Articles / Weaving the Web

Weaving the Web

I finally got around to reading the book everyone told me not to bother with, and had a pleasant surprise, as I expected I might. While I'll admit that it's heavy going at times, it's also sadly underrated and misunderstood.

Several years ago, I had to drive from Maryland to North Carolina and back. I don't like being in a car for more than a couple of hours, so I fortified myself for the trip by recording a few hours of NPR shows to take along. One of the tapes recorded an episode of Terry Gross's interview show Fresh Air on which she happened to be talking to Tim Berners-Lee, who was announced as "The creator of the World Wide Web".

I listened to the tape at least two or three times. Before I popped that cassette into the player, it hadn't even occurred to me that there was a single person responsible for the birth the Web, and I was equally ignorant of the existence of a consortium that was working to smooth the path of the Web's growth. I was fascinated by this glimpse behind the scenes of what was even then an increasingly important part of my life.

When his book came out, it immediately hopped onto the "to read" list in the back of my mind. I read some reviews at the time, and the general consensus was that it was thick, slow moving, and, well... dull. I kept it in mind anyway because of my interest in All Things Web. A large part of my life is conducted over the Internet, and much of it on the Web, so anything that deals with where the Web is going is of great interest, especially if it comes straight from the original weaver's mouth.

Now that I've read the book, I've gone back to read a number of reviews of it scattered around the Web, and many readers are still disappointed. Business people seem to have thought they'd pick it up and get advice on new ways to use the Web to MAKE MONEY FA$T. Techies hoped they'd get a lot of inside dirt on NCSA vs. Netscape vs. Microsoft vs. Sun vs. AOL vs. yada yada. The casual biography reader picked it up expecting insight into the personality of "The Man Behind The Web", and found virtually nothing. Others aren't sure what they were expecting, but they were expecting something else.

I think people have a hard time accepting it for what it is -- a book of ideas. It's a book about the Web, not about the man who started it or the intrigues of the companies that fought over it (though they show up in due course), but about the Web itself, about what it was meant to be, how it has and hasn't fulfilled the original intentions, and where Berners-Lee thinks it should go. If you're looking for gossip, look elsewhere. If you're concerned about the Web itself, you won't go away disappointed.

There is plenty of excitement here, but it's not the kind of excitement people were expecting. It's the excitement of the Web itself, the same excitement that you felt the first time you sat down in front of a Web browser and saw what it made possible.

I have a friend who has literally never touched a computer. A couple of weeks ago, he came into the room, saw some notes on the screen, and asked what I was doing. I was brought up short because, as I tried to answer, I realized how many people and pieces of work went into what was happening. I couldn't just say I'm doing this; I had to include so many other components, and try to decide how far back to trace the path. I had to at least go back to the night on which a pair of Dutch computer science students (and musicians) sat down (as I understand it) over some beer and decided that the world needed Free music notation software. They brainstormed a design for it, and released it on the Web as Lilypond. As the years went on, people all over the world started using it to engrave music they loved. One of the users in England decided that it would be convenient to have as much of this music as possible located in one place, so he created Mutopia. Mutopia grows day by day, and now includes 161 works, ranging from Chopin mazurkas to a complete Handel opera.

Two people have been working independently on engraving Bach's two part inventions and three part sinfonias. When my friend came into the room, I was filling in the gaps in their work, proofreading the results against the Bach-Gesellschaft original, and combining it all into a single book. When it's done, the book will go into Mutopia, and anyone anywhere in the world, from an apartment in Tokyo to a hut in a village in Africa, will be able to print a copy to play or study.

So what was I doing? I was working with people I've never met, one of whom I've not even contacted yet. I was taking years of work from people all over the world, bringing it together, adding a little work of my own, and putting the results back into the stream. Those results will be used by people I'll never even hear about in places I'll never visit.

This is collaboration on a scale and at a speed that was unimaginable just fifteen years ago. This is what the Web makes possible, and it's not just exciting, it's mind-blowing.

It all seems perfectly ordinary to us until we take a step back and realize what we're doing. This is the excitement that Weaving the Web provides, the visceral thrill of the possibilities of life on the Web. In walking beside Berners-Lee as he retraces the birth of the Web, we not only get to experience that initial thrill again, but can see how the potential grew from the design. The way the Web works can seem obvious now, so it's helpful to go back and understand the decisions that went into it that we now take for granted.

Much more exciting still is the second half of the book, in which Berners-Lee discusses where the Web is headed. We can take the current Web for granted and not give it a second thought, but we have to exercise our imagination to see where it's going. When we do this, we get to share Berners-Lee's vantage point, and to share feelings like those he had a decade ago when he looked to the future and speculated on the shape of things to come.

All the usual suspects are here: XML, RDF, the Semantic Web, PICS, PKI, and all the other familiar groups of letters. Even if you've been through this drill before, it's worth your time to hear it again in one place from the person at the center of the development. More importantly, you get a firsthand account of the intentions behind the technology. You get Berners-Lee's arguments about what it all means and why you should care.

