Twenty years of unnecessary forward slashes: towards a post-ontological critique of Tim Berners-Lee's evolving aspirations for the Web and the World Wide Web Consortium from the cultural studies perspective
thesisposted on 23.05.2021, 19:09 by Michael Dick
Since it was first formally proposed in 1990 (and since the first website was launched in 1991), the World Wide Web has evolved from a collection of linked hypertext documents residing on the Internet, to a "meta-medium" featuring platforms that older media have leveraged to reach their publics through alternative means. However, this pathway towards the modernization of the Web has not been entirely linear, nor will it proceed as such. Accordingly, this paper problematizes the notion of "progress" as it relates to the online realm by illuminating two distinct perspectives on the realized and proposed evolution of the Web, both of which can be grounded in the broader debate concerning technological determinism versus the social construction of technology: on the one hand, the centralized and ontology-driven shift from a human-centred "Web of Documents" to a machine-understandable "Web of Data" or "Semantic Web", which is supported by the Web's inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, and the organization he heads, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C); on the other, the decentralized and folksonomy-driven mechanisms through which individuals and collectives exert control over the online environment (e.g. through the social networking applications that have come to characterize the contemporary period of "Web 2.0"). Methodologically, the above is accomplished through a sustained exploration of theory derived from communication and cultural studies, which discursively weaves these two viewpoints together with a technical history of recent W3C projects. As a case study, it is asserted that the forward slashes contained in a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) were a social construct that was eventually rendered extraneous by the end-user community. By focusing On the context of the technology itself, it is anticipated that this paper will contribute to the broader debate concerning the future of the Web and its need to move beyond a determinant "modernization paradigm" or over-arching ontology, as well as advance the potential connections that can be cultivated with cognate disciplines.