Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Opening addres for "Web has a meaning" conference

This my speech I gave at the opening of "Web has a meaning" conference organized at MakoLab XX anniversary on September 28, 2009 in Artur Rubinstein Lodz Philharmonic Hall:

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to the “Web has a meaning” conference organized for the occasion of the 20th anniversary of MakoLab’s creation.

20lat_MakoLab (21 of 172)

Traditionally, on such days and on such occasions, the most important facts from the 20 years of our history should be noted. However, this evening I would not like to emphasize only the company’s history, or especially facts. History is not a consequence of events of a single flat thread seen like a film – it is rather a network of interwoven threads and planes. We live on many of such planes simultaneously.

For the last 20 years, the people related to MakoLab have lived on at least three historical levels important to us: on the level of the history of Poland and Europe, on the level of the history of a growing company and, what is so significant to understand the reason of this conference – on the level of the history of the WEB. On these three planes – on a junction of social, economical and technological influences – our company was born.

20lat_MakoLab (24 of 172)

The last twenty years is a period of Poland resurrecting and slowly liberating from the communist regime. The fact that we celebrate our anniversary precisely 20 years from that fateful year of 1989 has a particular meaning for us.

When in the summer of 1989, soon after the first free election in Poland, I for the first time went to West Berlin for the first computer for the then being created company – the Berlin Wall was yet there. After a few months of this critical year, on 9th November, the Berlin Wall symbolically collapsed. For us, the June elections opened a path to freedom, for the world – the collapse of the Berlin Wall was a symbolical date of the beginning of globalization and the birth of a new economy.

In everyday life of these years not always could we feel the winds of history – hard work and beginning a new life consumed our time completely. It wasn’t an easy period, the conditions of managing economical activity in the beginnings of our freedom were not what we expected. Today they are a bit better… A bit :-)

However, I would like to emphasize the other difficulty of the beginnings of the 3rd Polish Republic ("Rzeczpospolita") and of our company... For this purpose, I will use the famous sentence by Ryszard Kapuściński:

Although a system may cease
to exist in the legal sense or
as a structure of power,
its values (or anti-values),
its philosophy, its
teachings remain in us.
They rule our thinking, our conduct,
our attitude to others.

The situation is a demonic paradox:
we have toppled the system
but we still carry its genes

I cite this fragment not without a reason – every careful and thorough observer of the 20 years of Polish freedom may have probably noticed how many of the problems – both political and economical – sprung not from external conditions, but from our mentality, from unsuccessful overcoming of the demons from the past.

We also know it well that if we, as Łódź and Poland, achieve success today, even as humble as this one, that thanks to our hard work, the global financial crisis reached us with a delay and with less dangerous repercussions – that all of this is an effect of liberating ourselves from the remains of the old thinking, an effect of creativity and resourcefulness, the genes of which are completely different…

In everyday life I do not like lofty sentences, but on a day like this one I must share with you a reflection – I believe that one of the most important factors of success, both the success of Poland in Europe, of Łódź in Poland and of MakoLab in Łódź, Poland and Europe – is the obstinate yet humble ability to overcome our own limitations, our own minuteness, imperfections and disadvantages. All good and important events – and here I will mention only the two of them – our strong stock market debut in 2007 and handing the company’s management to Wojtek Zieliński in 2008 – are actually of this background. A closer look at the negative events, as they also did happen, reveals the ingredient of our minuteness, weakness and limitations – which could not always be defeated.

I have earlier said that we have lived on three surfaces: of the recovering freedom and of the growing company. The third surface is the Web and its history. I would obviously lie if I said that already in 1989 we had a vision of a company focused on the Web as we have it today. We were close to it, but we began to treat it seriously around 1995.

20lat_MakoLab (39 of 172)

It is the Web and an attempt to answer the questions about its meaning for modern business, along with our anniversary, that is the main reason for organizing the today’s conference. Therefore, allow me to say something about the history of the Web in this part of my speech.
A small explanation to begin with – the Web, meaning a global network of interconnected WWW servers - is not identical with the Internet. Its laws cannot be reduced to the laws of the Internet itself, although without the Internet, it could not exist. Both in the technical and philosophical respect, Web is a higher layer – a higher level of the network.

The Internet was created in late 1950s, first as a military project, and then, in 1970s, as an academic project. The Web was born in the year seminal for us as well – 1989. It was in March of this year that Tim Berners Lee writes his famous work – “Information Management: A proposal”, in which he presents the fundamental ideas of the Web: basic laws of technical protocols and document format and the most significant idea of the Web – the idea of hypertext, defined as a “set of information readable for a human, connected in a way not restricted by anything”..

In 1990 launches the info.cern.ch server, which operates until today, the first Web browser “Enquire” is also created. A new era begins. Once again I emphasize that these are the same years in which we entered the difficult path toward freedom and the world, after the symbolical downfall of the Berlin Wall, began to learn globalization. The creation of the Web, known as well as the World Wide Web, had a revolutionary significance for both the Internet and the public space of the entire world. The numbers prove this: in 1989 the number of all computers in the Internet was 100 thousand, while in 1992 - already over a million. How is it possible?
What factor determined that it was WWW and not Gopher, FTP or e-mail that began the real explosion?

