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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tim Berners-Lee at the Oxford Internet Institute

I attended a talk by the inventor of Hypertext and the web-browser Tim Berners-Lee (Sir) today at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Rather helpfully he put his presentation online (note the Web 2.0 and semantic web friendly URL - looks like finding all presentations by TBL should be relatively trivial!):

Unsurprisingly, Tim evangelised about 'The Semantic Web' - his vision of a web of data, rather than a web of hypertext. Whilst his ideas are inspirational, I do find the desire for most citizens of the web to play by the proposed rules and agreed ontologies rather optimistic. The success of the web could be attributed to many things, but for me, ease of use (largely) and access is core to it's impact. Tim himself alluded to 'serendipitous re-use' being key to the real value of the web, and what he hopes will begin to happen with data. Several in the audience argued that Web 2.0 is already doing this quite successfully - but it was clear that Tim felt that the Web as we know it is far too 'dumb' for him.

With legions of bloggers contributing data, and cross-referencing one another, the web has become a vital medium for the dissemination of ideas and discussion. Where the vision of the Semantic Web did not ring true for me, was the hope that a majority of the web's citizens would start playing by new rules in order to 'bring alive' his vision :

"Make Useful Links" - Easy, we already do this

"Share Ontologies" - Not too difficult, I can see this working with small, focused communities.

"Agree on Ontologies" - Hmmmm. This one, I think will be difficult. Isn't the web about de-centralisation of everything, including ideas? Can we ever expect a majority to agree on anything? He seemed to be suggesting that everything for which there is data or meaning should have a singular, definitive URI, to which all documents point when referencing. A very engaging idea, kinda reminds me (in a very trivial way) of using VoodooPad on a mac. As you type, any word for which a page exists immediately becomes a link. The problem is, as a sole user, it's often difficult to avoid multiple pages on the same discreet object. What happens when the whole world is let loose? Who decides on the definitive URI? Who ensures that every other referencing document points to the correct place. This whole concept is very interesting, and rather too expansive to go into in a (relatively) short post.

Unlike Ian (whom we travelled with) Louise and I had to rush back to London straight after the event (a very, very sick cat worrying us to distraction).

Hanging around and networking, Ian got quoted in a New Statesman article about the event. See also, Ian's post on the event.

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