Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Web Science

The last few days I've been working at home, waiting for my husband to return from work. I'm feeling very housewifey, noticed he bought an electric toothbrush, and evidently let himself be talked into an abonnement not only of Bild der Wissenschaft, but also of Scientific American. So I got to read today the October issue of Scientific American, the cover features the “Big Bounce” also known as Martin Bojowald. What caught my eye however were not the happily bouncing universes on the cover, but an article by Tim Berners-Lee - inventor of the world wild web - and Nigel Shadbold, who is a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton. They write about the emergence of a new discipline called “Web Science”. The online version has a different title, but is available here

In this article, they explain
“This new discipline will model the Web’s structure, articulate the architectural principles that have fueled its phenomenal growth, and discover how online human interactions are driven by and can change social conventions. It will elucidate the principles that can ensure that the network continues to grow productively and settle complex issues such as privacy protection and intellectual-property rights. To achieve these ends, Web science will draw on mathematics, physics, computer science, psychology, ecology, sociology, law, political science, economics, and more.”

Which sounds to me pretty much like a subsector of Network science, just confined to the online world. They have created a research initiative, called the

which is a joint endeavour between the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT and the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University of Southampton.

With this as with so many interdisciplinary approaches I wonder whether it will go anywhere in the long run. In this case however, I welcome that they have formulated a clear direction:
“The goal of WSRI is to facilitate and produce the fundamental scientific advances necessary to inform the future design and use of the World Wide Web.”


  1. elucidate the principles that can ensure that the network continues to grow productively

    If you aren't smart enough to surf you don't. No quotas, no equal oppportunity, no Title IX, no affirmative action, no compassion, no confiscation and redistribution of earned resources, no Special Olympics.

    Dr. Schund is CEO, CTO, CFO and Director of the Institute for Institutional Analysis ("The Answer Lies Within"). It has initiated a major initiative to go beyond White Papers to Papers of All Colours. Donations should be doubled and sent to...

  2. I ran into a similar "popular science" type of article:

    This Man Wants To Control the Internet

    "John Doyle is worried about the Internet. In the next few years, millions more people will gain access to it, and existing users will place ever higher demands on our digital infrastructure, driven by applications like online movie services and Internet telephony. Doyle predicts that this skyrocketing traffic could cause the Internet to slow to a disastrous crawl, an endless digital gridlock stifling our economies. But Doyle, a professor of control and dynamic systems, electrical engineering, and bioengineering at Caltech, also believes the Internet can be saved. He and his colleagues have created a theory that has revealed some simple yet powerful ways to accelerate the flow of information. Vastly accelerate the flow: Doyle and his colleagues can now blast the entire text of all the books in the library of Congress across the United States in 15 minutes."
    It is certainly possible to make things more robust—in other words, expand the safe region. A jetliner is far more robust than the world’s first airplane, the 1903 Wright Flyer. Doyle took up a question that had concerned researchers since the birth of control theory in the 1930s and ’40s: Were there any fundamental limits to the growth of robustness? He focused on one of the most important ways in which engineers make things more robust: by adding feedback loops. A jet can keep track of its movement, temperature, and a long list of other readings, and it can continually correct every one, adjusting itself to bring variables back into line. But Doyle showed how just cranking up robustness under some conditions creates new opportunities for failure. A jet is far more stable in high winds than the Wright Flyer, but on the other hand, it is vulnerable to software bugs that the Wright brothers never had to worry about. “You replace mechanical failure with lots of software failure,” Doyle says.

    In the 1990s, studying complex systems of all sorts became something of a fad following the emergence of “chaos theory.” Competing versions of this theory were emerging left and right; chaos was being touted as the science of the future. Doyle was unimpressed by most of the new ideas. “It was clear to me that they were just so far off the mark,” he says. Doyle made up a name that combined all the trendy buzzwords he came across: “emergilent chaoplexity.”

    One reason that Doyle loathes emergilent chaoplexity is because it relies on superficial patterns. Doyle, by contrast, insists that his analyses draw from the gritty details of how things actually work."

    The Internet works spectacularly well, despite the fact that over the past 30 years it has expanded a million-fold, absorbing new technology from BlackBerries to the iTunes music store with hardly any major changes to the basic rules it uses to move data. Doyle now knows why. It’s not just the physical arrangement of cables and servers that makes the Net so robust. Doyle and his colleagues showed that the software that runs the Internet uses feedback, in much the same way a jetliner’s computer does. The Internet can sense changing conditions and adjust itself.

