Foresight Institute [About the Foresight Institute]
[Enhancing the WWW]

Web Enhancement Project

Last updated for content 23Apr96.

The Web today is a partial hypertext system, letting readers follow an author's pointers to past documents. To give effective support to critical discussion on topics of public interest such as nanotechnology, however, it must show links into a document made by readers and later authors: it needs backlinks. Authors cannot be expected to insert links that display criticisms or refutations of their Web documents. With backlinks, hypertext can become a dialog -- more enduring than speech, more interactive than print, and better connected than anything we've had before. It can help us deal with world-wide issues. (See the essay Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge for further discussion of the need for a full hypertext publishing system.)

Foresight's goal is to get the required features incorporated into Web standards. To accomplish this, we will write public domain code which implements them, run this code on our server and as many others as will participate, and use the resulting system for critical discussion of an issue important to the safe and widespread Deployment of nanotechnology: computer security. A design for the software has been proposed.

In parallel with the technical work, Web documents will be uploaded onto our server with some links already in place, so that when the software is ready it will have a body of documents to operate on. Critical discussion on computer security issues will begin, with backlinks and filtering done by hand, prior to completion of our software.

We are now looking for funders for the Web Enhancement Project. We are also interested in talking with those having influence on Web standards, both the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and commercial server software providers.

Technical description

In technical terms, our goal is to implement extrinsic, bidirectional, sub-document-level links among Web documents on our server and (later) cooperating servers (see Definitions below). One constraint on the project is that it produce server software compatible with common Web browsers.

Software will be written in C or C++ to work in conjunction with an existing http daemon (i.e. Web server software running on a UNIX computer) to enable the following of backlinks. The software will initially run on a single server and operate only on documents stored on that server; later it will function with any cooperating server.

Original documents, in standard HTML, will be stored unchanged on the server. Our software will store backlink information for these documents in a database. When a user invokes a document's URL, our software will integrate the original HTML and the backlink information, so that the user sees the backlinks in place.

The first version will make links only to anchors that have already been placed by the original author of the document. Separately from the Web enhancement software, Foresight may to add additional anchors to all documents on the server, to enable fine-grained linking even at the initial stage.

Technical goals for later stages:

1. Support of documents on non-cooperating servers (with warning of edits, but without sophisticated connectivity through edits).
2. Support of filtering (using Web forms to gather information on links from the link author).
3. Fine-grained linking to the phrase or word level, if not done previously.
4. Readers' evaluation data (gathered by Web forms from readers) to use in filtering.
5. Better connectivity through edits (e.g. links to obsolete wording can be appended to the end of the current document).

Forward links:
Links from a document pointing onward to another document. For example, if document A comments on document B, a forward link in A points to B. Forward links are already standard on the Web.
Backward links:
Links appearing in a document that have been inserted, usually by someone other than the author, pointing from that document to another. For example, if document A comments on document B, a backward link visible in B points to document A. Today, only forward links can be made on the Web; no corresponding backward link appears. Readers can see only links made by the original author.
Bi-directional links:
Links that work both forward and backward.
Extrinsic links:
Links that can be made visible from a document without the document-author's cooperation. These are needed for critical discussion, since we cannot expect all authors to go out of their way to attach critical comments to their own documents.
Cooperating servers:
Web servers running our (or compatible) software.
Selective display of links based on reader-selected criteria (e.g. links to criticisms only).
Hypertext markup language used to format information for the Web.
Address of a document on the Web, enabling a reader to retrieve that document.
Embedded marker enabling authors to link to a specific part of a Web document.
Budget for initial stage

We anticipate that the first version only can be produced in nine months on a budget of $100,000. Individual and corporate donations of funds are solicited. Foresight Institute is a nonprofit public foundation; donations are tax-deductible in the U.S.

Contact: Chris Peterson, phone 415-917-1122, email

1. "The Network of Knowledge," chapter 14 of Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986). The Notes give earlier references.

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