Tag Archives: Tim Berners-Lee

Geeks and religion

If you want to choose the most influential and interesting living Unitarian Universalist, my money is on Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Not only is he a technological and conceptual pioneer, he also has high moral standards, as a BBC blogger Rory Cellan-Jones pointed out in today’s post:

The man who could have made a fortune out of his invention but chose instead to stay in academia has firm principles. He believes the web is all about open standards and interoperability and he is determined to be seen as above all commercial interests. We had asked him to choose a number of websites that illustrated the web’s growth — but he was adamant that he could not be seen to endorse any particular product, whether it be Google or Amazon or eBay.

Cellan-Jones also shares a map that Berners-Lee produced which depicts his conception of the growth of the World Wide Web (Link) — if the Web is allowed to evolve without being overwhelmed by Big Business and big Government. According to Sir Tim’s map, if we can just move past the Patent Peaks, Proprietary Pass, the Quagmire of ISP discrimination, and Censorship Swamp we might just end up in the beautiful Sea of Interoperability near the lands of Harmony, Efficiency, and Understanding. It’s one of the best visions for the future of the Web that I’ve seen in some time.

Virtual worlds! Goshwowboyoboyoboy!

In an article posted yesterday, Mark Ward, technology correspondent for the BBC News website, reports on “Second Life,” the well-known virtual world. According to Ward, Philip Rosedale, a founder of Linden Lab and thus one of the creators of “Second Life,” believes that virtual worlds could even replace the World Wide Web in many instances. Rosedale points out that virtual worlds offer a sense of place and a sense of identity in a way that the Web has never done:

“Virtual worlds are inherently comprehensible to us in a way that the web is not,” said Mr Rosedale. “They look like the world we already know and take advantage of our ability to remember and organise.”

“Information is presented there in a way that matches our memories and experiences,” he said. “Your and my ability to remember the words we use and the information we talk about is much higher if it’s presented as a room or space around us.” Link to full story

Pointing out that some educators and corporations already use Second Life to do online collaboration, Rosedale speculates on the possibilities of a portable online identity, built into some kind of online-world-browser, which would browse online worlds in the way Web browsers now browse the World Wide Web. Rosedale even seems to call for “a sufficiently open platform” that will allow people to “move into it quite rapidly.”

Indeed, one of my big complaints about the World Wide Web is that you never quite know where you are, or how you got to here from the last place you were. In a virtual world, you could move across a virtual landscape to find information/knowlege/social contacts that interested you — and you would know where you are, and how you got there, and how to get back.

Or think about it this way: instead of visiting this blog in your Web browser, you could travel to a virtual place in an online world where my avatar would periodically show up to post new reading matter, videos, etc. If your avatar and my avatar happened to be in that virtual place (a “virtblog”?) at the same time, we could chat; or if I’m not there, you could chat with whatever other avatars happen to be there, and when you got bored you could all head off to some new virtual place.

Or think about virtual online church committee meetings. Or virtual online adult religious education (I’d love to do online Bible study from a liberation/feminist perspective!).

Or who knows how virtual worlds will evolve. Or even if they will evolve. Uh, can someone get Tim Berners-Lee interested in creating VWML (Virtual World Markup Language)?

One Web Day 2007

I’ll be participating in the 2007 edition of One Web Day, this Saturday, September 22. The organizers of One Web Day are encouraging us all to make short videos and “post them on blip.tv or youtube or dotsub.com tagged onewebday2007 .” If you don’t make online videos, they’re suggesting you write something on your blog or Web site. And if you don’t have a blog, write a nice juicy comment on someone else’s One Web Day post. Their suggested topics include how the Web has changed your life, how you hope the Web will change the world for the better in the future, or even something you’ve done online with people in other countries.

Here’s a short version of their manifesto:

The internet is made of people, not just machines. It’s up to us to protect it. We can use OneWebDay around the world to raise awareness of the threats to the internet — including censorship, inadequate access, control of various kinds — and to celebrate the positive impact of the internet on human lives.

Since I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister, my One Web Day post will probably bring up Tim Berners-Lee’s essay WWW, UU, and I. But I’m thinking that I might want to explore the links between visual art (especially performance art, conceptual art, and video art) and the Web. Check in on Saturday, and see what I come up with.

Update, September 18:

Tim Berners-Lee has posted his One Web Day video, and he uses his video to talk a little bit about the future of the Web. Of course he talks about net neutrality, and says that a key aspect of the Web is the fact that anybody can connect to anybody; that’s something we must keep in the future.

He also warns against “web rot,” which occurs when people design Web sites carelessly: “they don’t make good HTML, they don’t close their tags.” He encourages all those of us who make Web sites to validate our HTML. (Admission: my Web site does not validate because somewhere, somehow, I used two invalid div id values. Rats. At least I closed all my tags. And I’ll correct the div id value problems RSN.)


Our congregation’s CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) chapter asked me to meet with them this evening and talk with them about Unitarian Universalism. Which forced me to a quick overview of the current state of Unitarian Universalism. Here’s my short list of what we stand for these days:

  1. We’re non-creedal. We explicitly state that we don’t tell you what to believe.
  2. But we have boundaries, too. One of our boundaries: you shouldn’t come into a Unitarian Universalist congregation and tell other people what to believe.
  3. We’re pro-science. For example, we do not find evolutionary biology to be threatening to our religion.
  4. We’re disorganized. Like the rest of the religious liberals (or spiritual progressives, if you like that name better), we can’t seem to get our act together organizationally speaking.
  5. We’re “post-Christian.” To my friend the rabbi we look like Christians, but more conservative Christians are quite sure that we are not Christians. So I’d say we’re post-Christian and proud of it.
  6. We’re relatively open. No human community is perfect, and we have our moments of intolerance, but as religious organizations go we’re pretty open.

