The author

What do we want from the web?

Steven Pemberton, CWI, Amsterdam

New College, Oxford, 1379

New College Dining Hall

As reported by Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn

So what are you doing for the year 2500?

The web is now over 20 years old, but still in its infancy.

Books printed 100 years ago are still readable, and available in many cases.

Will we still be able to read and access websites made today in 100 years time? Or will all our content be lost to future ages?

What is needed to make the web age-tolerant?

What do we want from the web in both the short and long term?

A Print, 1790

St. Albans, by Lievens

Same view now

The same view now

Jan Lievens (1607-74)

St. Albans, by Lievens

"Copied by E. Grosser, Esqr, from an Ancient Drawing said to have been made by LIVENS, a Disciple of Rembrant. London Pub May 1790, by E. Harding, No 132 Fleet Street".

Might this be true? Lievens was in England in the 1630's.

Thanks to the Semantic Web and I could answer that question:


St. Albans, by Lievens


St. Albans, by Lievens


St. Albans, by Lievens

Abbey Gateway, St. Albans

St. Albans Abbey Gateway

The third printing press in England was set up here in 1479

1485 Chronicles of England

Chronicles of England 1485

Printed on that press. Note how it imitates a manuscript.

The Book

Until the introduction of printing, books were rare, and very, very expensive, maybe something like the same price as a small farm.

Only very rich people, and rich institutions, owned books.

The first Universities were set up before printing, and if you were a student, the price for borrowing a book was copying it. Usually book lenders only lent you part of the book at a time, to speed up the copying.

The other producers of books were the monasteries.



"When the Anglo-Saxon Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey planned to create three copies of the bible in 692—of which one survives—the first step necessary was to plan to breed the cattle to supply the 1,600 calves to give the skin for the vellum required."


Producing books was slow, expensive, time-consuming, and tedious, as evinced by some of the remarks written by monks that have survived in the margins of manuscripts:

Oh, my hand.

Thank God it will soon be dark.

Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach, and your sides.

St Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing.

As the harbour is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.

Now I've written the whole thing: for Christ's sake give me a drink.

Book 1450

Printing in 1568

Gutenberg brought known technologies together (just like the web did): ink, paper, wine presses, movable type.














By 1500 there were 1000 printing shops in Europe, which had produced 35,000 titles and 20 million copies.

Price of books greatly diminished (First bible 300 florins, about 3 years wages for a clerk).

Books became a new means of distribution of information.

It was a paradigm shift - new industries, bookshops, newspapers.

Many ascribe the enlightenment to the availability of books.

Information increase

1665: first scientific journals French Journal des Sçavans and the British Philosophical Transactions

From then on the number of scientific journals doubled every 15 years, right into the 20th century.

Even as late as the 1970's if you had said "there has to come a new way of distributing information to support this growth", they would have thought you crazy, more likely expecting the growth to end.

But now that we have the internet, the amount of information produced continues to increase at an exponential rate (doubling every three years according to one report, every 11 hours according to a newer one).

Information growth

Rise of digital informationSource

Exponential growth and orders of magnitude

If something doubles at regular intervals, it is called an exponential growth.

Note that a doubling per 2 years is the same as a 10 fold increase every 6 and a bit years; we call a 10-fold increase an order of magnitude change.

"An order of magnitude quantitative change is a qualitative change"

Exponential 20 iterations

Graph of 2^x

Scale, 40 iterations

2^x from 1 to 40

Note how there now seems to be nearly no action before iteration 26. The 'knee' is a fiction, a visual effect of the scaling used.

Logarithmic scale

Using Logarithmic scale

(Note that the steps are in powers of 10: 100, 101, 102... Half-way between 1 and 10 isn't 5 on a log scale, but 10½ = √10 = 3.16)

Moore's Law

In 1965 Gordon Moore predicted that integrated circuits would double in power each year at constant price 'for at least 10 years'.

In 1975 he adjusted that to a doubling every 18 months.

That's an order of magnitude increase every 5 years.

"An order of magnitude quantitative change is a qualitative change"

Example of exponential growth: Laptop speeds

Laptop speeds

Exponential Bandwidth Increase

Bandwidth on a log scale

Exponential change

This is November 2006:

November 2006

Six years later, the cheapest 4GB stick cost €2.99.

Screens are subject to similar drops too.

What exponential growth really means to you and me

Often people don't understand the true effects of exponential growth.

A BBC reporter recently: "Your current PC is more powerful than the computer they had on board the first flight to the moon". Right, but oh so wrong (Closer to the truth: your current computer is several times more powerful than all the computers they used to land a man on the moon put together.)

Take a piece of paper, divide it in two, and write this year's date in one half:



Now divide the other half in two vertically, and write the date 18 months ago in one half:



Now divide the remaining space in half, and write the date 18 months earlier (or in other words 3 years ago) in one half:



Repeat until your pen is thicker than the space you have to divide in two:



This demonstrates that your current computer is more powerful than all other computers you have had put together (and way more powerful than the computer they had on board the first moonshot).

