Phil Tetlow

Sociotechnical Scientist, Technical Architect, Writer and TED Speaker

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Philip (Phil) Tetlow PhD, CEng, FIET

In 2017, Phil gave the TED talk on "8 Steps to Understanding Information - and Maybe the Universe."

For the past 20 years Phil has worked at IBM as a Client Analytics Architect (CTO Data Ecosystems & Academy of Technology Vice President - Emerging Technology) where he helps top 100 companies build really big data and analytics IT Systems. In his spare time he focuses more on the fundamental nature of information at scale. He is a qualified Executive IT Architect, an Adjunct Professor of Web Science at the University of Southampton , a Visiting Professor of Practice at Newcastle University and a member of IBM's Academy of Technology Leadership Team. He holds the first PhD in Web Science, is a Chartered Engineer, an Open Group Distinguished IT Architect, a Fellow of the Institute of Engineering and Technology and was an Honorary Visiting Fellow of Computer Science at the York University (2009 - 2012). He has over 30 years experience in the IT industry and has worked on a number of challenging client facing projects. He specialises in the application of web-based technologies, metadata and transformation techniques at enterprise level. He has participated in the World Wide Web Consortium and coordinated their taskforce on the application of the Semantic Web in Software Engineering as part of the Semantic Web Best Practices and Deployment Working Group. In 2017 he also helped advise the UK Government on artifical intelligence.

He is currently working on Social Machines, Graph Database , Data Lakes and his much awaited third book.


The Web's Awake

Association of American Publishers 2007 PSP Awards for Excellence, Honorable Mention

The Web's Awake is a book that draws from a diverse well of understandings. It brings together a number of ideas centred on complexity and directly relates them back to the phenomenon we know today as the World Wide Web, or "Web" for short. This naturally brings with it more subtle subject matter dealing with aspects such as dynamics and a variety of patterns and theories. By feeding heavily on both the material understandings of sciences like physics, chemistry and biology as well as the abstract formalities of mathematics and computing, it points the way to a new field of scientific endeavour; the field of web science. Where the book distinguishes itself is in its comparison between the Web, as the most complex sociotechnical system known today, and the absolute pinnacle of all complex systems, life itself. If you're intrigued about connections, new perspectives, evolutionary potentials and the bewildering properties of complex, entangled systems then this is certainly the book for you.

Undoubtedly the Web has provided a collection of technologies that is having a profound effect on mankind. Like the wheel, the plough and steam power before it, it is a proving a truly differentiating tool in our world, changing the very ways in which we interact with each other, our surroundings and our socioeconomic systems. But, unlike the great technologies that have come before it, the Web is different. Why? Because its phenomenal growth and complexity are starting to outstrip our capability to control it directly, making it impossible for us to grasp its completeness in one go. It may quite literally be taking on a life of its own. A set of emergent characteristics and behaviours are now starting to appear that we have not programmed individually. These are apparently starting to increase in number and strength, leading some to believe that the Web not only has its own life, but may also now be worthy of being considered a living organism in its own right; a new posthuman species consisting of just one isolated member.

Many have worked on the concept of emergent properties within highly complex systems, concentrating heavily on the underlying mechanics concerned. Few, however, have studied the fundamentals involved from a sociotechnical perspective. In short, the virtual anatomy of the Web remains relatively uninvestigated. The Web's Awake therefore attempts to seriously explore this apparent gap, citing a number of provocative, yet objective, similarities from studies relating to both real world and digital systems.

It is not a book of definitive answers or rigorous proofs. It is a book about connections, new perspectives, immutable patterns and the bewildering properties of complex,entangled systems. By referencing material from a broad range of fields it presents a collage of interlinked facts, assertions and coincidences which boldly point to a Web with a powerful potential for life.

Topics covered in the book


A Background to the Web

A brief history of the World Wide Web and a summary of how its features might be considered lifelike.


The Specturm of Complexity

A beginner's introduction to complexity theory and who it might be applicable to the Web we see today.


Evolution Through Engineering

How we might model the Web as an entity in its own right.


Emergent Intelligence

Is the Web cleverer than we might imagine as, if so, how and why?


Counter Arguments and Objective Opinions

What do those who should know best think and about the Web and its inherent complexity?




Get a copy of Chapter 1 here.

Understanding Information and Computation

The World Wide Web is truly astounding. It has changed the way we interact, learn and innovate. It is the largest sociotechnical system humankind has created and is advancing at a pace that leaves most in awe. It is an unavoidable fact that the future of the world is now inextricably linked to the future of the web. Almost every day it appears to change, to get better and increase its hold on us.

For all this we are starting to see underlying stability emerge. The way that web sites rank in terms of popularity, for example, appears to follow laws with which we are familiar. What is fascinating is that these laws were first discovered, not in fields like computer science or information technology, but in what we regard as more fundamental disciplines like biology, physics and mathematics. Consequently the web, although synthetic at its surface, seems to be quite 'natural' deeper down, and one of the driving aims of the new field of web science is to discover how far down such "naturalness" goes

If the web is natural to its core, that raises some fundamental questions. It forces us, for example, to ask if the central properties of the web might be more elemental than the truths we cling to from our understandings of the physical world. In essence, it demands that we question the very nature of information. Understanding Information and Computation is about such questions and one possible route to potentially mind-blowing answers.

