You need to fight for the web you want. The Decentralised Web Summit is a rallying-ground
We are in a strange tension with the digital networks in our lives. They enable so much connection, self-expression and low-level organising power - such an amplification of our agency. But we are now suspecting the motives of those vast centralised organisations which facilitate our easy interactions. Are they harvesting our clicks for ad information, political manipulation, state control, financial redlining - or worse?
Holding that suspicion, some move out of the mainstream, and into spaces that are defined by cryptography and extreme privacy. A place where middlemen and bureaucrats are cut out - but where the internet also becomes a less usable, and less flexible instrument. Not a "web" humming with possibility, but a "blockchain" ensuring every item has an identity.
The old ideal of the open web has to change. But what's encouraging is that many - including the tributes of the original internet - are amassing to see if they can develop a new web which answers privacy concerns, but still allows for amazing creativity and care:
We are convening those who want to build a web that... Remembers. Forgets. That’s safe. That cares about people. That’s a marketplace. That’s a public square. That learns. That’s magical. That’s fun. A web with many winners. A web that’s locked open for good.
That's the opening statement of the Decentralised Web Summit, happening next week in San Francisco, but whose cast-list (even when seen at a distance) is an encouraging collection of forces. (BTW, their FAQ for a decentralised web is superb - do read).
Here's their stated mission:
Today, the Web we use is not private, secure, reliable or free from censorship. It lacks a memory, a way to preserve our digital record through time. By distributing data, processing and hosting across millions of computers worldwide with no centralized control, a new Decentralized Web has the potential to be open, empowering users around the globe to control and protect their own personal data better than before.
Computing magazine, reporting on the conference, puts their challenge this way:
Uniting this diverse selection of delegates is the challenge of fixing the centralising tendencies of the internet and web. Simply put, the internet's reliance on centralised hubs of servers and data centres means that the more servers you control the more power you have, with all the negative consequences that follow from the creation of data-haves and data-have-nots. To redress the balance data needs to be freed from silos with control handed back to users, but how to do that while retaining the convenience and ease-of-use of the current web?
One of the pre-eminent voices there is Tim Berners-Lee, the originator of the World Wide Web, who is launching a new web-like set of software rules and protocols, with MIT, called Solid, which tries to answer most of the challenges above. From his session blurb:
Within Solid, decentralization means choice: being able to choose where you store your data, independently of the services you want on top of that data. On today’s Web, applications happily take our data in exchange for functionality, but we lose control over what happens to it. Moreover, because data is coupled to the service, we cannot share data across social network boundaries.
In Solid, you instead remain the data owner: you decide for every single piece of data you produce where you want to store it. Applications can request permission to specific parts of people’s data, which they combine at runtime [the length of time a program takes to run] into a personal experience.
Novelist and internet evangelist Cory Doctorow is also speaking at the event, and the blurb to his talk sums up the emotions of the decentralisers:
For decades, we fought complacency over Big Tech. That's over. The techlash is here, and with it, a new and scarier problem: that we'll tame big tech by regulating it with expensive compliance rules that no startup could match, enthroning Big Tech as permanent (regulated) monarchs of the digital age.
Cory Doctorow argues that Big Tech is a problem, but the problem isn't "Tech," it's "BIG." Giants get to bend policy to suit their ends, they get to strangle potential competitors in their infancy. They are the only game in town, so they can put the squeeze on users and suppliers alike.
Surrender is premature. Nerds don't take it or leave it: they take the parts that work and block the parts that don't. That's what we have to offer to everyone else: the training and tools to decide what tech can do with us, our data, and our communications.
The MOST democratic future is one where everyone gets to hack, where we seize the means of computation and distribute it to everyone.
Each of us wants to have control over how and with whom we interact. In order to evolve and thrive, our communities must support everyone's uniqueness. Yet today, our online relationships are dominated by centralized corporate web sites.
Holochain enables a distributed web with user autonomy built directly into its architecture and protocols. Data is about remembering our lived and shared experiences. Distributing the storage and processing of that data can change how we coordinate and interact. With digital integration under user control, Holochain liberates our online lives from corporate control over our choices and information.
We note that Holo - a software that links Holochain's system to familiar applications we know, like web browsers or Twitter-like social media - is present at the Decentralised Web summit. (This Medium piece explains Holochain and Holo well).
Our only overall comment - and one which our Alternative Editorial may also address - is this: can a "decentralised Web" possibly function well, with all these competing systems making it up? Will there be problems of interoperability? Or like the original Web, will there be one hugely attractive and facilitatory software that takes off, and becomes the support for many other endeavours?
For the sake of further empowering the individuals and communities that the first 20 years of the internet began to do, we watch and support with interest.