Chapter 9: Twenty Years of Unnecessary Forward Slashes: Towards a Post-ontological Critique of Narratives of the Development of the Web

Michael Dick

My primary objective with this chapter is to investigate the aspirations and related work of computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee (the self-professed “inventor” of the World Wide Web) and the organization he heads, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), from the cultural studies perspective. More specifically, as we recently marked the 20th anniversary of Berners-Lee’s first conceptualization of what would become this most-ubiquitous of networks (the “ENQUIRE” system he created while working as a research scientist at CERN in March of 1989), I intend to reflect upon the rhetoric relating to the socio-technical construction of the Web itself by Berners-Lee at the outset, attempts to govern the medium through the enforcement of standards by the W3C since its founding in 1994, and the ways in which both actors currently conceive of the Web’s future through the various projects they have undertaken to advance their ideologies. As I will illuminate through a methodical review and discussion of the literature, both Berners-Lee and the W3C continue to view the Web as a medium that can ultimately be shaped and controlled by centralized authorities, in spite of the many ways in which the technology has been, and continues to be, shaped by society itself given its decentralized nature. Some specific items I will consider include: the initial decision by Berners-Lee to abstain from patenting the technology; his vision of the “Semantic Web” (first articulated at the time of the Web’s creation but revived more thoroughly in 2001); a desire to amalgamate disparate scientific and sociological research agendas concerning the structure of the Web and the implications of network topologies within a newly-created discipline known as “Web Science” (2005); and finally, some very recent attempts to use the Web as a vehicle for social development (e.g. through the launch of the W3C’s “Mobile Web for Social Development” initiative in 2006 and Berners-Lee’s creation of the “World Wide Web Foundation” in 2008).

A key theme that emerges in the above work is a desire to advance the Web from a disorganized “Web of documents” (understandable only to humans and featuring knowledge representation systems that are modified through the “wisdom of crowds” philosophy inherent in “folk taxonomies” or “folksonomies”), to a highly-organized “Web of data” (understandable to machines and “intelligent agents” and based on top-down, ontology-driven representations of knowledge). Naturally, the cultural studies perspective opposes such a rigid political economy of the Web, and thus offers an ideal vantage point from which to discuss, analyze, and ultimately critique the perspectives of Berners-Lee and the W3C. One particular example that I feel very aptly-demonstrates this point, and which thus forms a part of the proposed title for this paper and a vignette for framing my research, is the recent admission by Berners-Lee that the “http://” part of the URL (specifically the forward slashes) was arbitrarily constructed and rendered “unnecessary” by Web users who desired a less cumbersome syntax. To this end, I am especially interested in highlighting the important role participatory culture has played in shaping the Web of today, and will thus draw upon theorists who espouse the social construction of technology, social production, and the general importance of post-ontological thinking in shaping networks and other large-scale technological systems to evoke the sought-after notion of the “cultural democracy” (i.e. the Habermasian notion of the “public sphere” within the online realm).