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A new science for a new age

Sir Tim Berners-Lee has called for a science of the web. He's right, but in the wrong way
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Written by Leader on

In speed, scope and sheer surprise, the growth of Berners-Lee's baby has exceeded the dreams of even the most visionary thinkers of the years Before Web. It has fed on and driven advances in IT in unexpected ways: yet in the year 15 AW, the best we can say of the future is that it's barely begun.

That's as nothing compared to the web's social, economic and political effects. The media is in convulsions of re-invention, party leaders are webcasting from their kitchens and the American war machine is busy setting up propaganda centres to influence websites, bloggers and consumers of the new information.

Without doubt, we need to understand what we're doing and how it affects us. Sir Tim's call for a new discipline of Web Science, concentrating not just on the technology but how it interacts with society, is both logical and necessary. His preferred method — setting up an academic centre to promote the idea — may also seem logical and necessary. Yet it runs the risk of being perversely counter productive.

What Sir Tim proposes is nothing less than an anthropology of the web. That's fine — but anthropology already exists, as do the studies of everything else that concerns him. The chief attribute of the web is that it can and does affect every aspect of human affairs; over time it will come to dominate some, but there'll be nothing left unaffected. That is the engine which should drive the growth of its science.

The history of academia is littered with cross-disciplinary studies, few of which have grown to match the bold vision of those who attempt the original syntheses. Social science, cognitive science, even anthropology — all have suffered from a lack of focus that has hindered the production of early, useful results. Such things are important for new fields, especially those which compete with established disciplines for attention, students and funding. Never underestimate the power of academic politics in setting the course of the even the most rational ideas.

Despite Sir Tim's concern that there is as yet no science of the web, such a thing is already developing rapidly — a good example being the University of Surrey's Master's degree in Computing and Human Communication. There will come a time, and soon, where the more successful of such efforts will coalesce naturally into a body of study propelled by results. That will produce a Darwinian discipline much more in keeping with the spirit of the web itself — one best suited to deal with the future that lies in wait to astonish us all.

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