A former boss of mine used to say that organizations are like swans. If you look at a swan swimming on water, it looks beautiful and serene. But if you were able to see what was going on underwater, you would see those ungainly webbed feet thrashing around in a maelstrom of mud and pondweed. The way that organizations function is usually pretty ugly despite the corporate sheen that is applied to the surface.
The internet is a kind of organization, and as such it is a constantly developing organism. When Tim Berners-Lee first mapped out his idea of a big interconnected web of information, inspired by the Victorian how-to manual Enquire Within Upon Everything, no-one, least of all himself, was able to see quite where it would lead.
When the first military network was established, rather few people could have known that one day those incipient tendrils would be crawling into our homes, our telephones, our fridges and all manner of other devices – and would be welcomed.
Technologies and human thought are constantly progressing the capabilities of the Web, and as this is an organic process with input by many individuals, there is a great variety of approaches. For example, a debate has been raging as to whether the use of HTML5 as a new standard markup language will lead to third party software such as Flash and Silverlight becoming obsolete, with the balance tipping in the direction that it probably will.
While there is no reason why these programs can’t coexist quite happily, at some point we might come across problems arising from obsolescence. For example, if one day very few computers are equipped to deal with Flash content, when we stumble across it on our travels we might have a problem, and we need to plan for such contingencies.
This is one small issue amidst an ocean of questions that govern our access to the internet and thereby to information – our fundamental human right. We are now reaching a point where the amount of information available online is set to grow exponentially, as the number of users with internet access rises and the ability of those users to create and share their own content increases.
In this blog we have talked about the need for governments to coordinate the development of a globally interoperable electronic infrastructure for academic research. This is laudable indeed, but perhaps overlooks less exalted but numerous corners of the Web where we currently have all kinds of information knocking around, some of it accessible, some of it useful, some of it neither of these things.
Step forward a mighty superhero, none other than Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web. Not content to rest on his laurels (or anywhere else for that matter) Berners-Lee in 1994 established the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an initiative which brings together organizations and individuals around the world dedicated to creating the standards that will enable the Web to develop to its full potential. In the words of the consortium website:
“The social value of the Web is that it enables human communication, commerce, and opportunities to share knowledge. One of W3C’s primary goals is to make these benefits available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability.”
If ever there was one, that’s a statement that reinforces the philosophy of Open Access. The site additionally states W3C’s vision for the Web as one that
“involves participation, sharing knowledge, and thereby building trust on a global scale”
and reminds us that
“the Web was invented as a communications tool intended to allow anyone, anywhere to share information.”
W3C aims to establish a consensus and create a source of guidelines and regulations for programmers and designers to help them ensure that their projects comply with the consortium’s recommendations on areas including accessibility, internationalization, mobile applications, e-government solutions and a host of technical issues. W3 recommendations, as far as is practicable, are designed to enable users to implement royalty-free solutions, supporting the philosophy of a Web accessible for all.
In 2009 the tireless Sir Tim was invited by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown to assist the UK government in building on the work of the Power of Information Task Force, an initiative to make non-personal government data accessible to the public. In the same year, Sir Tim announced the launch of the World Wide Web Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the Web to empower people to discover, create and collaborate without boundaries and to harness the power of this collaborative creativity to solve some of the most pressing issues faced by mankind. The Foundation collaborates with W3C on its Web Standards Program with the ultimate goal of providing One Web that Works for All.
As Berners-Lee so captivatingly put it during an interview for the BBC documentary Virtual Revolution, the wonderful thing about the internet is that it creates
“a big tangled up, very complex but wonderful mess of entangled humanity.”
We need to be able to enjoy and exploit that delightful, creative disorder, so the last thing we need is a mess of technologies as well.