As he explains each part of the emerging picture, he gives examples of how they might work together to take over (or at least reduce) the grunt work of our common tasks. He explores some of the logical consequences of being able to establish relationships of trust with other people (or other types of entities) on the Web, and of devices which can communicate with each other and reach common understandings about the terms they use. He emphasizes the importance of metadata and how it could reveal previously unsuspected links between information. At the end, though, the matters that concern him most are not technical at all.

One of the few autobiographical glimpses we get is of a steadily expanding social consciousness. In his early days at CERN, just trying to get through the bureaucracy to get the resources needed for his work, Berners-Lee seems to be an engineer reluctantly caught up in politics, but societal issues regarding the Web soon become a passion for him. From a very early time in his work on the Web, he realizes that it's not just a web of information, but of people, governments, communities, organizations, and corporations, and that the Web is not only influenced by all these groups, but can gradually exert an influence on them by making it easier for them to work together. By the end of the book, the goals of the Web are not limited to making it easier to find a used car or to check the credibility of a vendor, but to building society itself. The Web weaves itself into the social fabric.

Having said all that, I have to admit that the writing style can be ponderous, and occasionally repetitive. By the fifth time he pointed out that the Web was intended to be a system through which people could directly edit documents in addition to viewing them, I'd gotten the idea. By the tenth time, I was hoping someone would make a popular browser/editor so the poor guy could stop waking up in cold sweats worrying about it.

Other sections are simply a W3C brochure; here's a list of the sections of the consortium and what they do. It's somewhat interesting, but perhaps more detail than many readers need. Part of the reason that Berners-Lee wrote the book was to create an extension to his FAQ. Over the years, he's grown increasingly tired of answering the same questions and of being misquoted (he recounts an early press experience which left him with a deep-rooted suspicion of the media). Unfortunately, like a FAQ, the book might have benefitted from hyperlinks, so readers could skip directly to the information that interests them.

When taken as a whole, however, I believe the insights the book provides and the speculations it provokes are well worth the effort. Weaving the Web can be a very fulfilling read... if you go into it expecting what it's able to give.

Recent comments

23 Feb 2002 20:55 Avatar nspies

Re: Markup
Thanks, I suppose I should have researched it, but am glad you (both) have provided corrections. But this reveals an even more interesting story waiting to be told...

23 Feb 2002 18:18 Avatar jwreschnig

Re: Markup
Not to mention early versions of roff in the sixties. It's only recently (past 10 years or so) that computer text processing has tended away from markup towards WYSIWYG editing (and it's going back again now with XML).

23 Feb 2002 14:55 Avatar jdassen

Re: Markup

> My first introduction to markup was the all-but-forgotten writing system called Scribe, whose use at CMU peaked in the mid 1980's, so it must have been around awhile by then, prossibly 1980 or before.

AFAICT, Scribe influenced the design of the Lout typesetting system quite a bit; Lout is still actively used.

> Anyway, it seems to me, as a 'user' and not a historian of computers, that the authors' of Scribe anticipated Goldfarb's SGML[c 1985] (and Knuth's TeX [c1988]),

A little bit of searching would have shown you that both SGML and TeX are quite a bit older. SGML goes back to GML as developed by IBM in the 1960s (the standard is from 1986); Knuth started work on TeX in the mid 1970s.

23 Feb 2002 12:33 Avatar nspies

Not having read the book, I suppose I can't make any really interesting comments on it...but here is my two cents, anyway.

When I worked at CMU in the mid-1980's, I found ARPANET to be pretty fascinating, and made good use of it, too. It was only a couple of years after I left that I was told by friends that there were such things as Archie, Gofer, and WWW. But, without an internet connection it wasn't for another couple of years after that that I actually saw the web.

Yes, the web has altered everything.

However, it is not without precedent. At the heart of the web is the concept 'markup'. My first introduction to markup was the all-but-forgotten writing system called Scribe, whose use at CMU peaked in the mid 1980's, so it must have been around awhile by then, prossibly 1980 or before.

Scribe allowed writers on ordinary text terminals to create structured and formatted text, using escape sequences such as @i(italics) and @b(bold). As importantly, there were a set of macros that could define whole systems of styles (paragraphs, sections, headings, subheadings, numbering styles, etc) required by various professional groups for submission of papers. If you were a Scribe guru, you could define your own styles.

You didn't see your formatting until it was printed out, using 'cz' (from 'czarina', a variation of a printer command that sounded like 'empress')--at one page per second--on one of two specially modified Xerox copiers ('Dovers'); laser printers, of which only a few were made. These printers typically handled way over 200,000 pages per month, each.

To see the result of your formatting, you had to walk over to the campus printing center, find your printout, which, by convention, was usually placed by the name on the header page, into bins hanging on the wall, by anyone who happened to notice that the printer output stack was getting too big...

Anyway, it seems to me, as a 'user' and not a historian of computers, that the authors' of Scribe anticipated Goldfarb's SGML[c 1985] (and Knuth's TeX [c1988]),
although Scribe was far less sophisticated than either later development.

The genius of Tim Berners-Lee, as with most works of genius, was to see the possibilities offered by combining markup with the internet. Obvious in retrospect, but opaque to all but he in prospect...


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