Back in December last year I started this new blog post about Web Science. Other things took precedence though, so it’s laid on the back burner for many months, but I always intended to come back and finish it properly – after all, Web Science may well be one of the most important new disciplines to emerge this century, and education will certainly benefit from it’s discoveries.
Trouble is, it looks like the government here in the UK is going to squeeze it to death before it’s even got started …
So, what is Web Science?
Web Science is an emerging discipline, and is a combination of many others areas of academic study but, critically, it is centered around the emerging web and what it means to society more generally. It may seem odd to think of a new discipline emerging in this way, but it’s long been this way in science. Computer Science, for example, was a product of changes in technology in itself, and there are many other examples. Even subjects like Biology, which we now consider as a pretty unique and self-contained subject in it’s own right, was once much more of a hybrid science, combining other subjects such as natural philosophy, botany, etc.
The concept of Web Science began with what was originally called the “Web Science Research Initiative” in 2006, which renamed itself in 2009 to the “Web Science Trust” (http://webscience.org). It originally involved MIT in the US and the University of Southampton in the UK. The last government had promised £30 million for a new Institute of Web Science, which was to bring in Oxford University’s “Oxford Internet Institute” (http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk), but due to the curent economic pressures here in the UK that was cancelled. It seems Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt, who were overseeing the plans, are disappointed but understanding about the change of heart.
So what does this mean for Web Science? Well they are still looking for private funding, so perhaps the Institute will still go ahead, but either way I think Web Science as a discipline still has legs. We’re slowing discovering just what a complex beast we’ve created in the World Wide Web, something which Eric Schmidt from Google famously said was “the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand”. Perhaps Exeter should be wondering about it’s own place in the academic study of the web, and whether it wants to be a part of this emerging “Web Science” too.