This factor is undoubtedly the fundamental SIMPLICITY of the WEB. WWW is based on essentially simple, natural and obvious principles.

These principles can be enumerated on a single breath – the principle of universal, public and unique address of each document in the network, the principle of hypertext – meaning the unlimited ability to link one document with the other, and the principle of transferring absolutely ANY data in a uniform and simple way. These three principles, creating the three fundamental protocols governing the Web (URL, HTML, HTTP) are so strikingly simple that to this day many people wonder how it is possible to create such richness on basis of a few simple standards.
However, it turns out that this simplicity – a kind of self-limitation of complicated technology to the simplest solutions – is exactly the factor that gave the Web such an incredible initial speed and literally unlimited growth. Not all of us know that HTML is a very primitive, willingly limited form of the then already existing SGML standard, and HTTP is almost a trivial toy in comparison to some already existing network protocols. I will not even mention the many drawbacks of the Web, which are best expressed by Tim Berners-Lee: “The Web will always be a little bit broken”. Yet in this limitation of power and the lack of perfection – lies strength. “The Principle of Least Power” is one of the most important axioms of the Web. I often repeat this rule, as a mantra, to all of our employees…

Let’s return to history: In 1994 the Netscape company is born and creates the first application known as a “killer application” – the Netscape web browser. In 1996 Netscape is followed by Microsoft with its Internet Explorer and the pretty inglorious history of browser wars begins. Fortunately, this does not disturb the emergence of the new economy around the Internet. In the same year, 1996, Amazon and eBay launch. In December 1998, Internet sale in the USA reaches heights unheard of in normal economy – the period from the Thanksgiving to Christmas of that year, due to the turnovers reaching 1,2 billion of US dollars would later be called “The Big Online Holiday Extravaganza”. Successes of the New Economy were so enthralling, that they blinded many – investors and businessmen alike. Unverified and incorrect plans eventually cause a typical and well-known global process known as the “bubble economy”. In 2000 and 2001 we observe a number of spectacular bankruptcies, stock market downfalls – which proved to many that it is not that easy. Looking for solid basis for Internet business will yet take a few years….
From the perspective of 20 years, this first period of the Web’s development, regardless of the multitude of solutions, is today called WEB 1.0 – the characteristic trait of this period is the centralized model of communication – the WEB servers the content of which was created by the creators and administrator – or webmaster – were used, typically in a passive way, by the users, or surfers.

In the beginning of the 21st century, there emerges a phenomenon subsequently called Web 2.0. It is worth mentioning here that Web 2.0 did not spring from any fundamental technological revolution. The technical basis of Web 2.0 is composed according to the same, simple rules I mentioned before. It was a social revolution or, if it may be said so, a mental revolution, and, what is most important – a cultural one. It progressed in four essentially independent ways:

  • Global searching of information – the icons of which were Yahoo and mostly Google.
  • Social cooperation in creation of information – the embodiment of which were blogs and the phenomenon known as the blogosphere
  • New rules of creating and sharing knowledge – embodied by Wikipedia
  • Usage of the Web for making and sustaining human relationships – with icons such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and in Poland – Nasza Klasa.
Web 2.0 redefined various areas of life – if we want to know what is going on – for instance in politics – we no more have to resort to official media or news corporations. We can hear what people are saying. In a really authentic, uncensored voice. Thousands of blogs and social websites bubble with opinions and information. It is true – they are not always reliable. But almost in every case – they are authentic. Spoken in a human, not pompous voice.

Web 2.0 revolutionized the concept of knowledge and authority. Until today there is a discussion if Wikipedia, which is the largest known emanation of encyclopedic knowledge is trustworthy. Most probably not in all of its articles. But its unique social method of discourse, closely reminiscent of dialogues, commentaries and reflections on legislative or religious laws known from many ancient cultures, and being the contrary to the idea of a single proper authority – together with its strictly protected principle of neutrality – caused the creation of a body of human knowledge without precedent in the entire history of human culture. The Wikipedia of today is more than 10 million articles in almost all significant languages of the world…
Web 2.0 has such a strong influence on society that a well-known and renowned advisory company Forrester, called the explosion of Web 2.0 social sites a groundswell – which disturbs as if “from the bottom” the basics of traditional business, marketing, market communication, teamwork…

More and more companies and institutions understand that they must resign from bombastic rhetoric and pompous language of traditional marketing – they must listen to the authentic dialogues taking place on blogs, social networking websites, link sharing portals, forums and other platforms of communication witch swarm the Web of today.

When we take a closer look at the Web of today, the phenomenon known as Web 2.0, it is impossible to overlook that this was the primary vision of the Web.

Tim Berners Lee wrote:

'The Web is rather a social than technical work. I designed it for the
social effect – in order to help people cooperate – and not as a technical toy'.

