EPADEL Talk: Mathematics and the WWW

Section 8:
Beyond the Web

4 March 1997

I need new ideas for the web. People are already getting sick of reading the words 'Some Pig!'
                                                                E.B. White, Charlotte's Web

How will the Web change?
We're already at the end of the Golden Age of Web Pages Consisting of Uncommented Lists of Links to Other Web Pages, once immensely popular. There are still lists that need to be made up, however, which would make very useful projects for math departments or teachers so inclined. For example, a complete list of research opportunities for undergraduates (we have an incomplete listing), professional development for college teachers (ditto), and workshops for school teachers (ditto). We don't have the personnel to make and maintain an exhaustive collection of any of these resources, but they sure would be useful and many sites would link to them.

Is the Web changing the world or the world defining the Web? Or maybe a little of both? Many of us find that the Web has vastly broadened our circle of acquaintances, some of whom have even become friends. It also threatens to change our sources of information (for entertainment, transportation, travel, vacations, interest groups). The Web sort of snuck up on the world through academia and computer geeks and so was able to evolve its own set of values and culture. Whether its decentralized nature and traditions will be strong enough to withstand the tsunami of commercialism and an invasion of the masses remains to be seen.

What intervention is required for the Web to avoid the pitfalls and serve the good guys, that is, mathematics and education? Eternal vigilance is probably the price. The Electonic Frontier Foundation is a leader in fighting the good fight. It has a Computers and Academic Freedom Archive.

It's hard to say whether we're witnessing a permanent disfigurement of the Web landscape as pages of free services are bedecked with commercials and begin to resemble animated versions of racing driver's jackets. It's possible that good taste can drive out bad, but the home page of one leading math organization has already succumbed.

There have to be strong explorers to carve out territory for the good guys, demonstrate usefulness, and then figure out productive relations with the moneyed interests. There's not much indication that commercial use of the Web is lowering quality (despite my whine in the previous paragraph). At this point the Web is inherently about information, and the information economy seems here to stay. That doesn't mean the entertainment economy won't be big also, but I doubt much will stand in the way of the development of good information sources -- they're the backbone of business. It's up to us to figure out how to make something useful and to hook up with the big players.

Will we all be buried under mountains of junk email? That remains to be seen, and legal battles in Philadelphia, Spam Capitol of the Universe, are inconclusive at the moment. It's likely that this will be solved by technology and regulation the same way you can have your name removed from the direct marketers' snailmail list now, or have an unlisted number and use the recycling bin at home. The more interesting question may be about how to use agents and other strategies to bring us the information (including advertising) we want.

Is the Web of today anything like what we'll be using in five years? Nobody should give a resounding "YES!" to this question, given that the Web has essentially only been around since 1993 (when there were around 600 servers), there are some obvious deficiencies (e.g. dying links), and the commercial colossus has only recently joined the dance. However, the decentralized nature of the beast makes change pretty much a matter of individual choice. Moreover, Ted Nelson at least has been talking about a somewhat Webbish environment since '65. And so, to our question -- "Is the Web of today anything like what we'll be using in five years?" -- I come down with a resounding: "maybe a little bit."

A more interesting version of this question might be, "what do you think is on the horizon?" Come look at this page again; maybe I'll have an answer by then.

Next generation Internet
The needs of higher education, research, and government have fueled several projects to increase Internet bandwidth. These include Internet 2 and the NSF vBNS (very high speed Backbone Network Service) project. It sounds as if good attention is being lavished upon our future needs, and we can look forward to tooling along our inter-gigapop network (gigapop = gigabit capacity point of presence), with more information rolling by than we know what to do with.The Internet 2 project will be conducted in phases over the next three to five years, with initial participation expected from one hundred universities, a number of federal agencies, and many of the leading computer and telecommunications companies.

Whiteboards and multicasting
For several years MSRI has been experimenting with MBone, IP Multicast Backbone on the Internet, a videoconferencing program. This big brother of the CU- SeeMe program for personal computers requires workstations such as Sun SPARCstations, DECstations, or Silicone Graphics machines that support multicast software. MBone combines real-time sound, slow-speed video (twitchy, but it conveys a personal presence) and attractive whiteboard features (e.g. the ability to collaborate on drawings with unlimited redo). I haven't seen it in over a year, so wondrous improvements have probably been made. Please let me know if you have recent first-hand experience to add. MSRI is now holding the Pacific Northwest Regional Geometry Seminar on MBone.

Second generation: Hyper-G
Hyper-G is a second-generation WWW program that was developed at the Graz University of Technology in Austria by Hermann Maurer and others.

Lieutenant Gerald Pani, Captain Hermann Maurer and Commander Frank Kappe

A first commercial version, HyperWave, has recently been released. The main benefits claimed by Hyper-G are better searching and navigation, an object-oriented database structure, and automatic maintenance of link consistency (no dangling links). From what I've heard and read it sounds cool, but I haven't seen it in action. Can anyone tell us firsthand about this? Preferably as related to mathematics.

Zero to infinity generation: Xanadu
Ted Nelson was mentioned many links ago for having coined the term "hypertext" in 1965. (He also taught a course for mathematics credit at a well-known EPADEL institution and served as a consultant for a math education project located in EPADEL-land, but that, gentle hypertexter, is another story.) In 1981 Nelson developed a concept he called Xanadu, a hypertext database that makes the Web look like small potatoes, and he has been pursuing this dream ever since. Nelson's vision is both grand and thorough, and only time will tell whether it will ever actually be realized. If it is, sign me up. Also see the heavily hypertexed History of the Internet with Xanadu as its culmination, and Xanadu Redux.

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Gene Klotz