What if we called Web science 'psychohistory'? Internet pioneer recounts early notion

Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee had the sci-fi inspired name in mind, according to fellow innovator Wendy Hall, who spoke to CNET about the evolution of the World Wide Web.

Aloysius Low Senior Editor
Aloysius Low is a Senior Editor at CNET covering mobile and Asia. Based in Singapore, he loves playing Dota 2 when he can spare the time and is also the owner-minion of two adorable cats.
Aloysius Low
4 min read

Wendy Hall says websites aren't just about technology, but about "humanity in a digital sense." British High Commission

Correction, December 12, 5 a.m. ET: Due to an error in transcription, a previous version of this story stated that Hall said "websites", when in fact she said, "Web science".

SINGAPORE -- It's hard not to be impressed when you're seated opposite Wendy Hall. Named as one of the top 100 most powerful women in the UK by the BBC in 2013, she was a pioneer of Internet technologies and in 2006 founded the Web Science Trust with Tim Berners-Lee.

A professor of computer science at the University of Southampton in the UK, Hall was in town to lead a week-long course titled the "Science of Web and Big Data Analytics" and took some time to talk with CNET.

Speaking eloquently on the development of the Web, she touched upon a wide range of subjects such as privacy laws and how data observatories would become important in the future of the Internet.

Hall also shared personal anecdotes from way back when the Web started. One in particular stood out about Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, especially if you're a fan of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

"We wanted -- Tim wanted -- to call Web science 'psychohistory'. We've all read our Asimov," Hall said.

The word comes from the celebrated author's "Foundation" series, where in the far future of mankind, the mathematics professor Hari Seldon combines history, sociology and math to predict the behavior of a large group of people. Psychohistory would have been quite a mouthful, however -- so fortunately for most of us, "Web science" won out.

"We called it Web science, since initially the idea was to study this new ecosystem of the Web. Many people think it's very narrow, just studying the technology. It's actually studying humanity in a digital sense," Hall said.

Using data observatories, where statistical data is stored and analyzed, it may be possible to predict trends such as popular topics in social media, or use data from your fitness band to warn you of a possible heart attack.

The addition of smartphones brings a third dimension to Hall's theory, in which social machines -- defined by her as the interaction between humans and computer networks -- come together to create new artifacts. Smartphones add a lot more data, since they aren't bound to a desktop like a PC and are able to provide location information.

"We created Facebook, we created Twitter together. Most people don't know anything about how the machines work, and the machines have no clue what the people are doing, but together, we create," Hall said.

"What we've learned in the 25 years since this all started is that, in fact, we do interact with the information, but we put the information there. It's not Google or Facebook. We feed the machine in fact. We are interacting with it and each other through the Internet."

Hall points out that as data observatories accumulate more data, their use becomes very similar to climate science in which increasing amounts of historical data help sharpen weather predictions. She was, however, concerned that false positives could happen, with false heart-attack predictions conceivably clogging up hospitals, for example.

"We can't predict what individuals will do, but we might potentially be able to forecast what a population will do," she said.

As more and more data gets accumulated online, governments will naturally start wanting to get hold of this treasure trove. While sites such as Facebook and Google stand as data silos, Hall says the government is slowly chipping away at this -- with safety against threats such as terrorists the primary reason for access requests.

"I think that's quite scary. I think the way it's emerged is that governments have been taking advantage of the technology to allegedly keep us safe to catch the terrorists before they blow us up. I don't want those people roaming the streets in the UK, I would like the governments to be able capture them, so that means they have to monitor conversations," she said.

"But I think we need to have the right to know what our governments is doing -- not the detail, I don't expect them to share the data -- but I need to know what they think they have the right to do with my data. I just think there needs to be transparency."

Access to private data has to be balanced fairly, which is why in the UK, Berners-Lee is has been working with the government since 2009 to enable access to data that has been officially collected under official purposes for free reuse.

As for Hall, she's currently serving as a commissioner on the Global Commission on Internet Governance, a new body formed to develop a policy for Internet governance. The two-year project plans to address issues such as regulation, innovation and online rights.