    The Internet has two kinds of feedback. It maintains a constantly updated picture of the entire network so that messages can be directed along the fastest routes. It also breaks down those messages and encapsulates them inside standardized packets of data, a little like using the standardized waybills and boxes provided by FedEx. Each packet can take its own path through the Internet. As packets arrive at the recipient’s computer, the message fragments in each packet are extracted and reassembled. Critically, as each packet arrives, it sends back a receipt to the sender’s computer. In heavy traffic, some packets get lost. In response to lost packets, computers slow down the rate at which they send their data, reducing congestion.

    Together, these two types of feedback give the Internet a robustness more powerful than anyone anticipated. “These Internet engineers weren’t control theorists, but they built this incredibly robust network,” Doyle says. “Man, that’s awesome.” Then again, the engineers were doing something that evolution figured out long ago.

    [ the term is "Convergent Evolution", 2 different domains but 1 common solution comes about based on similar "boundary conditions" ]

    "The reason the bacterium works so well, Doyle finds, is that it is organized in much the same way as the Internet. Both the Internet and E. coli are conceptually organized like a bow tie, with a broad fan of incoming material flowing into a central knot and then flowing into another broad fan of outgoing material. On the Internet, the incoming fan is made up of data from a huge range of sources— e-mail, YouTube videos, Skype phone calls, and the like. In E. coli, the incoming fan is made up of the many sorts of food it eats. As information and food move into their respective bow ties, they get homogenized: E. coli breaks down its food into a few building blocks, while the Internet breaks down its motley incoming data streams into streams of standardized packets."

    "Doyle thinks the similarity between E. coli and the Internet is no accident. As networks get big and complicated—either through the tinkering of Internet engineers or through millions of years of evolution—they must follow certain rules to stay robust. “There is an inevitable architecture,” Doyle says."

    "Last year the Caltech team started operating a company, FastSoft, to market their protocol. In March they started selling a box about the size of a DVD player that you can plug into a server. In one test, a Fortune 500 company was able to speed up its transmissions 30-fold. But Doyle stresses that a real solution to the Internet crisis will require rethinking the control process from the bottom up.

    “If someone said, ‘Do a radical redesign,’ I’d say we’re not ready yet,” Doyle confesses. “Going to the moon was trivial compared to dealing with this. We’ve got a research path, but there’s some hard math to be done.”"

    I've had some interaction with John & his Nonlinear Dynamics & Control group. It's another example of how disparate fields naturally find commonalities (same solutions) with other fields. It's how Chris Adami/Caltech (CNS/Computational Neural Sciences, he's a Nuclear physicist by training, & hangs out/publishes papers with Hans Bethe & M. Gell-Mann) found a research partner at Michigan State (biologist). Turns out, he (Digital Life) & Lenski (bacteriologist) found that their studies were analogous (digital life simulation on a computer, & bacteria evolution): the only difference was domain-specific terminology.

    There's a field of study in Computer Graphics called "Particle Systems", which is the modeling of random phenomena (fire, smoke, explosions, etc). The above domains: Internet, biological organisms, digital-life are all examples of "particle systems". I am not surprised multi-disciplines are converging ("Convergent Evolution") into common concepts. There's the principle of Invariance floating around here.

  3. Social conventions don't drive human interactions - biology does - but rather direct them.

    “The goal of WSRI is to facilitate and produce the fundamental scientific advances necessary to inform the future design and use of the World Wide Web.”

    What's still not understood here, and perhaps these folks aren't familiar with Wittgenstein, is the web like any social system or element isn't determined by specified principles but those arrived at through clumsiness. Address things at this level and the Web is a miniscule thing.

    However, it is interesting this biological analogue the internet may be or shaping up to be. Hmmmm.

  4. Why not tell us what you think about Bojowald's ideas? In particular, it seems that he wants to violate the second law of thermodynamics. What do experts think about that?

  5. On the technology side of things, AT&T's part of the internet backbone already has 40% of its traffic as video (see this), up from "negligible" 3 years go.

    Also IPV6 should be rolling out over the next few years, as we approach IPv4 address space exhaust. The Chinese ran the Olympics infrastructure on a IPv6 network.

