. You could have been a billionaire." Now you can understand why Berners-Lee isn’t keen on interviews.

Believe it or not, some people are actually motivated by ideals that rise above money. As Berners-Lee says in the book, "What is maddening is the terrible notion that a person’s value depends on how important and financially successful they are, and that that is measured in the form of money. This suggests disrespect for the researchers across the globe developing ideas for the next leaps in science and technology. To use net worth as a criterion by which to judge people is to set our children’s sights on cash rather than on things that will actually make them happy."

Every millionaire, and every person who’s ever found a nugget of information or friended a friend on the Web, owes a debt to Berners-Lee for deliberately setting up his creation as a free and open platform, not as a for-profit venture. And he’s not looking to be lionized for that. "I’m happy to let others play the role of royalty," he says. "Just as long as they don’t try to control the Web."

Which is what Wired‘s crass argument maintains is inevitable. In Scientific American, Berners-Lee says the Web’s future does not have to play out that way, if people preserve the basic principles so that the Web can continue to improve and benefit everyone.

Yes, Berners-Lee and I are friends, but we rarely see one another, and I have no stake in anything related to the Web. But I don’t like stunts that parade as journalism. I don’t like data that is spun. Most of all, I don’t like the attitude that the work of individuals or groups that are motivated by the common good is somehow adolescent because it hasn’t proven itself by going commercial.

The argument is also polarizing. As Berners-Lee also often says, the Web was designed so that for-profit companies could flourish on it just as well as individuals could. For example, companies such as Conde Nast, which publishes Wired. (I mean, really; Wired succeeded because the Web created an online life for millions of people, which became the magazine’s bread and butter.) As Berners-Lee writes in the article, "Indeed, many companies spend the time and money to develop extraordinary applications precisely because they are confident that the applications will work for anyone, regardless of the computer hardware, operating system or ISP they are using—all made possible by the Web’s open, royalty-free standards."

The reason the Web has remained open is because Berners-Lee, and the Web consortium, have protected the founding principles. Is society so crass that it won’t stand up for ideals that go beyond a profit motive? Many more truly human benefits, as well as commercial successes, can come from an open Web than from a commercially controlled Web. You can read about examples in other stories in this online package. Linked data, entered into OpenSourceMap, actually saved people’s lives immediately after the terrible Haiti earthquake in January. could finally bring Web access to million of Africans who could not otherwise afford it, improving education and providing a sudden voice to the forgotten. Social machines could broker a better democracy. All these activities and many more are made possible because the Web, and the Internet on which it rides, allow individuals, institutions and for-profit companies to use the Web unfettered.

January 2009 image of Berners-Lee courtesy of Silvio Tanaka

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  1. 1. busyguy 3:51 pm 11/22/2010

    the premise of a healthy web can only continue if you believe business and government exist to better society, i for one do not have that opinion. the growth in web traffic, intelligent or not, data or video, has succeeded where no amount of garbage TV or in breeding could ever have, in producing pound for pound, more morons than ever. the tipping point will be down the road, when these feeble minded pop culture junkies come of age and begin to make the major decisions in business and government. it will be tantamount to the world being run by matt drudge and george bush. truth will die and popularism will become the new world religion. honesty and the search for knowledge and truth will cower in crevices and under rocks like the first mammals on earth.

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  2. 2. Madd Barkington 3:55 pm 11/22/2010

    When we decry the actions of those who appear to be working against the best interests of Humanity, it always pays to inspect their motivations for those actions. Especially when the actions appear to fly in the face of reason at the first challenge.

    Are we really that naive?

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  3. 3. biomimetic 4:23 pm 11/22/2010

    Not everyone working with the web is cynical… which is not an argument. And which is why people are not governments. Governments will regulate the web. Governments define worth monetarily. Governments will do what business tells them is the right thing to do. Governments are cynical. The web is not really definable by it’s end users if traffic is controlled by industry. End users will be what they want, unable to reach anyone, until those owning the bandwidth decide to take down their site, via indifference, force or pretzel-fied legalese. There’s idealism. And there’s just being naive. Which is why Wired’s point stands.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 4:38 pm 11/22/2010

    I haven’t read and won’t likely read the Wired article, but proliferation of video services using the basically free backbone network bandwidth available for all who pay for internet connection could significantly diminish the level of services available for all other purposes.

    That commercial subscriptions to video download services do not fund backbone network bandwidth requirements in proportion to their bandwidth consumption means that they are not paying for any more than are an email only internet user.

    I presume that current rate structures for internet access must recover network costs for ‘typical’ users that have not be consuming bandwidth to download full length movies. The additional network load of video downloads must consume much more bandwidth. Under the current rate systems, costs for additional bandwidth to support video downloads could only be recovered from all users based on average usage. If additional bandwidth is not installed all users will suffer degraded service.

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  5. 5. DancerTiffy 4:49 pm 11/22/2010

    I have little hope for the survival of the web,and I believe that we will damage it beyond repair just as we have done to our planet.
    Human greed and lust for power and control will finish the Web as we know it, and I say that because that is what is happening to everything else around me.

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  6. 6. asozasis 8:41 pm 11/22/2010

    Hi busyguy. Clearly far too busy to notice – let alone use – even one of the two ‘shift’ keys at your disposal. Capitals at the beginning of each sentence would give your comments a little gravitas, if not credibility.

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  7. 7. jtdwyer 11:42 pm 11/22/2010

    DancerTiffy: You’re right, of course, but you also must realize that it was greed that, behind the scenes, originally produced the internet ‘as we know it’ (or liked to think of it). In fact it was greed and the quest for personal satisfaction that brought life to us all here on Earth and the scientific and technological advancements we’ve wrought.

    The population of the Earth when I was born in 1950 was about 2.5 billion people. What younger people can’t fully appreciate is what a difference the soon tripling of the human population has made. The quality of life for those additional about 4.5 billion people has generally improved, so far, as a product of the ever expanding marketing base of consumers. However, we have been micromanaging our world with technological advancements, from global transportation, the highly productive harvesting of natural resources highly optimized food production while ignoring many of the consequences of these methods on the environment and climate. We are now precariously balancing these critical factors near the tipping point of collapse.

    As an older person who has already produced more than his share of the future consumers of natural resources or those who will suffer from its consequences, I can only hope that more people chose to limit the number of their progeny to one each. Following a ‘green’ lifestyle is a positive step, but makes little difference if the population does not decrease.

    Without mathematical models I can project that that the current factors of population growth applied to resource consumption producing environmental impact yields the collapse of our infrastructure and the suffering and death of billions of people. I can only hope that some can somehow survive, remember and learn and change in the future. Using existing methods to survive into the future will only perpetuate the consequences.

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  8. 8. brublr 11:27 pm 11/23/2010

    I await the freshly enabled 500 year lifespan for the Malthusian tipping point. Kurzweil’s ‘Singularity’ hasn’t seemed the last word on this aspect of 2045. Of course, this everlastingly will only be offered to Aldermen and similar Polity, but it’s sure to be an irritant for the rest of us.

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  9. 9. Quinn the Eskimo 7:29 pm 11/27/2010

    The web in *not* dead. But, Television is! My evidence:

    Charlie Sheen

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