In the loop: Thinking inside the box

March 1, 2001
About 20 years ago, a software engineer took a consulting job at a government laboratory

About 20 years ago, a software engineer took a consulting job at a government laboratory. To keep track of his projects, he wrote a crude program that stored names, numbers, and images, and just about anything else he was willing to key in. Anytime he needed to know something he could click on a related word anywhere in any record, and all associated data would pop up on his screen.

A few years later, the young fellow convinced his employer, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), to fund the development of a large-scale, networked version of his personal “hypertext notebook” so others within the organization could share information and combine their knowledge. And thus began the hyperlinked information space now known as the World Wide Web.

To understand the Web, both its potential and shortcomings, is to understand its inventor and primary architect, a man by the name of Tim Berners-Lee.

A graduate of the Queen’s College at Oxford University, England, Berners-Lee studied physics as a compromise between math and engineering. Like many physicists, he’s a hands-on guy, a tinkerer who doesn’t mind getting grease under his fingernails. In the mid 1970s, for example, he built his own computer with a soldering iron, some chips, and an old television set. He also developed typesetting software for intelligent printers, and did some work in real-time control.

His computer interests were inherited you might say; his parents met while working on the Ferranti Mark 1, the world’s first commercial computer. Instead of trucks and cars, little Tim grew up playing with five-hole paper tape and building computers out of cardboard boxes.

Although Berners-Lee doesn’t consider himself a physicist, his physics background directly influences all of his work. “Physicists spend a lot of time trying to relate macroscopic system behavior to microscopic laws, which is the essence of scalable systems,” he says.

According to Berners-Lee, this is what the original hypertext notebook, called Enquire, was good at. “Although it was very simple, it could track associations that would sometimes develop into structure as more and more ideas became connected,” he explains.

The Web, of course, isn’t there just yet. But some day, as hypertext editors improve, the links will shoot out in all directions through cyberspace, connecting the vast body of information now stranded on virtual islands. When that happens, the Web will be a different animal, more along the lines of what Berners-Lee had in mind.

I think what he envisioned is something like a knowledge circuit or an artificial brain. As any EE or physicist knows, you don’t “search” a circuit, you “excite” it with a signal and it gives back energy according to the values of its various components.

In a similar manner, the Web is designed to respond with knowledge when it’s excited with words. Although today it answers with bits and pieces of data, one day it will respond with more intelligent knowledge, perhaps complete answers.

But that’s just the beginning. There are two parts to Berners-Lee’s dream. The second part depends on the Web being so generally used that it becomes a mirror (or, in fact, the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work, play, and socialize. “The Web is like paper,” Berners- Lee explains. “It doesn’t constrain what you use it for.” Nor does it place any constraint on who, or what, uses it.

“Once the state of our transactions go on-line, we can use computers to help us analyze and make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together. Computers will help us organize our data and possibly everything we do,” says Berners-Lee.

Ultimately the goal is not for us to run the Web — as many “” companies are learning — the goal is for the Web to help run society. It will record and track all of our activity mirrored upon its virtual mind. It will have us in the cardboard box, not the other way around.

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