    Re: Doyle's insights at least as present in the comments are hardly original. The routing robustness is in the IP protocol by design. The throttling back of packet traffic when there is congestion is also ancient network traffic engineering. E.g., google FECN and BECN.


  6. Powers beyond us dictating our future on the internet? Hiding slick methods of advertising?

    Just thinking out loud:)

  7. Dear Arun,

    I agree, it's hardly original. But that doesn't mean it's not necessary. There are lots of things that are unoriginal but need to be done nevertheless. The importance of a decent education and information literacy e.g. is another topic that makes people yawn but isn't taken seriously enough. One has to wait and see though whether they are just riding on a wave to get their own research interests funded or whether they actually aim at making a difference. Best,


  8. Hi Plato,

    Yes, there are indeed powers beyond us dictating our future on the internet. That is exactly my concern. What is of more concern though is that nobody seems to notice because they all like to believe the internet is 'free' and 'anarchic'. Best,


  9. Hi Bee,

    Despite that this is a good idea, I think this project has a huge deal to do with maintenance.

    I ask myself how they want to achive their goals ? Because, f.e., of
    - growing rates of the internet (accelerating ?)
    - complexity (even growing)

    May be somehow like election polls are forecasted ?



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  11. Hi Bee,

    “I'm feeling very housewifey,……………….. So I got to read today the October issue of Scientific American.”

    Strange as this doesn’t project the stereotype for one would usually have imagined that you read the October edition of Better House and Garden if this where true:-) Also, I must admit that the Big Bounce article I personally found more interesting then the one you found the most compelling; not that I’m disinterested in the issue or the ideas presented, it’s just that I’ve grown to be cynical about such endeavors in the face of commercialization and governmental motives as Plato eludes to.

    I for one can remember and used the internet before the advent of the world wide web, when it was strictly the domain of the academics and some other interested few and although much less ordered and more costly for the independent user, it was also much purer of purpose and freer. I’m afraid ironically it is Tim Berners-Lee’s own wonderful invention which has turned out to be like that impish Genie that once released from the bottle we may never get back in.



  12. Phil,

    While I allude to the suspicions I have about "the economy and commercializations and privatizations of governments, I also advocate awareness under the auspice of "these relations to disaster capitalism."

    I still advocate that institutions work to understand the parameters that are being developed in regard to this Web Science. To become part of it.

    We use it everyday, when we come here. Better to know how it works then to discard it's function.

    It might be good to see the humanitarian side of this proposal.

    I will have much to say in the future on this proposal. I will be helping to direct other institutions to work on that on a humanitarian level.


  13. Hi Plato,

    After reading the recent address you pointed to which Tim Berners-Lee delivered just recently I can’t deny his heart is in the right place, as it was in the beginning when he persuaded his employers not to privatize his creation.

    The truth for me however is if the Web had developed in the spirit as he imagined I would have never have had reason to be concerned or be pessimistic. Yet as he has so admitted “The Web is a platform, like a piece of paper. It does not determine what you will do with it, it challenges your imagination. “which followed him reminding “It became apparent that for all the interesting work being done around the Web, the analysis and engineering of the Web itself — humanity connected — was not recognised as an object of study.”

    These two statements address and define both the concern and the hopes which it is as yet to be shown that any outside of the few recognize or appreciate, let alone feel a sense of urgency to act upon.

    Despite this he has my support as I share his aspirations and hope, yet his most accurate assessment, which is also a humble and humbling statement reveals the scale of the challenge when he said:

    “If the Foundation achieves all the things I can imagine now, we will have failed.”



  14. well chimpanzee, Internet sites will probably have much greater bandwidth in coming years to accommodate the increasing amount of users so the Internet would not slow down to a snails pace. And there is the possibility that within 10-15 years, you will find most countries may operate on wireless Internet due to it being heaps faster, no cables and less connectivity problems unless you are in the middle of the Gobi desert. And the Internet is free, some of you may think Google has a hidden agenda when arranging sites in order of most visited etc etc. But sites like Youtube, Facebook even Blogspot are the future of the Internet. No one is gonna pick up a newspaper in a few years time; on the Internet, if you are a competent user and believe strongly in seeing the *real* news, you can unlike previous years. So enough Internet bashing! happy surfing......ciao


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