As one example of a definition of Unitarian Universalism, I passed out printed copies of Time Berners-Lee’s online essay WWW, UU, and I — which I still think is one of the best expositions of what it means to be a Unitarian Unviersalist in our time.

Then I talked a little bit about where Unitarian Universalism seems to be heading. Acknowledging that we’re too anarchic to really agree on a direction in which to head, here’s my short list of preferred destinations:

  1. We should be moving towards a new way of organizing. The organizational structure of most Unitarian Universalist congregations keeps us at 50 to 100 members. We should adopt a scalable organizational architecture. I like the idea of small groups linked in larger web formations (see Starhawk’s Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics for a good discussion of this, or the Small Group Ministry Network for another approach).
  2. We should be interpreting the Western religious traditions (Western Christian, Jewish, and European pagan traditions) to support the healing of Nature and the earth.
  3. We should be working on building dialogue between secular non-religious folk and religious liberals, helping both groups to find common causes on which they can work together.

Towards the end, we also talked about how various religious liberal groups — pagans, Unitarian Universalists, liberal Christians, liberal Jews — could work together on the same sex marriage issue. We all pretty much agreed that this is the big issue facing religious liberals in Massachusetts today. (So I told the CUUPS group about the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry and Mass Equality — send them money, and sign up to receive email updates from them!)

That’s my quick overview of Unitarian Universalism. Your results may vary. No guarantees that I will agree with myself tomorrow.

“Web 2.0” and churches

“Web 2.0” is one of the new buzzwords in Silicon Valley. Proponents say that “Web 2.0” is the next step in the development of the Web, moving farther in the direction of democracy, openness, and participation. Some cynics say that “Web 2.0” should be translated as “a new phrase to suck money out of venture capitalists,” and other cynics say that “Web 2.0” should be translated as “the news media are finally paying attention to Web development again.” The cynics are probably right, and at the same time there are exciting things happening on the Web that churches should pay attention to: blogging of course, and social networking, and tags. Let’s take a look at how “Web 2.0” might pertain to development of church Web sites.

According to Tim O’Reilly, one of the chief proponents of the term, “Web 2.0” is a set of seven “design patterns,” or ways to think about designing a Web site. [You can find O’Reilly’s seven design patterns for “Web 2.0” here.] So how might these secven design patterns apply to creating church Web sites?

What most interests me about “Web 2.0” is O’Reilly’s idea that “users add value.” Most church Web sites do not allow users to add value. And in the few instances where church Web sites have tried to make it easy for church members to, for example, post committee information to the site, there has been little or no response. Yet at the same time, the religious blogosphere has become incredibly active, and social networking Web sites have also seen activity by religious folk — so what’s going on?

Put it this way: a typical church Web site is not LiveJournal or Blogger or del.icio.us. We occupy a different place in the Web. We should be thinking of church Web sites in terms of another one of O’Reilly’s principles, which points out that small sites make up the bulk of the internet’s content, content that “Web 2.0” applications are going to reach out to. O’Reilly calls this the “long tail” of the Web — and your church Web site is part of that “long tail.”

As small niche sites, the question we should be asking is this: what can we offer that makes it worthwhile for a big site to reach out to us? Most church Web sites will probably look no farther than their sermon archives as their primary store of unique, niche information. But churches have other niche information to offer: local theology, local history, local social justice information, genealogical data, biographical data, architectural information, social justice education, etc. Which makes me ask myself: is it enough to offer sermons? Perhaps a better question is: what unique data or information can we offer that will attract potential newcomers and further our mission in the world?

Let me go back to O’Reilly’s idea that “users add value.” O’Reilly also recognizes that most Web sites find that their users simply don’t bother adding data or information. O’Reilly concludes that Web sites should “…set inclusive defaults for aggregating user data as a side-effect of their use of the application.” I think of this as building in feedback loops to ongoing development of the church Web site. Because church Web sites are tiny, and serve tiny communities, much of the feedback is going to come, not through the Web site itself, but via face-to-face contact or via email messages. The principle here is to continuously search for ways to include feedback loops — with the assumption that the church Web site is not static but is constantly under devcelopment.

Finally, O’Reilly points out a technological fact that churches should consider: “The PC is no longer the only access device for internet applications, and applications that are limited to a single device are less valuable than those that are connected.” How does this apply to churches? The example that comes immediately to my mind is the newcomer who, while driving to your church, looks up driving directions on her cell phone. Which implies that we should start thinking about church Web sites that are readable on cell phone screens.

So is “Web 2.0” just another buzzword, or is it a radical new way of thinking about the Web? From the point of view of church Web sites, I think it’s both. On the one hand, it’s just another high-tech buzzword that comes with the usual array of acronyms like AJAX and PHP — stuff that mostly doesn’t apply to church Web sites. On the other hand, it’s a radical reminder that Web sites should not be static, one-way communication — that church Web sites should represent the ideals of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, who wanted to create a method to connect people together in meaningful, democratic, non-hierarchical ways.