Working with the World Wide Web

16 July 2013
Professor Dame Wendy Hall FIET

The World Wide Web: a technological and cultural phenomenon.

It may be based on one of the greatest technological revolutions of our generation, but the World Wide Web is also a cultural and social phenomenon, says IET Fellow Professor Dame Wendy Hall. Words and portrait by Nick Smith.

“Nobody owns the Internet or the World Wide Web,” says Professor Dame Wendy Hall. Neither is it a country, or a company with shareholders, she explains: “It’s very much of the people.” We’re sitting in her office in Building 32 of the Highfield Campus, part of the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. Despite the fact that she describes herself first and foremost as a professor of computer science, her study isn’t littered with parts of broken computers, as you may expect.

“That’s because I’m more interested in the Web than the net. I tend to talk about the Web more because I’m more interested in the software – the bit above TCP/IP [Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP)]. The Internet is the bit below. But you can call it the Interweb if you want.”

As a technological and cultural phenomenon, the Internet, and more recently the World Wide Web, seems to defy description. Journalists still struggle to wrap it up in a neat phrase. We seem to know that it has had a profound effect on our lives, but we don’t really know how to express that in a way that resonates universally.

In a recent best-selling book, author Andrew Blum has suggested that if it were to be observed by someone who had no idea what the Internet was, the visiting alien might think it was the largest and most successful living organism on Earth. But for Wendy, who seems to acknowledge the poetic possibilities of the comparison, it’s not a very helpful way of thinking.

“It’s not a natural system that evolves by the laws of biology. It’s engineered and created by us. But it does evolve and we don’t understand what the laws are that govern this. We are seeing Web phenomena being recreated in different cultures, for different applications, for different reasons. I’m passionate about understanding the rules and the principles under which this evolution is happening. But you have to understand that it’s not just physics and maths. There is a huge network of people involved – behaviour by society and individuals – potentially regulated by governmental legislation and the laws of economics. We see this in the emergence of social networking.”

Social networks, of which the Web – which Wendy describes as the ‘killer app’ – is one, start “with nobody using them and then everybody uses them. How does it get from one to the other? On the Web you want to be where everyone else is. There’s no point being in a social network that nobody else is in. The result is that you end up with one search engine, one shop, one auction house, one place to put video and photos. It’s different in different cultures, but the companies involved are potentially all-powerful and that’s the scary bit.”

A life in computer science

The journalistic convention in magazine profiles is to refer to the person being interviewed by their surname after they have been introduced. But Wendy prefers the down-to-earth informality of first names. “I’d like you to introduce me as Professor Dame Wendy Hall,” she says, “because there aren’t many Professor Dames and I’m very proud of that honour. But everyone in my field knows me as Wendy and so it would be odd to call me anything else after that.” This is a measure of her informality and good humour. Her CV tracking a career in which “I’ve done a lot of stuff” may be intimidating, but Wendy isn’t.

One of the first computer scientists to take on serious research in multimedia and hypermedia, she has been a pioneer in the field for decades. Now 60, her work has influenced the way we think about digital libraries, applications of the Semantic Web and the emerging discipline of Web science (she was instrumental in setting up the Web Science Trust).

Apart from her ‘day job’ at the University of Southampton, she has leadership roles in countless national and international bodies that help to shape science and engineering policy and education. She was elected president of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) in 2008 and has been a senior vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. She has been a member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology and a founder member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council. A former president of the British Computer Society and an EPSRC Senior research fellow, she was also elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society in 2009, the same year she became a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

All of which places her in an authoritative position to discuss the pros and cons of the Web along with the public and media reaction to it when things go wrong. “You can’t undo what’s been done. It’s impossible to say that it’s all bad and it should stop,” she says, referring to recent cases of child abduction and murder, where the media reaction has contributed to the idea that some kinds of Web content play a part in the events that unfolded. Radio and TV is awash with the idea that the Internet (or at least parts of it) should be banned. “But that is a bit like saying that we should stop electricity because people get electric shocks, although we have to take all the precautions we can to protect people.”

On the positive side, Wendy says that “the amazing thing about the digital revolution is the rate of change. The development of the Internet and then the Web has all happened in the past 40 years. There are very few technological innovations where the inventors get to see the impact on society in their lifetime.”

Despite the rapidity of progress, we are merely at the tip of the iceberg. She thinks that when historians come to write the book about this era of technology, “they’ll see it very differently, because what we are doing today will seem primitive. We won’t see the full impact of this technology in our lifetimes. But in terms of what good may come of it, it is the interconnectedness that excites me. I’m all about links. I love connecting with people.”

Linking people

She explains how Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has often said how he once thought that the Web was about connecting documents, but later came to the realisation that it was actually about linking people. “And so I think the legacy of the Web will be the democratisation and the accessibility of knowledge to everybody.” Wendy says how the analogy is often drawn with the printing press that enabled the spread of literacy. “That’s putting it very simply and my friends from the humanities will say that it is much more complicated. But, basically the printing press enabled the spread of knowledge by encouraging people to want to read the printed word. What we’ve done with the Web is enable people to access information from anywhere, about anything that can be made available digitally.”

