A major trend in technoculture at the moment is the remix. We've all grown used to DJ remixes dominating the dance floors – but the remix, or mash-up in US geek speak – is now appearing almost everywhere. The reason is that the cost of the technology needed to re-edit existing material has plummeted. Star Wars fans have used desktop PCs to create a Jar-Jar Binks-less A Phantom Menace, anime fans have cut video-game footage to fit their favourite pop songs, and machinema enthusiasts have used commercial game engines like Quake and Halo to create their own video soaps. Now, though, it's happening to the web.
Take GreaseMonkey. This is a plug-in for the Firefox browser which lets users write small programmes, called scripts, to change the content of a web page. Trixie does a similar thing for Internet Explorer users. These scripts could let you link all the films on a TV schedule to web movie reviews, see competitor prices as you browse a web site such as Amazon, or simply reformat a page for easier reading. You get web pages how want them.
The limitation of GreaseMonkey is that it really only deals with display. An even newer technology – delighting in the name of PiggyBank – tries to extract the data on a page and then let the user manipulate that. Like GreaseMonkey, PiggyBank is a browser plug-in which relies on a programmer initially writing a script to process a specific page. But whereas the GreaseMonkey script yields a new web page, the PiggyBank script results in a mini-database of the knowledge or data on the page – for instance a list of job vacancies, news items, or cinema times. PiggyBank then lets the user view this raw data . The real power of PiggyBank though lies in letting the user combine the data with data from other pages – such as other web sites showing other jobs or movie reviews. It then presents the complete set of data either as text or annotated to a map, and in other ways.
The important point is that you no longer see the original web pages, you just see the combination of data that you want, filtered and presented in the way that best suits you and the task at hand.
For over 10 years now we have talked about surfing the web. It is a good analogy for following link after link. We surf over the surface of a lot of data, but we all know the problems, and the waste of time, that the web can become when we want specific, useful, information.
As the web enters its second decade the shape of a new web is becoming clearer. It is known as the semantic web. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, has been focusing his efforts on it for many years. The semantic web isn't a different web, it is the same web as we have now – but with an added layer of knowledge about itself. Web pages may look the same to the human eye, but hidden in them will be their content in a machine readable form, ready to be picked up by applications like PiggyBank, or even intelligent agents, and delivered to users in the way each user demands.
Of course there will be inevitable issues around copyright, security, revenue models and data ownership, issues that may prove more challenging than the technical problems. But the semantic web promises an end to surfing the web. Instead it will deliver what you want. The web – have it your way.