Can social science save the web?

Pretty much every week these days you can expect a story in Computer Weekly on one of two topics: the growing importance and influence of the web to business and economic development; and the growing threats to the web from cyber attacks, surveillance, or the possible demise of net neutrality.

Just this month, the respected Economist Intelligence Unit, for example, forecast that cloud computing will revolutionise business just as much as the advent of computing itself.

Meanwhile, the US and China launched tit-for-tat accusations over who is cyber snooping on whom the most.

Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee started something of a meme earlier this year when, at the 25th anniversary of his creation of the web, he called for a Magna Carta for the internet – an international bill of rights to protect the web from vested interests.

Berners-Lee’s call was welcomed by media, web companies and internet rights groups, but by a wall of silence from big business and many governments.

The truth is that nobody really knows what’s going to happen next – that’s the reality of revolutions, and the digital revolution is no different. We all instinctively want the web to continue its democratic, interconnected, organic, multi-stakeholder development; but we equally feel the insidious tentacles of unencumbered capitalism, state surveillance, and illiberal nations spreading their influence.

What we lack is a base of evidence that allows us to make intelligent forecasts to say that if X happens, then the end result will be Y.

Could this be where social science saves the web?

Dame Wendy Hall, a close friend of Berners-Lee, a fellow web pioneer, and also one of (if not the) leading computer science academics in the UK, is spearheading an initiative that may help us find out.

Hall is a co-founder of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton. She coined the term “web science” as long ago as 2006, to define the overlap between studies in technology and social sciences – particularly sociology, economics and philosophy, topics previously considered the bedrock of political science.

Along with co-founders Berners-Lee and fellow Southampton professor, Sir Nigel Shadbolt, who also chairs the Open Data Institute, Hall hopes that web science researchers can provide that body of evidence to shape the future of the web and maintain its open, creative, collaborative nature.

“The aim of the web science discipline is to try to create the evidence that people need to understand these issues,” she told Computer Weekly at an event this week.

“It will never be black and white. But you can collect and share evidence, analyse it and visualise it, so we can re-present it to government and big business to help them make those decisions.”

The UK government CTO Liam Maxwell – this week appointed a visiting professor at Southampton University, so giving him access to the work of its web scientists – called it “situational awareness”.  That may be a somewhat military term, but it summarises well what we currently lack if we are to defend what Berners-Lee calls “The web we want” empirically rather than emotionally.

Of course, such research takes time – longer than the pace of change on the web. But improving our understanding of the interaction between the internet and society, how the two shape and influence each other, and how that interaction is changing the way we live, is essential to ensuring technology can deliver the enormous potential that still remains to be realised – and so avoid the doomsday, Big Brother scenarios that have recently seemed all too feasible an outcome.

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