Wendy recalls how when the Web started there were “a few websites and there was very little information on them.” It was effectively one man’s vision brought about by standing on the shoulders of giants who had thought these thoughts before. “We went through a phase where you would hope to find what you were looking for, to a time where you expect to find it in your own language, wherever you may be. Knowledge has always been unlimited: it’s just that you couldn’t get to most of it.”

And now you can, thanks to projects such as the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Despite the fashion for dismissing it as unreliable, inaccurate and incomplete, Wendy describes it as “Amazing. It has gone from something that was an experiment into how people might interact to create an online encyclopaedia, to something that was largely dismissed because there wasn’t enough information in there or what information was there was inaccurate, to becoming the definitive online resource for a vast range of factual information. If you want to know something you look it up on Wikipedia.”

She accepts that there might well be a lot of rubbish on there, but that’s almost part of the point. The Web for her is owned by the people and the people are doing a good job in tidying up Wikipedia. “Of course, it has its critics, but I often say to people ‘imagine if you woke up tomorrow morning and it wasn’t there.’ It’s only existed for less than ten years.”

How mature does Wendy think the technology is? “Oh, it’s still in nappies,” she laughs, before correcting herself by saying that it’s probably now at nursery school. “I would say that the Internet is more mature than the Web, and is now considered part of national infrastructures, with countries often judged by how much access they allow their citizens. Only two weeks ago I was in Rio for a Web conference and at that time Brazil announced that they were changing their constitution to make access to the Internet a right.”
She elaborates by saying that the networks of computers and the way it operates is “pretty stable, although it can be vulnerable. By which I mean that the Internet clearly was designed to be resilient and yet there are still politicians who think that they can switch it off, control it or deny access to certain people. And there is a whole issue surrounding protecting people’s rights to access. But when it comes to the Web, we are just beginning to see the beginnings of the impact it is having on society and there is a lot of evolution ahead of it.

“This is why we launched the Web Science Research Initiative back in 2006. As my social science friends would say, the Web is not created by technologists. It is co-constituted. Tim designed the protocols and the standards by which it operates and then there is the open process by which those evolve, and it is largely engineers that do this. That’s what gives you the facility to make content and publish it on the Internet. But it is the people, either as individuals or collectives, who put the content there. And that is what the Web is and why it grows. The Web is what’s on it.”

In the line of Newton

I ask Wendy what we would be talking about if we were to meet under the same circumstances in 100 years. “To do that you need to look back as far as you wish to look ahead, and a century ago no one could have predicted where we are today. Even if we were talking about a decade, you’d still need to look back ten years and we’d be bound to get our predictions wrong. Think about where we were then and now make that leap forward. Think about 3D printing. That’s going to revolutionise manufacturing.”

So where will Wendy be in ten years’ time? “Well, I’m not finished yet,” she says. In future she’d like to be on the board of a FTSE250 company, to get more involved again in policy on a governmental level and do some more shopping and travelling. “In ‘Who’s Who’ I describe my interest as shopping. But I can’t imagine ever not being involved with what I do here. It’s not as if I’m going to retire in a few years and then stop doing it. I also love travelling, talking to people about what I am passionate about. I like inspiring people and so I don’t think of work as something I have to stop in order to have a life. I get a buzz out of work and I adore shopping.”

She is also aware that being “one of the few science dames” is a huge honour. “But the accolade I never expected was the fellowship of the Royal Society. That’s amazing because you are elected by your peers and in science terms that’s important.”

As we leave her office, Professor Dame Wendy Hall describes to me the fellowship induction ceremony at the Royal Society where “you sign the same book that Isaac Newton signed. You sign it with a quill pen. That’s just stunning.”

For further information about the University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science visit www.ecs.soton.ac.uk


Key dates in the development of the World Wide Web:

1966 Researchers at Southampton start work on optical lasers to make long-distance light communication a reality.
1971 Email is introduced using the @ symbol to distinguish between the sender’s name and network name in the address.
1976 HM Queen Elizabeth II becomes the first state leader to send an email.
1982 The word ‘Internet’ is used for the first time.
1985 The fibre laser is born following the development of the optical telecoms fibre amplifier at the University of Southampton.
1989 Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web.
1998 Google opens its first office in California.
1999 ‘Ecommerce’ becomes the new buzzword as Internet shopping rapidly spreads.
2001 Wikipedia is created.
2004 Facebook is launched.
2005 YouTube is launched.
2006 Web Science Research Initiative launched.
2008 Twitter is launched.
2012 Southampton professors launch the Open Data Institute.
2013 Five key players in the development of the Internet and World Wide Web win the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Prize for Engineering.

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