As an alliance of the desperate, this one takes some beating. The Greatest Living Briton (Sir Timothy Berners Lee) has been thrown £30m of taxpayers’ money for a new institute to research “web science”.
Meanwhile the Prime Minister waxed lyrical today about the semantic web – how “data” would replace files, with machine speaking unto machine in a cybernetic paradise.
It’s really a confluence of two groups of people with a shared interest in bureaucracy.
Computer Science is no longer about creating graduates who can solve engineering challenges, but about generating work for the academics themselves. The core expertise of a CompSci department today is writing funding applications. And the Holy Grail for these paper chasers is a blank cheque for work which can be conducted without scrutiny for years to come. With its endless committees defining standards (eg, “ontologies”, “folksonomies”) that no one will ever use, the “Semantic Web” fits the bill perfectly.
Of course, most web data is personal communication that happens to have been recorded. Most of the rest is spam, generated by robots, or cut-and-paste material ‘curated’ by the unemployed or poor graduates – another form of spam, really. The enterprise is doomed. But nobody’s told the political class.
For real bureaucrats the dangers of self-service government are obvious – most of the civil servants are not needed any more. Therefore the challenge is to make the technology as expensive and bureaucratic as possible. Both IT consultants and civil servants have got rather good at this over the past 15 years: IT consultants fees have exceeded £100m since 1997.
In his latest speech, Broon says:
“[The] next generation web is a simple concept, but I believe it has the potential to be just as revolutionary – just as disruptive to existing business and organisational models – as the web was itself, moving us from a web of managing documents and files to a web of managing data and information – and thus opening up the possibility of by-passing current digital bottlenecks and getting direct answers to direct requests for data and information.”
And I’m sure he believes every word.
The beauty of the “semantic web” – unworkable in anything other than a small, tightly controlled context – is that it will be years before anyone notices. By which time “Web Science” departments will have flourished all over the land, and billions more will have been spent trying to make Big Government small.
So you have two parties with a mutual interest in prolonging the agony. What’s uniquely grim about the appointment of The GLB to oversee all this, is that Tim Berners Lee is probably the last person you’d want advising on your web strategy. He refuses to recognise the many problems with networks, as we discovered three years ago, back when he boasted that Phishing wasn’t a problem – because he’d never been Phished. That didn’t last long.