SCL Annual Lecture: Dame Wendy Hall

October 19, 2015

The SCL Lecture 2015 was given by Dame Wendy Hall at DLA Piper’s offices in London on 19 October. But the location and time were very much irrelevant because we were taken on a journey through time and space.

Dame Wendy began by taking us back in time to the early days of the Web. She reflected on the Web’s Big Bang moment – with reference to Tim Berners-Lee and his proposal at CERN, with which most SCL members will be familiar. She herself was working on hypermedia and became closely involved in the work that led to the expansion of the Web. Her focus on its growth in such a remarkably short period was a very worthwhile reminder of the astonishing changes that are attributable to that expansion. But it has led to a dearth of real knowledge about the ‘social machines’ that have emerged through the creative input of all sorts of people and organisations. As we moved forward in time through the Web’s various evolutionary stages, we flashed through Web 2.0 and crashed into the present. Dame Wendy sees us as living through a live experiment that has yet to produce a final answer – Douglas Adams and white mice were inevitably referenced.

The scientific observation of this great experiment is a major focus of Dame Wendy’s current work and it was the topic which she addressed next. This the new field of study which Dame Wendy rather apologetically calls ‘Web science’ and which requires the application of a range of skills usually associated with other disciplines (including law). The University of Southampton, where she is Professor of Computer Science, is working with other academic institutions around the world in creating a Web Observatory that will be capable of acquiring immense amounts of data from the Web and will begin to extract meaningful lessons from its analysis. Her lecture (and the subsequent exchanges) included a call for lawyers, and IT lawyers in particular, to become involved in the development of Web science and the Web Observatory – not only is involvement needed in terms of advice on data sharing (Dame Wendy doesn’t want to be sued) but there are ethical and moral issues in respect of which a lawyer’s outlook might prove invaluable.

When looking to the future, Dame Wendy expressed some fears. She reported the view of Sir Tim Berners-Lee that if you break net neutrality, you break the ecosystem, likened the Internet of Things to the great Monty Python foot that might flatten anything and everything and expressed some concern about security, both in terms of privacy and the many criminal uses to which the Web has been put. She felt that the IoT’s saving grace is the lack of general interoperability standards. Clearly one of her great concerns is the development of silos within the Web. She believes that the great benefits we have seen from the web arise, and can only continue to develop, through connectivity.

So much for the travelling in time. The travel in space took us to Southampton, Web Observatories around the world, into a black hole and landed briefly on Mars. The last-named destination was the inspiration for one of the memorable quotes of the night when describing the commitment to the analysis of Web-related data: ‘we are going to web science the shit out of this’.

The Lecture itself was followed by a relaxed and entertaining panel session with questions from and exchanges with event Chair Professor Richard Susskind, Nicola Fulford, Drew Winlaw and the irrepressible Bill Thompson. Indeed, some of the account given above derives from Dame Wendy’s responses during the panel session. There were also a number of penetrating questions from the floor on topics as diverse as the Web Observatory nirvana and the significance of the Dark Web. A particular highlight for me was the emergence of the web equivalent to CAMRA, the Campaign for a Real Web, as an antidote for the Web-lite applications, such as Facebook, that rob the Web of many of its essential elements and provide homogenised pap for the undiscerning and those who have never known better.

SCL thanks DLA Piper for its generous hosting of the Lecture.