The bedrock of the World Wide Web is solid. Built atop the protocols of the internet (TCP/IP), its fundamental building blocks remain: URLs of HTML files transmitted over HTTP. Baldur Bjarnason writes:
Even today, the web is like living fossil, a preserved relic from a different era. Anybody can put up a website. Anybody can run a business over it. I can build an app or service, send the URL to anybody I like, and most people in the world will be able to run it without asking anybody’s permission.
Still, the web has evolved. In fact, that evolution is something that’s also built into its fundamental design. Rather than try to optimise the World Wide Web for one particular use-case, Tim Berners-Lee realised the power of being flexible. Like the internet, the World Wide Web is deliberately dumb.
(I get very annoyed when people talk about the web as being designed for scientific work at CERN. That was merely the first use-case. The web was designed for everything …and nothing in particular.)
That’s why it’s been so hard to agree about what the Web is: the Web is architected for resilience which means that it adapts and transforms. That flexibility is the reason why I’m talking about some mythological dude’s boat. Altogether too often, we consider some aspects of the Web as being invariants when they’re potentially just as replaceable as any other part. This isn’t to say that there are no invariants on the Web.
The web can be changed. That’s both a comfort and a warning. There’s plenty that we should change about today’s web. But there’s also plenty — at the root level — that we should fight to preserve.
And if you want change, the worst way to go about it is to promulgate the notion of burning everything down and starting from scratch. As Erin says in the fourth and final part of her devastating series on Meta in Myanmar:
We don’t get a do-over planet. We won’t get a do-over network.
Instead, we have to work with the internet we made and find a way to rebuild and fortify it to support the much larger projects of repair — political, cultural, environmental — that are required for our survival.
Though, as Robin points out, that doesn’t preclude us from sharing a vision:
Proceeding via small, incremental changes can be a laudable approach, but even then it helps to have a sense for what it is that those small steps are supposed to be incrementing towards.
I’m looking forward to reading what Robin puts forward, particularly because he says “I’m no technosolutionist.”
That’s one of the reasons why I have no patience for the web3 crowd. Apart from the ridiculous name, they’re focusing on exactly the wrong part of the stack.
Listening to their pitch, they’ll point out that while yes, the fundamental bedrock of the web is indeed decentralised — TCP/IP, HTTP(S) — what’s been constructed on that foundation is increasingly centralised; the power brokers of Google, Meta, Amazon.
And what’s the solution they propose? Replace the underlying infrastructure with something-something-blockchain.
Would that it were so simple.
The problems of today’s web are not technical in nature. The problems of today’s web won’t be solved by technology. If we’re going to solve the problems of today’s web, we’ll need to do it through law, culture, societal norms, and co-operation.
(Feel free to substitute “today’s web” with “tomorrow’s climate”.)