The 3 R

School certainly has changed a lot since the days of the three R’s – a.k.a. reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Now a group of professors are collaborating on an initiative to train students how to design future versions of the three W’s – a.k.a. the World Wide Web.

One of their first lessons will be how to strike a balance between better access to data and stricter rules about its use, said researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and England’s University of Southampton at a recent press conference.

The Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) hopes to create a college degree program in “Web science” that combines disciplines including computer science, mathematics, neuroscience, law and economics. It will also raise funding for doctorate students to study at MIT and the University of Southampton.

“Because we created the Web, we have a duty to understand it,” said Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), and inventor of the protocols that control the Web. “Suppose among all the beautiful, wonderful things it’s created, it also creates something horrible?”

The group created WSRI (pronounced whiz-ree) because of two powerful trends: the burgeoning amount of online information and the need for better social rules to control access to it. The number of Web servers has now reached 100 million, said Rodney Brooks, a founding member of WSRI and the director of CSAIL.

“There are 100 million servers, 100 million nodes, 100 million Web masters and mistresses, so when it comes to aggregating data, how do we do it? How do we get to a crisp mathematical question that can inform policy?” Brooks said.

One of the Web’s greatest strengths is that the same rules govern small sites and enormous communities such as MySpace, Berners-Lee said. That “fractal” quality has supported the growth of the blogosphere, a complex space based on simple principles. Yet, the Web’s growth has hobbled its evolution in some cases. For instance, Wikipedia has recently applied new rules for erasing spam postings instead of hewing to its original philosophy of “anybody can write,” he said.

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