The next time you crave to tweet that all-consuming idea or poke that newest of acquaintances, spare a thought for what you are about to do. The snippets of information you choose to send might be exactly the same as those used in a letter to a friend perhaps thirty years ago, but today things are quite different. Then your words would almost certainly have been received only by those you wrote to and would have turned into nothing more than cherished memories. But today those words have the potential to reach vast numbers of people and could easily remain in their original form and accessible to anyone well beyond your natural life span. Some people understand this and use it to good effect, but most do not. Andy Warhol’s world of fifteen minutes of fame for all is very close, yet still we have little idea what that means for us as individuals, communities or society as a whole.

This issue is not just about the changing ways in which we communicate. It is more about our hunger for information and our increasing ability to get it, to process and to share it. It is also about how recent creations, like the World Wide Web, have changed our way of life and how we apply such information constantly in that life.

Science has tried many times and under many descriptions to get at the fundamental nature of information, yet still we only have a fragmented picture as that slippery word “information” shifts from computing to linguistics to quantum physics and so on. But this is not a matter for pessimism, just because there is no single view of what information is. We now understand that some of the most advanced fields of science rely heavily on the notion of information for their existence.This suggests that we have to be brave and radical when thinking about information and not look only in the obvious places.

Topics covered in the book


About Information

Althought we are surrounded by information, we have not yet found ways that even come close to describing its true nature. Why should this be so and what do the world's best minds think about the problem?


The Role of Geometry in Describing Information and Computation

Mathematics is a field with interchangeable branches. Geometry in particular stands as a powerful tool to describe the world around us and the role that information and computation play in its realisation.


Information as a Field

Traditionally Computer Science thinks of information as simply a collection of individual essences that can be structured, manipulated and interrogated. Nevertheless, this model fails at high levels of scale and complexity and there is a need to rethink radically.


Artificial Gravity

If we examine large scale informational constructs, such as the World Wide Wide, some rather unusual statistical behaviours can be seen. In many ways these are not that dissimilar to those found when we look at the physical world in terms of the very large. The case is set out that this might be more than just a coincidence


Comparisons with Other Fields of Physics

Search the Web using any engine of your choice and the infinite space of interpretational possibilities it contains shrinks down into one, and only ever one, opportunity to absorb the information you seek. Speak to a Quantum Physicist and they will tell you that's quantum collapse.



Get a copy of Chapter 1 here.

What Folks Are Saying

The Web's Awake: A badly needed book that goes broad and deep. Very nice.

Kevin Kelly

Founding Executive Editor of Wired magazine (Writer, photographer, conservationist, and student of digital culture)

The Web's Awake: In this perspective-changing book, the author argues that the web is an organism that obeys the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in how the World Wide Web has developed, and continues to evolve - 9 out of 10.

IT Now

The British Computer Society

The Web's Awake: An important book and deserves a wide readership.

Matt Ridley

Author, Journalist and Member of the House of Lords

The Web's Awake: Top Book - one of the most defining of this decade.


The Web's Awake: This is one of those rare books about technology that comes along once in a while giving a completely fresh perspective and set of ideas and arguments that changes your whole viewpoint on something you thought you knew and understood. By stepping away from the acronym olympics and technology debates that seem to fuel so much literature on the web, The Web's Awake has managed to challenge the whole concept of what constitutes life, and argue how the world wide web itself is a being in its own right. This is a hugely enjoyable read, well written, concise, and yet full of detail, insights and gems of wisdom that make it a must have for any thinking web head's bookshelf.

The Java Developer's Journal

Understanding Information and Computation: Phil Tetlow was not only one of the world's first Web Scientists, but he takes great pleasure in pushing hard on just about every boundary within reach. His ideas are both fresh and profound and I am really pleased to see a work from him that will keep us all thinking. It is bound to be controversial, but then what is science without controversy?.

Professor Dame Wendy Hall DBE FRS FREng

University of Southampton

"Understanding Information and Computation: Richard Feynman, the Nobel physicist, was always seeking to understand everything in physics from first principles and never took anything on trust. Tetlow follows the same path in an endeavour to discover whether it is possible to see information as a fundamental force of The Universe in the same way as we do gravity. This may seem to be a very pretentious endeavour and I’m not sure I am entirely convinced by the arguments, but I admire the breadth of knowledge that is evident in this book.

Martin White

Managing Director, Intranet Focus Ltd

"Understanding Information and Computation: What you will find in these pages is a courageous attempt to reshape the way we look at information and computing, a huge effort to take a look at it all from a fresh perspective. It is creative, novel and in many ways captures the thoughts that his contemporaries share, but have not had the time or conviction to write down.

Yorick Wilks

Professor of Artificial Intelligence (Emeritus) at the University of Sheffield, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, Senior Scientist at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition and British Computer Society Lovelace Medal winner 2010

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