1968: The Internet is born

The internet was a cooperative effort.

In 1988 arrived in Europe (Amsterdam actually): speed 64kbps connection for the whole of Europe to the whole of America. A year later that doubled to 128kb.

(Just as a check, I did the calculation: if bandwidth doubles per year, that would mean the connection today should be 3Tbps. Checking AMS-IX's statistics page, they have indeed a 3Tbps peak)

The true cost of communication

In 1988, phoning long-distance was expensive, and the further you phoned, the more expensive it was. People considered it reasonable, because it matched their expectations.

In fact, the expensive part is the local loop: only one person (you) is using that. The long-distance part can be amortised over 1000's of calls.

The internet made this all to clear: going to a site in New York is no more expensive than going to one locally (and now, phoning Amsterdam-New York is even cheaper than phoning Amsterdam-Amsterdam!)

1990 The Web

Tim Berners-Lee (and Robert Caillau) created the Web at Cern

Just like Gutenberg with the printing press, they brought together many existing technologies (Hypertext, the internet, MIME types) and created a cohesive whole.

And frankly, the Web is replacing the Book (along with many other things).

Telephone directories, encyclopaedias, train timetables, other reference works are already gone. Most others will follow. Books (as an artefact) are about to become a niche market. All information will be web-based.

That is why it is of utmost importance that we plan properly.

Usage of new technologies

Typically people expect that we will use new technologies in the same way we use existing ones.

Steam engines in factories: there was one engine, with lots of pulleys to distribute the power over the factory.

It was assumed that the same would happen with electric engines: one engine in the house with pulleys taking the power to where you needed it.

In houses they thought there would be vacuum cleaner tube attachment points in every room, with one central motor in the basement doing the sucking...

Same with mainframe computers: it was assumed 5 would be enough. Why would people want personal computers? They don't need to do payrolls!

The new imitates the old

The first books looked like manuscripts.

The first cars looked like carriages.

First radio was like plays, actors still had to dress up.

And the Web is (still) imitating old media.

Future Web

The current web is still very immature:


Despite the use of style-sheets, the current web is almost completely visually-oriented.

This locks the content into one particular representation, and makes it hard to repurpose.

What we need is a web that is primarily content-oriented, with a final phase of presentation; only in that way can content be repurposed in the same way that data can be.

Design for the web should be like design for a house style: it has a general style that the content can flow into.


We don't want to have to produce copies of our websites for each new type of platform or device.

There needs to be a generic method of repurposing content to the formfactor of the device accessing it.


Even when we are 80, we will still want and need to use the web. There won't be an alternative!

How can we make our 30-year-old selves sensitive to the problem of our less-abled future selves?


With the coming of HTML5, the web has stopped being about documents, and started being about programs. Now only programmers can produce modern web pages.

What can be done to alleviate the problem?


HTTP, the protocol used for serving Web pages, has served us well for the last 20 years, but is beginning to show its age: it has become a single-point-of-failure for content.

HTTP must die


How could we do better?


Magnet Links

Saying not where to get it, but what you want

Fall-back to single source for long-tail content.


Bit Torrent

If someone already has the document you are downloading in their cache, they can serve it to you.

If several people have it, they can share the task by sharing different parts.

You get it even faster.

Example: Tribler

Tribler streaming a film


Note (in blue progress bar) how the file is loading in bits, but priority has been given to the start of the file so you can immediately start streaming.

Wonderful Life being streamed

Why this is goodness

Although you still need HTTP for long-tail, and single-use/personalised content, replacing HTTP with peer-to-peer+magnet links makes the most of the web:

What is to come

Interlinking of services

Data doesn't need to be human-readable; in fact it must be machine-readable.

If there is data, make it available! (Amsterdam fireservice has trouble finding out where there are roadworks).

Internet everywhere, lights, oven, your alarm clock: internet over the electric net, so that anything that plugs in can have a connection.

All communication via IP.

Everyone a publisher

Nothing unavailable

True costs - like the internet showed with long distance calls, so we will learn the true cost of content.

A second enlightenment?

A lot of existing information is distributed by people who have concentrations of the means of distribution, and in fact that is the real reason they exist.

Music industry is healthy, record industry is not.

Old media struggling to retain ownership (compare region codes on DVDs)

A change in the means of distribution.

A change in the availability of information.

The end of the hit.

A paradigm shift


Make no mistake: we are at a turning point in history. The internet is going to have as great an effect on society as the book did, only much quicker.

Newspapers, music industry, books in trouble? Pah! Nothing. Just wait!

The means of distribution are changing hands.

"The classified ads (and stock market quotations) are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative form of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold." Marshall McLuhan, "Understanding Media", 1964

"We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run." Roy Amara, The Institute for the Future