The Evolution of the Web

Tim Berners-Lee has a recent article about the perils faced by the World Wide Web and what might be done to fix the problems. The perils are roughly:

  • Loss of control over personal data
  • The filter bubble and "fake news"
  • Too much manipulation of people via targeted advertising

The first quarter century of the web has been the growing up phase to reach global saturation and in the next few decades I think it will become more mature, more robust and more socially sophisticated. I hope it will become more democratic in the sense of being run by the users for the users rather than the current arrangement of mostly being run by a few giant companies for the advertisers with users interests being an afterthought at best.

Why TBL's perils arose is due to that thing always stalking in the background but often unmentioned - Capitalism. As the web grew up there was believed to be a big problem of how to monetize it. That is, how to pay for servers and have sites which would be popular without being behind paywalls. The solution which the capitalists found was advertising. It didn't take much imagination because this was the same model which had powered physical newspapers and other broadcast media in the previous two centuries with a fair degree of success. The capitalists gambled that targeted advertising would be better than the older broadcast advertising in which each reader or viewer received an identical brand message, and it turned out that they were right. But to target advertising means you need personal information, and that's where the trouble begins.

Add the above to the constant desire for capital expansion (the "growth" which they obsess over) and you get the current situation. Filter bubbles, loss of control over personal data and devious manipulations with fake news are a logical consequence of following the principle of profit maximization via advertising to the exclusion of any other social concerns. If you only care about profit then it doesn't matter whether the news is accurate or not so long as users keep on buying the placed products or in the case of politics voting for the candidate least likely to challenge the business model.

"We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is “true” or not"

Exploring other possible ways of funding web services such as cryptocurrency micropayments or subscription systems is all worth doing, but I think it's very unlikely that the "gatekeepers" are going to significantly alter their business model in the near term. They're too invested and the logic of Capital locks them in.

For example, "fake news" could be combated by inserting more random/diverse news articles into social media streams, but the question then becomes one of whether this would increase or decrease advertising revenue. I would guess mostly the latter. Random stuff which you're not really interested in might make you better informed about the world but not likely to buy any particular thing. It might even expand political awareness which from the point of view of many governments would be bad, since they usually want to maintain their own filter bubble of propaganda in which they control the messaging around their own legitimacy. So you can see that there are competing interests here, and the ones which maximize profit or political leverage are likely to win out over more democratic interests.

So to make progress on TBL's perils in the next few decades is going to require some technological disruption of a really democratic kind rather than the capitalistic kind which we've had thus far. Users may need to become more demanding when it comes to control over their personal data. "I trust [big company] with all my data" will need to become an unfashionable or unacceptable statement. Perhaps there might be technological developments which enable users to be more savvy about the way that companies are trying to manipulate them (an "agenda detector" of some sort or more direct ways of highlighting churnalism built right into the browser). Also the "data pods" which TBL mentions and easier self-hosting and federated or peer-to-peer systems may help to break up the current web hegemony. My own Freedombone project is an attempt at this, though I expect that better implementations more suited to an average user will exist in future.

But what if there is no democratic future for the web? What if things just keep going along their current trajectory? In that case I think that one or two companies will end up running the world - becoming a de facto world government. They'll own all the servers and the physical communications infrastructure. Running any infrastructure or protocols not authorized by them will be illegal. They'll know practically everything about everyone and be able to arbitrarily psycho-manipulate people at will to suit their own agenda. Whatever democracy exists will be purely at their pleasure and quickly stamped out if it doesn't fit their needs. Some might say that we're already there with Google, but I think there's still scope for things to get considerably worse. If you're a technologist, activist or futurist you might pause to consider whether this is the kind of future you want, because without work this is what awaits us.