It is amazing that this social effect, the openness to society – was achieved only after more than 10 years of the Web’s existence… It is worth remembering. Revolutions do not happen instantly – also in this context Kapuściński’s sentence I cited before is extremely relevant:

“We have broken the system, but its genes are still within us …”

Today, in 2009, 20 years after its beginning, the Web is on a crossroads. It is unknown in which direction will its development follow. However, we know that Web 2.0 in its present shape, although it will continue defining the Web for the next few years – has tremendous limitations.
One may risk making a statement that the formula of Web 2.0 is slowly expiring – and it is difficult not to observe it. Let’s see – searching in Google and other popular search engines is still trivial and primitive – we look for pages using words, phrases and fragments of text – but not using terms and concepts. We have our accounts and our friends on e.g. Facebook or Nasza Klasa but we cannot transfer anything with all our friends to a different portal – without tedious entering of the same data. Our digital identity, our relations with people are taken over by companies – the operators of these pages – Facebook, Google, Nasza Klasa. But my digital identity and my relations with friends are MINE and I should be the one in control of them…

Wikipedia has over 10 million articles today, but we cannot easily extract structural data of, for instance, a simple table with numbers of citizens described in it – without tedious “copy/paste”…
I often give other trivial examples – let’s assume that in Excel we want to obtain a table with post addresses of a million companies that have Internet pages in Poland. We know these pages – every single one of them can be accessed - but unless we employ dozens of employees, this task is almost impossible…

Another example: let’s imagine asking Google such a question: give me addresses of all piano tuners no further than 5 kilometers away from the Łódź Philharmonic who work between 5 pm and 8 pm. No chances for a good answer. I emphasize the fact – this data is present on the Web, but we don’t have instruments and ideas for representing and obtaining it semantically.

Today we theoretically do know that these problems can be solved. We know that the solutions await in the new version of the Web, called by many Web 3.0, by others – the semantic web.
However, I’d like to call it differently. I’ve made my own term: “The Web full of meaning”.
I am aware that this sounds a bit like a fantasy – are we able to express meaning in computer technology, in files and databases? Meaning – that is a domain of the human mind and language? Doesn’t it sound like another prophecy of artificial intelligence? Doesn’t the term “ontology” widely used by the adepts of the “Semantic Web” lead us astray, toward some strange philosophy or bad metaphysics?

None of the above is the case. Meaning in the “Web full of meaning” is, for instance, such a method of recording a company’s address, that it may be found in an accurate way and regardless of the form of such input, regardless of language, style of writing or direction – from left to right, right to left or top to bottom.

Technology for recording objective meanings in the Web does exist. What is interesting, its foundations have been set by the already mentioned creator of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee. As everything in the Web, the technology is remarkably simple. It is based on a certain method of recording the simplest logical sentences that describe the reality as we know it – indicative sentences, hence on using subject, predicate and object. With these elementary sentences the semantic web builds more complex meanings.

To those of you who are interested in the subject – I recommend visiting our website (There is a Semantic Web zone in Polish lanuage section).

What is interesting, in academic circles the semantic web has been discussed for several years now. Many projects, including first commercial ones, are already on the market. But, as before, the revolution takes place slowly. It is now clear that what we are dealing with again is not a technological barrier, but rather a social, or in fact, a mental one. If we could encourage all webmasters of the world to use at least a tiny bit of semantic technologies – Web 3.0 would explode in a way that Web 1.0 or, recently, Web 2.0 did. How do we do that? We all await that proper, accurate idea…

Maybe it emerges here – in Poland, maybe in Łódź…

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, with this hope I will end my deliberations. I do not know if this will be us who prompt a breakthrough in the Web. However, I would like to assure, and I can do that with full certainty, that as when the Internet in Poland was starting to become significant, as today, when it is so important – MakoLab will always at least carefully observe its development and will at least be able to help its clients in explorations of the Internet’s new areas – areas of business, culture and technology.

We Web it for you … but first and foremost: We Web it with you !!!

20lat_MakoLab (35 of 172)

Thank you for your attention.


  1. This makes a great post, Mirek, and a perfect opening lecture for the MakoLab XX anniversary symposium.

    Now - about how the revolution might gain some momentum - that's a very interesting challenge!

  2. I cant thank you enough for this post. I'll read it a few more times. It relates to my personal experiences on the web too. For now, could you tell me how one could practically implement "the principle of least power", preferably with an example?

  3. Amila,

    The best example comes from the decisions about using highly powerful technologies to make simple websites. Many people use Flash, some even Flex to create simple informational pages. They do so for the reason of attraction. This is a clear abuse of the principle - for most of websities it is much better to use less powerful HTML because we and machines can do much more with it than with Flash.

    The more sophisticated examples comes into the light when we speak about the publication of data on the web. When we use simple and not so powerful RDF we gain enormously because it is generic, but if we did it with some fancy interface to SQL database - we practically limit the possible use of the data.

    Generally, these rules are described here: http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/Principles.html